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Odd policy choices continue to bedevil Boris Johnson’s government. Almost a year after Australia started putting international arrivals into policed quarantine, Britain still hasn’t managed it – while tens of thousands continue to arrive every week, trusted to quarantine at home. Meanwhile, pubs might be allowed to reopen – but only if they don’t sell booze! And Johnson now urges North Korean-style public clapping not only for the NHS but to mourn coronavirus victims. Britain once provided the model of dignified, silent mourning. Did it occur to anyone to burst into applause when the funeral processions of Winston Churchill or the Queen Mother went past? Now Johnson seems to have capitulated to the post-Princess Diana view that standing in silent respect is too uptight and fogeyish.
Luckily for him, Johnson’s many blunders have been overshadowed, for the moment at least, by his impressive vaccine roll-out. His government decided last year not to participate in the EU’s joint vaccine programme and instead to go solo, a decision bitterly criticised by Remainers. But his call was clearly right. Gambling correctly on later approval, his government ordered 100 million Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines last May and then 40 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech. Britain has now confounded sceptics, doing better than any other large country in delivering the first vaccine – 12 million doses so far. It looks like 99 per cent of those at risk, including all over-50s, could be vaccinated by April.
By contrast the EU’s performance has been a fiasco. And there’s little doubt who’s to blame: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her former defence minister, now EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. According to Germany’s best-selling newspaper, Bild, soon after Britain made its AstraZeneca order, the health ministers of Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands were worried that the EU wouldn’t move fast enough to procure adequate supplies of the vaccine. So they initiated a plan to get plenty for all EU citizens. But Merkel, as often anxious to demonstrate EU ‘solidarity’, overruled them, insisting that the procurement be handed to the EU, to demonstrate to the world its capabilities. She and Von der Leyen demanded that the health ministers’ letter surrendering the task to the EU include a grovelling apology.
As feared by the ministers, the EU then moved at a snail’s pace to secure the necessary vaccines. In July, it declined an offer of 500 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech because it was too expensive. After four more months it finalised a smaller deal. It also took the EU three months longer than Britain to secure its deal with AstraZeneca. Reasons for the delays included, in addition to penny-pinching, trying not to injure France’s pride by including its (so far unsuccessful) Sanofi vaccine in the procurement, rejecting fast-track approvals as in the UK and requiring translations of vaccine labels into all 24 EU languages (including Irish, the primary language of 1.47 per cent of the Republic’s population).
The EU was humiliated by its own mismanagement when it was recently revealed that, because of production problems at AstraZeneca’s Belgian plant, and the need to give priority to its earlier contract with Britain, it would receive less than half of the contracted 80 million doses in the first quarter. After falsely claiming AstraZeneca was violating its contract with the EU, Von der Leyen ordered a ban on exports of vaccines to the UK, which included her astonishing closure of the internal Irish border – without consulting the Irish and British prime ministers and overruling the advice of the EU’s senior trade official, Sabine Weyand; she backed down quickly in the face of Johnson’s objections. Absurd claims by Macron and other European leaders that AstraZeneca is a dubious treatment for the elderly look like nothing more than irritation that Britain is ahead of the EU with its vaccinations. They recall Woody Allen’s story of his aunts complaining about a restaurant where the food was not only bad but the servings were too small.
Von der Leyen has responded to the EU’s humiliation by saying it’s the ‘tanker’ to the British ‘speedboat’ – as if there are upsides to being slower than others when taking measures to stop the wrecking of the global economy. She rejects calls for her resignation. But, dangerously for her, the most scathing criticism is from her native Germany – where, thanks to her efforts, just three per cent of the adult population has been vaccinated, compared to Britain’s 20 per cent. Bild’s chief political reporter Peter Tiede, reminding readers of the widespread view that she ‘failed miserably’ as defence minister, says she’s ‘lying’ in boasting about the EU’s ‘world-beating’ vaccine programme and has ‘disgraced’ Germany. Merkel’s finance minister Olaf Scholtz has described her vaccine strategy as ‘really shit’.
Merkel defends Von der Leyen while, oddly, admitting that the EU going slower with its vaccine roll-out than the UK, Israel and the US ‘rankles’. Merkel has to be one of the most overrated politicians of recent times, even from the point of view of her defence of the EU, the cornerstone of Germany’s policies. In terms of poor judgment, her championing of a dud minister for the EU’s top job competes with her rigid refusal to help David Cameron win the 2016 referendum by allowing him to announce some compromise on the EU free movement rules into Britain. She thereby helped achieve Brexit, the greatest disaster in the EU’s history.
If Merkel’s and Von der Leyen’s strategy was to prove to Britain how foolish it was to leave the EU, it hasn’t worked well. According to one survey, 20 per cent of Remain voters say it makes them feel more positive about Brexit. Moreover the EU’s incompetence has encouraged the hitherto rare view on the Continent that Brexit made sense. It’s unlikely we’ve heard the end of this saga especially if, as is likely, by the northern spring and summer most Britons will have been vaccinated, with restrictions probably being relaxed, while their European neighbours wonder why they’re still well behind.
Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe correspondent