EU’s new jab threat: Desperate Von Der Leyen threatens to block AstraZeneca vaccine exports to UK
European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen has desperately threatened to block AstraZeneca vaccine exports to Britain until the firm ‘catches-up’ on its deliveries to the Continent.
EU leaders stopped short of voting for an explicit export ban amid bitter squabbling over their dose allocations at a crunch virtual summit hosted by Brussels on Thursday evening.
But despite alarm at the legal implications from countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, it was clear that the threat of embargoes would not be taken off the table.
Von der Leyen maintained the tough stance, telling a news conference that AstraZeneca ‘has to honour the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines.’
‘We could have been much faster if all pharmaceutical companies had fulfilled their contracts,’ she added. ‘AstraZenaca has committed to a lower number of doses than was contracted.’
It comes despite an apparent effort to ease tensions on Wednesday night when the EU agreed to put out a joint statement with the UK ‘to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.’
US vaccine-maker Pfizer, which ships jabs from Europe to Britain, echoed Boris Johnson’s sentiments today as it warned the bloc that export controls risked creating a ‘lose-lose’ situation for everyone.
But Emmanuel Macron, who has admitted that Europe’s vaccine roll-out ‘lacked ambition,’ struck a defiant tone this evening as he called the blockade threat ‘the end of naivety.’
‘I support export control mechanisms put in place by the European Commission. I support the fact that we must block all exports for as long as some drug companies don’t respect their commitments with Europeans,’ the French president said after the meeting.
France, along with Germany, has backed tough measures to resolve the crisis which has seen Brussels blame Britain, blockade Australia and beg the United States for doses of the AstraZeneca jab – which earlier this year leaders like Macron claimed was ‘ineffective.’
Macron and Merkel are feeling the heat domestically as they battle soaring infection rates amid a third wave of the virus which has brought yet more scrutiny on their woeful vaccine roll-outs.
Newly-Brexited Britain has managed 46 doses per 100 people in the population, this compares to just 14 doses per 100 in Germany and 13 per 100 in France, which prides itself on its well-endowed public healthcare system.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen maintained the tough stance, telling the news conference that AstraZeneca ‘has to honour the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines’
Emmanuel Macron speaking after the summit and gesturing to a graph which appears to show the shortfall in doses from AstraZeneca (far right bar on his graph). He struck a defiant tone this evening as he called the blockade threat ‘the end of naivety’
The UK’s vaccine rollout has surged far ahead of the EU’s leaving the bloc under huge pressure to explain why
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a statement after video conference of EU leaders at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany
French President Emmanuel Macron attends an EU summit video conference from the Elysee Palace in Paris
Boris Johnson visits the Monkey Puzzle Nursery in Greenford, in the London borough of Ealing on Thursday
Angela Merkel said after the summit: ‘We are on the one hand inclined to respect global supply chains and want to fight protectionism, but of course we also want to protect our own people because we know this is the way out of the crisis. In relation to Britain, we want a win-win situation, we want to act sensibly politically.’
Europe’s intransigence comes after an extraordinary rebuke from the former Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker who called Europe’s vaccine war with Britain ‘stupid.’
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also warned that a failure to resolve grievances between member states over how many doses each would receive risked ‘damage to the EU like we haven’t seen in a long time.’
Von der Leyen referenced the third wave that is gripping much of Europe and which has caused ratcheting tensions between nations over how many vaccine doses they will be allocated.
Merkel, under pressure in Germany after making a U-turn on plans for an extended Easter holiday to stop the spread, defended the EU’s decision to procure vaccines jointly for all member states.
‘Now that we see that even small differences in the distribution of vaccines cause big discussions, I would not like to imagine if some member states had vaccines and others did not,’ she told German lawmakers ahead of the summit. ‘That would shake the internal market to its core.’
Macron said the EU had been late in ramping up vaccine production and inoculations, but was catching up and would become the world’s biggest producer of vaccines this summer.
He added that the EU, unlike other countries, had exported a big part of its production instead of keeping it for itself.
‘Europe is not a selfish continent. Because when I read what the press on the other side of the Channel writes, we’re being accused of being selfish. Wrong! We let our supply chains untouched,’ Macron said.
‘But we saw that the United States tend to protect their own vaccine production … that the United Kingdom did not export many doses. Actually, none. So we put in place an export control mechanism.’
Merkel ‘is definitely a lame duck’ after lockdown shambles
Angela Merkel is ‘definitively a lame duck’ after she was forced to make a humiliating U-turn by scrapping plans for a strict Easter lockdown, a former German government spokesman has said.
Bela Anda, a press secretary under Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, said Merkel had seen her power ‘eroded’ by the fiasco – with her party’s poll ratings in freefall six months before an election which will determine her successor.
Merkel asked the German public for ‘forgiveness’ at an astonishing press conference on Wednesday where she said the widely-criticised plan for a total shutdown over Easter had been ‘my mistake, and my mistake alone’.
‘The political world in Berlin will draw the conclusion that from today, Angela Merkel is definitively – I’m sorry to say it – a lame duck,’ Anda told Bild last night.
‘It’s certainly clear that a decision which is made and then not implemented means an erosion of power for Merkel from today onwards’.
The EU’s executive unveiled plans on Wednesday to tighten oversight of vaccine exports that would allow greater scope to block shipments to countries with higher inoculation rates.
A draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters said on vaccines that leaders would stress ‘the importance of … export authorisations’, and reaffirm that vaccine producers must be respect contractual delivery deadlines.
However, diplomats said countries with misgivings about a tougher stand on exports would not put up strong resistance.
‘Their message is … please act very cautiously, in a very balanced way,’ said one EU diplomat. ‘But there is nobody who says don’t do it.’
The two-day summit will conclude on Friday.
It comes after the EU and the UK on Wednesday night issued a joint statement pledging to work together after Boris Johnson warned that businesses could flee the bloc’s borders if it imposed ‘arbitrary’ blockades.
And Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivered another blunt rebuke today, insisting that the UK’s contract with AstraZeneca was fundamentally better than the EU’s.
‘I believe that free trading nations follow the law of contracts,’ he told the FT. ‘They have a ”best efforts” contract and we have an exclusivity deal.’
On a visit to a nursery today, Boris Johnson said he was ‘on the side of openness’ in trade in vaccines.
He said: ‘One thing I am firmly libertarian about is free trade and I don’t want to see blockades of vaccines or of medicines, I don’t think that’s the way forward either for us or for any of our friends.’
Ahead of the talks, Mr Kurz took aim at the EU’s joint procurement system, which is meant to split up supplies based on the size of population.
‘The word solidarity is always being called upon and used so often in the European Union – people are trying to take care of the whole world,’ Mr Kurz said.
‘And when member states have a lot less vaccines available to them than others, then I think this is a big issue for Europe. I would even go so far as to say that I think that when there is no solution, this could cause damage to the European Union like we haven’t seen in a long time.’
Earlier, the French president admitted that the bloc had not gone ‘fast enough or strong enough’ on on vaccines.
But Mr Macron seemingly could not bring himself to acknowledge the UK’s stunning progress, instead heaping praise on the US for ‘shooting for the stars’.
Speaking to the Bundestag this morning, Angela Merkel appeared to accept that the EU’s contracts were not as strong as the UK’s.
‘British production sites are manufacturing for Britain and the United States is not exporting, so we are reliant on what we can make in Europe,’ she said.
Insisting production within the bloc must be ramped up, she added: ‘We have to assume that the virus, with its mutations, may be occupying us for a long time to come so the question goes far beyond this year.’
However, she also tried to defend the EU’s decision to procure vaccines jointly – something that has been blamed for making it less nimble than the UK.
The Europeans are angry that UK-based pharma giant AstraZeneca has failed to meet its vaccine delivery promises to them while ensuring smoother supplies to former member Britain, who ordered their doses months earlier.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz (pictured attending the summit today) accused other member states of taking more than their fair share of jabs, warning that failure to resolve their grievances risked ‘damage to the EU like we haven’t seen in a long time’
German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the EU’s joint procurement approach today in a speech to the Bundestag
The EU summit today and tomorrow is taking place via video link after the council admitted that the pandemic prevented them meeting in person
On a visit to a nursery in London today, Mr Johnson said he was ‘on the side of openness’ in trade in vaccines
It has emerged that Brussels bureaucrats even ordered a raid on an Italian vaccine factory in a bid to grab British jabs – only to find doses destined for the world’s poorest nations and the people of Europe.
The looming third wave of coronavirus infections and Europe’s struggle to mount a vaccination drive will dominate the video summit, where leaders of the 27 states will also be addressed by US President Joe Biden.
The bloc stepped back from the brink of a vaccine war with Britain last night following a furious backlash by member states.
In an apparent climbdown, the European Commission agreed a joint statement with the UK offering to work to find a ‘win-win’ solution to the row.
The statement came at the end of a day of brinkmanship in which Brussels tabled proposals allowing it to block the export of vaccines to the UK.
Mr Johnson warned that blockading life-saving vaccine supplies would do lasting reputational damage to the EU and deter international firms from wanting to invest there.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt branded the proposed export ban ‘idiotic’ and warned it could wreck the EU’s relations with Britain for years.
‘Step by step the EU is destroying the possibility of a long-term partnership and friendship with its closest neighbour,’ he said.
Other Tory MPs branded the threats ‘mind-blowingly stupid’.
Even senior MEPs warned that the EU had pulled out the ‘shotgun’ but was at risk of ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’.
In an interview with Greek television channel ERT, Mr Macron conceded that the EU had lacked ambition.
‘Everybody, all the experts said: Never in the history of mankind was a vaccine developed in less than a year,’ he said.
‘We didn’t shoot for the stars. That should be a lesson for all of us.
‘We were wrong to lack ambition, to lack the madness, I would say, to say: It’s possible, let’s do it.’
However, Mr Macron – who has been one of the most hawkish EU leaders against the UK over Brexit – could not bring himself to make a cross-Channel comparison.
Instead he hailed the American effort to develop vaccines.
‘We didn’t think it would happen that quickly… You can give that to the Americans, as early as the summer of 2020 they said: let’s pull out all the stops and do it,’ he said.
This chart shows how the AstraZeneca supply chain looks across Europe
‘As far as we’re concerned, we didn’t go fast enough, strong enough on this. We thought the vaccines would take time to take off.’
Mrs Merkel told the Bundestag this morning: ‘Despite all the complaints, it was right to rely on the joint procurement and approval of vaccines by the European Union.
‘Now that we see even small differences in the distribution of vaccines cause big discussions, I would not like to imagine if some member states had vaccines and others did not. That would shake the internal market to its core.’
Mr Juncker told the BBC: ‘I’m not a fan of this idea. This could create major reputational damage to the EU, who used to be the world free trade champion.
‘I don’t think this is the right way to do it. We have to pull back from a vaccine war.
‘Nobody understands why we’re witnessing such a stupid vaccine war. This cannot be dealt with in a war atmosphere.
‘We are not in war and we are not enemies, we are allies. We have special relations with Britain, there’s room for dialogue.’
The former commission chief lashed out at the EU for ‘major mistakes’ in being ‘too cautious’ and ‘too budget conscious’ when approving and procuring vaccines.
The UK-EU joint statement last night acknowledged the third wave of cases in Europe made co-operation more important but said no resolution had yet been reached.
‘Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short, medium and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens,’ it said. ‘In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.’
However, ministers are concerned that the commission powers are still in place, and there is not expected to be any formal decision from EU leaders today.
Mr Johnson has refused categorically to rule out retaliatory action – which could see the UK suspend the export of vaccine ingredients – although he made clear he was not in favour of the move at this stage.
Negotiations are thought to centre on an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands.
One Whitehall source said: ‘They have armed themselves with a bazooka and pointed it at us – it is quite incendiary, not to mention morally and legally outrageous.’
France and Germany have backed a hardline stance as they try to deflect attention from their own sluggish vaccination campaigns.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who is fighting to keep her job over the disastrous vaccine rollout, has toughened her stance towards Britain in recent days
A source close to Mr Macron warned that the EU would no longer continue to be ‘the useful idiot’ in allowing jabs to be shipped overseas while the bloc struggles for supplies.
But the prospect of a damaging ban has alarmed a string of other EU countries. Ireland has declared the idea a ‘very retrograde step’, while Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Sweden are also said to harbour concerns.
Yesterday began with an extraordinary raid by Italian authorities on an AstraZeneca plant wrongly suspected of preparing to export millions of doses to Britain. In fact, the 29million jabs were destined for other EU countries and parts of the Third World.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen then published ‘temporary’ powers allowing the EU to block the export of jabs to countries such as the UK which have higher vaccination rates.
The plan could threaten millions of doses of the AZ vaccine due to be shipped from the Netherlands. But it could also cut off the UK’s entire supply of the Pfizer jab, which comes from Belgium. Such a move could jeopardise the ability of the NHS to administer second doses of the vaccine.
A further threat to the UK rollout emerged last night as India was reported to have blocked all major exports of the AZ vaccine because infections there are soaring.
Two weeks after five million doses for the UK were stopped, sources said Narendra Modi’s government has now implemented a complete ban on exports by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer.
The move will also affect supplies to the Covax vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 poorer countries are expected to get doses, one of the sources said. Covax would also be hit by any EU ban. Its co-chairman Jane Halton said any threats from Brussels to hold vaccine exports hostage would be ‘extremely regrettable’.
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides denied the plans amounted to an export ban, adding: ‘We’re dealing with a pandemic and this is not seeking to punish any countries.’
One EU diplomat said Britain had ‘taken a risk’ by leaving itself ‘extremely dependent’ on the EU for second doses of the Pfizer jab.
Boris Johnson faces 60-strong Tory revolt on crunch vote TODAY on extending Covid powers until SEPTEMBER
Boris Johnson will face the wrath of his own lockdown-sceptic backbenchers today as he pushes through an extension of lockdown laws until the autumn.
A hardcore of as many as 60 Conservative MPs is expected to rebel against Government plans to extend emergency powers to the end of September, despite the lockdown officially ending in June.
Politicians in the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) blasted the ‘significant draconian powers’ and questioned the need for them to be in place if the UK has returned to relative normal.
However, any Tory rebellion is almost certain to fail to impede the legislation, with Labour planning to back it in this evening’s Commons vote.
CRG leader Mark Harper, who believes plans to ease the lockdown ‘could safely go more quickly’, told Sky News: ‘The biggest problem today is the extension of some very significant draconian powers in the Coronavirus Act which the Government doesn’t want to extend until June, it actually wants to extend all the way into October.
‘And these are quite significant powers; they are powers, for example, for the police to detain people indefinitely and to continue having powers to shutdown events and so forth all the way through to October.
‘And I haven’t heard a single good answer about why the Government wishes to do that, given that the Prime Minister has said he wants to be out of all of our legal restrictions by June.’
But pn a visit to a school in Greenford, north west London this morning Mr Johnson defended his libertarian instincts.
‘The libertarian in me is also trying to protect people’s fundamental right to life and their ability to live their lives normally and the only way really to restore that for everybody is for us to beat the disease, and the best path to freedom is down the cautious but irreversible road map that we’ve set out – that’s what the freedom-lover wants,’ he said.
CRG leader Mark Harper told Sky News: ‘These are quite significant powers; they are powers, for example, for the police to detain people indefinitely and to continue having powers to shutdown events and so forth all the way through to October’
The legislation for restrictions over the coming months, as the Government sets out its road map for coming out of lockdown, will see some restrictions remain in place in England until at least June 21.
There are also question marks over summer holidays taking place after that date, amid a third wave of Covid infections in mainland Europe.
But Conservative MP Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the CRG, said the vote was a ‘rare opportunity’ for MPs to ‘say no to a new way of life in a checkpoint society’.
‘I was glad to hear the Prime Minister reassure William Wragg MP at the Liaison Committee today that ‘anything that is redundant will go’ in relation to Coronavirus Act powers,’ the former minister said last night.
‘Draconian police powers under Schedule 21, which have a 100 per cent unlawful prosecution record, must be considered ‘redundant’ to say the very least.
‘I am seeking to table an amendment to the motion tomorrow asking ministers to suspend those powers.
It comes as Matt Hancock said he could see an ‘end’ to the pandemic that would involve managing coronavirus ‘more like flu’ with repeated and updated vaccinations.
The Health Secretary expressed confidence about the UK’s ability to manage Covid-19 in the future, telling the Financial Times: ‘It depends what you mean by ”end”. I see an end where Covid is managed more like flu: we repeatedly vaccinate, we update the vaccines according to mutations and we manage the challenges, especially around transmissions over winter.
‘I’m confident that’s where we can get to. I want to get to a position where we can have an updated vaccine in weeks or months, not a year.’
Government data up to March 23 shows 28,653,523 people have received a first vaccine dose, a rise of 325,650 on the previous day.
A further 98 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the total by that measure to 126,382.
As of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 5,605 lab-confirmed cases in the UK, bringing the total to 4,312,908.
Sir Jeremy Farrar said he believes it is likely that the ban on international travel will need to continue.
The Wellcome Trust director said: ‘I think it will, until we can see progress in Europe with the epidemic coming down and vaccination rates going up in Europe.’
Asked about further testing of people coming in, he said lateral flow tests ‘don’t pick up every case but they do pick up the cases that are more infectious, and that is a very, very important public health intervention’.
On the issue of vaccine certificates and passports, he said he thinks they could cross the line ‘of individual freedoms and public health’, adding that ‘public health works when there is trust and when people want to do things that are their interests, and in the interests of their community, their families and their society’.
Boris Johnson says vaccine passports WON’T stop beer gardens opening on April 12 but refuses to rule out ‘no jab, no drink’ plan
Boris Johnson has said vaccine passports will not stop beer gardens opening on April 12 but refused to rule out a ‘no jab, no drink’ plan for when pubs fully reopen on May 17.
The Prime Minister said the result of the review into coronavirus health certificates can be expected by April 12, although it may not be possible to roll them out until everyone has been offered a jab – which could take months.
He said he thinks there should be a role for them but added it needs to be done carefully because some people have medical reasons they cannot get jabbed and there are ‘moral complexities’ and ‘ethical problems’.
Landlords and brewers today revolted over plans for vaccine passports for pubs after it was revealed hospitality venues could be allowed to bar customers who cannot prove they have had a Covid jab or a negative test.
Mr Johnson had yesterday told MPs landlords might be given powers to impose tough entry requirements on drinkers – and Government sources confirmed this was part of an official review of vaccine passports.
While visiting the the Monkey Puzzle Day Nursery in Greenford, West London, today, Mr Johnson told Sky News: ‘Obviously we’re looking at the issues that are raised by vaccination certification – what can you do?
‘Now, in aviation, clearly there are lots of countries are thinking about using some sort of vaccine passport, and I think that there are three basic components.
‘There’s the vaccine, there’s your immunity that you might have after you’ve had Covid, and then there’s testing. So there are three things that could work together.
‘No decisions have been taken at all. One thing I will make clear is none of this is obviously going to apply on April 12, when it will all be outdoors anyway. So whatever happens on April 12 will be unaffected.
How a coronavirus vaccine passport for Britons could look
‘All sorts of things are being considered. What we want to do is roll out the vaccine programme and see what that builds in terms of general resistance to the virus. And I do think there is going to be a role for certification.
‘What we’ve said is that we’ll be reporting on the work of the certification group in early April, either on April 5 or on April 12.
‘I think we need to think carefully about the issues – as I’ve said before, there are lots of difficult issues because there are some people who for medical reasons can’t get a vaccination, pregnant women can’t get a vaccination at the moment.
‘You’ve got to be careful about how you do this, you might only be able to implement a thorough-going vaccinate passport scheme, even if you wanted such a thing, in the context of when absolutely everybody had been offered a vaccine.’
Industry bosses across Britain said the idea for pubs was ‘absurd’ and ‘unworkable’ and signalled they would not ask customers for proof that they had been inoculated or were clear of coronavirus.
Pubs could even face a choice between being half-full with social distancing measures in place – or using vaccine certificates so they could open at full capacity, a Government source told The Times.
It comes just as the vaccine rollout starts to slow because of supply problems. Younger people now face a longer wait and some inoculation centres are already indicating they will close temporarily next month.
Some 28,327,873 adults have had a first dose of the jab, with a further 2,363,684 fully vaccinated. But a shortfall of five million jabs from India and the need to retest 1.7million doses means the rollout will slow down in April.
Scientists could recommend the rollout of vaccine passports to encourage people to get the jab, but there are also concerns that the certificates could lead to indirect discrimination among ethnic groups where uptake is low.
‘Green pass’ vaccine passports have already been rolled out in Israel, which has had a world-beating response to the pandemic with more than half of its 9.2million people already having received both doses of a Covid-19 jab.
Now, Britons desperate for a post-lockdown pint at their local beer garden are facing a huge struggle to get a table when outdoor seating areas reopen from April 12 – with some pubs now booked up for months.
However not all chains are operating a booking system, with Wetherspoon opening 394 of its beer gardens or terraces on a first-come-first-served basis.
Meanwhile MailOnline poll found 59 per cent of people would back and 19 per cent would oppose businesses such as pubs using vaccine passports. The survey of 1,500 voters was done by Redfield and Wilton Strategies.
JOHN HUMPHRYS: This has destroyed the faith of an old Remainer like me
By John Humphrys for the Daily Mail
I failed in the eyes of many listeners when I was presenting the Today programme in the long run-up to the EU referendum in 2016
BBC news presenters like to pretend that they are impartial – except when it comes to distinguishing between good and evil. They have no choice. That’s the test that the great Lord Reith set a century ago and, by and large, it applies today. But it’s not easy.
I failed in the eyes of many listeners when I was presenting the Today programme in the long run-up to the EU referendum in 2016. They accused me of being so biased in favour of Brexit that I never gave the Remainers a fair chance to state their case. They were right about me being biased – but wrong about where my bias lay.
I was so determined not to show my true colours that I might just possibly have given Remainers a slightly rougher ride than they deserved when I interviewed them. In the highly charged atmosphere of the most bitterly fought referendum in this nation’s history, that was more than enough to condemn me in the eyes of Remainers.
The fact is, I was one of them: A Remainer through and through.
But this week it’s hard for an old Remainer like me, waiting to have his second jab, not to muse on his referendum vote back in 2016 and wonder whether he might have voted differently if he’d known then what he knows now.
It is a loss of faith that would never have occurred to my younger self.
I’d been a pro-European ever since we signed up to the EEC in 1973. How could any idealistic young man, born even as German bombs were falling on his home city, fail to be moved by the grand notion of a united Europe?
I’ll admit that my faith was shaken more than once in the decades that followed but never enough to join the ranks of the Brexiteers.
Europe was, by a mile, our biggest trading partner and therefore crucial to our future prosperity. And, yes, I might have had growing misgivings about the Brussels dream of an ‘ever closer union’ but surely that was a small price to pay for peace on a continent racked by war for centuries.
So it was that I went to bed as the referendum polling stations were closing on June 23, 2016, confident that I’d be downing a glass of bubbly with my Today colleagues after the results came in the following morning. Instead the newsroom resembled a wake after the death of a loved one. The mourning was led by the big bosses.
In the five years since there have been many occasions on which I’ve been able to say: Told you so! But the fiasco of repeated failures to strike a decent deal pale in to insignificance compared with what is happening as I write. It is not being melodramatic to claim that lives are at stake.
Vaccination against Covid saves lives. Denial of the vaccine kills people. It’s one thing for the bureaucrats of Brussels or Whitehall to squabble over the finer details of how the Northern Ireland border might (or might not) operate. It’s something else again for the EU – led by the risible figure of Ursula von der Leyen – to threaten a vaccine war with the United Kingdom.
It is a threat that seems to have little justification other than to distract attention from the EU’s own pathetic failure to procure the jabs that are needed for the EU’s own citizens and deliver them speedily to those most at risk.
It is both shameful and devious to try to blame Britain for having succeeded so magnificently where the EU has failed. Boris Johnson, who looked so careworn when he appeared before the media this week – as well he might – must be thanking his lucky stars for President von der Leyen’s performance.
It’s like a boxer who’s been on the ropes for most of the bout watching his opponent punch himself on the nose.
Brussels must have had high hopes of a morale-boosting performance from the respected politician and MEP Philippe Lamberts when he appeared on the Today programme yesterday. And indeed all went well when he launched an attack on the inability to fulfil promises of the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca. They had, he said, ‘performed with a track record of dishonesty. Over promising. Under delivering by massive amounts. We have seen that they have also bungled up at least twice their test data so everything points to a company that cannot be relied upon.’
Strong stuff but, as my old friend Justin Webb pointed out, it would sound more cogent coming from the European side if it weren’t for the fact that there are millions of AZ doses available in Europe that are not being used. They’re just being stored.
Mr Lamberts, doubtless to the dismay of his EU President, agreed. Indeed, he made no attempt to conceal his admiration for what Britain has done. As he said, the track record of member states pales in comparison.
He even agreed with Justin that ‘AZ has been the subject of a scurrilous campaign around Europe, a campaign that went right to the top of European politics, that suggested things about the vaccine that weren’t true, that have led to all sorts of confusion for Europeans on whether to take it.’
So where do we go from here?
What many European politicians, including Mr Lamberts, wanted is for the British Government, the EU commission and AZ at the highest levels to sit together and try to find a mutually agreeable solution. And last night the UK and the EU did exactly that.
Afterwards they issued a joint statement saying they are working together ‘to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens’, adding: ‘In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.’
Such emollience came not before time. Earlier in the day, Brussels had upped the ante by publishing proposals widening the criteria for restricting exports to countries with high jab rates. The Italian authorities went so far as to impound unilaterally 29million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Vaccine nationalism is something we should all fear. Some estimates suggest a European ban could delay Britain’s vaccine drive by two months and affect supply by 20 per cent.
As Johnson has put it, ‘We are all fighting the same pandemic… Vaccines are an international operation.’ What he does not want is a retaliatory ban on exports: ‘We do not believe in blockades of any kind.’
And what does Brussels really want? Hard to say.
The French Europe minister Clement Beaune has said: ‘We want to avoid AstraZeneca doses produced in Europe going to Britain when we are not receiving anything.’ The German Chancellor Angela Merkel no less has said the EU has ‘a problem with AstraZeneca’.
And a ban on exporting drugs is not the only weapon in the Brussels armoury. The European Council President Charles Michel has raised the prospect that the EU could adopt ‘urgent measures’ by invoking an emergency provision in the EU treaties which ostensibly could be used to force vaccine makers to share their patents or other licenses.
In the formal language of an EU treaty it is known as compulsory licensing. Drug companies might prefer the word ‘theft’.
But perhaps all this is unnecessarily alarmist. Perhaps there will be no ban, no vaccine war, no enforced ‘sharing’ of patents.
Perhaps. But I would need to regain my faith in the Remainer religion to accept that.
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