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Time for Britain to act like a good neighbour

A picture taken in December showing a vaccination centre in Hamburg, before inoculations had started in Europe but after the UK's and US's schemes were under way - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The EU has blundered catastrophically over vaccines and behaved badly. Let’s be good neighbours about it, says LIZ GERARD.

Well, what do you know! Here at last, to celebrate the double anniversary of Brexit and the UK’s first case of coronavirus, is an example of something the government has got right. Something we have done better by going it alone instead of working with Europe.

Britain’s vaccination programme is truly the envy of the western world. We invested in research and risked millions ordering jabs before they even existed. We backed scientists who knew what they were about, rather than mates down the pub who might know someone who could fill a syringe. Even the whiff of cronyism – the head of the vaccination task force is the wife of a Tory MP – has been Febrezed by the unarguable fact that Kate Bingham has done a good job.

Meanwhile, Europe has been clunking and chippy; slow to order and vindictive when told it might have to wait for some vaccine that it hadn’t yet approved and didn’t really believe in anyway.

This past week has been party time for Leavers. Never mind the queues at Dover, the tangles of red tape, the small businesses that have gone west, the bigger businesses that are moving east. Look over there at the real shot in the arm for Great British pride. See! We told you we were special. Thank goodness we’re out.

European Commissioners have certainly behaved like idiots. Their dispute is with AstraZeneca, not the UK, but they almost managed to start a ‘vaccine war’, enthusiastically aided and abetted by our wonderful newspapers. The Daily Express was predictably first to dive into the trenches, sloshing around in the mud and flinging it in the direction of “the enemy” (which ought to be the virus, but for the Express is always the EU). “WAIT YOUR TURN! SELFISH EU WANTS OUR VACCINES” it screamed on Thursday, courtesy of a rentaquote from the MP Peter Bone.

Selfish? Did the Express think we were being selfish when we bought up six times as many doses as we’re likely to need? (Actually, we weren’t because by pre-ordering, we were guaranteeing scientists the funds they needed to continue their research – and there was never any intention to stockpile any surplus.)

But why is it that when Johnson and Trump want to put Britain or America first they are heroes, yet when the EU tries to put its people first, it is the villain? Don’t answer that.

Here’s another: why is it that when the EU realises it’s made a mistake, changes its mind swiftly and apologises, it’s a humiliating U-turn on an original decision that reveals its “true colours”, but when the government blunders and is eventually forced to change tack, it’s “reacting to changing circumstances”? Don’t answer that one either.

And here’s a third: if it so wrong for a German MEP to talk about the EU “showing its weapons” that David Mellor writes: “Wow! Did his forebears use such sorry rhetoric in the Thirties?”, how is it ok for Mellor in the same piece to describe “Frau” Ursula von der Leyen as a Valkyrie and for his newspaper to characterise the vaccine row as Boris Johnson’s “Falklands moment”. Enough with the war language everyone.

The newspaper in question was the Mail on Sunday, which led on “Boris’s double vaccine victory over EU” and treated readers to ten pages of “unrivalled coverage of the EU vaccine meltdown”. I think you could call that gloating.

Yes, Europe has messed up royally. Yes, we approved and rolled out vaccines efficiently. That was not because “we’re the best country”, as Gavin Williamson claimed, or “thanks to Brexit”, as Matt Hancock, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and others asserted. We were still effectively members of the EU at the time, but chose to act independently of the European Commission, as any other member state could have done – and, indeed, are doing.

Hurrah! After all the gaffes, blunders and missteps, Boris gets something right. And what’s more, when the commission started getting antsy with AZ, he did something else right: he kept out of it. Until the Commission made that ridiculous and dangerous Article 16 move. Ridiculous because a moment’s thought would have brought the realisation that if you bar exports of vaccines from Europe to other countries, then other countries might just impose an export ban on the very vaccines you want – handing AZ a defence on a plate: “We’d love to have used British factories to fulfil your order, but our hands were tied by the government – just as you tied Pfizer’s hands.”

Dangerous because both the UK and the EU have now shown how little they care for the Northern Ireland protocol, how willing they are to jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement. Both have stepped back from the brink, but it’s clear it wouldn’t take much for either to take that leap.

As for selfish? It is in everyone’s interests for the whole world to be inoculated against this virus and it is especially in our interests for people in France, Spain and Italy to be vaccinated. We want to go there on holiday. We want their tourists to come here. We all want our economies to open up.

Here is an opportunity for Britain to show that it truly is an outward-looking global influencer, as Brexiters have claimed for the past five years. We could be magnanimous and offer to wait for some of our contracted order to help our friends in time of need – as ministers have suggested. We could come out of it with our reputation enhanced.

But to polish that reputation we also need to rediscover some of the Great British virtues of those bygone days the Leavers hanker for: modesty, discretion, courtesy, and most of all, to be gracious in victory.