Monday, 1 February 2021

Vaccine not-nationalism-at-all


At first sight – to a non-lawyer at least – all three parties in the EU/UK/Astra-Zeneca bust-up about doses of vaccine seem to have some merit in their arguments. As far as the legal rights and wrongs are concerned, it’s unlikely that the issue will be settled outside a courtroom (and an EU court at that, much to the probable distaste of one of the three parties) unless some accommodation is reached before things get to that stage. Politically, though, the EU’s initial suggestion of invoking Article 16 of the agreed treaty between the EU and the UK was both crass and incompetent. The likely reaction should have been obvious. Backtracking was inevitable.

One thing that we do know is that it’s in the interests of everyone to ensure that vaccines are distributed fairly, and the UK’s response in condemning ‘vaccine nationalism’ where countries or groups of countries attempt to grab supplies at the expense of others was the right one, and in line with the views of the WHO. It was also utterly inconsistent and dishonest, coming from a state which has already reserved over 300 million doses of the various vaccines for a population of 66 million. I know that we all need two each, but they’ve ordered enough to give us five each, whilst poorer countries are struggling to get any. And they’ve also been treating the vaccination programme as some sort of competition, repeatedly boasting that they’re doing better than the EU member states. It gets worse: whilst they condemn the EU for trying to prevent the export of vaccines to other countries, including the UK, they have quietly added around 100 medicines which are used to help treat Covid to a list of drugs of which export from the UK is prohibited. It seems that ‘vaccine nationalism’ is wrong for any country except the UK, for which it is not only permissible but normal, because, as we know (they tell us often enough) the UK is not-nationalist-at-all – only other countries suffer from nationalism.

Weighing in with her twopenn’orth yesterday came Liz Truss – she of the cheese fixation and head of the department which advises UK businesses to move out of the UK and into the EU if they want to survive – to say that, of course, the UK would be willing to help our European neighbours, just as long as it doesn’t impact on the UK vaccination programme. The vaccination programme is one of – maybe the only one of – the things that the UK government has manged to get more or less right so far. They have not (as they keep wrongly claiming) done better than anyone else; some countries have done better. And one of the ways in which they’ve done it is by agreeing to pay more for the vaccine than the price negotiated jointly by the EU on behalf of the member states, but weighing price against urgency in order to short-circuit the negotiation process is not an unreasonable judgement call to make. But, in fairness, we are seeing an effective and rapid roll-out of vaccines in the UK, and given the scale of the programme a few glitches are to be expected, even if they’re made to look worse by setting targets which aren’t always achievable.

There is a danger, though, that a reckless government is pinning too much on the vaccination programme in the UK without looking at the wider implications (nothing new there). We know that the virus can and will mutate, and the larger the population in which it is spreading, the more danger that that will happen. Vaccinating everyone in one country against current known strains is a selfish strategy, but it’s one that can work, with one important proviso: preventing new outbreaks of different strains in an otherwise protected population requires rigid border controls of the type which the UK government has consistently refused to implement. There’s an irony in the fact that people whose rationale for Brexit revolved in significant measure around ‘controlling borders’ are utterly unable to implement that control, even when faced with a deadly pandemic. Apparently, it’s only immigrants they want to keep out, not disease. For many of us, a narrowly nationalist strategy of vaccinating our own and leaving the rest of the world to sort its own problems is the wrong strategy to be following, but half-following it is likely to turn out to be the worst of all worlds in the long term if it ends up committing us to a rolling programme of revaccination as new strains are imported to the UK. Vaccine nationalism is dangerous, but vaccine not-nationalism-at-all-because-it’s-British is potentially even more so.


CapM said...

for my money I think -
the UK had a tight contract with Astrazenica
then the EU had a less tight contract with Astrazenica
Astrazenica signed the E.U one because it thought it had a good chance of wriggling out of it if it failed to supply.
The EU response after finding they were not going to get what they thought they would was panic in words (not a butcher's shop queue) and deeds (article 16)in orderto save the guilty(incompetent)in the Commission.

For those who aren't impressed with "not nationalism at all because it's British" and project Brexit Britain I think the vaccine procurement row is something that just has to be taken on the chin.

However it will be interesting what each of the three parties learns
I'm sure the EU will learn a lot.
Astrazenica gets confirmation of the importance of ambiguity in the wording of contracts.
At the moment the UK seems o be too busy congratulating itself and celebrating a "back of the net" moment.

With vaccine nationalism I doubt we'll see that much sharing of the vaccinations around the world by either EU or UK. And the self interest that linked with distributing vaccines will be promoted as aid generously provided.

John Dixon said...

Comment copied from another post - this is where I think it was intended to go:

Spirit of BME said...
I think you are too harsh on calling the EU action on Article 16 ‘crass and incompetent’ Brussels was in a middle of a crisis that would affect all 27 states and in ‘the fog of war’ they took the textbook action of defending the centre for the ‘greater good’, -sure your flanks will take a hit, but all governments do this kind of thing, for more details see the history of Wales under the current occupation.
Those that supported Brexit are milking this for all they can get, but this is not headline news in Serbia, Greece, Spain, and Italy, they would support any action that gets them more jabs through the EU system.
The EU is being portrayed as incompetent and slow, but the game is not over, as they clearly were more cautious on what they thought they were buying. On the other hand, The Boy Johnson took a punt and spent billions on an untested treatment which is still in its experimental stage and there is still debate on its effectiveness and what it will deliver.
So, Mrs Dr Von Der-Der Leyen 0 The Boy 1. but it is not half time in this game yet.

John Dixon said...


The comment about 'crass and incompetent' actually said "Politically,... EU’s ... suggestion of invoking Article 16 of the agreed treaty between the EU and the UK... was both crass and incompetent." It may have been justified in terms of the law, and even of the rights of the various parties to the dispute - but it was "politically" a huge and stupid mistakee, the respnse to which should have been obvious.