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The EU has made an almighty hash of procuring treatments for Covid-19. Vaccine centres are running short of supplies as a result. National governments want jabs rather than excuses for what has gone wrong. The search for scapegoats is on.
Stripped of the legal wrangling between Brussels and AstraZeneca, the protectionist plan to ban exports of drugs and the now-abandoned plan to close the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the EU has been incompetent – and no amount of bully-boy tactics can get away from that fact.
About 12% of people in the UK have been vaccinated against 2% in the EU – a huge difference. The German newspaper Die Zeit summed up the anger at bungling that will be costly in lives and livelihoods with a simple statement: “The best advertisement for Brexit.”
That’s quite a turnaround from the “plague island” jibes aimed at the UK a few weeks ago but understandable, given the way the European commission has engineered the sort of centrally planned cock-up redolent of the Soviet Union in its sunset years, even down to the apparatchiks desperately hunting around for a factory manager they can blame for a fiasco of their own making.
Yet anybody in the UK tempted to gloat at the EU’s stuttering vaccine programme should think again. The death of a German or Italian pensioner from Covid-19 is every bit as sad as the death of a British pensioner. What’s more, the consequence of having so few people vaccinated is that the fear factor will remain high in the EU, making it harder for governments to ease physical-distancing rules and making people far more cautious. Economic recovery will be delayed and that is in no one’s interest. The sooner the EU closes the vaccination gap with the UK the better.
It has to be said, though, that this wasn’t quite what was expected. The UK government took a lot of stick last summer when it announced that it would not participate in the EU scheme to procure vaccines collectively. Britain, it was said, would have to wait for its jabs while the rest of Europe received speedier protection. The subtext was that the government was allowing Brexit ideology to interfere with public health. The headline in this paper was: “UK plan to shun EU vaccine scheme “unforgivable”, say critics.”
To be fair, that was perhaps a reasonable expectation, given the government’s underwhelming record on providing PPE and delivering an effective test, trace and isolate system. It was also assumed that Brussels would be able to strike better deals with the pharmaceutical companies because it was buying in bulk.
But what really mattered was not price but speed and breadth of supply. Britain’s approach was to sign contracts early with lots of pharma companies hoping that some of them would turn out to be effective. Had they been left to their own devices, that would have been the preferred option of other European countries, including Germany, France and Italy, which could have signed contracts on the same terms as those struck by the UK.
Instead, EU member states were leaned upon by Brussels to support a collective endeavour, which delayed the placing of orders for the AstraZeneca vaccine by three months. Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, says the UK’s three-month head start was important because it allowed glitches in the production process to be sorted out.
It was not until the autumn that the EU placed orders for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (even though the breakthrough was made in a German lab) and even later before it got round to ordering some of the Moderna vaccine. Last Friday, the pharma company Novavax said it had developed a vaccine that was effective against Covid-19. The UK has pre-ordered 60m doses: the EU none.
The approach adopted by the commission was designed to show Europe’s solidarity in the face of the crisis but has had the opposite effect. Individual countries – trying to explain to their irate populations why vaccine centres have run out of drugs – now wish they had gone their own way. Some, such as Hungary, have actually done so, with the government in Budapest putting in an order for the Russian Sputnik vaccine.
As with all major screw-ups, there are lessons to be learned. One is the importance of having sufficient domestic capacity to satisfy demand for vaccines. Britain is fortunate that pharma is one sector of manufacturing where it retains a world-class presence. The speed at which AstraZeneca produced the vaccine demonstrates the merits of collaboration between academia and business, and the merits of having an industrial strategy. Nurturing fledgling biotech companies makes even more sense now than it did a year ago.
A second is that procurement matters. Strictly speaking, there was nothing to prevent Germany or France from adopting the UK approach but they felt obliged to support the centralised approach adopted by Brussels. Having the freedom to do things differently paid off.
Regulation also matters. Britain got its vaccine programme going more quickly because it approved the drugs sooner. EU regulation doesn’t necessarily mean better regulation. Sometimes there are advantages in doing things your own way and this is one of them.
Despite what Die Zeit says, it is unlikely that any other EU country will opt for its own version of Brexit. That said, people in Germany might like to ask a couple of simple questions: would we rather have health policy run by our own government or by the people in Brussels? And would we rather have life or death decisions taken by people we can vote out of power or by an unelected body where nobody ever has to take responsibility for even the most colossal and humiliating of failures?
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: EU Covid incompetence leaves governments wanting vaccines, not excuses | Business