Irish Examiner view: Only delivery can resolve vaccine rows

Irish Examiner view: Only delivery can resolve vaccine rows

The gross under-delivery of vaccines not only scuttles health programmes, it, at a moment of crisis, also drains confidence in the very institutions we rely on to confront the pandemic

For a brief few hours this weekend, it looked as if our prospects, like the clocks, had changed to usher in sunnier days. The Sunday Times reported that Britain might offer 3.7m badly-needed Covid-19 vaccines to the Republic, almost half the 8m vaccines exported to Britain from the EU in February.

The newspaper reported that a Downing Street minister harrumphed that such a gesture would be a “poke in the eye” for Brussels amid an ongoing row over contracts and broken contracts. We were, almost inevitably, to be hoisted on that uncomfortable cleft stick in the deteriorating relationships between Britain and the European Union. The unvaccinated meat in the sandwich as it were.

It was reported that Boris Johnson’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab, cabinet minister Michael Gove and Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis have had “outline discussions” about the plan with a London cabinet source saying it could begin after Easter. Then reality, as it always does, intervened. Our Government poured tepid if not cold water on the idea: “We are not aware of any specific plans to share vaccines with Ireland at this stage.”

Coming as it did just hours after AstraZeneca’s Irish president Dan Wygal promised that Ireland will receive a “large volume” of vaccines in the coming weeks it seemed, even if only for a moment, that Christmas and summertime had overlapped. Though Mr Wygal did not apologise for the massive shortfall in shipments, he said he felt “highly accountable” to do all he could to improve the situation. Advance purchase agreements meant Ireland expected around 827,000 AstraZeneca doses in the first quarter but only 228,000 materialised. This gross under-delivery not only scuttles health programmes, it, at a moment of crisis, also drains confidence in the very institutions we rely on to confront the pandemic.

Supply issues may yet confound Britain’s programme even if Johnson’s government is “confident” that everyone in the UK will get a second dose of a vaccine within 12 weeks of their first. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the timetable was on track and that it was “essential” to provide second doses without mixing vaccines. That this is even being discussed suggests that the plan to send 3.7m vaccines here is pandemic boosterism at its most cynical.

One of the realities faced by our health system is matching vaccines with the right people. Hospitals are struggling to contact vulnerable people in the Group 4 category and are being forced to ask GPs and pharmacists for urgent help. The HSE is trying to contact and identify at least 150,000 people in this group for vaccination but in the absence of a national disease register, this is proving more difficult than it might be.

Accepting the less-than-expected relaxation of pandemic measures tomorrow will also be difficult. The 5km travel limit is likely to be relaxed as will the number of people you can meet outdoors. All schoolchildren will return to classes.

Welcome as these measures are, more might have been expected. This is, unfortunately, our world today. However, if we follow the guidelines and eventually use the vaccines — where ever they come from — our situation should be much improved by the time we have to change the clocks again.

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