Luxembourg to ease virus rules as EU squabbles over vaccine
Luxembourg's parliament was set to allow easing the coronavirus rules on Friday as doctors pressed the government for more clarity about its vaccination strategy and the European Union squabbled about whether Germany could get more doses of the medicine than others.
Lawmakers are set allow more shops to re-open, send children back to the classroom and reduce curfew hours as Covid-19 cases have been trending down over the past few weeks, despite several different pieces of advice from medical experts recommending not to ease the rules.
This week, a parliamentary question by the main opposition party brought to light that a doctors' and pharmacists' association had pressured the government for further clarification on its vaccine plans, in a confidential letter dated 29 December.
The letter, seen by the Luxembourg Times, was addressed to government's top doctor Jean-Claude Schmit and asks him if he "could provide us with a succinct plan for the vaccination of doctors, dentists and pharmacists."
The medical professionals also said that knowing when they themselves would receive the vaccination would help promote it among patients.
These uncertainties came as the EU, in charge of the 27-nation bloc's purchasing programme, announced it had ordered another extra 300 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
But the good news was overshadowed by questions as to whether individual countries - such as Germany and Denmark - had been entitled to order extra doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, putting residents in these two countries ahead of the queue in Europe.
Any individual orders breach the "legally binding" procurement scheme to which all EU countries have signed up, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference in Brussels on Friday, although she did not name any individual countries.
In contrast, Luxembourg's Health Minister Paulette Lenert told journalists on Wednesday that Germany was fully entitled to make the extra order, as Berlin had provided most of the funding for the research and development of the vaccine, the first to be approved globally.
EU countries were no longer bound by the EU's procurement agreement, Lenert said, and Luxembourg had also been in touch with the producers of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to buy more of it. Luxembourg's request had gone unanswered before Health Ministry spokeswoman Monique Putz said the country dropped its separate bid.
The first 75 million doses of the new EU order should be available from the second quarter this year, and will be produced in a factory in Marburg in Germany that is still under construction, von der Leyen said.
Waiting in line
The news of the extra deliveries comes amid widespread criticism that the EU did not order enough vaccines even before they became available - unlike for instance the US or the UK for instance, which are well ahead of Europe in terms of the number of residents they have inoculated.
The Luxembourg Times reported last week that only 6% of the country's population is set to get the vaccine by the end of March, with around 36,000 doses for a population of around 630,000, to which cross-border workers in the healthcare need to be added.
Luxembourg's plans to ease the rules have entailed a furious reaction in the neighbouring German state of Saarland, with the regional minister president saying that the decision would be a "burden for the Greater Region", of Saarland, Luxembourg and Lorraine.
Luxembourg started vaccinating people on 28 December, two days after Germany, and has so far vaccinated some 1,200, according to the latest data, with a new delivery set to arrive on 11 January. This would allow the country to increase the number tenfold by the end of the month.
Luxembourg is currently on the lower end of EU countries with regards to vaccinations per capita, according to a University of Oxford tracker, whilst Denmark, Italy and Slovenia are leading the pack.
Globally, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the UK and the US, are well ahead of the 27-nation bloc. Israel is nearing a vaccination rate of 20% of the entire population already.
The European Medicine's Agency approval of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday will allow the government to come up with more tangible plans for a second phase of its vaccination strategy, Lenert said.