On Thursday, two of Parliament’s mainstream groups held talks with two EU commissioners to discuss how to rapidly increase the vaccination rate in Europe.
EPP leader Manfred Weber, after meeting Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, went so far as to give tacit support for a potentially controversial export ban on such vaccines from the EU, saying this option was “still on the table.”
On Thursday, in an interview with major news outlets, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted for the first time that the EU had underestimated the difficulties pharma companies would have in producing vast quantities of vaccines, conceding that had been a “bitter” lesson for the executive.
She said, “A start of vaccination does not mean a seamless flow of vaccine doses coming from the industry,” she said. “This is a bitter learning part, and this we certainly have underestimated.”
In the interview, she said that, on vaccine rollout, the UK is a “speedboat” while the EU was a ship, and admitted that the EU should also prepare itself for further “obstacles” and “production problems” and even “shortages” of components.
She also conceded that the UK had elected to go for emergency marketing authorisations which the EU had chosen not to do. Many think this was a bad mistake which has seriously slowed the approval process and subsequent rollout.
Further criticism has come from Von der Leyen’s home country, with the German newspaper, Bild, reporting that the country’s finance minister branded the Commission’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy as “really shit.”
Olaf Scholz, who is also the vice-chancellor, reportedly criticised Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, by name, saying Germany could not “let this shit repeat itself” and that the vaccine debacle was “a disgrace.”
“We support any plan that offers access to a vaccine for the whole EU population as early as possible. The distribution of vaccines must be equitable and efficient across the continent” Manfred Weber, EPP
Many of the vaccines now available are being produced in Europe but, largely due to supply and production problems, relatively few people have been vaccinated.
On Friday, a Commission spokesman, asked about Scholz’s comments, told reporters, “We never comment on remarks by third parties. What is clear is that there are very regular video conferences between the Commission and heads of state.”
“The latest was in early January and there will be another at the end of this month. During these conferences the support by Member States for our vaccine strategy has been reiterated time and time again. It is obvious that implementing such a strategy is a highly complicated and ambitious endeavour,” he said.
“There will always be issues to be solved but we can achieve these objectives if we stick together. On this, the Commission has the support of Member States so we will continue to implement our strategy with Member State authorities.”
The significant difference between the vaccination performance of some non-EU countries and the EU27 is reflected in a survey which shows that more than 60 percent of UK respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with the UK speedy vaccination campaign.
This compares with only 31 percent in France, where the rollout is among the EU’s slowest.
The Netherlands is even worse than France and has so far administered at least one dose to just 1.8 percent of its population.
On the rollout, Belgium is another very poor performer - by Friday (5 February), a mere 307,000 of its near 11m population had been vaccinated (first dose).
“The EU must harness its industrial might to quickly step up production, which means tackling bottlenecks and working with companies to enhance existing facilities. This is both a short-term necessity, but also a medium to long-term challenge” Dacian Cioloş, Renew Europe leader
Current rates for other EU members include Denmark (5 percent), Ireland (4 percent), Spain (3.8 percent) and Italy (3.7 percent). Each of these are outperforming Germany. The EU average is just 3.16 percent.
Less than two months after the programme began, in the UK more than 15 percent of the population has been offered a first jab, the largest proportion of any major economy, putting the country in third place worldwide behind Israel (58 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (38 percent).
Official figures from across the UK’s four nations showed that 374,756 people received a jab on Tuesday alone, more than the whole of Belgium so far.
Serbia, on the EU border, has inoculated more than 450,000 of its population of seven million in almost two weeks.
The EU orders for vaccines were placed much later than the UK and subsequent supply shortfalls have led to vaccination programmes being suspended in some EU countries, including Germany.
The EPP, on Thursday, held a joint video conference of its MEPs and members of national parliaments with Kyriakides to discuss the EU vaccination strategy.
After the meeting, Weber said an export ban should still be on the table, adding, “We support any plan that offers access to a vaccine for the whole EU population as early as possible. The distribution of vaccines must be equitable and efficient across the continent. 70 percent of the whole EU population must be vaccinated by the end of summer.”
“We do not want a vaccine war but we have to defend our interests when faced with global vaccine nationalism. This is why an export ban is not unthinkable for us.”
A separate meeting on vaccines was also held on Thursday between the leader of the Renew Europe group, Dacian Cioloş, and the European Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, to discuss how to increase the production capacity of vaccines in the European Union.
After the meeting Cioloş said, “No stone should be left unturned. The EU must harness its industrial might to quickly step-up production, which means tackling bottlenecks and working with companies to enhance existing facilities. This is both a short-term necessity, but also a medium to long-term challenge, as new vaccines may be needed to tackle variants and we need to be prepared for this.”
He said he wants “EU capacity to control the full supply chain of vaccines to protect EU citizens and beyond.”
Over the past month, 18.5 million doses have been delivered to just over 13m in the EU27. According to the latest figures released by the companies, this month, the EU27 will see the delivery of a further 33 million doses and in March, 55 million doses, with more to come.
As well as export controls, the EPP has also taken a tough stance on travel, saying that due to emerging new variants of the virus from South Africa and South America, it wants national governments to adopt a “united approach” towards incoming flights from third countries.
Flights from certain third countries should be banned and quarantine centres for essential travellers should be set up, it says.
Von der Leyen has said the Commission hopes to provide vaccines for 70 percent of Europeans by the end of the summer, but German chancellor Angela Merkel conceded this week that it “rankled” that others were vaccinating faster while France’s President Macron also said that progress “may seem slow” compared with countries that had “made other bets.”