With the Government under enormous pressure to accelerate its vaccine programme, it’s easy to believe that the UK is unique in the difficulties it faces in upscaling quickly.
But across Europe, and indeed the world, many others are facing similar operational challenges, from delays in manufacturing, to questions over where to issue vaccines, to whether people will have a jab in the first place.
One country that has had particular difficulties is France, which delivered just 516 vaccines in the first week of their availability, and only 7,000 by late Tuesday (since the started on December 27). Emmanuel Macron has apparently likened the pace of the vaccine roll out to a “family stroll”, “not worthy of the moment or the French”.
So what’s the hold up? The consensus seems to be that bureaucratic barriers have stopped France from progressing more quickly, starting when the government issued 45 pages of guidance for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.
Procedures at nursing homes, in particular, have been criticised for taking too long, as they often involve managers having to obtain consent from residents’ personal doctors, who have to sign off the vaccine at least five days before it’s given. France’s health minister has promised to speed up these processes, as well as saying that 500 to 600 vaccination centres will be set up by the end of January.
Even if France is able to overcome these bureaucratic challenges, it’s worth pointing out that it could face more of a challenge with anti-vaxxers. A poll by Ipsos Global Advisor, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, shows that only 40 per cent of French people want the vaccine, compared to 77 per cent in Britain, so the Government will have its work cut out trying to get them on board.
One of the ways France plans to do this is via an online platform, which will allow people to register for their jab. No doubt ministers hope this will cut out some of the red tape, as well as countering some of the scepticism.
Another country that is fighting hard to speed up vaccine roll out is Germany, albeit it has moved much faster than France, with 239,000 people receiving a vaccine starting on December 27. Its government has been accused of not obtaining enough vaccines, and of being too slow at moving forward with the inoculation campaign.
Angela Merkel has been attacked in particular for not having the right strategy in place. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats finance minister, presented her with a four-page list of questions about her handling of vaccine management, in what was described as “more like a committee of inquiry”. According to one newspaper, Merkel blocked an initiative by German, Italian, French and Dutch ministers to order more vaccines. After her intervention, they agreed to drop their plan and hand over control to the European Commission.
There are signs that Germany will speed up its vaccine process; it expects to receive over 5.3 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by mid-February according to its health minister, and BioNTech is also said to soon open a production site in Marburg.
It is also reported to be considering the strategy now being used by the UK, which involves administering as many doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech shot as possible, with second doses planned for 11 or 12 weeks’ time, rather than the originally planned three week window.
Given Germany’s previous successful handling of Coronavirus testing, it could be the case that it moves forward very quickly vaccines – but much of its issues have been attributed to the EU’s vaccination strategy. Even Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s co-founder and Chief Medical Officer, has criticised its strategy, telling one magazine the EU had assumed there would be “a basket of different suppliers… But then at some point it became clear that many would be unable to deliver so quickly” and by “that time it was too late to make up for under-ordering.”
To add to tensions in the EU, Karl Lauterbach from the Social Democratic Party recently accused the French government from preventing it from buying more Pfizer-BioNTech jabs, so that French competitor Sanofi would have an advantage, whose vaccine is still in development.
The French Deputy Minister for European Affairs has called the accusations “unacceptable and false”, adding that Europe “played as a team”. But clearly the vaccine procurement programme has raised questions over that idea.