- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
When it comes to Europe’s Covid vaccination rollout, could it be that slow and steady wins the race?
After a lacklustre start to delivering doses around the continent, that is certainly the message European leaders are now sending.
Following a debut marred by delays and a dearth of supplies, the EU’s vaccination drive is finally gathering pace, leading some even to suggest - chief among them President Emmanuel Macron himself - that it could catch up with Britain “in the coming weeks”.
“With all the shots rolling in, it’s even no longer unthinkable that the EU will finish vaccinating its entire adult population ahead of the UK,” claimed Joshua Livestro, member of the Committee on European Integration of the Advisory Council on International Affairs of the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
"While the UK is likely to finish its vaccination marathon crawling on all fours, the EU will be sprinting toward the tape.”
As the UK reopens, such claims appear wildly exaggerated. Indeed, with the continent still in the grip of a deadly third wave and fresh health concerns over the new Johnson&Johnson jab as well as new variants, the EU is struggling to make headway against the pandemic.
Yet undoubtedly there are encouraging indicators.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced this week that the EU administered 100m doses, “a milestone we can be proud of!”. More than a quarter are second shots, meaning more than 27m Europeans are fully vaccinated.
“We are also accelerating the delivery of vaccinations,” she insisted.
The EC chief has set a target of inoculating 75 per cent of the adult population by the end of summer. EU leaders have also declared that the bloc will soon become the world’s number one producer of vaccines.
With the EU’s nose still out of joint over AstraZeneca delays and its run-in with the UK, Mrs von der Leyen confirmed the bloc would receive 250m doses of Pfizer in the second quarter - some 50m more than expected. Negotiations have begun for a contract of 1.8bn doses over 2021-2023 with all production and raw materials being based on the continent.
Some countries are bounding ahead with jabs. In the Netherlands, the number of daily doses per 100 people shot above the UK rate of 0.64 to reach 0.77 on April 11. With 4m doses administered, the country has now given 21.6 per cent of the adult population a first dose, with 6.1 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.
Lampooned for its early vaccination efforts, France has passed some positive milestones of late.
It is consistently hitting more than 450,000 vaccinations a day after opening the first of 40 mass vaccine centres across the country last week, including at the stade de France, the national stadium. On Friday, it surpassed 12 million first doses - two million higher than its mid-April target - and is easily on track to reach 20 million by mid-May and 30 million the following month.
Some 17.8 per cent of the French population, (and 22.8 per cent of adults), had received one jab with more than six per cent having received two. That is still way behind the UK, which has surpassed 32 million first doses (61.4pc of the population) and eight million second jabs (15.5pc).
To speed things up, France has increased the gap between the two doses of the mRNA jabs, making the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine available to anyone over 55, and rolled out the first 200,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson product a week early - also available for this age bracket.
Not all milestones are welcome, however. France this week became the eighth country whose death toll surpassed the 100,000-mark. With an average of roughly 300 deaths a day and almost 6,000 people in intensive care - the highest figure since April last year - government spokesman Gabriel Attal warned that “the third wave is not behind us”, nor is its peak.
There are also growing fears about the possible impact of the Brazilian variant, which along with the South African mutation accounts for 4.2 per cent of French cases and prompted it to suspend flights from Brazil this week.
Given such headwinds, it is too early to say whether Mr Macron, who is up for election in 12 months time, can claim to have been right to refuse to lock the country for a third time in January, despite calls from his own scientific advisors.
Germany, where vaccine roll-out has accelerated dramatically since Easter, is in a similar race against time and its ability to get a handle on the virus could also prove key for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party.
On Wednesday, the country set a new national record with 738.501 jabs in a day, compared with 547,465 in the UK on the same day. Some 18.5 per cent of Germans have now had their first jab, compared to just 12 per cent on April 1. Some 6.4 per cent are fully vaccinated.
While bigger deliveries of vaccines have played a role, the decision to involve GPs in the jab campaign has also been key to the newfound speed.
Doctors administered more than 1.1m in their first week alone and are expected to ramp up even further as dose quantities increase. The gear change could see the entire adult population receive a first jab by July 18, two months early and be fully vaccinated by August 8, according to the German Institute for Public Health Insurance (ZI).
A shadow on the horizon is the concern the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may cause blood clots. Germany has factored the vaccine heavily into its plans — it is expecting an order of 10m jabs — and any decision to limit its use could slow the country’s roll-out.
Meanwhile, in Italy, daily inoculations are hovering above 200,000 new doses administered per day since late last month. Some 9.7m first doses have been administered and 4.1m second ones. Officials have expressed optimism restrictions could be eased soon if the pace of immunisation continues to pick up. That may be premature. On Wednesday, Italy reported another 16,000 new cases in 24 hours and 469 more deaths.
Indeed, the persistently high infection and death rates and hospitalisations threaten to jeopardise plans to relax rules in the coming weeks as Europeans eye Britain’s lockdown exit with envy.
Keen to cajole a country under nationwide semi-confinement and a 7pm to 6am curfew, Mr Macron held talks with the French government on Thursday night on an exit roadmap and his aides hinted that he aimed to progressive reopen cafes and restaurants, along with cultural venues by mid-May. “
“We need some quick wins to raise morale,” fretted junior social economy minister Olivia Grégoire. “(Reopening) terraces is a small victory to brighten our daily lives.”
But ministers have already warned that this is still only “hypothetical”. Mr Macron will address the nation by the end of the month.
With intensive care beds filling up in Germany, Angela Merkel is struggling to push a new law through parliament to take control of lockdown measures out of the hands of the country’s 16 regional governments and impose tough national restrictions for the first time, including night-time curfews for the worst-hit areas. She has already met fierce political resistance from the regions some of who want to go the other way.
As summer beckons, EU countries, including Germany, France and Italy, remain closed to tourism for now.
But some are forging ahead with holiday plans regardless. Greece intends to open borders on 14 May for all travellers who have been vaccinated or provide a negative coronavirus test. Croatia says it is opening up those who can prove they have had a second doses at least two weeks previously.
Meanwhile, EU governments have reached a common position on plans for digital vaccination certificates, which could eventually pave the way to a vaccine passport system open to Britons hoping to travel to Europe. The EU-only plans must be agreed with MEPs before they can become law, which could be before the end of June.
Mass vaccinations are key to getting European economies back on track.
Last month, the OECD said it expected the UK economy to grow by 5.1 per cent this year and 4.7 per cent in 2022 - a significant increase on its December 2020 estimate. Its EU growth forecast was also increased to 3.9 per cent for 2021 — however, this was a much smaller uplift than elsewhere due to its slow vaccine rollout.
“Reflecting the periodic infection waves and the pace of vaccinations, the economic recovery in Europe is still halting and uneven," said Alfred Kammer, director of the International Monetary Fund's European department.
"We are suggesting an extra push, and an extra effort" to limit permanent damage to the region's productivity.