The EU has offered “a heartfelt apology” to Italy for letting it down at the start of the coronavirus crisis as fresh evidence emerged that few European countries are likely to have achieved herd immunity as they begin cautiously lifting their lockdowns.

As the World Health Organization warned that the continent remained firmly “in the eye of the storm”, the president of the European commission said on Thursday that truth was needed to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic – including political honesty.

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“Too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning,” Ursula von der Leyen told the European parliament. “And yes, for that it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology.”

Early in the crisis, both France and Germany imposed export bans on vital medical equipment, while no EU country initially responded to Italy’s call for aid via the bloc’s emergency mechanism. While healthcare policy and provision is the responsibility of member states, the EU is meant to support cooperation between them.

An opinion poll last month found that 88% of Italians felt the EU was failing to support their country, prompting fears in Brussels and other national capitals of a Eurosceptic backlash. Von der Leyen’s direct apology went further than a previous statement in which she she chided member states for their “only-for-me response”.

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As more European governments begin easing physical distancing restrictions, a Dutch study suggested only a tiny percentage of people may have developed antibodies against Covid-19, reinforcing concerns about a “second wave” of infections when populations embark on a gradual return to normal life.

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