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Thursday briefing: Spectre of vaccine 'trade war' between Britain and EU

Warren Murray
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP</span>
Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP

Top story: ‘We reject first come, first served’

Hi, I’m Warren Murray and I am just going to leave this here.

Britain is on a collision course with the European Union over vaccine shortages after Brussels refused to accept that people in the UK have first claim on Oxford/AstraZeneca doses produced in British plants. Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s health commissioner, said the UK should not earn any advantage from signing a contract with AstraZeneca early. “We reject the logic of first come, first served,” Kyriakides said. “That may work in a butcher’s shop but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.” Peter Liese, an MEP from the German ruling party, foreshadowed a “trade war” if the EU found itself having to retaliate by blocking exports to the UK of the alternative “very good” BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine that is “produced in Europe, supported by European money … So the company [AstraZeneca] and the UK better think twice.”

At home, cases of coronavirus have started to decline in England but must fall faster to relieve pressure on the NHS, analysis by Imperial College London has found. Leaders in the north-west of England have said it is “utterly inexcusable” for the region’s vaccine supply to be cut by a third next month as other areas strive to catch up on vaccinating the elderly. Doctors are calling for better targeting of vaccinations to make sure socially vulnerable groups are prioritised – Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association council, said: “In addition to the over-80s and the over-70s etc, there should be a parallel approach of the programme rollout to target health inequalities, especially in deprived communities, and as they apply to ethnic minorities.” For global coronavirus developments there’s only our live blog.

* * *

‘Heightened threat environment’ – The US Department of Homeland Security has issued a national terrorism bulletin, warning of the lingering potential for violence from people motivated by anti-government sentiment after Joe Biden’s election. The bulletin suggests the riot by Donald Trump supporters at the US Capitol on 6 January may embolden extremists. It does not cite any specific plots but points to “a heightened threat environment across the United States” that it believes “will persist” for weeks.

Biden has warned the climate crisis poses an “existential threat” to the world as he unveiled a radical change in direction from the Trump era by halting fossil fuel activity on public lands and directing the US government to start a full-frontal effort to lower planet-heating emissions. “We see it with our own eyes, we feel it in our bones. It’s time to act,” Biden said.

* * *

Wind blows coal away – Renewable electricity outpaced fossil fuel generation for the first time in 2020 in Britain and could remain the largest source of electricity in the future, according to Ember, an independent thinktank. Almost a quarter of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind turbines last year, double the share of wind power in 2015 and up from a fifth of the UK’s electricity in 2019. Although renewable energy has overtaken fossil fuels during the summer months before, 2020 was the first time that renewables were the main source of the UK’s electricity over a year. Renewable energy also outperformed fossil fuels across the EU for the first time, according to the report, following a collapse in the use of coal in 2020.

* * *

Italy shamed over mass boat drowning – Italy failed in its duty to protect human life by delaying a rescue for a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, the UN Human Rights Committee has found. More than 200 people drowned on 11 October 2013 after repeated requests for help were ignored, according to a ruling on a case brought by Syrian and Palestinian survivors. According to the investigation, Italian authorities referred distress calls to the Maltese coastguard, whose help only arrived five hours later when the boat had already capsized. Italian authorities could have been there “at the latest two hours before it sank”, said committee member Hélène Tigroudja, adding it was within the Maltese search and rescue zone but “closest to Italy and to one of its naval ships”. Last week 43 people died when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean, also after leaving the Libyan coast.

* * *

Driven down – UK car production slumped to its lowest level since 1984 last year amid the turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Nissan overtook Jaguar Land Rover as the biggest British manufacturer. The output of British car factories dropped by 29% compared with the year before – to about 921,000. It was the first time annual production had fallen below 1m since 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis. The figures were “the worst in a generation”, said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the industry lobby group that compiled the data. UK car sales for 2020 were the lowest since 1992, hitting demand for the fifth of British-made cars that stay in their home market.

* * *

‘Already had a Bernie pattern’ – Bernie Sanders went from becoming a hit meme to a nearly $20,000 crochet doll in less than a week. After an inauguration day image of the Vermont senator went viral, showing him sitting on a folding chair, socially distanced from other guests, wearing chunky knitted mittens, Tobey King in Texas got to crocheting. The doll sold for $20,300.

Crochet Bernie Sanders doll made by Tobey King of Texas
The crochet Bernie Sanders doll made by Tobey King of Texas. Photograph: Billy Calzada/AP

“It’s mind-blowing because I knew Bernie was trending because of that picture, and I already had a Bernie pattern and a Bernie doll. So, I just went and got that and I modified that super quick,” King said. Recreating that envied Sanders look took King about seven hours of non-stop crocheting. The auction proceeds will be donated to Meals on Wheels America.

Today in Focus podcast: Brazilians fight Covid on their own

Tom Phillips, the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent, looks at the surge of infections in the Brazilian state of Amazonas that has left many hospitals without the most basic supplies and has prompted yet more protests against Jair Bolsonaro.

Lunchtime read: Trillion reasons to feel better

Could a trillion dollars end the Covid pandemic? Eradicate disease? Provide universal healthcare and fund vaccine research? Rowan Hopper considers the idea.


Manchester United suffered a shock defeat against Sheffield United, the bottom-placed team claiming only a second win of the season and first at Old Trafford since 1973, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær criticising his side’s conceding of “two bad goals”. Thomas Tuchel’s first game in charge of Chelsea ended in frustration after his team could only manage a goalless draw at home to Wolves at Stamford Bridge. On a busy night of top-flight football, there were also stalemates between Everton and Leicester, and Brighton and Fulham, but Burnley were victorious in a 3-2 win over Aston Villa. Elsewhere, Chelsea’s women became record-breakers at Aston Villa when they extended their unbeaten run in the Women’s Super League to 32 games.

Former tennis world No 1 Serena Williams has praised Australia’s “intense but good” quarantine procedures ahead of the Australian Open.

Johanna Konta knows she is one of the lucky ones as the end of the British No 1’s quarantine period for the year’s first grand slam comes into sight. More than one-third of black, Asian and minority ethnic cricketers say they have experienced racism in the game, a survey of professional players in England has found. Organisers of the Olympic Games and Euro 2020 are increasingly bullish the two biggest sporting events of the year will go ahead. And fresh doubts over whether the Six Nations will go ahead as scheduled have emerged with Brexit red tape presenting a stumbling block to the tournament.


Asia-Pacific markets have fallen after a reality check about longtime economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic gave Wall Street its worst day since October. Benchmarks in Japan, South Korea, Australia and China all declined today. The FTSE at time of writing is tracking to open 60-70 points lower. Sterling is worth $1.366 and €1.130 right now.

The papers

“Britain and EU in row over who gets Oxford jab first” – the Guardian front page leads with this ugly episode of vaccine nationalism, as do many. “No, EU can’t have our jabs” says the Mail, which underscores “can’t”. Things get even nastier in the Express: “Wait your turn! Selfish EU wants our vaccines”.

“EU demands share of British vaccines” says the i and the Telegraph’s splash headline is within a few words of being the same. The Financial Times continues the theme: “EU demands UK Covid vaccines from AstraZeneca to fill shortfall”.

The Times tries to dignify the topic: “UK supply of vaccine ‘more than is needed’”, quoting industry sources as saying Britain will end up with enough to share with other countries. It also covers the intriguing short sellers versus redditors battle over the share price of GameStop. “Schools out until spring” – that’s the Mirror on news that the gates will stay shut for most at least until 8 March. “My miracle Covid baby” – the Metro has the story of a nurse who was gravely ill with coronavirus when she gave birth and is only now getting to know her daughter. The Sun alleges Rita Ora tried to pay a restaurant to throw her a lockdown-breaching 30th birthday party.

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