September 2021

Return to office and teleworking scheme

Since the “rentrée”, several EU institutions as well as the EIB encourage and/or oblige their staff to return to the office. In certain cases, this is obligatory – for part of the week; in other cases (Court of Justice), return remains on a voluntary basis.

These different approaches result in the following scheme:

  Mandatory days in office / week Mandatory days in home working / week Flexible days / week Teleworking from abroad
Commission 2 0-1 3 10 days / year
Parliament 2 1 2 No expatriation allowance and 75% part-time
Court of Justice 0 4-5 0-1 0
European Court of Auditors 2 0 No indication 5 days / month
European Investment Bank 5 0 No indication Up to 100 days / year if “regular teleworking”

 

USL believes that these divergencies should be aligned, and further to your many questions with regard to a safe return to the office in what is still a pandemic context, we have asked to align these different approaches. Surely within the framework of consultations between the respective medical services it must be possible to find one single approach, both for a possible return to the office as for provisions to telework abroad.

USL also has asked to stay vigilant with regard to the “ideal worker syndrome”, that is, occupational health risks stemming from managerial expectations that staff can be permanently connected, never be sick and perpetually available for work.

A “New Normal” policy thus requires a sound Social Dialogue, especially on the various effects new working practices may trigger on our daily lives, but also on, inter alia, what adequate infrastructure Staff needs to be provided with at home, how additionally incurred utility costs will be repaid, and how the definition of occupational accidents can be meaningfully expanded.

 


July 2021

Hybrid working in the future / office space distribution

Further to the pandemic and its corollary of teleworking for many of us, the Commission is moving full speed ahead to new ways of working. Above all, this will include hybrid working, thus both teleworking – dependent upon line manager approval – and working in the office – potentially in new office space constellations. Since decisions in this regard are being taken at a corporate level, developments are relevant for all Commission sites, including Luxembourg.

With regard to telework, USL believes as you do in its usefulness to allow for a better work-life balance. At the same time, we believe that a full return to the office should remain, for those who chose, a possibility. For those who want to telework, USL believes that teleworking should be possible by default if compatible with the interest of the service.

With regard to office space distribution, USL understands that more telework and the Administration’s never-ending search for “economies” will lead the latter into looking to reducing  office-building surfaces. In this respect, we strongly believe that the job profile / the type of work should dictate the distribution of office space, and not the other way round.

This is in line with the principles of the Communication “The Workplace of the Future in the European Commission” (C(2019) 7450 final) of October 16, 2019:

  • “The choice of bricks and bytes should support the desired changes in behaviours and not the other way round.” (Principle 1)
  • “A one-size-fits-all office set-up is not suitable in the Commission’s highly diverse context. Various office arrangements should be available to match the demands of different types of work performed by Commission staff.” (Principle 6).

Ongoing projects
In Brussels, over 2000 colleagues are moving into open space and flex desking (Loi 107 and Copernicus buildings). In the Luxembourg Drosbach building, a DIGIT flex desking pilot (32 external service providers) took place, as well as a recent change of 5 floors towards open space (mainly for DIGIT teams of externals and statutory staff). Furthermore, the Publications Office will be moving into similar office constellations in Mercier 2. As far as JMO 2 is concerned, there seem to be no concrete plans at present to change the finalized space distribution designs. However, OIL has confirmed that it is following all developments at a corporate level closely.

Relevant norms

With regard to health and safety, OIL applies Luxembourgish legal norms. These being few in terms of office space distribution, it may apply norms of neighbouring countries. In the framework of the Committee on Health and Safety in Luxembourg (CSHT Lux), we plead for more clarity on norms and at least alignment with Belgian legal provisions, ranging from down to the ground issues as your type of desk to questions of ventilation.

Further line of action
USL will continue to defend an adequate workspace according to the above mentioned principles and plead that what has been decided for the JMO 2 with regard to office space distribution cannot be reversed if it leads to less adequate conditions. At the same time USL contributes in committees like the CSHT Luxembourg to ensuring that all relevant questions are asked and alternatives are considered.


June 2021

An unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis: The European Commission’s fight against COVID-19

It happened quickly, almost suddenly.  On 31December 2019, WHO’s Country Office in the People’s Republic of China learned about a ‘viral pneumonia’ in Wuhan. By 11 March 2020, the WHO had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

  • The first case in the EU was discovered in Italy on 21 February 2020. The public health department of the European Commission’s General Directorate for Health and Food Safety – based in Luxembourg – went on high alert and began convening meetings with the Health Security Council, which normally holds its meetings at the Chateau de Senningen, made possible by the Luxembourg government.  The Commission’s public health department was also in constant contact with Member States and with the Commission’s partners, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency.  Virtual meetings became a daily- and often nightly – norm as experts grappled with the origins, the transmission route, the symptoms and the protocol for the prevention and treatment of this new form of coronavirus.
  • Although COVID-19 seemed to have taken the world by surprise, the situation would have been dramatically worse if the EU had not already had legislation and tools in place for monitoring, supervising and responding to cross-border situations. While national governments are responsible for their own health measures, the EU coordinates the response to cross-border health threats and can mobilise EU-level instruments of direct support to Member States.

As well as having a crisis management, preparedness and response team at the ready, the Commission had experience dealing with epidemics like SARS and Ebola, and pandemics like the H1N1 influenza (bird flu), which strengthened our preparedness. It was the 2009 bird flu pandemic, for example, that showed us the need to negotiate as a bloc with pharmaceutical companies for vaccines and medicines.  Having the Joint Procurement Agreement in place was a literally a life-saver when COVID-19 struck.  Early on in the pandemic, countries that had not yet signed quickly saw that there was strength in numbers: by April 2020, 37 countries, including all EU and EEA countries, had signed the agreement.

Immediately, the Joint Procurement Agreement was used to purchase personal protective equipment, ventilators and intensive care medicines and the Commission began discussions with pharmaceutical companies about developing vaccines. Extremely fortuitous was that one year earlier, in March 2019, the Commission had set up framework contracts with Member States for the production and supply of pandemic influenza vaccines for half the European population.

Other EU activities are constantly ongoing to safeguard the EU from dangerous pathogens. Labs across the EU analyse potentially dangerous viruses and bacteria, partly through EU-funding, and they conduct tests of their identification capabilities and alert systems.  Experts at entry ports, food, plant and animal experts also keep watch to prevent dangerous viral and bacterial materials from gaining hold on EU territory. Member States and the Commission share information about cross-border threats, and the Commission’s independent Scientific Committee on New and Emerging Health Risks is on constant stand-by to provide risk assessments.  Additionally, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control monitors all infectious diseases that may pose a threat to EU citizens, including West Nile virus infection, Dengue Fever, tuberculosis and other public health risks.

Having these tools and experiences is like having a fire station, equipped and manned by trained firefighters. But COVID-19 has been a rampant wildfire.  It was in some ways an unknown entity and required our learning on the job. One certainty was that our response had to be a team effort, involving Member States, different European Commission services and global partners.   At the European Commission, our ‘Health in All Policies’ approach was put into practice as we collaborated with transport authorities to get medical supplies and health workers across closed borders using designated ‘Green Lanes’, worked with Research and Development to look for vaccines and treatments and collaborated with Member States to mitigate the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

While responding to the immediate crisis- including by promoting wide-scale testing, social distancing, hand hygiene and the wearing of masks – we were looking ahead for a way out of it. Vaccination seemed the surest path. Early on, many people doubted that effective vaccines could be developed and distributed quickly – it was a Herculean task.  European Commission President Von der Leyen led the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event on 4 May 2020, which registered €7.4 billion in pledges from donors worldwide, including a pledge of €1.4 billion by the Commission. The Global Goal: Unite For Our Future’ campaign  launched by the Commission and the international advocacy organisation Global Citizen helped rally support and raise hope, and the EU reiterated its support of the worldwide initiative COVAX at the 4 June 2020 Global Vaccine Summit. Directed by Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization, COVAX aims to make COVID-19 vaccines equally accessible to all.

By June 2020, the Commission had put together our Vaccine Strategy, which encouraged EU research and production of vaccines, and stressed the importance of stringent tests for safety and efficacy conducted by the European Medicines Agency.

It was decided that the EU should negotiate with producers of potential vaccines to support their research and manufacture, and to reserve quantities in case they would be approved on the EU market.  It was also agreed that EU member states should not buy the same vaccines in parallel and that each Member State should pay themselves for the vaccines delivered on a pro rata basis.

Negotiations initially began with six companies, and to date, four vaccines have been approved by the Commission’s partner, the European Medicines Agency. By the end of the year, vaccines began rolling out in the European Union, and the goal of inviting all EU citizens for vaccination by the 2021 summer holiday period is still within reach.  This remarkable feat has been achieved with no shortcuts on safety requirements and with the Commission’s guidance for vaccination roll-out, targeting the most vulnerable groups first.   The EU also stood fast in its insistence that the pharmaceutical companies themselves be held financially responsible for any adverse effects, which was not the case everywhere, but which provides added security.

This enormous effort is paying off. The spread of COVID-19 has dwindled in countries where there has been significant vaccine uptake, proving without a doubt that vaccination works.  That said, we are still exploring the need and timing for boosters and modifications to protect against emerging variants, and therapeutics are also still needed to treat acute and severe cases.  To date, only one therapeutic has been approved of the 57 therapeutics the European Medicines Agency has advised on, but a total of 70 joint procurement contracts for therapeutics have been successfully negotiated and a new Therapeutics Strategy has been launched.

If there is a silver lining to be found in all of this, it is that the world has woken up to the fact that our societies, our economies and our future depends on good health. And we are looking at new ways of doing things.

The EU is proposing reinforcing legislation and has already vastly increased its spending and investment in health. The EU4 Health programme has been granted its largest budget to date, a total of 5.1 billion over 7 years. EU Research has been granted a budget of 7.7 Billion over the same timeframe, and the biggest investment of them all, the EU Recovery package, has been endowed with a budget of 750 billion.

Indicative of this shift toward prioritizing health, a G20 Summit on Health was organised for the very first time on 21 May, co-hosted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi as G20 chair. Global leaders at the event committed to a series of actions to accelerate the end of the COVID-19 crisis and better prepare for future pandemics.

The G20 underlined the importance of increased and diversified manufacturing and recognised the role of intellectual property in ensuring equity, both through voluntary licensing and knowledge transfer. All G20 members also acknowledged the need for the funding of the ACT-Accelerator, a global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines, which was launched by the the European Commission, the WHO, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The leaders also agreed on the need for inoperable early warning information, surveillance and trigger systems, which would cover new viruses and variants. The aim is to detect risks much quicker and end outbreaks before they become pandemics.

The Commission is working with vaccine producers in Europe, to make vaccine doses for low and middle-income countries readily available. BioNTech/Pfizer (1 billion), Johnson & Johnson (200 million) and Moderna (around 100 million) pledged 1.3 billion doses of vaccines, to be delivered to low-income countries at no profit, and to middle-income countries at lower prices by the end of 2021, many of which will go via COVAX. They committed to produce more than 1 billion doses for 2022.

In addition to covering current vaccine needs, Europe has launched an initiative to boost manufacturing capacity in Africa and to improve access to vaccines, medicines and health technologies. The initiative, backed by €1 billion funding from the EU budget and European financial development institutions such as the European Investment Bank, will cover investments in infrastructure and production capacity, training and skills, supply chains management and the regulatory framework.  Through this initiative, regional production hubs will be developed, covering the entire African continent.

Because COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated our interconnectivity and our interdependence, the European Commission – and all of the Member States – have also voiced agreement for the WHO-led Pandemic Treaty, which would boost global collaboration and preparedness.

Addressing this connectivity, and looking health protection in the long-term, we are committed to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which will positively affect health through policies like the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.  Rising temperatures and the loss of biodiversity contribute to the rise and spread of potentially dangerous pathogens and we are already seeing diseases like malaria in the EU that were previously only found in more tropical climates.  In addition, factors like air pollution exacerbate the spread of diseases like COVID-19.

Our work is of course far from over.  EU-wide digital vaccination certificates are being rolled out, and we are grappling with the complexities of reopening Europe while much of the world is still seeing rising cases of COVID-19 and its variants, we are continuing research and actively supporting the production and equal distribution of vaccines and medicines across the globe.

Although we have not yet emerged from this crisis, I think that when we look back at this phenomenal period in human history, our achievements will seem equally phenomenal.