FIRST half good, second half not so good.
That was often the weary refrain that beleaguered England soccer manager Sven Goran Eriksson delivered to UK tabloid newspaper hacks, after yet another performance that promised so much and ultimately delivered little.
The same could be said for the European Union’s performance in this pandemic.
In 2020, the bloc convinced its 27 national governments, which usually handle their countries’ healthcare themselves, to allow it to take control of the impending vaccination programme.
It was a move that made sense at the time, particularly to smaller countries such as Ireland. Such would be the demand for the Covid-19 vaccinations that having 27 countries squabbling and out-bidding each other, ramping up the price, elbowing each other out, and falling out over supply, would ultimately see the bloc shooting itself in the foot.
In the EU we trust, was our motto.
When half-time in this crisis arrived — the autumn lull before the second wave — it was still all to play for, and with the vaccinations arriving sooner than we all dared hope too. Game on!
We in Ireland rubbed our hands in anticipation and dared to dream that the vaccine would be a panacea for all our ills.
Alas, the second-half, for the EU, has been not so good. In fact, scrap that — it has been a bloody disaster.
All the supposed shortcomings of the bloc have been exposed in its moribund vaccination policy: Slow-moving bureaucracy, endless talk with few results, complacency, a lack of direction and dynamism, procrastination...
The result has been to see countries who went it alone and acted with great urgency on the vaccinations, such as the US, UK and Israel, steam ahead with alacrity and efficiency.
The EU has been left trailing in their slipstream.
Bizarrely, while other countries were getting their skates on, I heard the refrain more than once from our politicians that the vaccination programme ‘is a marathon, not a sprint’.
But for children missing school, adults fearing for their livelihoods, people suffering mental and physical health issues in lockdown, and elderly people fearing for their lives, this should be a sprint, damn it.
Sure, we don’t want to cut corners on the manufacture of the vaccinations — that would be madness — but once it’s been approved, get it into our arms PDQ! Surely this shoud be a sprint, not a marathon!
Time is of the essence, and each missed hour without a vaccine could prove fatal to someone.
But if the delays in vaccine roll-out are bad enough, it’s been the fall-out of the EU’s failures in the past week or so that could be most damaging.
Some of the big political beasts of the EU appear to have lost the plot and made damaging and wholly unsubstantiated claims about the veracity of the vaccines.
Such careless talk could, literally, cost lives.
I appreciate that power-brokers like President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron are under huge pressure, but their comments questioning the vaccines and their swift roll-out in other countries could have a devastating effect on all our futures, if they tip the public away from wanting the vaccinations in large numbers.
What else are the public to think when German media are briefed that the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be given to the over 65s, and when Macron states that the vaccine is ‘quasi-ineffective’ for people in that older age group?
The fact it was politicians making these unsubstantiated claims, and not scientists, was telling, as was the fact AstraZeneca had just dealt the EU a blow by warning it of a shortfall in its (belated) vaccine order.
Here in Ireland, there was more confusion, as our National Immunisation Advisory Committee approved AstraZeneca for all age groups ahead of 35,000 doses being delivered here next week, but later advised against its use for the over 70s, citing lack of data among that age group in trials.
This muddying of the waters is entirely unhelpful when we need as much public trust in the vaccines as possible, if we are to achieve herd immunity. We are told we will need 70-80% of the population vaccinated against Covid-19 in order to achieve that. In Ireland, around 75% say they will take the jab — but what if the confusion over vaccines makes people think twice, and makes those uncertain and fearful decide it is a risk?
I will be keeping a close eye on the next poll to see if that 75% figure has fallen — and placing any blame squarely on the shoulders of the likes of Macron.
France already has the highest percentage of naysayers to Covid vaccines in the EU — just 40% say they will take the jab. How will their leader’s remarks raising questions about the efficacy of AstraZeneca help that?
If the vaccines do work as we hope, and countries such as the UK and Ireland achieve herd immunity and regain some normality, it could be many years before we go to France on our holidays, given so few of its population will have been vaccinated against Covid-19.
Macron’s remarks make even less sense when you consider he is coming under pressure from lockdown-weary protesters, while he is slipping in the polls with a presidential election due in 2022.
It’s not just Macron playing silly beggars over vaccines.
France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune accused the British of “taking many risks with the vaccine campaign”, a remark that was echoed this week by von der Leyen. Once again, such remarks came with no scientific backing, and once again, they will make those across the EU wary about taking the jab think twice.
Von der Leyen went further, accusing Britain of compromising on vaccine safety, and claiming the EU’s slower approval process was the “right decision”. Not from where I’m standing, Ursula.
Who needs anti-vaxxers and social media disinformation scare tactics, when you have folk like Macron and von der Leyen giving ammunition to those who refuse to take the jab? As ex-Portuguese politician Bruno Maçães tweeted this week: “European officials and politicians are now the main global source of pandemic disinformation.”