Six EU states have now fully inoculated a larger share of their total populations with a coronavirus vaccine than the UK, after the bloc’s dire initial rollout took off while Britain’s impressive early jab rate has slumped.
According to government and health service figures collated by the online science publication Our World In Data, Malta, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Ireland have all overtaken the UK in terms of the percentages of their populations who are fully vaccinated.
While Britain’s hugely successful campaign was bound to slow first as it ran into harder-to-reach, more vaccine-hesitant groups, the rate of decline is dramatic: the UK is currently administering a fraction of the daily doses of some EU states.
On Wednesday, France administered 368,596 first doses and 261,695 second doses, for example, while the UK’s totals were 33,304 and 165,669 respectively.
The 27-member EU, whose campaign was dogged by repeated early stumbles, delays and shortages, is getting shots into arms faster than most developed countries, while also adopting tough tactics to keep take-up rates high.
The data will put pressure on Boris Johnson’s government to reboot a programme that began as one of the world’s fastest but is now flagging, with 57.3% of the population fully jabbed and 69% partly vaccinated.
Vaccination rates are rising only very slowly in every age group in the UK, but low take-up in the 18 to 29 cohort – due mainly to a perception that young people are not at risk – is marked and has alarmed ministers. Among the 18- to 30-year-olds, an estimated 33% are yet to get their first shot.
According to the figures, Malta had fully vaccinated 88% of its total population by 4 August, with 91% having had at least one dose. Belgium is on 61% fully jabbed and 70% partially; Spain on 60% and 70%; Portugal on 59% and 70%; Denmark on 58% and 73%; and Ireland on 57.4% and 68%.
The gap appears likely to widen further since several EU states – while their rollouts have also slowed since June – are still administering both first and second doses significantly faster than the UK, whose first-dose rate in particular has plummeted.
The Netherlands is already ahead of the UK on first doses; while others, including France, are on course, on current trends, to overtake Britain on second doses shortly. According to Our World In Data, the EU27’s rolling seven-day average of daily doses per 100 people is currently 0.56 shots, almost double the UK’s rate of 0.28.
Some EU states are vaccinating faster than the bloc’s average, and many times faster than the UK: Denmark, for example, is managing a rolling seven-day average of 0.97 daily doses per 100 people; France 0.82; Belgium 0.80; Portugal and Ireland 0.77; Spain 0.73 and Italy 0.72.
With a population similar to that of the UK, France makes an interesting point of comparison. According to the VaccinTracker website, which uses government data, France has so far administered 43.3m first and 36.1m second injections.
That means 65.1% of the French population has had at least one dose and 54.3% are fully vaccinated (a slightly higher percentage than Our World In Data’s, because France considers people who have recovered from Covid fully vaccinated after one dose).
Both figures remain lower than the British equivalents of 69% and 57%, respectively – but France is administering first doses at nearly 10 times the rate of Britain and second doses at nearly double the rate.
With the rapid spread of the Delta variant adding a new urgency to its slowing vaccine drives, France is one of several EU countries to have adopted the kind of coercive tactics aimed at boosting take-up among vaccine-shy groups, including young people, that Britain’s government has so far appeared reluctant to consider, although there may be restrictions on nightclub entry from September.
President Emmanuel Macron last month unveiled plans for a “health pass”, with proof of vaccination or a negative test required for access to public events and venues such as cinemas and museums.
From Monday, the pass will also be needed by adults to visit cafes and restaurants or take a long-distance train – a measure that will be extended to 12- to 17-year-olds in September. Unvaccinated secondary school students will also have to go home if a Covid-19 case is diagnosed in their class, while vaccinated pupils can stay at school.
While the French government’s strategy has sparked occasionally violent protest, drawing about 200,000 on to the streets across the country last Saturday, opinion polls show it enjoys broad majority support.
Most importantly, since the announcement of the health pass, France’s daily vaccination rate has nearly doubled, with almost 8 million people getting their first shot in the past six weeks. A further 7m appointments are booked for August.
Denmark, Italy, Greece and, most recently, Germany have all adopted or mooted similar tough incentives to get vaccinated, while multiple EU countries have also boosted take-up by opening up their vaccination offer to all over-12s – some since mid-June.
France, Spain and Italy all recently reported first-dose vaccination rates of up to 40% in the 12- to 17-year-old age group. Britain, by contrast, said only on Wednesday that it would soon start extending its vaccine offer to the over-16s.
Non-EU countries including the UAE, Singapore, Bahrain, Uruguay, Chile and Canada are faring better, in terms of the percentage of their populations to have received at least one dose, than the UK and most EU states except Malta.
EU governments’ big stick approach, combined with a lowering of the age limit for vaccinations, follow a calamitous first few months in the bloc’s campaign, a rapid uptick as supply improved from April, and then a steady decline since June.
In March, as the UK’s vaccine rollout powered ahead, the World Health Organization compared it unfavourable with Europe’s, which it criticised as “unacceptably slow”.
After opting not to compete with each other but buy as a bloc, the 27 first agreed that the European Commission – with no experience whatsoever of such a vast public health procurement effort – should take charge of their collective order.
The commission took time, however, to secure a mandate from all members, and more time over lengthy negotiations with vaccine manufacturers. Then the EU regulator, the European Medicines Agency, took time to approve the vaccines.
Next, AstraZeneca, from whom the bloc had ordered 300m doses for the first two quarters of 2021, failed to deliver more than a fraction of them, and rare blood clotting problems led several countries to suspend the shot’s use, denting public confidence.
Since then, however – thanks mainly to the arrival of a huge supply of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines in April – the EU’s vaccination drive has raced back. “The catch-up process has been very successful,” the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said last week.
Success, however, is far from even across the bloc: poorer member states such as Romania and Bulgaria, with less well-endowed public health services than wealthier neighbours such as Germany and the Netherlands, are struggling, with barely 26% and 15% of their populations vaccinated with at least one dose.