DANIEL HANNAN: Europe is playing politics with lives. They banned our Covid jab and fought to keep it. They can’t agree with themselves – and the fallout could be fatal

This was the week that the EU utterly lost its head. To the incredulity of its health chiefs, and the horror of its friends overseas, it has dragged its vaccine policy to the level of the Kindergarten.

On the one hand, we’ve seen member states ban the export of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and threatening legal action against the manufacturer for not getting it to them quickly enough.

On the other hand, they’ve been busy casting doubt over the jab’s effectiveness, seizing consignments, and suspending its distribution in 15 countries because of health fears.

We are in the realm of playground politics. ‘Give me your vaccine! Gimme, gimme! … Yeah, well I never wanted your stupid vaccine anyway!’

The vaccination centre at the Erfurt, Germany, exhibition centre is deserted on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. After the stopping of AstraZeneca vaccinations thousands of appointments are cancelled in Thuringia.

It’s not even as if EU leaders have shifted position. They make both complaints simultaneously.

France’s Emmanuel Macron has said the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is ‘quasi-ineffective’ for people over 65, yet his ministers have since been all over the airwaves threatening to sue the company for not allowing the EU to queue-jump and get more of it.

‘Europe is not going to be some Care Bear that sends money and expects nothing in return,’ said France’s Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, in an odd reference to the cuddly toy popular in the 1980s.

The Portuguese prime minister, António Costa, revealed that he ‘can’t wait for a second dose’; but then on Monday his government halted distribution of the first.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) waves to French President Emmanuel Macron (left) at the end of a press conference, February 2021

Seized

Italy banned a consignment of the vaccine from going to Australia on grounds that it was needed at home. It then seized a batch being distributed in Piedmont in Northern Italy after a man died following vaccination (officials have now confirmed his death was unrelated to the jab).

Meanwhile, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, last week outrageously asserted it is the UK which is limiting supply by prohibiting the export of vaccines — a claim Eurocrats had been making for weeks and which prompted a formal rebuke from the Foreign Office.

It is hard to imagine that any of this would be happening if, instead of being the Oxford vaccine, it had been the Bologna vaccine or the Toulouse vaccine or the Heidelberg vaccine.

Indeed, as Nicola Magrini, the head of Italy’s medicines authority — which says the vaccine is safe — said yesterday: ‘We got to the point of a suspension because several European countries, including Germany and France, preferred to interrupt vaccinations . . . The choice is a political one.’ 

Medical staff transport a patient to a waiting ambulance after arriving on a medical helicopter evacuated from another hospital, at CHU University Hospital in Angers, France, March 15

Last night there were signs from France and Italy of an imminent U-turn. Bit it is already too late. The damage has been done.

They are among the countries that suspended the jab citing fears of a link to blood clots.

The suspensions were notionally justified by fears of a link to blood clots. Even if such a risk existed, it would not justify causing thousands of needless Covid deaths. Yet there is no evidence of any such link.

The question is whether the number of such incidents — fewer than 40 following more than 17 million vaccinations —is higher among people who have had the jab than among people who haven’t.

The answer is it is not: on the contrary, it appears to be lower than both the proportion among people who have had the Pfizer/BioNTech jab and people who have had no jab.

The European Medicines Agency made it clear ‘the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risk of side-effects’. Our own regulators agree, as does the World Health Organisation.

‘The bottom line, sadly, is that this good and effective vaccine is not being accepted by the public in many countries because of the row and the suspension,’ said Frank Ulrich Montgomery, the German head of the World Medical Association.

The International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis agreed: it said that ‘the small number of reported thrombotic events relative to the millions of administered Covid-19 vaccinations does not suggest a direct link.’

In plain English, the jab is safe. So why have so many EU member states stoked needless fears, reduced vaccine take-up and so guarantee a higher rate of fatalities?

When the first vaccine was authorised, I worried prioritising the most vulnerable might undermine confidence in the inoculation programme.

Since, by definition, these groups are the likeliest to die, there was, I felt, a danger that people would blame the vaccine for what were, in fact, normal fatalities.

I had read about an outbreak of swine flu in New Jersey in 1976, to which the Ford administration responded with a national vaccine rollout.

Because 45 million Americans got the jab, some (as was statistically inevitable) died soon afterwards — in one case, dropping dead in the surgery.

It was pure coincidence, but it caused a panic — even in a pre-internet age when there was very little in the way of an anti-vax movement.

I suggested to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, that he should begin with healthcare workers and care home staff. He disagreed, arguing the absolute priority was to save as many lives as possible.

He was right and I was wrong. The British people have been admirably calm and level-headed, ignoring the deranged conspiracies of anti-vaxxers.

Distract

Across the Channel, sadly, it has been a different story.

By calling the Oxford vaccine’s safety into question, initially to distract from their own procurment failures, Eurocrats might have ended up stopping perhaps millions of people protecting themselves.

It seems EU countries will restart their programmes soon and even if the vaccine slightly increased clot risk, the balance of advantage will surely be found overwhelmingly to favour a continued rollout.

As epidemologist Dirk Brockmann from the German government’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said, ‘it is probably 100,000 times more likely [for someone] to die of Covid than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine.’

But crucial days have been lost in inoculating hundreds of thousands of people, with confidence so shaken in Covid vaccines that many will ignore the call to get a jab.

The Continent will remain closed for longer than it needed to have been — especially if rising cases (like those seen in Italy) turn into a third wave.

The EU, by peddling the sorts of scare stories we would expect from Russian or Chinese agent provocateurs, is endangering lives.

After the EU’s behaviour in recent months, you might be tempted to shrug and say ‘serves them right’.

Incompetence

But that would be a mistake. So far, almost 27 million doses have been administered here with no ill-effects beyond the mild symptoms that we expect after any vaccine — which show that it is working.

That number is more than in France, Germany, Italy and Portugal combined. The danger is irrational fears spread from the Continent to Britain — but our aim should instead be to lead by example, thereby reassuring nearby countries.

Ordinary Europeans are hardly to blame for Brussels incompetence. We wish our neighbours good health.

We want their economies humming, buying our stuff and selling us theirs. We want their hotels open to British travellers.

As we approach the point when most Britons are protected, we should make surplus doses available abroad, including in Europe.

Eurocrats might resent it. They might even ramp up their anti-British micro-aggressions. But someone has to behave like a grown-up.

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