The Bundestag can’t be an easy place to be a politician right now. At the start of the pandemic, Germany seemed to be steering a steadier course than other countries, who looked on in awe at the speed with which it launched its testing regime.
But as Britain, Canada and the USA begin vaccinations, Germany has been left tapping its feet. It is still waiting for the European Medicines Agency to approve the Pfizer vaccine, which it is set to do on 21 December – a state of affairs that is rapidly turning into a national and international embarrassment.
The German public have grown increasingly irritated at the delays. ‘It’s just beyond belief,’ the Bild newspaper wrote in an editorial. ‘The world is celebrating the BioNTech vaccine developed in Germany. Yet Britain, the US and Canada have started vaccinating while we are standing and gawping.’
Interestingly, Health minister Jens Spahn has put the slow pace directly down to the country’s decision to seek collective approval from the EU: ‘We are not making an urgent approval, but a proper approval,’ he told a press conference. ‘We said from the start that we would do it on a European and not a national basis. “We” is stronger than “me”.’
As rallying a statement as that might be, it is going to be increasingly difficult to justify his approach if delays from the EMA continue. There is a faint hope that if the vaccine is approved on 21 December, vaccinations might be able to begin before Christmas. But there’s still a dangerous and politically embarrassing lag between Europe and its international peers.
It’s not clear whether the approval will even mark the end of Germany’s vaccine woes. Ursula von der Leyen has said that all EU countries will get access to the vaccine at the same time, which could make it difficult for Germany – with the largest population in Europe – to secure a meaningful number of doses for its citizens. Jens Spahn originally said that 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been earmarked for German citizens, but this seems rather out of keeping with the spirit of collectivism he was so keen to cite when explaining the vaccine delays. It would hardly look good if Germany was seen to be inching its way to the front of the queue.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not the science holding Germany back, it’s the politics. Their commitment to the EU cause is being put to the test – and the optics of the delays are hardly flattering when Britain seems to have been able to move more nimbly after acting alone.
As images of British citizens receiving the vaccine are beamed onto German TVs, who can blame the German public for becoming restless? Every week that the vaccine is delayed, more lives are lost. German economist Professor Welfens at Wuppertal University has estimated that ‘the German vaccine nonsense will cost around 15,000 lives’. He has called for the current vaccine distribution plans to be scrapped and for a ‘turbo plan’ to be introduced where the whole population could be vaccinated in 90 days. To do this, Germany would have to set aside its loyalty to the EU and embrace a national approach. But, as is so often the case with the EU, politics may have to come ahead of pragmatism.