The Brief — COVID gamblers

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/ROBERT PERRY]

Is this the end of COVID – or at least of the restrictions? Or is it a misperception? Should we brace for a new variant, possibly the worst we could imagine?

In the UK, the battered Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an end to all restrictions starting next week, meaning that COVID-19 will be considered in the same way as flu.

Businesses could choose to continue to request COVID passes if they wanted to, Johnson said.

Our guess is that they will not.

Conversely, in France, the restrictions were tightened, and the Green certificate became a vaccination certificate, putting more pressure on the unvaccinated.

President Emmanuel Macron even used rowdy language against the unvaccinated, which he may regret as the April elections come closer.

It seems that both Macron and Johnson have taken a political gamble with COVID, for different reasons.

For Johnson, it might even be a desperate move and a distraction to please the masses and his own party and stay in power despite the most challenging circumstances of his premiership.

Macron likely wants to position himself as a responsible statesman who will not take risks with his people.

Both are on a slippery slope, but the stakes are not the same.

BoJo has little to lose. If the fudge helps him survive by securing the support of Tory backbenchers opposed to the restrictions, his move is grand.

For Macron, the gamble is trickier. To enhance restrictions precisely at the time when science suggests that vaccination does not prevent the spread of the Omicron virus is not a great move. It may even be a mistake.

And his political opponents and the candidates to succeed him would be only too happy to overblow his controversial decision.

It’s no secret that BoJo and Emmanuel love to hate each other. If Johnson could at the same time save his skin and put Macron in even greater trouble domestically, his devilish move would make history.

Is either of these decisions based on facts and science? Yes and no.

The statistics show a decline in COVID-cases in the UK since 5 January, while France has just reached its peak. Both countries still report a substantial number of new cases. This kind of evidence does not allow clear-cut scientific conclusions and can be interpreted by politicians to suit their own agenda.

The developments will have repercussions across the EU. Everywhere, there are protests against the Green certificate. The UK move argues that the certificate is of little use (except for incentivising the non-vaccinated to get the jab, thus reducing the pressure on hospitals).

Since one country in Europe is lifting the coronavirus restrictions, it will be very difficult to strengthen restrictions elsewhere, introduce fines, or, God forbid, mandatory vaccination. The politicians who would persist in such an endeavour would be sanctioned by their electorate.

France and the UK are among the countries with the highest vaccination rate: 75.6% of fully vaccinated in France, 71.4% in the UK. For reaching such results, Johnson and Macron have gambled but they have also provided leadership.

In Europe, every nation has decided the human sacrifice it would make to the COVID Godzilla. Those massively vaccinated will pay a lesser price in terms of the human toll. In those with lower vaccination rates, the story is not over yet. It is important to note that there was little leadership in these countries.

Ultimately, the citizens decided. Democracy prevailed. Every single one of us was a COVID gambler.

The Roundup

Éric Zemmour, the fiery far-right candidate in the French presidential elections, chose to clarify his anti-immigration-focused vision of Europe in Calais. While he will not advocate for Frexit, he will try to renegotiate the Schengen agreement and, “if necessary”, withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

An EU lawmaker’s proposal to put aside free pollution permits for industry in case plans to replace them by an external EU carbon tariff fail has been criticised by his fellow lawmakers in the European Parliament. Carbon-intensive industries currently receive free allocations under the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) to prevent carbon leakage, where companies move out of Europe to places where it is cheaper to pollute.

German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir displayed unity at a joint appearance on Tuesday (18 January). The two Green ministers advocate the end of direct agricultural payments and increased organic production.

New standards to reduce carbon emissions in the building sector will not be enough to meet the EU’s 2030 and 2050 climate targets, according to a recent report by Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), an independent expertise centre.

A large majority of MEPs voted in favour of the Digital Services Act on Thursday, after plenary amendments introduced important changes to the text.

EU and UK officials have set the end of February as the unofficial deadline for reaching agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol, amid anxiety that the long–running talks could disrupt the campaign for the Northern Ireland assembly elections.

Lastly, check out our podcast on mental health and rising suicide rates among Europe’s youth.

Look out for…

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen chairs the meeting with the Advisory Panel on COVID-19
  • European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans participates in the informal environment Council in Amiens
  • European Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica co-chairs the Plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe
  • Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson participates in a Conference on Border Management in Vilnius

Views are the author’s.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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