Emily Carver: The EU’s botched vaccine rollout showed the limits of the precautionary principle. Global Britain, take note.

29 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Light a bonfire of Brussels red tape! Brexit, we were told, would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to slash regulation, relieve small businesses of burdensome bureaucracy, and get our economy firing on all cylinders. The ability to innovate would be at the heart of this.

Theresa May spoke of her desire for Global Britain to be “a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead”.

Last summer, Boris Johnson said in his characteristically upbeat tone that “we have the knack of innovation”. Indeed, we do. Centuries of ingenious inventions, from the telephone to the steam engine, have doubtless transformed the world for the better.

Now that we’ve left the EU, and the worst of the pandemic is over, reinvigorating Britain’s position as global leader in innovation has risen up the political agenda, with the Government consulting on how we can reform our regulatory framework and adopt a tailored approach that best suits Britain’s needs.

It’s well known that the EU tends to err on the side of caution – indeed it was one of the main frustrations free marketeers had with being a part of the bloc. The hard to define, and even harder to interpret, precautionary principle is pervasive and often misapplied, stifling new ideas and damaging competitiveness, as well as holding back economic progress.

We’ve seen first-hand over the past year how cumbersome this regulation can be in practice. While Britain ramped up its vaccine rollout, most EU countries paused Oxford AstraZeneca jabs, following only a few dozen reports of a rare blood clot disorder.

Thousands of people were dying across Europe every day, a third wave was on the horizon, yet the principle of precaution prevailed, and the vaccination was stalled, potentially leading to the death of many, many more people than this level of risk aversion could possibly have saved.

In agriculture, the overzealous application of the precautionary principle has held the EU back from what could potentially be historical and ground-breaking innovations. Take the EU’s ban on hormone-fed beef, which Britain fiercely resisted at the time.

Or perhaps restrictions on GM foods intended to avoid unknown potential harms for which there is little evidence – restrictions that may have prevented improvements in agricultural productivity that could do more to alleviate poverty in developing countries than any government-backed aid programme.

We must now ensure that we don’t continue with this excessively cautious approach; to do so, would be to squander the opportunity. This principle already applies in numerous instances concerning environment and climate policy and informally pervades regulatory and legislative decision-making in a far wider range of fields than many assume.

However, as it stands the EU’s precautionary principle will become legally binding in UK law, but without the protections for innovation (however inadequate) from the EU legal system.

Understandably, there have been calls to scrap the precautionary principle altogether from the new Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR), chaired by Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

An ambitious idea, but removing the principle as a legal commitment altogether may prove too politically difficult in the short term; besides, the UK has already legislated in the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act to apply the precautionary principle in matters relating to environment and climate policy.

Instead, as a new paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs argues, the Government could take clear steps to improve the regulatory process and foster innovation in the UK. We could do this by implementing a binding innovation principle to apply alongside, and give balance to, the precautionary principle.

We could invest in training and resources for ministers and officials to use the existing regulatory framework (in particular, impact assessments) more effectively, and perhaps we could consolidate innovation considerations into a toolkit that ensure official give due weight to innovation.

None of this means throwing all caution to the wind, nor should a British Innovation Principle be used to favour one sector or technology over another. The object should simply be to avoid unnecessarily restricting innovations that could lead to better and more efficient products and services.

As we look beyond the pandemic, and assess the damage it and lockdowns have done to our economy, improving the competitiveness and productivity of our economy will be essential. A British Innovation Principle may be one way to, as the Prime Minister put it, “release the talent, creativity and chutzpah that exists in every corner of the United Kingdom”.

George Freeman: This new report shows how we can build on Britain’s vaccine success to make the best of Brexit

16 Jun

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

Nothing better illustrates the advantages of being outside the EU than the UK’s vaccine success. Our leadership in genomics, vaccine research and development, accelerated access trials and our ability to procure at speed has allowed the UK to lead the world in the battle against the pandemic. This has been a London 2012 moment for UK Life Science.

But it could have been very different. In 2010, the UK Life Science sector was in a decline: Pfizer closed its UK R+D HQ, Astra Zeneca announced it was closing its UK R+D HQ to move to Massachusetts, and other companies were reducing their UK presence.

The UK was falling behind as a global destination of choice. The combination of slower and more expensive clinical trials, slow NHS procurement, lack of leadership in genomics and clinical informatics (data on how new drugs work in patients) set alarm bells ringing.

The new Government responded. Having just been elected after a career in the biomedical research sector, I was lucky enough to be appointed Government Life Science Adviser to lead the UK Life Science Strategy.

We appointed Sir John Bell, launched a ground-breaking ten-year strategic commitment to lead in the genomics and clinical informatics so key to modern research. We unveiled Genomics England, NHS Digital and MHRA parallel approvals. I also launched the Biomedical Catalyst, Accelerated Access Reform to NHS procurement, the Early Access to Innovative Medicines Scheme and the UK Life Science Investment Office. We worked with AZ to persuade them to move to Cambridge UK, not Cambridge Massachusetts.

Over the next five years we pulled in over £5 billion of inward investment. It’s a model of what we can do in other sectors.

Boris Johnson gets this. That’s why I was delighted to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to help lead the new Taskforce for Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers. We came from opposite sides of the Brexit debate – two of us having supported Leave and one Remain – but with a shared determination to make this a moment of profound renewal. The urgency of the post-Covid recovery makes this more essential than ever. Our TIGRR report published today shows how the UK can deliver on the promises of Brexit without abandoning our high standards.

We are living through an extraordinary period of technological change – not just in life science but in host of sectors: from AI to robotics to agri-tech, nutraceuticals, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, biofuels, satellites and fusion energy.

The UK is indeed a ‘science superpower’. But we have traditionally been woeful at commercialising here in the UK. There are many reasons. But, in recent years, the EU’s increasingly slow, bureaucratic and ‘precautionary’ approach – copied in Whitehall – has made the EU and the UK an increasingly poor place to commercialise new technology.

In 2013 BASF, one of the giants of German industry, moved its crop science division to the USA because of EU regulations preventing agricultural genomics which are the key to reducing chemical farming by promoting naturally occurring disease resistant traits. That’s why I wrote the Fresh Start Report in 2014 urging the EU to reform to avoid regulating the UK into the slow lane of global bioscience. And why, as UK Minister for the sector, I pushed for reform and warned the EU that they risked the UK leaving if they didn’t reform. They didn’t. We did.

For years the Brexo-sceptics have cynically sneered that there is no Brexit dividend. There is.

We need urgently to usher in a new era of ‘smart’ regulation. That means ensuring that Britain is once again a global leader not just in science but in commercialisation of innovation. We can do that by harnessing the City to make the UK a global innovation financing capital of the world, and through our trade and aid policies to boost global exports and technology transfer. Now those decisions are back in our hands. Our critics assert that the only regulatory dividend is in abolishing workers’ rights and environmental standards in a ‘race to the bottom’. They are profoundly wrong.

Of course, there are some daft regulations we can get rid of like the EU ban on the blight-resistant potato. In fact, the blight-resistant potato reduces the need for around 14 applications of toxic (and highly carbon intensive) fungicide and could help avoid famine and starvation. We can also do without the lobbyists dominating Brussels corridors for big corporates and promoting regulations which exclude new entrants.

Successive governments have announced ‘bonfires of red tape’. But no one would want a vaccine that hadn’t been tested properly. Or food with E. coli. Or dangerous workplaces with high rates of injury.

The key to smart regulation is to play to our strengths. We must embrace global leadership in smart, agile regulation in the highest growing sectors of tomorrow. Around the world, the UK is still highly trusted as a regulator of choice. We have a chance to build on that.

The TIGGR report published today sets out three big recommendations for post-Brexit regulation.

First, a coherent strategic framework for UK regulatory leadership in an innovation age.

Second, ten high-growth sectors we could unlock NOW with the right regulatory structure and where we must focus our efforts for post-Covid Recovery.

Third, a strong commitment to delivery and proper accountability to Parliament. Taking back control means WE set our regulations in a way that reflects UK values and UK public opinion.

Over the course of the last six months, we have held 75 industry roundtables. The result is a serious plan that ensures we become a pioneer of smart, innovative regulation. Not by abandoning our standards but by improving them. The TIGRR report today shows how it can be done.

David Gauke: Free trade on vaccines. The EU may have made threats, but it is the US that has actually blocked exports.

24 Apr

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

One of the extraordinary attributes of the short-lived European Super League was that for almost everyone, there was something to hate. If you worry that the system is rigged in favour of the rich, driven by greed and the interests of the common man are ignored, this was a proposal to drive you to the barricades. If you are a believer in the importance of competition, openness and the need for creative destruction, this looked like a protectionist cartel. Socialists saw it as the unacceptable face of capitalism, capitalists saw it as feudal. Brexiteers argued that demonstrated an unaccountable elite conspiring against the national leagues; Remainers saw it as an attempt to “take back control” without thinking through all the consequences.

Like everyone else, I strongly disliked the plan and was relieved when it failed. Business might like certainty and predictability but sport thrives on the opposite. An attempt to insulate sporting teams from the consequences of failure undermines the excitement necessary to engage fans. Imagine life as an Arsenal or Tottenham supporter – there would never be much to play for.

And for those of us who support clubs outside the Big 6, the plan would have taken away all hope of ever making it to the top. I was very fortunate to grow up living the dream as an Ipswich supporter in the Bobby Robson years as a small town club regularly competed for the League Championship and won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup (I can happily recite the teams for both triumphs and, at a push, Alf Ramsey’s Championship winning team from ten years before my birth). That was an era when there was greater mobility in football but Leicester City’s triumph of 2015/6 shows that even recently dreams can come true.

The motivation behind the ESL seemed to be to replicate the models used for US sports with a secure franchise that provides financial security to the owners. It is also the case that within the US model there is an egalitarian draft system, as well as salary caps and redistribution of profits among the teams. To some extent, it looks more like a medieval guild – once in, you are heavily protected but you have to be on the inside.

I cannot say it appeals as a system much to me but – to the extent that it works – I suspect it only works because it applies to sports that are not played at a serious level outside of the US, so there is no international competition. Try setting up a system that so favours the owners with football by establishing a salary cap and the star players will end up going elsewhere. For all these reasons, I think the proposals were ill-considered.

The Government, of course, weighed in, made a number of threats and announced a review by the well-regarded Tracey Crouch. Establishing a review into the governance of the game seems entirely reasonable in the circumstances, although striking a balance between giving the fans a greater say and still ensuring that the Premier League clubs have deep enough pockets to attract the best players and build or maintain the best stadia may not be straightforward. We shouldn’t allow nostalgia to convince us that the past was better than the present (other than for Ipswich Town fans, obviously).

This was all good politics in demonstrating that the Government was on the side of the people. (I also think Boris Johnson making it clear that he is not a football fan was rather astute; football fans would rather politicians were honest about not being a fan rather than insincerely professing a love for a team).

Even so, I am uneasy about threats to impose a windfall tax or refuse to grant visas to the breakaway clubs. “You might not be breaking any laws, but do as we say or we will confiscate your assets” may have been a bluff, but even unpopular businesses are entitled to expect their property rights should not be threatened by the use of the tax system in a draconian or arbitrary way.

– – – – – – – – – –

I wrote here four weeks’ ago about how the criticisms of the UK Government’s approach as being “vaccine nationalism” was unmerited, threats to block EU vaccine exports were indefensible and that it wasn’t the UK’s fault that the EU had got its procurement wrong.

Some pro-EU commentators argue that neither the UK nor the US have exported much by way of vaccines, therefore both are guilty of vaccine nationalism, whereas the EU has exported lots. This is true but I still think it is missing the point.

What is the system that is most likely to produce the greatest number of vaccines? I would argue it is a system whereby if countries invest in developing vaccines, they are likely to see the benefits of that investment and that complex and cross-border supply chains can operate in confidence that such activity will not be impeded. In other words, a system that respects property rights will produce more vaccines.

I stand by my criticisms of the EU, but there are a couple of points to add. First, in recent weeks the EU is now making much better progress in getting jabs into arms – the largest EU countries have vaccination rates similar to ours during February and March. We are ahead of them but only by a few weeks.

Second, when it comes to getting in the way of free trade on vaccines, the European Commission may have made threats, but it is the US that has actually blocked exports and is sitting on millions of doses of AZ that it looks unlikely to use.

Had President Trump been re-elected, we would be hearing much more about it. President Biden should allow AZ to export the US produced doses to those who bought them. As for those doses bought by the US Government, if the US is not going to use them, send them to India.

– – – – – – – – – –

So the Government has abandoned plans to implement Johnny Mercer’s proposals to prevent enquiries into war crimes in Northern Ireland allegedly committed by army veterans.

The incident reminded me of my time in Government when the issue was causing a great deal of disquiet. At PMQs, Theresa May regularly faced a torrid time from Conservative backbenchers. Iain Duncan Smith implied that she was “abandoning veterans” and an irate Mark Francois quoted a Chelsea Pensioner who said that the Government was “pandering to Sinn Féin/IRA, while throwing veterans like me to the wolves”.

No one in Government wanted to see army veterans hauled through the courts but the subject was, to put it mildly, complex and the then Prime Minister didn’t want to promise something undeliverable. After all, there are issues with putting anyone above the law for committing torture as well as potentially risking the whole Northern Ireland settlement.

Two years later, the Government ends up in a similar position to that of May and accepts that a comprehensive carve-out for Northern Ireland veterans as sought by Mercer is undeliverable. He resigns but as yet there seems to be little outrage from others who demanded comprehensive protections for veterans from one Prime Minister and who then believed they were promised such protections.

We interrupt our usual morning editorial to make a public service announcement

8 Apr

We break from our usual Fleet Street-length morning ToryDiary to make a public service announcement.

Nineteen people have died in the UK after receiving the AstraZeneca anti-Covid vaccine, although it isn’t clear what the cause of death was in all these cases.

Fourteen of these 19 cases had a specific type of blood clot that prevents blood from draining from the brain.

According to the Medical Health and Regulatory Agency, this is equivalent to around four people in a million getting such a clot – so, if one scales down, one in 250,000.

The British Medical Journal’s risk explainer says that you’re just as likely to die in your home, if you take the vaccine for the first time, as a consequence of it being struck by a crashing airplane.

As for taking it a second time, there have been no reports of the type of blood clots in question after those who’d had a first dose of the vaccine received another.

The next few weeks will be a test of a) the responsibility of media reporting and b) the common sense of the British public.

(Hat-tip: Politico’s London Playbook.)

James Frayne: Four lessons for industry and government from monstering of AstraZeneca

30 Mar

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In Andrew Roberts’ great biography of Winston Churchill, he tells an unflattering story of how Churchill unfairly criticised the behaviour of Shell Oil when he was First Sea Lord, before the First World War.

As Roberts tells it, Churchill had made the sound decision to shift the Royal Navy onto oil and away from coal; this would make British ships faster and more efficient. Doing so, however, required vast amounts of oil, which the Royal Navy secured via a huge deal with Shell.

In announcing the deal to Parliament, Churchill said it was a great deal other than the cost – which he implied had been too high and therefore that Shell had ripped off the taxpayer. The Chairman of Shell asked Churchill to make the details of the arrangement public, but Churchill refused.

In 1966, it was finally revealed that Shell made almost no money from the arrangement and had even offered to put a Royal Navy commander on the board of the company. In hindsight, it was an extraordinary attack on a company that had offered the British Government help.

Fast forward a hundred years and here we are with another part-British company – Astra Zeneca – being smashed apart by politicians for doing something more altruistic than Shell did – providing vast numbers of injections to Covid-hit countries across the world at cost. Politicians and officials in the US and Europe have lined up to criticise the company’s methodology and the drug’s safety whilst also effectively (and wrongly) accusing it of unethical behaviour in the form of stockpiling, failing to meet contractual arrangements, and so on.

The British Government hasn’t been the one attacking AZ this time, but nonetheless, as with Shell, politicians are attacking a company that has been doing the right thing. (Disclosure: Public First does occasional work for the University of Oxford, but has not worked on the vaccine project, nor have we ever worked with AZ ). Little wonder AZ are publicly musing whether they made a mistake in offering all this at cost.

What have we learned from the AZ affair? Four big lessons stand out.

1. There are massive risks of working with any Government – and this Government in particular

Any business that works with Government puts itself in the firing line: more people hear about them; the media takes a closer interest; opponents of the Government start criticising them. Businesses that work with Governments aren’t choosing to work with apolitical “states” and masses of neutral civil servants, but with political entities who have political supporters and political opponents – and this Government has more than its fair share of opponents.

As I’ve written before, much of the British media likes to think of most European countries being led by entirely rational, reasonable, great statesmen and women – driven only by vision and altruism and utterly uninterested in politics. But just as Leo Varadkar’s hostility to Britain during Brexit negotiations was in part driven by an electoral need to attract “soft” Sinn Fein voters, so Macron’s hostility to AZ is partly driven by embarrassment at French and general European failure to get their act together on vaccination, while Britain steamed ahead.

What was Macron – who faces his own election again soon – going to say? “Sorry everyone, I have personally messed up and Britain, who I always criticised, has made impeccable decisions”? Clearly not: there were obvious short-term political reasons why AZ would come under fire. You choose to work with Government, you pay a price.

2) British companies might face particular vulnerability in this new world

The fact AZ is part-British caused the company big political problems. While the idea of actual anti-British hostility is way overdone, the reality of Brexit made the failure of the European vaccination programme more problematic politically for some European leaders. In other words, it’s just hard luck on AZ that the political stars were lined up against them; there was little they could do.

But this is unlikely to be a one-off; while Covid raised the stakes, it’s nonetheless reasonable to assume that British companies are going to become more vulnerable politically and commercially in the coming years. Has Britain been in the EU, other European leaders would not have trashed it; outside the EU, it’s a different story. Our closest ally – the United States – is eye-wateringly aggressive in promoting and protecting its leading businesses (like Boeing); the EU is equally combative.

Outside the EU, for all the benefits that brings, there’s no question our businesses will lack the same protection that membership of a bigger block will bring.

3) The British Government will have to become more assertive on behalf of British companies

While there’s a limit to what the British Government can do to promote and protect British firms, it is going to have to start becoming much more assertive. At the moment, the Government helps to promote British trade by, for example, making introductions to foreign companies and foreign states; it also promotes Britain as a destination to invest in. This is all useful and the marketing teams at the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade have done a decent job over the last decade.

But the Government isn’t set up to engage in PR combat on behalf of British firms; in other words, to help defend firms in the media (and indeed on social media). While the Government can plan neat marketing campaigns to invest in Global Britain, they’re just not geared up to, say, engage in close combat with the New York Times, which is an entirely different model of communications.

The Government needs to explore the creation of a team within BEIS, the DIT or the Cabinet Office to help British businesses out when they’re unfairly attacked. While it’s not for them to promote one firm over another or to act as a business’ press office, the reality is that only Governments can make the news and command attention at certain times.

What could AZ really do when attacked by the President of France? At best, have a paragraph of context dumped on the end of a story. There’s no reason why the British Government can’t or shouldn’t be more assertive in helping British companies in the media – at least amongst top-tier titles like the NYT.

4) ‘Purpose’ is overplayed as a concept in corporate communications

For those of you that work in and around public affairs and corporate communications, you’ll know the recent obsession with firms demonstrating so-called “purpose”; this is where firms project their values to the outside world to show their decency. It’s a good idea in principle, although, as I’ve bored those of you in public affairs to death with for a decade, demonstrating purpose has to reflect the realities of public opinion, not the opinion of a company’s own marketing team.

In many ways, AZ had the perfect model to show “purpose”; in the end, though, it wasn’t enough. This is because “purpose” soon becomes “politics”.

I have no special knowledge of AZ or what happened, so I make a broader point not directed at them: you can only engage in this sort of work if you are ready for political combat. Again, AZ aside, there are many, many firms that are dipping their toe into the most controversial policy issues without even basic thought or preparation about how such policy conversations might play out.

AZ’s experience should make all businesses preparing to engage in seemingly innocuous policy conversations – or ones where there seem only to be upsides – think again.

David Gauke: I’m a convinced Remainer – but believe nonetheless that the EU has mishandled its vaccine policy

27 Mar

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

At Thursday’s virtual European Council meeting, the EU stepped back from imposing a vaccine export ban. This is just as well.

At a time when all nations face the same enemy and seek to apply the same solution, the case for international co-operation is overwhelming. We all know that maximising the production and take-up of the vaccines is the way out of the Covid crisis, and we all know that using global supply chains should be the swiftest way of producing the vaccines we need. Talk of export bans makes this task harder.

For some on the Remain side of the Brexit debate, there is an instinctive desire to defend the EU and cast the UK as vaccine nationalists or selfish panic-buyers and AstraZeneca as contract-breakers, arbitrarily favouring one customer over another.

It is, however, an unconvincing case. In contrast, had the EU proceeded to block vaccine exports to the UK, its behaviour would have been indefensible.

If one believes in open markets, removing trade barriers, building up trust between trading partners and honouring contractual obligations, one should be prepared to be critical of EU behaviour contrary to those values, regardless of where one stood on the subject of Brexit. I am sure many Leave voters who share these values must, from time to time, hold similar views about some of the actions taken by the UK Government.

Some have defended the proposed export ban stating that others are doing it. It is not much of a defence, but it is true to say that the US – under both Presidents Trump and Biden – has used legislation to prevent vaccines manufactured in the US from being exported. The Indian Government has also stepped in to prevent the export of doses. On the charge of vaccine nationalism, the US and India are guilty and the EU, as yet, is innocent.

The charge that the UK has a de facto export ban is, however, nonsense. There is a clear distinction between an entity not being provided with vaccines because the export has been blocked by government action, and an entity not being provided with vaccines because it has no right to it because they have already been acquired by someone else.

Underlying the EU case is a confusion between the entity producing the vaccines and the country in which the vaccines are produced. Some EU leaders have argued that it is not right that a large proportion of ‘EU vaccines’ have been ‘exported by the EU’. As the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, pointed out earlier this week ‘these are not European Union vaccines… these are vaccines paid for by other countries that are manufactured in Europe.’

Is it right for the EU to characterise AZ as the villains of the piece for failing to fulfil its contractual obligations? When this row first blew up in January, the Commission argued that once the procurement contract was published, it would be clear that AZ was in breach.

The contract was published and it established no such thing. Without delving too far into the complexities of contract law, if AZ were failing to allocate vaccine doses to the EU in accordance with its contractual obligations, it would be open to the EU to seek legal remedy. Given that the EU is not doing this suggests that the Commission has little confidence in its legal position that AZ is in breach of its contractual obligations.

Did AZ agree better terms for the UK than for the EU? This may well be the case, and would be consistent with the Commission’s lack of confidence in its legal position. Does this mean that the UK engaged in sharp practice in the deal it got? No. First, competently negotiating a contract is no sin. Second, the UK – and the UK taxpayer – played an important role in developing the vaccine, first with Oxford University and then with AZ. This engagement enabled AZ to ramp up its production following an agreement signed in May 2020, months before the AZ/EU deal. This early ramping up of production, by the way, has probably helped not hindered the EU.

There is a comparison to be drawn with Germany and BionTech. Germany supported BionTech, which developed the vaccine that is being manufactured by Pfizer. In contrast to the UK and AZ, Germany did not nail down priority supply either for itself or for the EU.

As a consequence, many Pfizer doses are manufactured in a country that refuses to export to the EU or is exported from the EU to those who have placed an order. It would have been perfectly reasonable for Germany (or the EU) to say “we’re funding the research and development and agree to purchase the first X million doses”. But neither Germany nor the EU chose to do so. Again, that is not the UK’s fault.

The botched procurement by the EU is the route of many of the problems. The Commission was focused on the wrong issues in the circumstances, worried about the price and liability in the event of vaccines causing harm. Speed mattered and gambling large sums of money at an early stage was the right thing to do, as the UK demonstrated. The Commission, perhaps because it does not have its own tax base on which to call, was more hesitant.

Many a commentator has speculated that, had the UK still been part of the EU, we would now be stuck in the EU slow lane. However, it is inconceivable that a UK Government seized of the need to make rapid progress on this front would have surrendered control over the vaccine programme.

In all likelihood, an alliance of the UK and Germany would have ensured member states retained control, resulting in greater urgency in vaccine procurement. As members of the EU, we were a consistent voice of scepticism towards greater integration and, in this particular matter, our absence has been to the EU’s detriment.

Where does that leave us? The EU is well behind the UK in the vaccine rollout, it does not appear to have a legal remedy against AZ (presumably because AZ is fulfilling its ‘best endeavours’ contractual obligations) but the relationship between the EU and AZ remains toxic. The immediate threat of an export ban has dissipated but EU politicians are under immense political pressure. Until this pressure eases, the risk of a foolish intervention by the EU remains.

This incident also emphasises that our relationship with the EU matters. On this occasion, the European Commission has behaved very badly in the same way that I think the UK has behaved very badly over the Northern Ireland Protocol. But we must do more than just apportion blame. We have to make this relationship work because, if we do not, both sides have the capacity to do the other side a lot of harm. More often than not, the smaller party – in this case, the UK – will come off worse.

On both moral and legal grounds, the UK is in a strong position in the vaccine dispute. But the wise approach would be to reduce tensions. The national interest would be served by making some contribution to helping them out, even if the Commission doesn’t really deserve it.

Iain Dale: People will die as a result of the EU’s Covid games. But don’t expect the media to criticise Saint Macron.

19 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Another day, another attack from the EU on Britain and/or AstraZeneca (AZ).

It’s becoming a very unfortunate pattern. Once you can forgive, twice you can put down to coincidence. Three times and you start to wonder if there’s an agenda. And so on.

This started many weeks ago, when it became clear that the UK had forged ahead in its vaccine rollout, unlike the EU, whose bureaucracy and incompetence led to it being two to three months behind.

As this reality dawned, it seemed the only way it could cover its back was to accuse the UK of vaccine nationalism. President Macron of France even went so far as to cast doubt on the safety of the AZ vaccine with absolutely no proof whatsoever. The German newspaper Handelsblatt followed suit.

We should remember that Macron is president of a country where vaccine scepticism is already rife. It was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever heard come out of a so-called statesman’s mouth. If Trump had said it, Europe’s media would have been up in arms. Not so much with the sainted Macron.

A few weeks later Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, erroneously, and totally without any foundation, claimed that Britain had imposed an export ban on vaccines or vaccine contents. No such ban had been imposed and the European Commission was forced to admit it.

Ursula von der Leyen then proceeded to threaten an export ban to the UK, which again, had to be withdrawn. She did though approve a decision by the Italian government to ban the export of 250,000 vaccine jabs from AZ to Australia, on the basis that they were needed in the EU. Yet all we hear is that there are hundreds of thousands of AZ vaccines sitting in fridges and there is no shortage whatsoever.

And then 17 European countries – not all of them EU members – decided to suspend AZ vaccines on the basis that there were reports of people suffering blood clots after having had the vaccine. Almost immediately we found out that there had been 28 cases per million after 17 million doses had been administered.

Strangely, however, there was no ban on the Pfizer vaccine, given that it has had 22 cases. I wonder why that would be…

While it’s always right to be cautious and to analyse the “yellow cards” which all vaccines experience, the effect of this suspension of rollout has yet again undermined public confidence in the AZ vaccine. So why have these countries done it, given they must have known the consequence?

The head of the Italian medicines regulator has been highly critical of the decision and says it was done for “political reasons”. Scandalous.

There is another explanation. Big pharma companies have incredibly powerful lobbying operations, both in Brussels and in national capitals. The AZ vaccine is sold at cost, whereas all the other companies’ vaccines are far more expensive and are produced with varying, but large, profit margins. It’s in their interests to trash the AZ vaccine. It costs between £1 and £2 per dose, compared to the £13-£20 for the Pfizer offering. Others are a bit cheaper but way more than AZ. Follow the money.

As I write, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have both confirmed the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the damage is done. Even in this country there are reports of people with pre-booked appointments not showing up for their turn. It’s a stark thing to say, but the constant running down of the AZ vaccine by European leaders is having an effect here. People will die as a result.

And on Wednesday the hapless von der Leyen returned to the fray and went back on her promise of a few weeks ago and directly threatened the UK with an export ban. Again, scandalous. She appears not to understand Contract Law. Originally she accused AZ of going back on its contractual obligations. She raided their offices in Belgium. The truth was that the contract was watertight. If it hadn’t been, no doubt there would have been an immediate law suit emanating from the Berlaymont.

This sabre rattling is all about arse covering and skin saving. It’s a lame attempt to portray Britain as the bad cop. European people can see through this. They look at the successful rollout of the vaccine in Britain and compare it to the lamentable efforts of the EU, and they can see quite easily how it has happened.

The reaction of the British government to these outrageous threats from Brussels has been commendably muted. It’s more with sorrow rather than anger. But these are hostile acts, and it is a sign that we can expect more of the same. Britain totally holds the moral high ground here, and it will be interesting to see how this can be turned to our diplomatic advantage.

One thing is for sure: I have lost count of the number of people on social media who were devout Remainers, who now say they regret their Remain votes. I imagine there are plenty of people all over Europe who are now saying that the Brits knew what they were doing and their faith in the EU has been diminished as a result. Who knows what the long-term consequences of this will be for the EU.

– – – – – – – – –

Yesterday my book The Prime Ministers won the Parliamentary Book of the Year by a No Parliamentarian. I think anyone who has ever won an award can imagine how I felt when I heard the news. There’s no panel who chooses this ward in the usual Buggins Turn way, the awards are voted on by MPs and Peers themselves, which makes it even more special.

The book contains 55 essays on each of our 55 PMs, and it’s being announced today that my next book will be in a similar format and look at the 46 US Presidents. That will be followed up in 2023 by one on our Kings and Queens.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.

Macron and others played politics with AstraZeneca. The consequences for many EU citizens are fatal.

24 Feb

In January this year, many will remember Emmanuel Macron telling reporters, in no uncertain terms, what he thought about the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Today we think that it is quasi-ineffective for people over 65”, he said, hours before the European Medicines Agency recommended it for adults of all ages. “[T]he early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca”, the French president warned, as well as criticising Britain’s strategy of delaying the second dose of the vaccine to get the first one out quickly – in another act of incredible diplomacy.

Days earlier a German newspaper incorrectly claimed the AstraZeneca jab is only eight per cent effective in the over-65s. While the figure was quickly dismissed, several countries haven’t exactly inspired confidence in AstraZeneca’s efficacy. Germany advised that it should not be given to people aged 65 or above, citing “insufficient data”, and France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have also recommended it only for younger people.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission Chief, even went so far as to accuse the UK of compromising on “safety and efficacy” safeguards in delivering its vaccines. And Clément Beaune, France’s Europe Minister, warned “the British are in an extremely difficult health situation. They are taking many risks in this vaccination campaign.” You don’t have to be a Brexiteer to get the idea: British vaccines = bad. Even John Bell, a medical professor at Oxford University, accused Macron trying to reduce demand for vaccines to cover up the EU’s huge issues with procurement, culminating in its dangerous attempt to control vaccine exports across the Irish border.

So one wonders what the mood is in Brussels now that research has revealed just what a success the much-attacked AstraZeneca vaccine has been. A study in Scotland, where 1.14 million people were vaccinated between December 8 and February 15, showed that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines led to a “very substantial” drop in serious illness across all adult age groups.

Critically, researchers found that by the fourth week after receiving an initial dose of each vaccine, the risk of hospitalisation from Covid-19 reduced by up to 85 per cent (Pfizer) and 94 per cent (AstraZeneca), in a result that will please people who’ve had it – but raise serious questions about the language and policies of EU leaders.

Their actions have fuelled vaccine hesitancy. In Germany, for instance, people have failed to turn up to appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine. As of Friday, only 150,000 out of 1.5 million doses of the vaccine had been used – leaving the country with less than six per cent of its population immunised (compared to 26 per cent for Britain).

There are also reports of hospital workers in France and Belgium demanding that they be given the Pfizer jab instead of AstraZeneca (one nurse in a Flemish hospital even told a publication she would go on strike if offered the latter). Politicians have failed to convey the bigger picture; that everyone is lucky to be offered one vaccine with high efficacy rates (50 per cent protection would have been a good outcome), let alone that several have been developed.

As Ryan Bourne and Jethro Elsden have already written for ConservativeHome, the EU’s difficulties in procuring vaccines is dangerous enough in itself – Bourne estimates the UK has saved around nine thousand lives by choosing its own vaccination programme, and Elsden says the country has gained approximately £100 billion from doing this.

The fact that some EU leaders have added to this chaos by planting doubts about AstraZeneca’s vaccine makes the situation even more alarming. The vulnerable are less protected, and – on a global scale – if we do not get transmission of the virus down, it can mutate and mean that the current vaccines do not work.

Some leaders realise the seriousness of the problem. Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin, has warned that people could be sent to the back of the queue for vaccines if they refuse an AstraZeneca job. “I won’t allow tens of thousands of doses to lie around on our shelves while millions of people across the country are waiting to be immunised”, were his words, and Angela Merkel’s spokesman has pleaded with Germans to take the “safe and highly effective” jab.

It’s a start, but terrible that so much damage has already been done. Some might remember that in November 2020, MPs here debated whether social media companies should be doing more to remove anti-vaccine disinformation. Never could they have imagined it would be Macron spreading some of the most troublesome ideas.

Andrew RT Davies: Wales. Here’s how we can extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

24 Feb

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

One of the many unfortunate, if unintended, consequences of the Blair devo-revolution has been to undermine the Union’s sense of “permanence” – both from an ideological and an institutional perspective.

Designed to see off the nationalist threat, devolution has merely shifted the political narrative into an endless cycle of debates around further powers, with little correlation emerging between the performance of devolved governments and the level of support for independence.

It’s scarcely been more fashionable among constitutional experts (and BBC journalists) to view separatism as inevitable, but I certainly don’t share the view that it’s a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

The patriotic fightback has started and, as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, these are some of the steps I want to see us take to extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

Put ‘Project Fear’ on ice and champion the pride of Britain

As Unionists we can often be guilty of basing arguments in process or economics. All very valid, and all incredibly important, but we need to own the emotive, patriotic argument – remembering and learning the valuable lessons from the victorious Brexit campaign many of us were part of.

We need to put “Project Fear” on ice and champion the pride of Britain.

I’m a proud Welshman. Proud of a Wales that consistently punches above its weight on the sporting and cultural scene, and has been to the fore on the pandemic frontline in delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Wrexham-based firm, Wockhardt.

But I’m also a proud Brit. Incredibly proud of our world-leading armed forces, our pharmaceutical industry, our rule of law and our enviable creative industries.

It’s the very best of our country and a symbol of the greatest union the world has ever seen – socially, culturally and economically. Why would we want to undermine and banish that great unity for division and separation?

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and the British state can do more. Why don’t our great institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? That footprint can and should be easily corrected. Let’s do it.

And yes, where appropriate let’s champion the economic benefits too. In Wales, we’ve benefited enormously through the various support schemes delivered during the pandemic by the Government, which have saved hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs during the recent crisis, and are now saving thousands of lives with Britain’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

I’m a proud Welshman and proud Brit and make no apology for it, and that’s the turf I want to see us fight on. Let’s dictate the terms of engagement, and redouble our efforts to make the positive and patriotic case for Wales, Britain and the Union.

Minister of the Union and inter-governmental relations

There’s no greater champion of the UK than the Prime Minister, and he’s taken the duty head-on with responsibility as Minister for the Union, working alongside the three excellent secretaries of state.

One of the PM’s greatest strengths is on the campaign trail and while it was brilliant to welcome him to Wales last week, it’s a shame current restrictions prevent him from engaging more widely with the public on his agenda to level up all parts of the UK, which will be the cornerstone of securing the Union’s long-term future.

It’s been well briefed in the press that Lord Dunlop’s (as yet unpublished) report recommends the creation of a new cabinet position for the Union, and suggests that it should be elevated in line with the other great offices of state to help keep the UK intact.

Whether this is necessary is a call for the PM, and the PM alone, but one area I have long felt needs attention is inter-governmental relations within the UK.

It’s my personal view the Joint Ministerial Committee requires urgent reform/reprioritisation to improve collaboration and decision-making, particularly with Brexit and the significance of UK-wide frameworks.

The devolved leaders are mischievous at the best of times and their aims are not always aligned to ours, particularly Holyrood’s EU-flag-waver-in-chief.

But an overhaul is required to shower them with attention and keep them in check, particularly when they pretend they have responsibility for areas they do not.

Unleash the opportunities of Brexit

While it may seem counter-intuitive, particularly given the strength of feeling in Scotland on the issue, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the benefits of our Union, and to shift the focus onto a positive discussion around the country itself.

The UK’s new found agility has allowed us to save lives thanks to a dynamic procurement strategy and rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccinations, in comparison to the European Union’s overly bureaucratic and beleaguered jabs programme. Team GB at its best!

But there are other tangible benefits to Brexit, with the automatic repatriation of a vast array of new powers to these shores, including the devolved nations.

We need to ensure the new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) delivers for our poorest communities – levelling up our country – and reaching people who were for so long ignored.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Conservative government to transform all four corners of our country, and a game-changing regeneration scheme would be a powerful cocktail to the politics of division, separation and hate.

Devolution should never have been about power-fanatics in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont – it’s about local communities

The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay with people in north Wales feeling as disconnected with the Senedd as they ever did with the EU.

Devolution was meant to bring power and decision-making closer to communities, and it’s not too late to ensure that’s the case, albeit the UK government will have to be the driving force.

It’s important UK government spending is effectively targeted and given the PM’s ambition for large-scale projects, I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth.

Where devolved government fails, let’s help local authorities and the communities they serve.

No more referendums, no new constitutional chaos, but a sole focus on recovery

People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating Coronavirus and the other challenges we face.

And whatever happens post-May, the UK government should stay strong. The Scottish referendum of 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote, one which the separatists lost. End of.

The energy and resources of governments at Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont should be focused on our post-pandemic recovery. Anything else would be unforgivable.

And as we emerge from this crisis, Conservative energies must be focused on improving everyday lives and rebuilding our economy, which will be the best antidote to the constitutional fanatics.

So let’s back Wales, back Britain and get on with the patriotic job of building back our country better than ever.