What If COVID Vaccine Drives Fall Short? What EU-UK Row Highlights

WHO also criticised EU’s export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc, as it risks prolonging the pandemic.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

In the last week of January 2021, the UK officially crossed a grim milestone with over 100,000 due to COVID-19, though, according to the data from the Office for National Statistics, the total number is closer to 120,000.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made this sombre announcement and said his government had done everything to minimise the loss of life. But daily deaths are hovering above 15,000. On 30 January, we marked a year since the first COVID-19 death in the UK. So, did the government indeed do everything, because the numbers speak otherwise?

UK Govt’s Failure In Handling COVID Pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, it was clear that the government had no long-term plan to control the virus other than cyclic lockdowns. On 3 February 2020, four days after the first confirmed cases in the UK, Johnson said he didn’t want to shut down the economy. The initial plan seemed to be to allow ‘herd immunity’. The government went so far as to halt mass coronavirus testing on 12 March 2020, as ministers decided to focus on testing people in hospitals and care homes. The first lockdown came late, after cases began going out of control. That has been the pattern throughout this horrific pandemic. Despite warnings from the scientific community, all lockdowns were slow and delayed, costing lives.

Throughout the COVID pandemic, the UK has had no clear border policies in place. When they were introduced, they were unmonitored.

The contact-tracing system failed to take off. When I returned from India in March 2020, I was shocked to find myself walk through Heathrow airport without any sign of any COVID-19 restrictions.

“A Legacy Of Poor Decisions” & Weak Border Policy

Even now with cases raging in the UK and all kinds of variants emerging in various countries, the border policy seems weak. Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in The Guardian: “Borders are the first line of defence against a novel pathogen and a way to catch new variants and infections before they have a chance to spread. Countries that managed to effectively contain Sars-CoV-2 implemented screenings of new arrivals and 14-day quarantines for those entering the country. Some even restricted travel to national citizens. In March, when the UK went into lockdown, people were instructed to stay home while passengers from any country could arrive at Heathrow and take the tube straight into London without a COVID test. In the summer, we had a window to prevent future infections. Instead, the UK encouraged overseas holidays via ‘travel corridors’ that contributed to the second wave. We paid for summer holidays with winter lockdowns.”

There has also been a clear lack of leadership and messaging from the government, be it the case of Dominic Cummings flouting lockdown restrictions or the “eat out to help out” programme which encouraged people, who, on the one hand were told to stay at home and on the other, encouraged to go to crowded restaurants.

All such actions eroded the faith in the government. Scientists have called it a “legacy of poor decisions” by the UK, before and during the pandemic, which has led to one of the worst death rates in the world.

EU’s Vaccine Nationalism Upheaval & Clash With Brexit UK

Despite the government’s poor handling of a public health emergency, the main Opposition party, Labour has not been strong enough in holding the government to account. Although Labour leader Keir Starmer is the most popular opposition leader since Tony Blair, before he became prime minister, some Labour frontbenchers believe: “We still have a massive mountain to climb. We are only at base camp.” The deep damage and factionalism caused during the Corbyn years will need to be repaired. So, for now, Tories are getting away with their glaring mistakes.

The impact of internal politics on the pandemic may be one thing but the recent vaccine nationalism upheaval created by EU is the first major clash with Brexit UK.

For all its failures, during the pandemic, the UK has to be congratulated for its vaccine strategy and the alacrity and hard work put in by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA) to be the first country to approve both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. Moderna has also been approved, and now two more are in the pipeline, namely Johnson & Johnson and Novavax.

On the other hand, the EU and AstraZeneca (AZ) have been in a stand-off. The EU took longer to approve the AZ vaccine, and its production has been slower in EU-based plants than UK plants, which are to give priority to UK distribution. Last week the EU threatened to restrict vaccine exports to Northern Ireland by overriding part of the Brexit deal with Britain that allowed the free flow of goods over the Irish border, but later backed down after Johnson voiced “grave concerns”.

EU’s Rules On COVID Vaccine Exports: Why It Could Affect Developing Nations

The initial threat from the EU created discordance among other EU member nations, including Dublin voicing its disapproval to such a threat without consultation. Even former Prime Minister Tony Blair was vocal in his criticism of the EU. The EU’s tighter rules on exports of COVID-19 vaccines could hit shipments to nations including Australia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also criticised the EU’s announcement of export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc, saying such measures risked prolonging the pandemic.

However, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the UK could help the EU and other nations with coronavirus vaccine supplies even before the domestic vaccination programme has been completed, while stressing that any moves to send some of the 367 million vaccine doses the government has ordered to other countries would only be done if it did not affect the UK vaccination timetable.

Now, with Novavax vaccine clearing Phase 3 trials successfully, 60 million doses of which have been secured by the UK Vaccine Task Force, it might well be possible that with the various approved vaccines secured, we may have more doses than required by a population of 67 million and can provide for other countries.

However, the latest EU-UK tussle has put the focus on the impact of shortages on ambitious mass vaccination programs, even on wealthy nations, amidst fears that the developed world is securing doses, leaving poorer nations behind.

(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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