Vaccine politics look like normal politics – just more extreme

Point of Order has been consistent in anticipating an irritable post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU.  But who would have thought vaccine politics would develop as a major flashpoint, let alone a possible relationship breaker?

Even hyper-critical Brits have had to acknowledge that the UK government is a leader in the global vaccination rollout.  And as more background information seeps into the public arena, the British government’s decisiveness in supporting vaccine development, committing early to contracts and driving mass vaccination is looking better and better.

But the same comparisons spell political danger for European politicians. Co-ordination by the EU appears to have resulted in slowness: slowness in making commitments, in tweaking the production process and in approving the product.

Europe’s politicians are hoping to divert any blame, preferably towards big pharma and the UK. There have been demands that the UK diverts its own purchases of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine (produced in the UK) to European buyers.  The chances of that happening seem small. AstraZeneca chief Pascal Soriot has been diplomatic but clear in insisting that the company is meeting its obligations to both the UK and the EU, and the slower-than-expected delivery to the EU arises from the specific arrangements made with them.

So this argument has elements of political theatre.  But it might also serve as cover for more explosive action.  Namely European efforts to nobble the UK’s contracted supply of the Pfizer vaccine (conveniently being produced in Belgium). A warning sign being the EU’s announcement of “vaccine export controls”.

This is dangerous territory.  While ‘fair shares’ might make a popular slogan in Europe, Brits are likely to see it as stealing their stuff to make up for the EU’s mistakes.  It could shatter any remaining goodwill for Europe (or, using another yardstick, reveal the full depth of British alienation from the EU).

American commentator Tyler Cowen argues at Bloomberg that during this crisis, it is the first political actions of decision makers – and the last – which will weigh most heavily in public consciousness. Thus he expects US and the UK vaccination leadership to be influential in setting the post-crisis mood.

Of course this analysis is highly conditional. But nonetheless it is interesting to see how quickly the local NZ narrative might be shifting from congratulation at a job well done towards fear of being left behind. New Zealand’s political decision makers are surely aware that this is a race, with no prizes for mediocre performance.  And the one thing worse than racing badly, is not even realising that you are in a race.  Moreover, unlike Europe, there don’t seem to be as many scapegoats for placating unrealistic expectations.

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