A needle in the arm of Brian Pinker in Oxford University Hospital at 7:30am on Monday marked yet another milestone in the global fightback against coronavirus.
The 82 year-old retired maintenance manager became the first person in the world to receive the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, the second type of jab to be authorised for use against Covid-19 in the UK, which has now carried out almost one million injections since December 8.
The approval and delivery of the homegrown Oxford jab comes amid criticism of the government over the vaccination plan for “failing to protect the workforce”, with doctors and nurses claiming they have been left in the dark about how to get the vaccine.
The vaccine stakes have now increased even further with Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday night that England would enter a third lockdown, with all schools to close immediately.
But across the Channel, Europe is facing its own vaccine crisis, with governments accused of “amateurism” after a series of setbacks reduced vaccinations to a trickle, just as infection rates continue to spiral.
In France, the stuttering rollout has been described as a “state scandal”, “fiasco” and a “disaster”. As of January 3, just 516 people had received the jab since Pfizer/BioNTech vaccinations began in Europe on December 27.
“It destroys me, what a form of unpreparedness! It’s a state scandal,” Jean Rottner, the president of France’s Grand Est region, said on Monday.
While the picture is improving elsewhere in Europe, rates still lag well behind the 944,539 official UK number. As of Monday, Germany had vaccinated around 266,000 people, Italy almost 180,000, while just 83,000 of the 718,000 vaccines distributed in Spain have been used.
By comparison, more than a tenth of Israel’s population have had a vaccine, and the country is now administering more than 150,000 doses a day, Reuters reports. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had administered 4,225,756 first doses as of Saturday morning, but well below the target of 20 million by the end of 2020.
Embarrassed by the stark global comparisons and facing criticism from both scientists and politicians, French President Emmanuel Macron has told people close to him “things must change fast and hard,” the weekly Journal du Dimanche reported on Sunday.
Opposition politicians in France have blamed a lack of organisation, poor logistics and confused communication for the delays, and for repeating many of the mistakes made early in the pandemic on PPE and testing.
“We are pursuing a policy which has proved its failure in the past: masks, tests, vaccination today,” Jean Rottner added.
Scientists meanwhile have claimed the government’s soft rollout has been too focused on not inflaming the country’s anti-vaccination movement, HuffPost France reports.
Despite coronavirus killing more than 65,000 people in France, the seventh highest national toll globally, a survey over the weekend showed six in every 10 French citizens intend to refuse vaccination, Reuters reports.
“It’s simple, either our authorities believe in this vaccine and we must go, or they do not believe in it,” Epidemiologist and France’s former director general of health, William Dab, told Le Parisien.
Further doubts were cast over France’s commitment to the rollout of the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine after a minister was forced to clarify remarks which appeared to suggest the government may be waiting for the delayed French-made vaccine from Sanofi/GSK.
“France is not late, it has chosen to use and prepare vaccines whose distribution and the sharing may be wider than current vaccines,” minister of research Frédérique Vidal said. Faced with criticism, Vidal later claimed she was simply referring to “research”.
Prime Minister Jean Castex has claimed that the gap with other European countries will be made up and that the vaccination campaign “will last six months”.
“It’s going too slowly,” epidemiologist and government adviser Arnaud Fontanet told France Info radio. “But the real deadline is to reach 5-10 million (vaccinations) by the end of March, because that’s the point at which you have a real impact on the spread of the virus.”
Criticism of the slow pace of vaccinations has spread across Europe as climbing infection rates force schools to close and place further pressure on already battered economies.
In Italy, 180,000 jabs have now been administered, out of the almost 470,000 Pfizer/Biontech doses delivered from December 30th to January 1st, meaning less than 40% of available doses have been used and less than .3% of the country’s 60 million population has been inoculated.
According to Italy’s regional governments, which are in charge of the rollout, a shortage of health workers and syringes has slowed the start of the campaign, especially in areas already facing a shortage of staff dedicated to traditional vaccinations, forcing them to call on retired doctors and volunteers.
“A powerful acceleration is needed”, warned Italy’s undersecretary for health Sandra Zampa, per HuffPost Italy.
In Spain, new national figures released Monday evening painted a difficult picture: in the eight days since vaccinations began, just 82,834 of the 718,535 vaccines distributed to the regional governments have been used. Meaning just 11% of available doses had been administered, although half of those only arrived for use on Monday.
“Vaccination is a national problem. The strategy is a national problem and the government of Spain should be at the helm, as should our fleeing minister, so that all regions receive the same number of doses, transparency and aid,” Madrid’s regional premier, Isabel Díaz Ayuso said on Monday, per El Pais.
Spain’s health minister, Salvador Illa, claimed on Monday the country would reach a “cruising speed” in the vaccination programme in the coming weeks, however a series of logistical and organisational setbacks resulted in almost an entire week being lost over the festive season in Madrid, with no vaccinations in between December 31 and January 3.
“At the beginning, after the first vaccine on December 27, which was the starting gun, everything went very fast, but then it stopped suddenly, among other things due to Pfizer’s logistics problems,” said Cinta Pascual, a leader in the care sector for the elderly in Catalonia, per HuffPost Spain.
Refrigerators needed to transport the Pfizer/Biontech vaccines were trapped at Calais during the pre-Christmas border closure with the UK, holidays for health workers weren’t rescheduled, while care home residents were allowed to spend time with family, making them unavailable for inoculation.
Facing criticism from across Europe, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said any “bottleneck” in distribution was down to production capacity shortage, not EU planning.
“Everyone is now looking at the pace of vaccinations” but “the bottleneck at the moment is not the volume of orders but the worldwide shortage of production capacity,” she said.
Some experts, however, have urged caution over reading too much into issues so early into the rollout.
“We are in a very early organisational phase, I hope that in the coming days all this can improve objectively. We discount two elements: the typical difficulties of all beginnings and the fact that the start of the vaccination campaign coincided with these holidays,” Francesco Vaia, health director of Rome’s Spallanzani hospital, told HuffPost Italy.
“I am convinced that in January we will improve the performance. We are facing an operation that has been defined as the largest mass vaccination in history, it is understandable that the beginning presents new challenges,” Vaia said.
However, with the spread of the so-called ’English variant’ across Europe, there are warnings the new strain could make the vaccination campaign more difficult.
“Obviously if the number of infections were to rise in an important way, especially in this first phase, there would be the difficulty of vaccinating health workers and at the same time having to guarantee care to patients arriving in hospitals,” Antonio Clavenna, from Milan’s Mario Negri Institute of Pharmacological Research, told HuffPost Italy.
— With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost Italy, HuffPost Spain and Reuters