Europe’s vaccine rollout has been a chastening experience for many in Brussels with the World Health Organisation describing it last week as ‘unacceptably slow’. So Mr S was intrigued to read an interview in Der Spiegel today with Thierry Breton, the EU’s Commissioner for Internal Market, in which the top official appeared to take credit for Britain’s vaccination scheme.
Both at home and overseas, the UK procurement and rollout of the vaccines been widely seen as a success, with credit mostly going to the taskforce led by Kate Bingham. Not so, according to a bullish Breton, who claimed credit for all the vaccines produced in factories which happened to be based in EU countries. Asked about British company AstraZeneca not being allowed to export vaccines from Europe, he replied:
“Our friends in the UK have two vaccine factories, but only one of them produces. However, of the 37 million jabs that have been used in the UK so far, this facility has delivered no more than a third. Most of the rest came from Europe. In other words, the UK is largely dependent on the EU for its vaccination campaign.
Breton added that the EU and the USA had similar rates of vaccine production and delivery but that the EU’s supply for other countries had prevented it keeping pace. Taking care to avoid any mention of the criticisms directed at the EU’s approach to procurement negotiations, he proceeded to heap blame on AstraZeneca for failing to deliver orders, claiming: ‘If she had treated us the same as the UK, we would be exactly as advanced as the British today with vaccinating.’
The Der Spiegel interviewers did point out that Britain merely did a better job of contractually securing their deliveries than the EU – a response which prompted Breton to assert: ‘The contracts are largely identical. We only ask that AstraZeneca deliver what we were promised. No more and no less.’ He also took the chance to have a pop at Britain’s policy of delivering a second jab for up to 12 weeks so as to maximise the number of people protected against Covid in the shortest possible timeframe, saying:
“We understand the problems the British have. They had many infections in the first wave of the pandemic and mourn almost 130,000 deaths, more than any EU country. In addition, they vaccinated many of their citizens once, but only a few twice. Now they need the second shot and deliveries from the EU for it.
This is despite the strategy of 12 week delay receiving widespread approval, including even from the New York Times which noted approvingly that 'Britain’s approach not only brings immediate benefits, in terms of lives saved; it also reduces the chances of future outbreaks: The fewer people who have Covid, the fewer who can infect somebody else.'
British ministers have been careful in recent months to avoid inflaming tensions with Brussels by deliberately avoiding attempts to compare the UK and EU vaccine schemes – Gavin Williamson's clanger aside. But Steerpike wonders how long such a strategy can hold when Brussels counterparts appear so happy to take jabs at their nearest neighbours?