Britain’s lightning-fast vaccination slashes the tail-risk of a Covid third wave and averts a calamitous slide into even deeper economic crisis. Europe is not so lucky.
The EU lacks anything like the UK’s Regulation 174 enabling fast-track action to fight pandemics, or chemical and nuclear attacks. Bureaucracy and legalistic inertia will give the virus one last chance to cause maximum devastation on the Continent, and this slippage of several weeks will have serious consequences for a clutch of eurozone economies already in trouble.
The pandemic is not an international beauty contest. But it is indisputable that the UK has stolen a march by freeing itself from the EU’s policy orbit and going its own way under the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the teeth-arm of the EU system in its day.
There was much outrage in anti-Brexit circles when Boris Johnson shunned the EU’s vaccine alliance. He was accused of reckless nationalistic infantilism. It was said that the UK would not have the great power ‘clout’ to obtain global vaccines at scale. Events have not played out remotely as they expected.
The UK’s approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine clears the way for immunisation of health care staff as soon as Monday. The armed forces - vaccination veterans from Africa - will deploy their logistical muscle to set up injection hubs and a cold storage chain in the biggest military operation since the Falklands War.
While Europe’s calendar is not yet clear, the EU regulator has pencilled in a decision at the end of December. That is a wasted month. The roll-out will then be painfully slow across Southern Europe.
Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said jabs will start around January 23-26 and this long interlude will require “more weeks of sacrifice”. Given the lag effects of two doses and the time it takes to make inroads into the population, this dooms Italy to draconian curbs through the peak winter months if it is to avert the dreaded terza ondata.
France will not vaccinate until the New Year and will then run into the anti-vax brigade, a movement that has mushroomed since the H1NI vaccine narcolepsy cases in 2009, and lately fed by the ever wilder utterings of Didier Raoult - once a microbiologist.
An IPSOS survey found that 46pc of the French will refuse a jab, compared to Spain (36pc), Italy (35pc), Germany (30pc) and the UK (21pc).
British willingness to trust their scientists is a trump card as we go into the next phase. We will reach herd immunity and economic reopening that much faster.
Portugal, Spain, and Greece hope to vaccinate in early January, but by then Pfizer supplies and dry ice will be in acute demand, and stockpiles getting shorter. Whatever happens there is likely to be a strange few weeks as Europeans watch the UK vaccination campaign, while their own countries are frozen in immobilism and people become ever more angry over shut restaurants and lockdown curbs.
The OECD forecast this week that the UK would be the economic disaster story of 2021 along with Argentina, ending the year at 6.4pc below pre-Covid levels of GDP even if there is a Brexit deal.
This would be the worst in Europe and far below Italy or France. I am willing to bet that the OECD's rankings will prove wildly wrong.
The International Monetary Fund warned in its latest Article IV health check on the eurozone that the second wave of Covid has already killed the recovery and that a gaping output gap risks of structural ‘scarring’. It said the EU must prepare for further “solvency support” to avert a wave of corporate defaults and bankruptcies as guarantees expire.
The IMF said Italy, Spain, and the Club Med bloc lack the fiscal headroom to shore up their economies. The longer the pandemic goes on, the greater the danger of “adverse market reactions”. It opened a political can of worms with a veiled warning that the EU Recovery Fund is too small for the task and that real money is going to be necessary.
Europe’s leaders oversold their faux ‘Hamiltonian’ fund last summer, too quick to proclaim that it had seen off the economic shock of Covid-19 once and for all. It will get ugly if and when Germany the Hanseatic hawks are asked to dig deeper into their pockets - yet again - to subsidise the Latins.
The European Central Bank says eurozone fiscal policy will turn “contractionary” next year. This de facto austerity is already starting to collide with the economic ravages of lockdown 2.0.
In short, Europe's one-month vaccine delay at this stage of the pandemic locks in another quarter of wreckage and pushes a string of EMU states a step closer to depressionary metastasis. It may bring into play the ECB’s other nagging worry: a €1.4 trillion deluge of bad debts in the banking system.
In Britain, Boris Johnson deserves more credit than he is getting. Personally, I was an arch-critic at the outset of Wave One, but the incessant criticism over recent months is overdone and borders on pathological.
Every major country in the EU has been torn apart by furious dispute over lockdown policy. Leaders of the German Länder screamed at each other in a meeting with Angela Merkel last week. Test and trace has been a mess almost everywhere in the libertarian West.
I feel strangely out of fashion in concluding that the Government has got the balance roughly right in Wave Two. Will the final verdict on this grim saga be kinder to Mr Johnson, and less adoring of Nicola Sturgeon, who has done no better?
Britain as a whole can take pride in its scientific nexus and the superb meshing together of its universities, industry, and civil service in the Vaccine Task Force.
The Genomics UK Consortium (COG) has been the world leader bar none in sequencing and mapping Covid-19, at one point accounting for over half the entire global stock of viral genomes.
After listening to Teresa Lambe from the Oxford vaccine group at the British Society of Immunology's forum yesterday, I have little doubt that Oxford/AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine will achieve high efficacy rates, even for older patients.
It will be the first real work-horse for the world: a super-cheap vaccine, easily stored at fridge temperature, produced at mass scale and able to save many more lives than the Pfizer or Moderna RNA messenger vaccines, marvellous though they are.
The British people can be proud that their country has done its part to rid humanity of this plague, and Heaven knows we need a lift after the vituperation we have endured since our Referendum apostasy. It is finally time to crack a bottle of Kentish sparkling wine.