Article 16: EU vaccine panic

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 29th January 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

The 2021 news is going to be about vaccine supply.

All governments want as many of their people as possible to get vaccinated, as fast as reasonably possible. The UK got vaccine approval pushed through early, before we lost the emergency provisions available to us through the EU: the EU countries were able to move at more leisure, but without any delay.

The total population of the EU is about 450 million. In August, the EU signed a deal with AstraZeneca for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more – that is, enough vaccine to fully-immunise almost half of the EU population. This vaccine would be produced at the UK-Swedish multinational’s plants in the Netherlands and Belgium. Those plants have reported production delays: their CEO says production at those plants is “basically two months behind where we wanted to be” and a EU official is quoted as saying that instead of receiving 100 million doses in the next two months, the EU is now expecting only 25 million by the end of March.

The US-German mulitnation Pfizer-BioNTech is also reporting production delays: the EU have ordered 600 million vaccine doses from them (enough to fully-immunise the other half of the EU population).

The UK’s AstraZeneca plants are not currently experiencing production delays. On Wednesday, the EU demanded that AstraZeneca provide a plan for how they would fulfil their order for the EU, including vaccine doses from the UK plants.

The UK government ordered the Scottish government to unpublish a vaccination roll-out plan that had gone online (and is now no longer available) because this plan included the number of AstraZeneca doses that Scotland expected to receive, which the UK government declared commercially-confidential information.

The Yorkshire Post recently reported that the UK goverrnment were diverting vaccine supplies from North-East England because of a more-efficient roll-out in that NHS region, Whether this also applies to Scotland, I don’t know, but the Tories are jeering at the Scottish Government for being slow in the roll-out – and object srongly to any transparency in numbers of vaccine doses by the Scottish government, including numbers already received. (Carole Malone of the Daily Express recently called Nicola Sturgeon “treacherous” for publishing this information.)

The public agreement, UK-wide, is that the nine most-vulnerable groups are to be immunised first, and only then are the general public to start getting vaccinated. This means that the majority of working people will be last in line to be vaccinated. Within the UK, the regions and nations who get their nine most-vulnerable groups immunised first and can open up vaccination appointments to everyone else, will be waking up their economy from lockdown faster. Hence, the Tory desire to ensure the southern Tory-rich regions do best. That’s still where most of their MPs and membership is. (And of course, most of the Tory membership falls into the most-vulnerable by age groups.)

As this applies within the UK, even more so within the EU.

The EU’s response today was to introduce export controls on coronavirus vaccine. EU countries now have powers to “deny authorisation for vaccine exports if the company making them hasn’t honoured existing contracts with the EU”.

Barbed wire in circle on EU blue supported by EU stars by Art/TunkThis is, let’s be clear, the EU at its nastiest: Fortress Europe. (Poorer nations, which can’t afford to buy vaccine doses by the million, are exempt, though.) Any vaccine doses produced inside the EU is to be used to fulfill EU internal orders first. The US, Canada, Australia – none will be allowed to buy coronavirus vaccine from the EU until the EU have got the number of doses they ordered.

And the UK is also among the hundred-plus third countries which won’t be allowed to buy vaccine supplies from the EU until the EU has got all the doses they ordered.

The Northern Ireland Protocol allows Northern Ireland to purchase vaccine supplies from the EU, across the Irish land border, as if Northern Ireland were still a part of the EU. These vaccines could not then be exported onward into Great Britain, they would have to be for use in Northern Ireland.

The total population of Northern Ireland is just under two million – that is, three million doses would likely be enough to fully-immunise all of the vulnerable groups and a significant proportion of the general population outside those groups.

Someone made the fatal mistake of invoking Article 16 of the NI Protocol. This A16 allows either the EU or the UK government to impose “safeguard measures” unilaterally to prevent “serious economic, societal, or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”.

To my surprise, it was the EU who threatened to invoke Article 16 – to prevent Northern Ireland from ordering vaccine supplies from within the EU.

However panicky the EU’s central administration is becoming over the frustration of their plans for a mass vaccine rollout getting everyone jabbed within months, Northern Ireland is a hot potato and they should have known that. (And also, to be clear, even 4 million doses diverted to Northern Ireland is not that big of a deal in the context of a population that needs 900 million.)

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin contacted Ursula von der Layden to “express concerns”, and the EU withdrew its intention to press the Article 16 button within hours. And that is that, as far as vaccine supplies to Northern Ireland are concerned.

But the fact is, the UK is a third country now, outside the EU, and while temporarily it happens that the UK has access to better supplies of vaccine than the EU, this is not a situation that can last long: the EU is larger, richer, and better-resourced. And the un-pushing of the Article 16 button happened because a EU member state has a strong interest in ensuring the EU only pushes that button if it clearly must, not because of a temporary official panic over vaccine supplies.

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Filed under Coronavirus, European politics

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