Cyprus has been successful so far in controlling COVID-19 but needs to remain so, said Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou, noting that the EU must improve the overall quality of its healthcare services to be better positioned to deal with issues like COVID-19 in the future.
“We have been successful so far, but we need to stay successful. We need to be vigilant, not complacent, and make sure that when we open our borders, we are still a safe destination” Ioannou told POLITICO.
Asked how Cyprus managed to have such few cases and deaths, Ioannou replied that the government “drew up a strategic plan on how to manage the pandemic through public hospitals by increasing capacity, and especially for our ICU units. We paid special attention to comprehensive testing and surveillance mechanism strategies, especially contact tracing. We tested nearly 12% of the population. And we planned ahead — we started procuring equipment from as early as February”.
He replied in the negative if there was ever a period when Cyprus’ hospitals were overwhelmed. “We had a designated hospital for mild COVID cases. We increased our ICU capacity by cancelling certain surgeries and by incorporating doctors and healthcare professionals from the private sector. We also secured the services of a big rehabilitation center to isolate asymptomatic cases,” Ioannou said, noting that Cyprus never had to use more than 25% of available ICU beds.
The Health Minister said that at the designated hospital, the maximum occupancy for the first week in April was 60%.
Upcoming tourist season
The Health Minister said Cyprus has arranged to have 500 hotel beds on hold to cater for tourists who may test positive for coronavirus but are asymptomatic.
Asked what else Cyprus is doing to ensure that tourism does not create a new wave of the virus, Ioannou said that even for tourists arriving from [low-risk] countries, “we want to randomly test a sample of 3-4 percent every day, at our expense, just to make sure. We want to be as subtle as possible so people can enjoy the holidays.”
Invited to say if he saw mistakes at the beginning of the outbreak, the Minister replied “you see mistakes? I think a lot was done at an EU level — maybe not at the very beginning, but it caught on eventually. Solidarity was stressed from Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. But maybe at the beginning, each member state was trying to navigate on its own”.
Noting that there might have been some delays, Ioannou said it is understandable “when you have to coordinate 27 countries and there are shortages all over the world”.
Ioannou said that Cyprus did not put in an order for personal protective equipment through the EU’s joint procurement program, as it has managed to secure 70-75 tonnes of essential supplies from China. However, because the pandemic will be here until a vaccine is found, "we will definitely need the PPE in the months ahead, so EU procurement will be useful".
Ioannou explained that for small countries like Cyprus, there was always a problem in procuring. “It’s always been an issue for us to secure pharmaceuticals, especially innovative medicines. We’ve been calling for transparency in pharmaceuticals and equal pricing. In Cyprus, the price we get for the medicine may be 10 times the price in Germany or the Netherlands. So these are issues where we want to see more action and solidarity".
Asked how he feels about Cyprus’ ability to get a vaccine, the Minister said “we want to make sure that if the vaccine is found there won’t be any priority depending on the size of the country.” However, he remarked, “I think we need to wait for at least 12 months before a vaccine is found, so we need to live with COVID-19.”
To a question regarding whether the EU should have more power to act on health matters, the Minister said "with every crisis there is an opportunity, and the opportunity is that the spotlight now is on healthcare. We should take advantage of this and invest more in healthcare systems in all EU countries. If we improve the overall quality of health care in the EU then we would be better positioned to deal with issues like COVID-19 in the future.”
Concluding, he said it is also extremely important to convince pharmaceutical firms to come back to Europe, because the issue of medicine shortages is not only in Cyprus, it’s Europe-wide.