In recent months, the roll-out of the vaccines against the coronavirus has increasingly turned into a blame game. Critics have been quick in assigning responsibility for a “sluggish” vaccine roll-out to the European Union, while in contrast, the United Kingdom has often been portrayed as the vaccine “poster child”.
While the statistics on the vaccine roll-out seem to prove this point (14,7% uptake of the first dose in the EU and 57% in the UK), the reality is much more complex than the data might suggest.
To paint a more nuanced picture, we uncover some of the underlying institutional and political complexities that can help to understand why the EU can best be described as a “supertanker”, and the UK as a speedboat, when it comes to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the roll-out of vaccines.
An unlucky start?
At the onset of the pandemic, many headlines depicted the EU’s response to the outbreak of the pandemic as uncoordinated, bumpy, and even chaotic. However, when unfolding the EU’s complex institutional structures, it becomes evident that it is the EU’s very nature that has prevented the bloc from speaking with a single voice on health-related matters like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Often described as a sui generis actor, the EU’s “single” voice echoes that of 27 different, and sometimes conflicting, national interests. This is particularly evident in the health sector, where the competencies for coordinating and delivering health-related responses rest within the EU’s Member States. As the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission’s role is restricted to providing support to the Member States when it comes to public health. The opaqueness of this EU’s setup can explain while many were quick to blame the EU for incompetence. In reality, 27 different national priorities and bureaucratic apparatuses have followed the rules, although this has led to distorted images of Germany stockpiling on personal protective equipment (PPE), while in Italy, PPE was scarce.
Later in 2020, it was again the EU’s multi-layered nature and, with it, different national interests, that help to understand why the bloc has experienced more troubles in securing vaccine doses than the UK.
Although the European Commission clarified from early on that the purchase of vaccine doses would be a joint European endeavour, in Spring 2020, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and Italy decided to go solo and started negotiations with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. On 13th June, the group, which called itself the “Inclusive Vaccine Alliance”, announced a deal for 300-400 million doses of AstraZeneca.
While the Health Ministers of the alliance defended the agreement as a solution to accelerate the supply of the vaccine across the EU, the de facto solo ride of four of the EU’s five wealthiest Member States evoked incomprehension in some other countries and undermined trust in the Commission’s approach. Not only the Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block called the alliance “unreasonable”, the purchase agreement of nearly 400 million doses from a single supplier was also understood as conflicting with the European Commission’s pledge to diversify supply.
Better safe than sorry?
On the other side of the Channel, the UK exemplified its “speedboat character” when granting emergency authorisation to the AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine as early as 30th December 2020.
Meanwhile, the European Commission decided to play it safe on vaccine costs and liability arrangements, which slowed down negotiations with drug makers. While the UK agreed to bear the liability in case claims are made against the pharmaceutical firms involved, the Commission invested a lot of time in tough negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to achieve their agreements to cover the legal responsibility in case something went wrong with the jabs. The Commission, operating on a tight budget, also sought to keep the costs for the jabs down and allegedly even declined a 500 million doses offer by Pfizer and BioNTech because it was too expensive. Meanwhile, the UK did not pay as much attention to the price tag, which allowed it to ramp up the production must faster.
While the UK was already administering vaccines due to emergency authorisations, the Commission decided to authorise the vaccines through the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Although this decision was well-intended (Europe is home to a high vaccination scepticism, and the EU was hoping that a robust authorisation process would establish trust in the jab), it slowed down the vaccine rollout further. As Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted: “We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production”.
Lastly, contractual difficulties have reinforced the EU’s image as a vaccine “supertanker”. While the bloc has been criticised for its alleged inability to negotiate tight contracts with drug makers, the reasons that have caused vaccinations to be temporarily put on hold in countries like France and Spain go back to the beginning of the supply chain: all major drug makers encountered internal supply-chain obstacles, which have led to a shortage of supply.
To complicate matters further, the vaccine-producing countries in the EU have exported about a third of their production globally, with the largest recipient (8.1 million doses) being the UK. In contrast, the UK government has negotiated contracts that ensure that its domestic population is served first. While these contractual agreements are no export bans, as European Council President Charles Michel wrongly claimed, there might be a spark of truth in the argument that vaccine nationalism allowed the UK to get in the vaccination pole position.
The way forward
Now that the vaccines cautiously allow Europe to spot a light at the end of the tunnel, it is crucial that all actors involved in the coordination and delivery of the pandemic response on both sides of the Channel start assessing which lessons can be learnt from the experiences of the past year or so.
On the continent, proposals such as for an agency to coordinate EU-level preparations for future pandemics already show that the EU is committed to learn from its experiences. If this will help to rectify the EU’s image as a “supertanker”, or if a review of the division of competences between the EU and its Member States will be necessary, remains to be seen…
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at email@example.com.
More about Whitehouse’s work in the health industry can be found here.