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.

Iain Dale: Ofcom was right to revoke the license of CGTN. It shouldn’t stop there, though.

5 Feb

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

Keir Starmer hasn’t had a good week.

He had to apologise for saying at PMQs that he had never argued we should remain within the orbit of the European Medicines Agency.

Footage then emerged of him saying he would like to abolish the monarchy.

Then The Guardian got hold of a leaked strategy report which suggested Labour should wrap itself in the Union flag, Starmer should get off the fence and the party’s spokespeople should dress more smartly.

And then Wednesday was rounded off with an opinion poll showing a Tory lead of seven points.

Oh, and I forgot Stephen Bush’s excoriating article for The New Statesman in which he courageously reckoned that there are plenty of people doubting if the Labour leader was up to it.

I’ve written before that I thought Starmer had a very good first few months as Labour leader.

He inherited the job right at the beginning of the first lockdown, but made a good fist of leading his party out of the darkness of the Corbyn era.

He looked the part, supported the Government when necessary and put in some sharp Commons performances, especially at PMQs.

He assembled a team, which initially looked as if it could take the fight to the Government.

However, since Christmas he seems to have lost his way.

There are growing rumblings that he’s not “opposing” enough and appears too wishy-washy.

His reputation as “Captain Hindsight” has been placed firmly in the minds of the voter, and his front bench team appears unable to do anything except accuse the Government of doing “too little, too late” or remain in a state of “perma outrage”.

Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor is a good example of this.

A transparently nice woman, she seems unable to articulate a Labour vision of how Labour would handle things better except to say she’d spend more money than the Conservatives and do it quicker.

My For the Many podcast colleague Jacqui Smith maintains Dodds is doing a lot behind the scenes to develop policy.

Well, maybe that’s the case, but in terms of putting over the Labour case on the airwaves, both she and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet need to up their game.

I wonder if a reshuffle might be on the way, in which some of the missing big beasts of the Labour jungle might be brought in, like Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper.

– – – – – – – – –

Talking of the Conservatives’ seven-point lead…

I wonder how much of this is due to a “vaccine bounce”. People have very short memories.

Assuming the vaccine rollout continues to go well, it may well be that it’s this which sticks in the minds of voters rather than the handling of the PPE, care home and schools fiascos.

Johnson can but hope.

– – – – – – – – –

I write this a few minutes after learning that Ofcom has revoked the license of the Chinese broadcaster CGTN.

I’ve no idea why it took it so long.

Each time I have dipped into CGTN – and admittedly it’s only been on a few occasions – what I have noticed is that is a heady mix of perfectly well reported stories interspersed with utter propaganda, disguised as reputable journalism.

It has clearly modelled itself on RT, the Kremlin-funded channel.

CGTN even hired former Ofcom board member and head of Sky News Nick Pollard to make sure it stayed just within the boundaries of acceptability, but he eventually saw the light and resigned over its coverage of the Hong Kong protests last year.

Quite how any British journalist had the front to take jobs with CGTN (or RT for that matter) is obviously something they will have to answer for in any future job interviews.

Were I ever in a position to be hiring anyone, I would just throw their CVs in the bin. I hope GB News and the new News UK station will bear this in mind, given that they’re both hiring presenters and producers at the moment.

Ofcom should not stop with CGTN, though. Quite how they have allowed RT to continue broadcasting its propaganda on the Sky platform is anyone’s guess. I hope they’re next to feel the iron fist of the Ofcom banning unit.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson the statesman is working for open borders by sea and land

3 Feb

“Be the Unionist we need you to be,” Ian Paisley (DUP, Antrim North) exhorted the Prime Minister via video link.

Paisley lamented that “the Protocol has betrayed us and made us feel like foreigners in our own country”.

He added that “tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard” and asked the Prime Minister: “Will he be a man of his word?”

Boris Johnson has in the past assured anyone who expressed worry about a border down the Irish Sea that there would be no such border.

Today he declared: “We will do everything we need to do to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

He had earlier remarked, in response to a question from Claire Hanna (SDLP, Belfast South), “it was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the peace process, by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland”.

In response to a question from Stephen Farry (Alliance, North Down) Johnson took the chance to reiterate that the EU’s behaviour was “most unfortunate”.

But for Johnson, the EU’s behaviour was far from unfortunate. He can now be the statesman who offers to work with everyone of goodwill to get rid of these wretched borders.

It is in this sense that his earlier statements on the subject are to be understood: he was expressing an admirable aspiration, not an accomplished fact; promising he would sort out the Irish Sea problem, not that he had already sorted it out.

How he enjoys being the constructive, enlightened statesman, who deprecates the recklessness of the European Commission.

But he also enjoys riling Sir Keir Starmer, to whom he attributed various statements which had the Labour leader protesting: “Complete nonsense. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a pre-prepared gag.”

“May I advise him to consult YouTube,” Johnson replied in his most statesmanlike manner.

Johnson took the chance to accuse Sir Keir of having wanted Britain to stay in the European Medicines Agency, to which the Labour leader angrily replied: “The Prime Minister knows I’ve never said that, from this Despatch Box or anywhere else, but the truth escapes him.”

Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh and Wickford) rose on a point of order immediately after PMQs to point out that on 21st January 2017 Sir Keir had asked in the Commons why we would ever want to leave the European Medicines Agency.

An ambush, and a successful one. Supporters of the British nation suddenly have the upper hand, while those who supported the EU sound out of date; loyal to an ancien régime which cannot be revived; able only, once the lockdown comes to an end, to hold secret dinner parties in north London at which they raise a glass to the Queen over the water, Ursula von der Leyen.