The restaurant and cafe terraces spilling out into the streets of the pretty Dutch medieval town of Sluis were teeming over the weekend with smiling people clinking glasses under the spring sun.
The Netherlands reopened alfresco hospitality last Wednesday and Belgians, ignoring official advice, had driven a short distance across the border in huge numbers to enjoy their neighbour’s freedom over the long Labour day weekend. “We could have filled 400 tables,” said an apologetic waiter at the Resto de Eetboetiek, as he turned away the latest family arriving without a reservation.
Despite concerns within the Dutch government over the country’s infection rate, the rapid speed of the country’s vaccination rollout in recent weeks and the jab’s clear impact on transmission has been the key to emboldening the prime minister, Mark Rutte, to drive forward reopening the economy.
According to the latest official data, a jab is being administered in the Netherlands, population 17.2 million, every half a second, a huge boon compared with the very early months when a lack of organisation in administering the jabs appeared to be behind a glacial start.
The Belgian government, while a little more cautious given some of the particularly dark months the country has faced during the pandemic, has said it also plans to reopen outdoor hospitality on 8 May, again fortified by its own vaccine take-off.
Like the Netherlands, although for different reasons, Belgium’s rollout was not quick in the early months of this year. Faced with some of the worst death statistics in Europe, the government focused on getting jabs to its most vulnerable: 86.8% of over 80s are fully vaccinated and 84.18% of 65- to 84-year-olds. But it is now firing through the younger, more easily accessed age groups, reducing the time between delivery of doses and administration from 18 days in March to around four in the last week.
This evolution is being witnessed elsewhere in the EU. Apart from the stragglers of Bulgaria, Latvia, Croatia and Romania, solidly over 20% of the population in each of the other EU member states has now received a vaccine jab, with the tiny island state of Malta leading the way with 52.43%, and as the difficult-to-get-to priority groups are being ticked off the pace of jabs is increasing.
Among the 23 EU member states who have reported to the European centre for disease control and prevention, the median uptake among the over-80s is 73.1%. With that accomplished, Germany celebrated the milestone of administering 1m doses in a day last Thursday and France broke its record at the end of last week of giving 545,000 shots on Thursday and 549,000 on Friday.
“We really see that within the EU the vaccination is increasing dramatically,” said a European Commission official as plans were announced on Monday to reopen the borders to non-EU holidaymakers potentially including from the UK by June.
Crucially, internal commission estimates shared with the Guardian offers significant reassurance that supply, the biggest problem in the early months of the year, should not be an obstacle to further acceleration.
While just 14m doses were delivered to member states in January, 28m in February and 60m in March, officials said that 105m had arrived into the hands of healthcare workers in April.
The commission expects around 125m doses this month and 200m in June putting the bloc on track to have an annual capacity of 4bn doses a year.
It is a far cry from the scenario facing the EU just a few months ago when AstraZeneca had twice downsized the deliveries it expected to make to the EU, and there was a faint whiff of panic in Brussels.
On 31 January, Thierry Breton, an industrialist and former French finance minister who is the European commissioner for the internal market, was asked by Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, to come back early to Brussels from his family home in Paris.
She was meeting the chief executives of BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Curevac and Sanofi, and it was not quite clear from where the EU was going to find the jabs it needed.
A meeting with the French president, Emannuel Macron, followed on the Monday and a second with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Tuesday. The following day Breton, a former head of multinationals including France Telecom and Atos, was made head of a new EU vaccine task force.
“At that point the challenges were quite fundamental: getting transparency about what kind of capacity was operational,” said an EU official of the task facing Breton. “Where are these factories and where they are going and what the bottlenecks were. A lot of work to do in a short space of time. It was primarily mapping.”
Since then, EU diplomats representing the member states have spoken admiringly of a hands-on approach that has produced results. “Breton has been to factories where even the CEOs of companies have not visited,” said one diplomat.
During a visit to a “fill and finish” site in Barcelona that is serving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Breton was told that a lack of filters risked delaying the final stages of production by four weeks. He used his direct contact with the chief executive of the German supplier Merck to find a fix.
On 14 April, Von der Leyen announced that 50m of Pfizer doses due in the fourth quarter of this year would be brought forward to the second quarter. Breton had been key. “The commissioner is a numbers guy: the one to scribble on a piece of paper quite a complicated calculation and say: ‘Look, according to my calculation you have capacity here that can benefit European citizens, can we see if we can bring something forward?’”, said an official. “He challenges people. That played a role … Sometimes it isn’t very much in the nature of the European commission in being very hands on and directly liaising with the companies but Breton brought that into the game.”
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund thinktank in Brussels, said there was also an argument for telling the parallel story of ever-increasing numbers of vaccine exports around the world rather than engaging in a PR battle with London over rights to AstraZeneca doses made around Europe or the role or not of Brexit in Britain’s speedy vaccination programme.
Given the Covid whirlwind being experienced in India and elsewhere, it is argued that there are also compelling grounds to further shift the focus from domestic rollout to aiding the poorest. The latest EU contract for 1.8bn Pfizer doses over two years explicitly provides for the right to donate some of those to countries outside the bloc.
“When Joe Biden is using the rhetoric of the US being the arsenal of vaccines, you can see how the US is building up the rhetoric of them riding to the world’s rescue but the EU has already exported 160m doses and by the time the US will really begin to export, the EU will be exporting 250m to 300m doses,” Kirkegaard said. “There is a great story to tell.”
But perhaps for those in Sluis and elsewhere in a relieved Europe, a drink in the sun will do for now.