France is taking the lead in defending Europe’s faltering vaccine program, and a jab at the U.K. in the process.
“The Brits are in an extremely difficult health situation,” France’s junior minister for European Union affairs, Clement Beaune, said on France Inter radio. “Understandably, they are taking many risks in this vaccination campaign.”
Beaune cited the U.K.’s decision to focus on the first vaccine jabs and its reliance on AstraZeneca Plc despite doubts over its efficiency on older people. “I don’t think citizens would accept us taking risks that contradict scientific recommendations,” he said.
With nations all over the world counting on Covid-19 vaccines to return normality as swiftly as possible, delivery delays in Europe announced by vaccine-makers Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca sent chills through the bloc — which is trailing the U.K. when it comes to vaccination — and gave ammunition to anti-EU politicians like Marine Le Pen in France.
Beaune defended the EU’s decision to purchase the doses in common, an approach that avoided a race between member states and put the bloc’s less affluent countries on an equal foot with its richest countries such as Germany or France.
Had countries purchased vaccines on their own, “each government — imagine Germany, France, Italy — would be calling labs to have doses delivered to get in ahead of their neighbors,” Beaune said on Monday. Buying the vaccine in common also allowed the EU to obtain better prices.
Another plank in Macron’s plan to revive the European project is set to advance on Wednesday when EU government envoys in Brussels will seek a common stance on the “Conference on the Future of Europe” — a debate lasting several months that aims to bring member states closer together.
The conference “is an opportunity to underpin the democratic legitimacy and functioning of the European project as well as to uphold the EU citizens support for our common goals and values, by giving them further opportunities to express themselves,” according to the document the EU government envoys are due to adopt.
The concept is based on ideas laid out by the French president in 2017 from Pnyx, a hill that was the center of Athenian democracy more than 2,500 years ago. It was later adopted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
France’s most immediate problem however remains the vaccine rollout. Of 67 million inhabitants, about 1.5 million have received the jab. It plans to give the first dose to 2.4 million more patients by end February, compared to an initial target of 4 million. Government officials have defended their strategy by insisting on the need to focus on most vulnerable people first, and on obtaining their consent as well as following scientific guidelines on doses.
Later on Tuesday, France’s Health Agency is set to give its green light to AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but it’s unclear if it will be recommended for people over 65.
Across the Channel, British politicians have been ready to use France to score cheap points.
“We’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told LBC Radio in December. “That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
With some French hospitals starting to transfer patients to relieve pressure on intensive-care units and more contagious forms of the virus on the rise, the French government is closely monitoring indicators and remains ready to move quickly if a third lockdown is needed.
For now, President Emmanuel Macron is holding off calls for a full lockdown, as he seeks to navigate pressure from doctors to contain the new coronavirus variants and the need to protect the economy, while avoiding the risk of civil disobedience amid mounting fatigue. Instead, he strengthened curfew controls, imposed extra border checks and announced the closure of malls.