Brexit’s Border Flashpoint Is Now Tale of Two Vaccine Regimes

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The Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in the Irish border city of Drogheda received some more bad news this month. Its supply of vaccine had run out, upending a plan to inject all of its front-line workers.

The anger that ensued in one of the world’s worst virus outbreaks was made more stark by the situation about half an hour’s drive away. Across the invisible line that divides Ireland in the European Union and Northern Ireland in the U.K. lies Daisy Hill Hospital in the town of Newry. About 75% of the north’s health and social care staff have been vaccinated.

A flashpoint in Britain’s Brexit negotiations with the EU, the 310-mile (500-kilometer) frontier is now a focus of increasingly heated debates over combatting the pandemic as Ireland marks a century since it was partitioned.

Brexit’s Border Flashpoint Is Now Tale of Two Vaccine Regimes

Rather than wrangling over trade, movement of people and political identity, the vastly different pace of vaccine roll outs is capturing the tension within the EU over its comparatively slow approval of the inoculations that could the end the worst health and economic crisis since World War II.

About 9% of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people have been vaccinated after the U.K. approved three shots for use. In the south, the figure is 2.5% of a population of 4.9 million.

In a confrontation with the government in Dublin, Irish labor leaders this week cited the country’s failure to match Northern Ireland as one reason for stopping special education teachers returning to schools.

In Drogheda, the hospital had expected 1,700 vaccines to arrive this week, which would have cleared the staff backlog, Grainne Milne, director of midwifery for the area told local radio. Maternity staff  had been told they would be getting the injection before the plan was suspended.

“In this area, we have health workers living in the south, but working in the north being vaccinated—and some living in the north, but working in the south not being vaccinated,” said Ged Nash, a lawmaker with the Irish opposition Labour Party who represents the Drogheda district. “The border here is invisible and we are grateful for that. But it does shine a light on these strange inconsistencies.”

Brexit’s Border Flashpoint Is Now Tale of Two Vaccine Regimes

The frustrations in Drogheda are being shared around the EU. The U.K. has delivered 8.76 doses per 100 people, while the EU is lagging behind at 1.79, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker as on Jan. 22.

A group of EU leaders this week pressed the bloc’s drugs regulator to green light vaccines faster. Meanwhile, Hungary became the first EU nation this week to approve Russia’s vaccine for use.

Few places encapsulate the speed of the rollout than Ireland, the U.K.’s only land border with the EU after the Brexit transition ended on Dec. 31. After Ireland was divided in 1921, the mainly Protestant north remained in the U.K., separate from the largely Catholic rest of the island. Both Ireland and the U.K. joined the European Economic Community, as the EU was known then, in 1973.

Almost 50 years on, the south of Ireland remains wedded to the EU, while Northern Ireland has left with the rest of the U.K. The border, and the different regimes on either side of it, has been a consistent source of frustration in the island’s handling of the pandemic.

Brexit’s Border Flashpoint Is Now Tale of Two Vaccine Regimes

This week, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin described Northern Ireland’s refusal to ban British flights when a new U.K. virus strain emerged as “problematic.” He also rounded on those advocating a zero-Covid strategy for Ireland, telling them the open border with the north made that impossible. He called it a “gap in our system.”

The disparity in vaccine programs is largely down to supply. Staff at Our Lady of Lourdes were told care homes are the priority for “any and all” vaccines nationally when they learned their inoculation was on hold.

“This is absolutely heartbreaking and hugely upsetting for the staff,” Milne, the midwifery director, said. She now had “no idea” when vaccines might arrive. 

Some 80,000 front-line health care workers will be dosed by Sunday, about half of the total number, Martin said. “The bottom line is we don’t have enough,” Martin said, reassuring health workers they are next.

The U.K. became the first country in the western world to approve a Covid immunization last month, green lighting the Pfizer-BioNTech shot two weeks before the EU. While both approved Moderna Inc.’s vaccine at roughly same time, Britain licensed the one developed at home by AstraZeneca Plc and Oxford University on Dec. 30. The EU’s drugs regulator won’t approve that shot until later this month at the earliest.

“Supply is one key reason why Northern Ireland seems to be ahead,” said Peter Donaghy, a data analyst who has been tracking the vaccines roll out in Northern Ireland. “Also, delivery appears to be efficient. Anecdotally, you hear the process of actually getting the job done is quite slick.”

Brexit’s Border Flashpoint Is Now Tale of Two Vaccine Regimes

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday tweeted that 5 million people now have been vaccinated, with over 70s now being given shots in England.

In Ireland, the gap isn’t likely to close any time soon. Northern Ireland is on track to vaccinate about half its population by the end of March, according to David Higgins at Dublin-based research firm Carraighill. In the south, the figure will be about 25%.

In Drogheda, even ardent EU supporters like lawmaker Nash are concerned. “Everything turns on supply,” he said. “The AstraZeneca vaccine can’t come quick enough.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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