EU vaccine rollout shortcomings addressed by von der Leyen
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It comes amid a deepening row over European Union border closures, with six states breaking rank with the bloc in a bid to stop the spread. On Tuesday, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told ministers at the General Affairs Council that six countries – Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden – needed to implement a “coordinated approach” to border checks and closures.
Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič reiterated the message after the Council meeting when said member states “should avoid imposing blanket bans”.
But during the closed-door meeting of EU affairs ministers from across the continent, some hit back at the Commission and took a swipe at Mrs von der Leyen over her failed handling of the procurement of coronavirus vaccines for the bloc.
One EU diplomat told Politico: “The single biggest contribution of the Commission to freedom of movement and the easing of travel restrictions in the Schengen area would be to ensure the swift delivery of vaccines including from AstraZeneca.”
EU leaders including Emmanuel Macron had previously panned the Oxford jab, despite medical authorities later giving full support.
The row between the Commission and member states officials comes as the bloc is still struggling to keep up with the administration of vaccines.
Vaccine producer AstraZeneca is set to miss its second quarter vaccine supply target with the EU by half.
An EU official said that the pharmaceutical company has told the European Union it expects to deliver less than half the COVID-19 vaccines it was contracted to supply in the second quarter.
The expected shortfall follows a big reduction in supplies in the first quarter and could hit the EU’s ability to meet its target of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by summer.
AstraZeneca did not deny the claims but a statement late in the day said the company was striving to increase productivity to deliver the promised 180 million doses.
Under the EU contract leaked last week, AstraZeneca committed to producing vaccines for the bloc at two plants in the United Kingdom, one in Belgium and one in the Netherlands.
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However, the company is not currently exporting vaccines made in the United Kingdom, in line with its separate contract with the British government.
In stark contrast to the bloc, Brexit Britain has already vaccinated almost 18 million people.
The Commission said on Tuesday it had given the six countries involved 10 days to justify their unilateral restrictions, which Reynders said had “gone too far”.
A European Commission spokesman said the bloc risked “fragmentation and disruptions to free movement and to supply chains – something we have witnessed again the past weeks”.
Germany, having introduced checks along its normally open frontiers with the Czech Republic and Austria, was in talks with France on averting similar measures in the eastern French Moselle region that borders Germany.
The Moselle region has experienced a surge in a more easily transmissible variant of the coronavirus, as have Austria’s Alpine Tyrol region and the Czech Republic.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for “common standards for travel and the transport of goods within the EU to ensure the functioning of the single market”.
Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe Minister, defended Berlin’s actions. “These measures obviously put a massive strain on border regions…but the protection of our citizens is paramount,” he said.
French Europe minister Clement Beaune told Reuters that Berlin and Paris had given themselves 48 hours to coordinate health measures such as increased testing in the Moselle region to avoid shutting their border there.
He said: “Our cross-border workers need to move around for their work and daily lives.”
Despite the Commission’s attempt to crack down on internal border decisions by member states, EU leaders are expected to agree on Thursday to maintain curbs on non-essential travel within the bloc.
Draft conclusions for an EU leaders video-conference on Thursday and Friday said countries would agree non-essential travel in the bloc must remain restricted because the risk of COVID-19 contagion remains serious and new variants of the virus pose additional challenges.
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