The Irish Times view on Europe’s vaccination campaign: states must take responsibility

With supplies due to ramp up significantly, national governments’ own efforts will now be in the spotlight

In key capitals, government figures are openly critical of the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, who took personal charge of the vaccine project and is now paying a heavy price for its slow progress. Photograph: Johanna Geron/ EPA

In key capitals, government figures are openly critical of the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, who took personal charge of the vaccine project and is now paying a heavy price for its slow progress. Photograph: Johanna Geron/ EPA

 

Ten weeks after the first Covid-19 vaccine was authorised for use across the continent, the EU’s inoculation campaign is stuttering, the solidarity that was supposed to characterise it steadily falling away. Slovakia has joined Hungary in buying stocks of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, even though it has yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). No such approval has been forthcoming either for China’s vaccine, but that has not deterred Poland from placing an order.

Meanwhile, Austria and Denmark are this week seeking to join with Israel to manufacture more vaccines – a move driven by frustration that, as Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz put it, the EMA is too slow and that Europe is beset by production bottlenecks. Taken together, the impression is of countries going their own way in a desperate scramble to source precious shots for their people.

The commission, it now admits, was naïve in trusting that the pharma companies would deliver on their every promise

This was precisely what the EU’s joint procurement effort was designed to avoid. But a relatively slow inoculation campaign, largely caused by manufacturers failing to make good on their commitments, has soured opinion towards the centralised programme. Key capitals are openly critical of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who took personal charge of the vaccine project.

The commission, it now admits, was naïve in trusting that the pharma companies would deliver on their every promise. It underestimated the manufacturing pressure that would develop and arguably put up too little funding for early vaccine development. But it is worth remembering the good reasons for pooling the effort – without which small states, including Ireland, would now be struggling to secure anything close to the allocations they are due to receive. As is becoming clear, moreover, some of the most unforgivable delays are being caused not by Brussels but by the failings of national governments.

In France, vaccination rates fall to a trickle at weekends. In Germany, the state is only now beginning to involve GPs in the rollout

France has just lifted restrictions on use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for over-65s, but only after President Emmanuel Macron erroneously said it was “quasi-ineffective”. He has since said he would take that shot himself, but in a country with already-high levels of vaccine-scepticism, public hesitancy is a real problem. France has used just 24 per cent of the 1.1 million AstraZeneca doses it has received. Similar buildups have developed in Germany, Italy and Spain. The charge-sheet goes on.

In France, vaccination rates fall to a trickle at weekends. In Germany, the state is only now beginning to involve GPs in the rollout. In a continent where around 5,000 people are dying of Covid-19 every day, this sort of incompetence is unforgivable. And with the supply of vaccines set to triple across the EU in the second quarter, governments have very little time to fix those strained systems. The European Commission is about to make good on its side of the bargain. From here on in, the responsibility lies with the states.

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