EU summit confronts Covid-19 vaccine rollout woes

Small bottles labelled with a ‘Vaccine COVID-19’ sticker and a medical syringe are seen in this illustration taken April 10, 2020. — Reuters pic
Small bottles labelled with a ‘Vaccine COVID-19’ sticker and a medical syringe are seen in this illustration taken April 10, 2020. — Reuters pic

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BRUSSELS, Feb 25 — EU leaders meet today under pressure to speed up Europe’s coronavirus vaccine rollout and facing demands from some capitals for a continent-wide vaccine passport.

The video summit for the leaders of the 27-nation bloc comes a year into the Covid-19 crisis, as most of the EU is experiencing a second wave of cases — or a third wave for some — that stubbornly won’t diminish.

Brussels has warned six governments — including Germany’s — about unilateral border restrictions, while tourist-dependent countries are piling on the pressure to lift travel barriers in time for summer vacations.

Ahead of the videoconference, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called for “green passports” to be issued to allow Europeans who have been vaccinated to travel and socialise.

“We want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, have our old lives back and maximum freedom,” Kurz tweeted.

“We therefore want an EU-wide Green Passport, with which people can travel freely, do business without restrictions and go on holiday, as well as finally enjoy gastronomy, culture, events and other things again.”

But several EU officials and diplomats warned yesterday that, while they back a verifiable vaccination record, it is too early to look at using “vaccine passports” to permit easier travel.

“We still do not have advice from the health authorities (about) what the vaccine does and does not do: Can you still contaminate others if you have been vaccinated? I don’t know,” one senior EU diplomat told journalists.

“What happens to those who have not been vaccinated? What procedure do they have to go through to be able to enter a country? I think this is still under discussion,” he said.

Travel curbs

France and Germany, notably, are opposed, fearing a travel schism between a minority of vaccinated haves and a majority of unvaccinated have-nots.

Meanwhile Greece has indicated it is ready to move faster than its EU peers, and has already struck a bilateral travel agreement with Israel, the world’s vaccination champion. 

It is reportedly in similar talks with former EU member Britain, where bookings of low-cost flights to Greece, Spain and Turkey soared on Tuesday after London said curbs on foreign leisure travel could be lifted as early as mid-May. 

The senior EU diplomat acknowledged that all European Union countries were eager to find a safe way to reopen travel in time for the June-to-September tourist season, but said “we have to move this forward together”.

An EU official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, was blunter, saying the EU wants to avoid “a new death season”.

The leaders will have to examine options for developing a common certificate strategy, but also how to speed the continent’s sluggish vaccines rollout.

The European Commission’s vaccine procure strategy in the first quarter was too dependent on the drug from British-Swedish AstraZeneca, which drastically under-delivered.

But new vaccines are in line to win authorisation, and the Commission is working with firms to secure supply chains capitals hope will boost stocks from April as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna ramp up production. 

There are still concerns, however, that several countries within the bloc have not kept pace with their peers in actually delivering the vaccines to their populations. 

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen says her goal is to have 70 per cent of adults in the European Union vaccinated by mid-September.

Just four per cent of the bloc’s 450 million people have received at least one jab, according to an AFP tally of official figures — and only two per cent have been fully vaccinated with two jabs. 

Worry over variants

Brussels is also concerned the emergence of worrying variants could require retooled booster shots, which would in turn mean vaccine certificates would have to be constantly updated.

Another dispute is looming about the severe border restrictions put in place by several EU countries to curb the virus variants, and which the European Commission sees as disproportionate.

It has written warning letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden about their measures, giving them until late next week to respond.

Another EU diplomat said: “In this instance we needed to underscore the rules we have collectively signed on to.”

The EU official said that, without the commission’s intervention, such restrictions “could be worse than what we see today”.

He added that he expected “quite a lively discussion between the member states” on that issue. — AFP

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