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How to avoid a coronavirus vaccine war

The UK should be prepared to forego its claim to some vaccines to cool the dispute

The UK should be prepared to forego its claim to some vaccines to cool the dispute, says Bronwen Maddox. Vaccination has exposed European Union weaknesses but the two sides depend on each other and the UK will need the bloc’s support in the future

The UK and EU have each stepped back from the brink in what could have been a full-blown trade war over vaccines. The EU, led by country leaders not the Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, has stopped short of blocking of exports of vaccines to countries which might have included the UK. In turn, the UK has held back from threatening tit-for-tat reprisals in which it might have held back products needed for the manufacture of vaccines within the EU.

They are both right to tone down the language – and actions. The whole row has emphasised how intertwined supply chains are and how much each needs the other. The UK can be proud of its agility in buying vaccines and getting people vaccinated but it will need the EU’s help to secure future supplies of vaccines and other essential equipment in the months and years to come. This stage of the crisis has exposed the EU’s weaknesses in planning and in reaching internal agreement, as well as a nationalism by some leaders which may well have undermined confidence in vaccines across the world. But companies within EU countries have exported much of the supply for the UK and other countries, and the European Medicines Agency has been a calming and impartial voice, one of the institutions of the EU that has worked well in the crisis. 

Feelings about Brexit on each side have only added to the tension, but the huge and continuing complexities of new arrangements are just one more reason why both sides should play it cool.

UK triumph, just short of triumphalism

Boris Johnson’s government is understandably proud of its achievements on the procurement of vaccines and then the rollout to the adult population. As Kate Bingham, head of the vaccine taskforce, told Parliament “we have been nimble”. The prime minister is surely hoping that this performance will offset in voters’ minds the mistakes which have led to such a high death rate – and so much of it in the second wave. Polls showing that his government currently enjoys a 13-point lead over Labour suggest that he has grounds for hope, at least for now.

Ministers have by and large held back from triumphalism. They have had little need; the UK’s performance in vaccination has been noticed around the world. But as some of them quietly acknowledge, there are many fronts – just in the coronavirus emergency - on which the UK needs EU support. There is not just the obvious point that some of the vaccines the UK is now using are partially made in the EU. The scramble for PPE equipment – in which the UK fared badly – is another reminder of how the UK might want to work together. Nor does the UK have a research base in mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer-BioNtech one; they are likely to be at the core of some of the most important innovations that come out of the pandemic. There is good reason for the UK to look at ways it can share out its surplus vaccines at some point.

EU pique has led to confusion over the vaccine rollout

The crisis has exposed some of the weaknesses of the EU. It was slow in purchasing vaccines, focussing on the terms of contracts, such as which party would pay if the vaccines proved ineffective. It has struggled to agree a distribution internally of those supplies. Some leaders – under added pressure from the UK example – have resorted to wild statements. France is at the head of that list, firing out contradictory statements about the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, many incorrect, at first banning it for use in the over 65s and now for those under 55. President Macron and his ministers have denigrated the vaccine’s strengths while being among the loudest voices calling for the EU to blockade supplies. The confusion has undermined the rollout of vaccines not just in the EU but possibly the world, given that Oxford AstraZeneca is the vaccine on which many poorer countries will depend.

All the same, many EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, have argued for a cooler approach. In the quiet talks with the UK in the past week, that has paid off.

No formula frees the UK and EU of their mutual dependence

Every degree of coolness will be valuable as the two sides continue to sort out the aftermath of Brexit. Coronavirus may have knocked it off the front pages but the struggles many businesses are finding to conduct what had been normal business are immense. The same goes for Brits resident in EU countries, and for those needing to travel there.

The subject is hardly going to be free of nationalism, on either side. The Johnson government wants to be able to claim that Brexit has been a success – whatever the real disruption. The EU does not want the UK’s vaccine success to be a sign of what the post-Brexit UK can do. It has clearly, as the lack of agreement over the “equivalence” of UK financial services shows, set out to grab what business it can from the UK.

Jostling for advantage is to be expected. But there is no formula that will free the UK and EU of their mutual dependence. Keeping the heat down and unpicking the disputes one by one is the safest course for now.

Supply chains
Country (international)
European Union
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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