The success of the United Kingdom’s roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination programme has been an unalloyed good-news story in what has otherwise been a bleak winter.
The Government shrewdly placed very early orders for a wide range of vaccines, all of which were, at that stage, unproven. In effect, Boris Johnson hedged his bets, all of which have so far come good.
The consequence is that the vaccination schedule in the UK is proceeding faster than in any other major country in the world. At the time of writing, over 9,000,000 UK citizens have been vaccinated, with more than half a million more being added each day, and the country is well on track to vaccinate the four most vulnerable sections of the population by mid-February.
The EU, by contrast, was slow off the mark. The Commission prevailed on the member states to pursue a centralised procurement policy, which, it was argued, would be more likely to secure a sufficient supply of vaccine.
For political reasons, a large order was placed for the French Sanofi vaccine, which appears to be many months away from obtaining regulatory approval. And, because of the bureaucracy-heavy nature of the EU, its orders were placed considerably later than the UK’s – some three months later, in the case of AstraZeneca.
It was natural that the EU should be concerned about delays to its vaccination programme. However, it was unforgivable for it to take the action it did when it learned there would be a delay in acquiring the AstraZeneca vaccine. What was a dispute with a commercial entity (and an EU one at that – its contract was with AstraZeneca Sweden) resulted in the EU trying to stop a totally separate company, Pfizer, from delivering its contracted supplies to the UK.
Worse still, the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, ordered that Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol be triggered so as to prevent the movement of vaccine from the Republic to the North. Given that the whole purpose of the Protocol was to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the action was, to say the least, bizarre. Those of a less charitable disposition might be inclined to call it vindictive.
The Article 16 action was swiftly reversed by von der Leyen in the face of angry objections from London and Dublin; but significant damage has been done. Not least, it has imperilled the Good Friday Agreement, which the Protocol was ostensibly set up to protect.
That damage must be repaired. The EU must provide the UK and the Republic of Ireland with undertakings that such action will never be repeated, and the Protocol will be applied fairly and equitably. Failing that, the UK must be prepared to legislate in order to protect the integrity of its internal market.
Finally, the UK should offer to supply vaccine to Ireland once our own requirements have been met. Ireland is a partner of historical importance and we should assist it in times of need.