Last week’s row with the European Union over vaccine supply struck an intensely sour note in what has otherwise been a welcome good-news story.
The United Kingdom had shrewdly placed early orders for a wide range of vaccines, all of which were, at that stage, unproven. In effect, it hedged its bets, all of which have so far come good.
The consequence is that the vaccination programme in the UK is proceeding faster than in any other major country in the world. At the time of writing, some 9,000,000 UK citizens have been vaccinated, 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. 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 vaccine orders were placed considerably later than the UK’s – some three months in the case of AstraZeneca.
It was natural that the EU should be concerned about delays to its vaccination schedule. 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) bizarrely resulted in the EU seeking to stop a totally separate company, Pfizer, from delivering its contracted supplies to the UK and, effectively, setting up a hard border in Ireland.
The action in Ireland was swiftly reversed in the face of angry objections from London and Dublin; but significant damage was done to the UK-EU relationship.
That damage must be repaired. A good step in that direction would be for the UK to offer supplies of vaccine to Ireland once our own domestic needs are met. Ireland is, after all, our closest neighbour and our ties of history and friendship are strong.