Wednesday, 31 March 2021
Post-European Council Meeting: Statements
The meeting of the European Council which took place last week was a crucial moment in the European Union's battle with Covid-19. Over the course of the past year, the virus has wreaked havoc across member states. The economic and social devastation caused by this pandemic has been severe. The people of the EU and Ireland have experienced months of hardship. They have endured lockdown and massive disruption to their lives as they adhere to public health restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus.
The mistakes by the European Union in the procurement and supply of vaccines have caused an understandable level of frustration and anger among citizens. There is no doubt that citizens have played their part in the fight against Covid-19. The mess made of the initial stages of the EU vaccine strategy, however, created a sense that officials were failing to play their part.
It is very welcome that the European Commission has acknowledged those early mistakes and is now focused on improving supply as we move into the second quarter of the year. It is important and welcome that a commitment to keeping Covid-19 vaccine supply chains open was affirmed at the meeting. That is the right thing to do. While we must have a realistic view of vaccine supply across all countries, especially while some steam ahead and others lag behind, the truth is that the fight against this virus has to be an international effort.
Furthermore, any potential export ban raises the menace of checks at the Border, which could have serious ramifications for the Irish protocol. That is the last thing we need, especially considering the unilateral actions of the British Government, the thoughtless thinking out loud about the triggering of Article 16 by the European Commission in January and the persistent political attacks waged by political unionism in the North. The protocol is Ireland's protection against the sharpest edge of the Tory Brexit. It protects the all-island economy, prevents a hard border on the island and ensures the Good Friday Agreement is upheld. These protections were hard won through a unified all-Oireachtas approach and they are very important to the future of our island, North and South. It is vital that the standing of the protocol and the consequences for Ireland are the foremost considerations when political decisions are made in either London or Brussels. It cannot be jeopardised in any way during this pandemic or, indeed, into the future.
I welcome that the presentation delivered by US President Joe Biden has been hailed positively as a new era in transatlantic relations. It is necessary that the EU and US work closely together to remove obstructions in the supply and delivery of vaccines and the commitment of the US President to such an effort can only be a good thing. By working together internationally, we can strengthen the fight against the pandemic. There has been justified criticism of the EU regarding the vaccine strategy. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Irish Government to ensure we have enough supply here to drastically improve what has been a very slow and stuttering roll-out. Ramping up supply is especially important given that the slow pace of the roll-out directly influenced yesterday's decision to ease restrictions only very slightly.
The announcement that Johnson & Johnson will supply the EU with 200 million vaccines in the second half of April, 2.2 million of which are reportedly destined for Ireland, will undoubtedly raise spirits. However, while supplies through the EU will increase in the second quarter, it is still prudent and necessary for the Government to seek additional supply through additional deals outside of this pathway. That is, after all, what other EU member states such as Germany and Denmark have done and we should be doing the same. Furthermore, should the opportunity arise to source additional vaccine supplies from Britain, that opportunity should be seized. Everything must be done to move beyond projections and speed up the roll-out. This means not only increasing supply but also enhancing our logistical operation in order to ensure we can quickly take advantage of any increased supply. To get this right, we must be prepared. We need detailed plans for the staffing of mass vaccination centres and the system for the delivery of vaccines to doctors needs real and substantial improvement. Vaccination is the key route out of this crisis. The faster we get vaccines into people’s arms safely, the closer we will get to a reopening and better days during the summer.
Fairness is key to the success of the vaccination programme, both at home and internationally. We must always be mindful that this is a global effort. The EU cannot allow profit protecting patents on vaccines, which are medicines developed for the public, to hamper the worldwide vaccination effort. The more vaccines that are produced, the less chance there is for resistant strains of this virus to develop. The imperative and the benefits are clear. The EU should not stand in the way of vaccine production in other parts of the world. There should be no circumstances in which profit becomes the foremost consideration in this pandemic. Everyone - I repeat, everyone - deserves protection from Covid-19.