Careless talk costs lives. Since the beginning of the vaccination programme, the government has safeguarded information about levels of supply as if the number of vials in its possession were a state secret on a par with the location of Britain’s nuclear submarines. Whenever journalists have asked how much vaccine is available, they have been met with dead-bat refusals to comment. This is partly because ministers have only had a rough idea of the answer to this critical question. The health secretary was compelled to acknowledge, when he suddenly announced a delay to vaccinations for the under-50s, that the government’s ambitious targets for immunisation are vulnerable to disruption because production glitches can make supply “lumpy”.
The other reason for so much secrecy is anxiety that envious rivals short of supplies might try to poach vaccines ordered by Britain. Paranoia about that has been particularly acute in regard to our near-neighbours. Contrary to the claims made by some Brexiters, divorce has not made the cross-Channel relationship happier and easier, but more poisoned with mutual suspicion. British fear of the EU’s intentions has been reciprocated by a belief within the bloc that the UK’s vaccination programme can only have been rolled out so much more successfully than their own because perfidious Albion has gamed itself an unfair advantage. Whether or not that is a justified belief, it is an understandable one given the EU’s experience of dealing with Boris Johnson.
About one thing, there is a consensus on both sides of the Channel. Even the most ardent admirer of the European Union has to acknowledge it has made a calamitous mess of vaccination. The decision to have one over-arching procurement programme run out of Brussels by the commission was made with the well-intentioned thought that this would prevent a competition for supplies which would set member states at each other’s throats. The botched execution is the cause of fiery recriminations. Emotions are the more intense because EU countries are doing so badly in comparison with the stand-alone UK. By this weekend, half of UK adults had had their first jab. In the EU, the proportion is less than a fifth. You can hear the anguished cry from European capitals. How can the government of Boris Johnson, a byword for chaotic and mendacious populism when viewed from Paris or Berlin, be doing so much better than us?
While the UK’s infection rates have been dropping, much of the EU is confronting an acceleration. In Germany, public health officials warn that cases are rising at “an exponential rate”. After gambling that France could avoid another lockdown, Emmanuel Macron has been forced by surging levels of infection to impose new restrictions. Most of Italy’s people will be in “red zones” from Monday and the entire country will be shuttered over the Easter weekend. The failure to vaccinate fast enough to forestall a third wave is being punished at the ballot box. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have just been routed at elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, two regions which used to be counted among her party’s strongholds. While constantly berating AstraZeneca for failing to deliver enough of its doses, European leaders have made things more difficult for themselves by repeatedly casting doubt on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine they simultaneously say they can’t get enough of. The French president has been a particularly egregious offender in this respect.
The fiercest heat is on Ursula von der Leyen, the Merkel protege who is the commission’s president. Under a sustained pummelling, especially from the media of her native Germany, she has revived threats to trigger emergency powers that would block exports of jabs from the EU and even requisition vaccine-producing plants. The commission has heatedly complained that millions of jabs have been shipped across the Channel from the EU, but no vaccines finished in the UK have travelled the other way. It is the reverse of helpful that a section of British opinion, megaphoned by elements of the rightwing media, likes to gloat over the travails of the EU. Britain ought to be bigger than that. We are talking about a deadly disease. It is not in our interests for the EU to flounder. The history of this pandemic suggests that a surge of infection across the Channel poses lots of risks to us. New mutations could unleash more death and economic destruction. As for the many Britons dreaming of a holiday in a European country with a sunnier climate, they can dream on if infection is still raging at their desired destinations.
My conversations with people inside government suggest that many ministers appreciate that gloating is unedifying and self-defeating. At the same time, a Brexiter cabinet finds it hard to resist the temptation to exploit the EU’s distress for partisan advantage. The NHS-delivered distribution of the vaccine is the only aspect of the handling of the crisis in which this government can claim to have a record that is impressive. Brexiters want to claim that success, however bogusly, as a justification for their experiment. There are also Tories who believe that a steady drumbeat of cross-Channel conflict serves their electoral interests by keeping the Brexit vote aroused and distracted from the punishing damage the rupture is inflicting on the economy.
A government with an enlightened perspective on the long-term interests of Britain would see value in offering expressions of sympathy and gestures of solidarity with the EU at its time of severe trial. That could generate a lot of goodwill among European voters and leaders. It might be the more effective in winning friends for Britain for being so unexpected from a Brexiter government. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, instead prefers to play tit for tat. He responded to Ms von der Leyen by accusing her of the “kind of brinkmanship” usually practised by dictatorships, an echo of those Brexiter tropes which insultingly compared the EU with Nazi Europe or the Soviet bloc.
Other cabinet members huff and puff that threats to curtail vaccine exports show that the EU can’t be trusted to honour contracts.
There is a problem with this attempt by ministers to seize the title deeds to the moral high ground. Their behaviour has robbed them of any claims on it. No one is worse qualified to lecture others about contract-breaking than a member of Mr Johnson’s government. It is not so long ago that he was brazenly threatening to break international law by tearing up clauses of the withdrawal agreement that he signed. More recently, the government abandoned attempts to renegotiate aspects of the agreement which are working badly in Northern Ireland and announced a reneging on previous commitments. “My word is my bond” has not exactly been the motto by which Boris Johnson has lived his life. Sylvie Bermann concluded her time as French ambassador in London with a valedictory assessment of Mr Johnson which described him as “an unrepentant and inveterate liar”, a view widely held among European leaders. The chances of avoiding a mutually destructive struggle with the EU over vaccine supplies would be much better had Britain a prime minister who was regarded as a trustworthy international partner by his peer group.
An escalation into a full-blown “vaccine war” between Britain and the EU would be a disaster for both on many levels. The production of vaccines depends on intricate multinational supply chains. Take the Pfizer dose. Ingredients for that vaccine are shipped from the UK to the company’s plant in Belgium before some of the finished product is exported across the Channel. A round of beggar-my-neighbour export bans will be self-defeating. The EU’s problems will deepen, while the government will find it harder to realise its ambition to get a shot into every adult by July.
Vaccine nationalism is already a dimension of this crisis. It would set a terrible example to the world if countries that advertise themselves as mature, sophisticated and internationalist democracies were to unleash a vaccine war in Europe. Britain and her near neighbours are going to have to live and work with each other long after Covid-19 has become history. The UK’s security and prosperity still depend in great part on what happens within the EU. It cannot be in the EU’s interests to have permanently toxified relations with such a substantial country on its border. A vaccine war would be a conflict without a winner, only many losers.
Any words or actions that further inflame very raw nerves are highly dangerous. Careless talk costs lives.