The UK’s vaccine tsar has condemned Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel as “completely irresponsible” for undermining the AstraZeneca vaccine, amid fears the EU jabs fiasco has fuelled a third Covid wave that could spread to Britain .
In her first major interview, Kate Bingham, the former head of the Government’s vaccine taskforce, accused the French president and German chancellor of encouraging anti-vaxxers after both cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccine, developed by British scientists.
Just 12 per cent of the EU population has been vaccinated , and more than half the bloc’s stockpile of around 15 million AstraZeneca jabs remains unused. Both France and Germany are experiencing third Covid waves , with Paris and other areas of France being locked down for a month .
Asked whether she was frustrated by the leaders of those countries undermining the AstraZeneca vaccine, Ms Bingham told The Telegraph Magazine: “If I was sitting in those countries, I would not be happy to have leaders that are undermining a vaccine that could actually protect.
“The data is coming through every day showing how effective it is in the older people. It’s not good from a vaccine hesitancy perspective.
“The UK’s done really well because we’ve had astonishingly high take-up , whereas if you’ve got leaders basically saying: ‘I’m not taking that vaccine’ it’s completely irresponsible. There’s no other word for it, actually.”
France risked stoking further confusion on Friday after adopting its third position on the AstraZeneca jab, advising against giving the drug to people under 55 amid concern over blood clots, having previously suspended its use and prior to that recommended its use only for those under 65.
Mr Macron prompted an outcry earlier this year when he claimed the jab was “quasi-ineffective” for pensioners .
In February, Mrs Merkel, 66, faced heavy criticism for refusing the AstraZeneca jab , insisting it was not recommended for people over 65. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) later gave it the green light for use in all age groups. On Friday, the chancellor said she would have the jab when it was her turn.
The latest daily figures for the UK showed that a record 660,276 doses were administered in 24 hours, as Boris Johnson received his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.
Speaking afterwards, the Prime Minister said: “I had a wonderful nurse called Lily. She said: ‘You’re going to feel a sharp thing.’ I literally did not feel a thing. It was very good, very quick.
“You know what I’m going to say – I cannot recommend it too highly. Everybody, when you do get your notification to get a jab please go and get it because it is the best thing for you, the best thing for your family and everybody else.
“Don’t just listen to me, listen to all the scientists, listen to the European Union Medicines Agency, what the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] has said. The risk is Covid – this is a great thing to do.”
Daily government figures show that coronavirus cases in Britain are down nearly nine per cent in a week , while deaths have fallen by 36 per cent and hospital admissions by 23 per cent.
But government scientists have warned Mr Johnson that the fallout from the vaccine row is fuelling a third wave in Europe that could spread to Britain. On Friday, experts met Mr Johnson amid fears that rising cases in Europe will inevitably leak into the UK.
“I don’t think we should kid ourselves that you can stop these things from getting here,” said one well-placed source.
Government scientists said numbers in Britain were “still heading in the right direction” and that although it was too early to see the impact of schools reopening , there were no “red flags”.
But they warned that it would be difficult to prevent cases coming from the continent even with strict border controls, because goods needed to come over as well as travellers, meaning preventing all contact would be impossible.
On Friday night, Whitehall insiders stressed that no imminent changes were expected to be made to the “red list” of countries . Arrivals from those nations are required to spend time in quarantine hotels .
However, a Cabinet source believed it was inevitable that ministers would have to consider tightening travel restrictions if rates in Europe continued to increase in the coming weeks.
“Thanks to what we’ve done with the vaccine, we’re in a much stronger place to deal with Covid than other countries in Europe because of the 25 million jabs we have already delivered,” the source told The Telegraph. “We’re watching what is happening in other European countries.
“No one is asleep on this, because we know it could have an effect on the UK. It’s right for us to be on our guard. We’ve got these provisions now and they will have to be applied. It doesn’t matter whether it’s France or Finland. If the rates are making that country a problem, then you’ve got to apply them”
On Friday, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, said he was “concerned” to see reports of a third Covid wave hitting France and suggested a rise in cases could delay the easing of lockdown restrictions.
“Nobody should think that we are immune from that, nobody should think we can drop our guard and plan on the basis that coronavirus has gone away,” Mr Drakeford he said.
Paris was plunged into a new month-long lockdown this week after recording tens of thousands of new infections each day. Germany has also confirmed that it is experiencing a third wave , warning there is not enough vaccine to stop the growing numbers. Italy, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also seeing worrying increases.
There are also concerns that some “pockets” of Europe are seeing large increases in more worrying Covid mutations such as the South African and Brazilian variants .
Officials are increasingly concerned about France, with a document compiled by the Joint Biosecurity Centre last week said to identify the country as having a growing number of “variants of concern”, including the South African, Brazilian and Japanese strains. Belgium is also understood to have been highlighted in the document.
Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, warned on Friday that a “significant fraction” of cases were likely to be the South African variant, against which the AstraZeneca vaccine is feared to be less effective.
“You have to be careful about importation – we know how quickly they can get seeded,” added a government source. “We do have a lot of connectivity, across importation of goods and all sorts of other things as well. I don’t think it’s as simple as a whole load of people coming across from Europe.
“It’s a matter for ministers to take into action, but I don’t think we should kid ourselves that you can stop these things from getting in here. We’ve seen it three times now.
“We should not rest on our laurels and say ‘you know it’s ok, we’re quite low at the moment’, because we may not be and we may see an increase over the next few weeks. That’s what we need to look at very carefully.”
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