Germany should use the Russian and Chinese coronavirus vaccines if they win EU approval, the health minister has said, as the French president said Europe must step up its vaccine roll-out and several European countries began easing restrictions.
Speaking ahead of an emergency summit with vaccine manufacturers to tackle the country’s sluggish rollout, Jens Spahn said that if a vaccine “can be considered safe and effective, regardless of what country it has been produced in, then it could help”.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will chair the summit, is under pressure to accelerate Germany’s vaccine programme which has seen two million people receive the jab so far compared with more than 10 million in the UK – although Germany has now given more people second doses than Britain.
German commentators said the suggestion showed how eager Germany was for a solution after days of ugly wrangling between the EU and the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca over procurement and investment.
The German government has faced mounting criticism from the 16 Länder and medical profession for being too slow and not assertive enough in securing vaccine stocks, and for not exerting more pressure on the European commission to do more.
Spahn said he was pained by the slowness of Germany’s vaccinations. “It pains me, every outbreak in old people’s homes, every death,” he said. But he added he was hopeful now that 70% of German care home residents had received a jab, a year after the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe. “I think that is very fortunate,” he said.
With several regions having to cancel vaccinations for lack of supplies, German legal experts have sharply criticised the contract between AstraZeneca and the European commission for being vague and incomplete about what would be delivered when.
Despite the approval last week by the EU’s medical agency EMA of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Germany’s vaccine commission has continued to insist it will not allow its use for the over-65s because of a lack of testing on that age group.
Emmanuel Macron also said Europe had to act more efficiently and quickly on vaccines. “We are in a race against time,” the French president said, adding that his view was shared by Merkel and the EU commission president, Ursula Von Der Leyen.
“We, as Europeans, need to be more efficient on this matter. We will continue in the coming weeks and months to speed things up,” Macron added.
BioNTech and Pfizer said on Monday they will increase their coronavirus vaccine deliveries to the EU, pledging to send up to 75m extra doses to the bloc this spring after making production improvements including modifying Pfizer’s Belgian plant.
“We will supply the full quantity of vaccine doses in the first quarter we contractually committed to and up to an additional 75m doses to the EU in the second quarter,” the companies said. The EU has ordered a total of 600m doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech jab.
Von der Leyen said late on Sunday that AstraZeneca had agreed to increase its coronavirus vaccine deliveries to the EU by 30%, with EU sources saying the first deliveries would start in the second week of February.
Meanwhile several European countries or regions began easing their strictest restrictions, sparking alarm in some quarters. From Friday, groups of up to six people in the Madrid region will be allowed to gather on outdoor restaurant terraces, up from the current four, while a 10pm curfew could be eased to midnight.
“In Madrid, we are doing everything in our power to keep our bars and restaurants and our cultural space open despite political pressure,” the said conservative regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso said. Madrid has consistently been in conflict with Spain’s left-wing central government about how to tackle the pandemic.
The easing of coronavirus restrictions in Italy has also raised concern. Sixteen of Italy’s 20 Italian regions were moved into the lower-risk “yellow zone” on Monday, meaning bars and restaurants can serve until 6pm and people can travel more freely within their regions.
A 10pm-5am curfew remains in place across the country, as does a ban on inter-regional travel unless for work or emergency reasons. Half the country’s high school pupils also returned to the classroom on Monday.
Walter Ricciardi, a scientist advising the health ministry, said a lockdown like last spring’s was not necessary but he would prefer the whole country to be under tougher “red zone” restrictions, predicting a rise in infections “in two to three weeks”.
Museums, art galleries, libraries and shopping malls re-opened in Poland on Monday, but health minister Adam Niedzielski said most schools would remain shut until at least March.
“Several countries that took decisions over Christmas that were less conservative than ours are suffering very bad consequences,” Niedzielski said. Bars, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and gyms will also stay closed until 14 February at the earliest.
France’s finance minister warned restaurant owners they risk losing their coronavirus financial aid if they follow a call by rebel restaurateurs and open despite the shutdown. “It’s extremely hard for restaurants, economically and in terms of morale,” Bruno Le Maire said, “but in no way does that justify not respecting the rules.
Police in Paris said they found 24 restaurants operating unlawfully on Thursday and Friday, and warned they would step up enforcement. The minister said owners caught serving customers would have their coronavirus support funds suspended for a month, “and if they do it again, they won’t get any more at all”.
Portugal, meanwhile, reported nearly half of its total coronavirus death toll during January, underlining the rapid worsening of the pandemic. Officials have blamed the huge rise in the case and fatality rates on the more virulent variant of the virus first detected in southeast England.