BRUSSELS (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union must prepare to vaccinate for new COVID-19 variants over the coming years after EU leaders discussed ways of stepping up innoculations and salvaging businesses, including tourism.
The 27 EU leaders agreed to keep “tight restrictions” on public life and free movement in place as the bloc races against the emergence of new variants that may hamper an economic rebound.
“We have to prepare for a situation where we have to continuously vaccinate for a longer period of time, maybe over years, due to new coronavirus variants, akin to the situation we know from the flu,” Merkel said.
The executive European Commission told the virtual leaders’ gathering that 51.5 million doses of vaccines had so far been delivered to the EU and 29.17 million administered, with about 5% of citizens having had their first dose, according to figures seen by Reuters.
The Commission and EU countries have come under fire for missteps in their joint inoculation programme and a stuttering rollout of shots that has lagged badly behind Israel, Britain and the United States.
Summit chairman Charles Michel said the bloc wanted “more predictability and transparency” from pharmaceutical companies that failed to deliver contracted vaccine volumes, putting at risk the EU’s target of innoculating 70% of its adult population by the end of the summer.
After the pandemic killed more than 900,000 people in Europe and thrust it into its worst-ever recession, EU leaders agreed to advance work on vaccine certificates, which southern countries hope will unlock tourism this summer.
But others, including France and Germany, are sceptical. Merkel said technical work on that should be completed by the summer.
As the EU treads a fine line between restrictions to stop the spread of infections and keeping borders open to ensure the smooth flow of goods and services across the single market, Merkel said she did not expect to impose tighter border restrictions on the French Moselle region for now.
Although infection rates are heading down in about 20 EU member states, there are concerns about fresh spikes as the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain spreads rapidly.
The head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the British variant was present in 26 of the EU’s 27 countries, the South African variant in 14 and Brazilian in seven nations.
“There is growing COVID fatigue among our citizens… But we should not let up now. Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe but we must also watch for the new variants that are spreading,” she said.