Why has Europe been so slow at rolling out the Covid vaccine?

  • Video report by ITV News Europe Editor James Mates

The speed of the vaccine roll-out in Europe is becoming a political, as much as a medical problem in the EU. 

After a late and slow initial roll-out, European leaders are looking over their shoulders at Israel, the US and the UK and wondering how their voters are going to react if these countries start getting back to normal while they are still stuck in lockdown.

There are several reasons most EU countries have been moving so slowly: lack of supply, lack of vaccine options and a failure to plan for a massive national effort.

As things stand, most countries are only able to use the Pfizer BioNtech jab, with a few tens of thousands of doses of the US Moderna vaccine now being distributed. 

This compares to the UK, which authorised Pfizer almost a month ahead of the EU and has approved the Oxford/Astra Zeneca version as well. The US which also moved early on Pfizer approval, is now rolling out Moderna is huge quantities.

The Moderna coronavirus vaccine may be 94.5% effective against the illness Credit: Moderna/PA

This is a problem in Europe, not because they haven’t got enough doses right now, but because they fear the supplies not being there to give everyone their second jab three weeks later. That has made the roll-out significantly less ambitious in many countries. 

Italy, for example, is ensuring that all medical staff and care home residents get both doses, before they start a general vaccination programme for the over 80s - and Italy has been going faster than most.

The real laggards, given their size and impressive health care system, are the French. 

The UK vaccinated as many people today as France has managed in total

People receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Niguarda hospital in Milan Credit: Matteo Bazzi/Pool via AP

President Macron knows this is not good enough, and has been expressing growing frustration, but he seems powerless to get his bureaucrats to significantly step up the pace.

French policymakers live in terror of widespread vaccine resistance - not by the Covid-19 virus but by their own citizens, 60% of whom tell pollsters they may not be willing to be inoculated. 

It was thought that a massive, fast national roll-out, on the British model, would simply sow distrust in the safety of the whole exercise.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been expressing growing frustration over France's vaccine roll out. Credit: AP

What can Europe do to speed things up? 

Getting hold of substantial more doses of the Moderna vaccine and approving the Astra Zeneca version would certainly help. 

Plans to establish massive vaccine centres, as the UK is doing, are making progress. But there is still resistance to the idea of extending the time between doses in order to get more people their first jab and with it some degree of immunity. 

There is a push in some countries to increase the interval of the Pfizer vaccine from 21 days to 42, but great distrust about moving to the 12 week gap being used in Britain, at least until data suggests it is safe and effective.

Things will get easier, and the pace will pick up, but the longer the the EU is travelling in the vaccine slow lane, the more politically toxic it will become.