Spare a thought, if you will, for the 450 million people who live on mainland Europe – they have been very badly let down over the vaccine roll out.
In fact, a better description of course would be the non roll out.
While the UK, in particular, has been forging ahead with its vaccine campaign, the EU has moved, to quote Ursula von der Leyen herself, like a tanker, and a very ponderous one at that.
Sadly, the contrast with the UK, which, to the near 17.5 million Brits who voted to leave the European Union is now freely and finally free of what many there see as the EU’s suffocating shackles, could not be more obvious.
The lockdown in the UK has now been significantly eased and, guess what? Yes, the opposite is the case on this side of the Channel. France and Belgium are among those actually tightening restrictions – indeed, a full lockdown is now in force in both countries. Britons are planning to “eat, drink and be merry” with many pubs and restaurants already fully booked for several months.
Those keen to make up for lost time have inundated venues in England with bookings for tables in beer gardens for when they are scheduled to reopen on 12 April.
Depressingly, the story on mainland Europe is very different, possibly made even worse with all sides now blaming each other for what is widely seen as a vaccine fiasco.
For evidence of this, look no further than the “home” of the EU – Belgium where many of the bloc’s sprawling and lavish buildings are based, of course. To date, a measly 1.3 million people in Belgium have been vaccinated
In the UK, a massive 56 % of the population, by contrast, has been vaccinated with the figure rising rapidly with each passing day.
It has been reported that, so bad is the situation at the self-proclaimed “heart of the EU” (Belgium) that coronavirus worries are keeping almost a third of people in Belgium awake at night. According to a Belgian university study, 29% of people suffer insomnia, up from 19% in during the first coronavirus shutdown last year and 7-8% before the pandemic hit.
Two weeks ago, four more vaccination centres in Brussels opened, meaning that nine of Brussels’ 10 planned vaccination centres are now open – each with a capacity of 27,900 vaccinations per month.
One problem and embarrassingly so is that each have one thing in common – they are relatively empty with few actually getting a jab.
The roll out is a fast moving affair, of course, as is the criticism of the EU’s role. The lates came this week from the World Health Organization (WHO) which criticised the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Europe as being “unacceptably slow”.
It also says the situation in the region is more worrying than it has been for several months. With vaccination campaigns in much of Europe hit by delays and the number of infections rising, KU Leuven microbiologist Emmanuel Andre said the coronavirus situation in Belgium is “going downhill”.
The European vaccination strategy has been the subject of much criticism, but the great advantage is that all EU countries are vaccinating at the same rate.Steven Van Gucht, Belgian Interfederal spokesman
The problem is that the rate is, well, just very slow
An example is that several vaccination centres in Wallonia had to actually close due to a lack of available doses.Last week, the 40 vaccination centres around the region used up all their available jabs.
The Belgians are now even arguing among themselves with the Belgian state given 30 days to amend the legal framework underpinning all of its recent coronavirus measures, or face a penalty of €5,000 per day.
Despite all this, Belgian King Philippe last week visited the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Antwerp province, from where the coronavirus vaccine is shipped to 78 countries. “I am very proud of what you are doing,” the King said. “You have put our country on the world map. Thanks to your vaccine, there is a lot of hope for many people.”
Ones immediate response might be: Well, yes, it’s all well and good supplying the rest of the world but, hey, what about supplying your own countrymen and women with sufficient jabs, dear King?
As well as the health implications, there is, of course, an economic cost to all this:by the end of this year, it is estimated Belgium will have spent €31.5 billion on managing the coronavirus crisis and that is going to have to come from somewhere.
If you thought the EU – which has taken pride in overseeing the entire vaccine programme for 27 member states – a huge feat in itself – is apologetic about all this, then you would be wrong.
The nearest the EU has come to actually saying sorry for the current mess came when Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, recently acknowledged that the European Union has made mistakes when ordering corona vaccines. “It is true that mistakes were made in ordering the vaccines, both in Brussels and in the Member States,” Timmermans told the German daily Der Tagesspiegel.
The best Timmermans can suggest is to take stock after the pandemic has ended. “Then we can see what we have done wrong and what we have done right.”
To those in Belgium and elsewhere, still waiting for their first (let alone, second) jab, that is scant consolation.
Like virtually all in the EU, Timmermans does believe, however, that “a European approach” was the right one.
Many find the continued robust defence of the EU’s overall vaccine strategy, which saw Brussels take control of things even though it had had little or no experience of procurement in the health domain, astonishing.
Health has always been, since the inception of the EU, a closely-guarded competence of each member state (like defence and taxation for instance) and this apparent refusal to concede that the EU might just possibly have been better just leaving the vaccination campaign to each of its 27 member states will be simply unacceptable to many.
The charge that the commission acted much too late (in procuring vaccines and signing deals with pharma companies), hesitated and made strategic mistakes really does matter, not least because it is almost certainly currently costing lives, the number of which is hard to quantify.
Consider this too: at a time when the UK (and others – all,note, outside the EU) are now loosening restrictions and seeing light at the end of a very long and tortuous tunnel, several EU countries are sadly going directly the other way.
A third wave of the Covid pandemic is now upon much of Europe. As a result, many nations – bogged down by continuingly sluggish vaccine campaigns – are witnessing sharp rises in infection rates and numbers of cases.
The infection rate in the EU is now at its highest level since the beginning of February, with the spread of new variants of the Covid-19 virus – not least the British one, it has to be said – being blamed for much of the recent increase.
President Macron in France has imposed curfews and other social restrictions while, in Germany, the head of the country’s infectious disease agency says Germany is now in the grip of a third wave of Covid-19.
Poland has reported the highest rise since November and both Hungary and the Czech Republic have reported high infection rates and deaths from Covid.
It seems a long time ago now that the commission announced how it had secured what even then seemed a staggering number of doses of vaccines – a whopping 2.3 billion, no less.
We are all in this together.Ursula von der Leyen, European commission president
Back on 24 November, von der Leyen, the commission president, proudly declared, “We are setting up one of the most comprehensive Covid-19 vaccine portfolios in the world.Securing rapidly vaccines for Europeans is our priority,” she said, adding, “We are all in this together.”
On 17 December, the commission said it had “secured a broad portfolio of vaccines to be produced in Europe” including contracts signed with no less than six pharma companies: AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Janssen Pharmaceutica; BioNtech-Pfizer, CureVac and Moderna.
The PR added, “This diversified vaccines portfolio will ensure Europe is well prepared for vaccination.”
von der Leyen reassured the public saying “Access to more vaccines will lead to a sufficient coverage for beating the pandemic “ while Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, noted, “Vaccination will determine how we will live and work in 2021.”
She said “they need to be quickly distributed and deployed across Europe” and the Commission was “committed to ensuring that everyone who needs a vaccine gets it.”
Von der Leyen said its policy would “enable the EU to cover the needs of its whole 450m population” and the EU had ordered from multi companies because it “did not want to put all its eggs in one basket.”
To its credit, the EU is also part of the COVAX facility which seeks fair and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines. “Team Europe” allocated €850 million to COVAX, makes the EU COVAX’s biggest donor.”
But, on January 25 commissioner Kyriakides admitted publicly that “there is a problem on the supply side.” AstraZeneca had “surprisingly” said it intends to supply considerably fewer doses in the coming weeks than agreed and announced.” She said this “is not acceptable” and AZ had “important and serious questions” to answer.
One problem for many has been the role of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the body with the role of saying if vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective. The problem is that the EMA is seen to have been simply too slow in granting such approval, allowing the UK and others to steal a march- and a big one at that – on the EU when it comes to ordering vaccines.
German MEP Gunner Beck is among those who are highly critical of the EU’s performance, saying, “The EU was late in concluding contracts with the pharma companies, particularly compared with the UK and U.S which acted more decisively and much earlier. Clearly this has all been very unsatisfactory.”
The Commission’s objective is to have 70% of the EU’s adult population inoculated by the summer – a target now looking very optimistic indeed.
Sandra Gallina, Director-General for Health and Food Safety in the European Commission, recently said she was relying on a “breakthrough” in the second quarter of 2021 and she will need it.
In the meantime, the commission is now blaming the pharma companies for, it says, reneging on their contractual agreements to supply sufficient supplies in time.
The pharma firms reply by effectively blaming the commission for simply being behind the UK etc in the vaccine queue.
There was even a recent attempt to rubbish the Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine, an Anglo-Swedish collaboration, with reports of the jab resulting in blood clots in some patients. The EMA has since given the jab the all clear.
The simple fact is that the EU is way behind the UK and others, such as the U.S and Israel, on the vaccination programme. In the meantime, its economies continue to plummet along with public morale.
There are many who say that if ever there was a single reason to show the benefit (s) of Brexit then this is it: a newly independent nation state (the UK, in this case) being allowed to go its own way – and making a damn good fist of it.
The UK was asked to join the EU vaccine programme last summer: it declined, went its own way – and, boy, look at the results.
But does the UK come out of all this smelling of roses? No!
In the best traditions of the British, it has been a case of “Me First” and “I am alright Jack” when it comes to vaccines.
They have been very happy, of course, to take millions of supplies from the Belgium production base but when it comes to actually sharing these vaccines with others – including dear, old Belgium – well, that is another matter altogether.
In fact, the Brits have made it clear they will not allow vaccines to leave their precious shores until every last one of their people have received first and 2nd doses.
That, sadly, is the same depressingly familiar story we saw over decades while the UK was in the EU – a pick and mix approach whereby it got the “best bits” of EU membership while opting out of those it deemed to be less desirable.
The pharma companies, mysteriously quiet in recent weeks, are not better, failing to honour their contractual agreements, it is alleged, with the EU.
So, it all amounts to a very sad picture right now with the real losers those 450 million Europeans caught up in the middle of what is, basically, a right old mess.
On a personal note, I have an “interest” to declare:
One of the Belgian vaccine centres forced to close because they have no vaccines (unbelievable as that sounds) is in Braine l”Alleud where I live. Belgium, after Denmark, has the 2nd highest rate of basic income tax in Europe and I/we have a right to expect better than this.Shabby is not the word.My brother lives in England and told me this week both he and his partner, both nearly TEN years younger than me, have both had their jabs. I am 61 and, living in Belgium, am not likely to have mine for several months yet.
Consider this comment from my brother below: It must be quite galling if you live in the EU to see the EU politicians sit on their arses when the procurement process began, then keep dilly dallying switching approval on-off-on, then blaming UK and AZ for their own shortcomings.
There can’t be a better argument for decentralisation than this. We’ve just had our jabs so for once we can be thankful for Brexit and the “can do” attitude of a decisive Civil Service in this country. I think all the reasons why there was a high amount of anti-EU sentiment which resulted in Brexit are all too readily apparent in the Covid crisis. The EU has long been seen as overly monolithic and bureaucratic and its approach to tackling anything seems invariably to be a recipe of 10 parts constraint to 1 part value-add.
I voted remain and still wish UK was still in the EU but the current situation demonstrates the folly of procrastination.