Roll-out of jab is being framed as a political race
“Vaccination is not a race between countries – but it is a race against time,” the European Commission vice-president, Margaritis Schinas, intoned yesterday as Brussels tried to galvanise the anti-Covid 19 campaign EU-wide.
Just like in Ireland, the V-word is on everybody’s lips across Europe as lockdown restrictions are extended and tightened in most countries – and frustration at sluggish vaccine roll-out progress is beginning to irk people in large numbers.
The scriptwriters for the commissioner, a former Greek politician and civil servant, probably toiled long to come up with his aphorism – but whatever way they spin, this is a very political race.
Last week Turkey, which has been knocking on the EU membership door for decades without effect, unveiled its Covid vaccine scheme using China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine. If we are to believe early reports, the Turkish authorities inoculated half a million people on day one. Some in Brussels quickly noted that this was more than vaccine laggard France had managed in three weeks.
Then there is EU refusenik, the UK, which is floundering with huge Covid-19 cases and a growing tragic list of deaths. Suddenly, the country is laying claim to vaccination roll-out success – with reports yesterday that four million people had already been inoculated and an insistence that 15 million people will get the jab by mid-February.
So, there is an inevitability that the vaccine roll-out will, from time to time, be seen as a political race between countries. And it is probably no harm at all if it sharpens the various efforts to actually get people vaccinated.
Ireland is not the only country with controversy and doubts about whether this is actually going to work any time soon.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin joins EU counterparts tomorrow for a video-linked summit assessment and, any way you look at it, this country is far better placed as part of the EU vaccine procurement effort. Otherwise we could be getting less at a higher price.
And before we take the inter-European donkey derby vaccine analogy too far, let’s recall the words of the EU Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriades of Cyprus, yesterday as she noted that so far 400,000 EU citizens have died from Covid-19 in the 10 months since the bloc woke up to the crisis in March.
The non-binding EU vaccine targets she outlined suggest Ireland will have to up its game and become ambitious about the national inoculation programme. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the hope is to have 80pc of vulnerable citizens across all member states vaccinated by the end of March. By the end of the summer, the target is to get 70pc of EU adults vaccinated.
Last week Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said his hope was to get 700,000 people vaccinated, mainly from vulnerable groups and frontline health workers, by the end of March.
Overall, the aim is to have 1.5 million people vaccinated here by the end of June.
EU officials described their vaccination targets as entirely feasible. And, given a sanguine look at things, the gap between Ireland’s aims and the Brussels plan is entirely bridgeable – provided there is an effective distribution plan .
The EU Commission has six vaccine contracts for more than 2.3 billion doses, which is more than enough to vaccinate the 27 member states’ 380 million adults, or 80pc of the total population.
So far only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use and are now being distributed.
The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is due for clearance by the end of this month and there are hopes that its far less complex handling requirements will greatly speed up the roll-out.
The other vaccines, it is hoped, will follow quickly – and there will be a great focus on that of Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to require just one dose instead of wo r.
The roll-out in each member state is so far something of a mixed bag. We have already noted France’s early difficulties, which contrast with the performance of Denmark – a country of entirely comparable population size with Ireland. Denmark has been managing its vaccine roll-out so well that it ran out of supplies last week.
Yesterday Ms von der Leyen sought to banish fears that Brussels can’t get supplies out to member states in good time.
Last week there was some controversy when Pfizer-BioNTech announced a slowdown of supplies for up to three weeks to allow them to upgrade production volumes at a factory in Belgium. Brussels officials insist that this, and other teething problems with national distributions, will be resolved.
The other issue we will hear much more of in the coming weeks is the mounting pressure on the EU to share with poorer neighbouring states in the West Balkans and northern and central Africa. Soon a decision will have to be made about whether to sell or gift excess vaccine stocks.
For now, it’s about getting vaccines out there – and people vaccinated. Other issues can wait.