Germany loses Covid crown as vaccine campaign falters

Germany is famed for Vorsprung durch Technik, engineering knowhow and general competence. No wonder then that its Covid-19 vaccination drive is fast becoming a national embarrassment.

So far, the country has administered only 6.2m doses of the coronavirus jab, compared with 75.2m in the US and 21m in the UK. Perhaps most strikingly, it has 2.3m shots lying around unused.

“Morocco is vaccinating more quickly than Germany,” said Marco Buschmann, an MP with the opposition Free Democrats.

Bild Zeitung summed up the national mood last week with the front-page headline “Dear Britons, we beneiden [envy] you”. Britain had just announced it would come out of its lockdown on June 21, while “here there is no hope”, the mass circulation daily lamented. (The riposte from Bild’s UK equivalent, The Sun, ran: “Wir beneiden dich nicht.”)

This is in stark contrast to the first wave of the pandemic, when Germany’s crisis response was the envy of the world. It went into lockdown early, set up an exemplary contact-tracing system and quickly curbed the virus, ending up with one of the lowest infection rates in Europe.

But the second wave over the winter struck Germany much harder, with the more contagious British mutation stymying efforts to deal the virus a knockout blow. A shutdown declared last December is still in place and a shortage of vaccines has dashed hopes of a swift return to normal life.

Widespread public frustration initially found an outlet in criticism of the EU and its botched vaccine procurement strategy. But with millions of doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines now arriving in Germany, criticism has shifted to the German authorities and their seeming inability to administer all the shots they have.

“It was bad enough that the EU ordered too little vaccine, too late, but now we have all these jabs being stockpiled, unused,” said Ulrich Weigeldt, head of the German Association of General Practitioners. “It’s a scandal.”

Officials say shots are not just “lying around” but are being deliberately held back for the required second dose. But it is nevertheless clear that many thousands of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is restricted to those aged between 18 and 64, are going unused, largely because of its poor reputation with the German public. 

“In the public debate it’s perceived — unfairly — as not as good as the others,” said Mario Czaja, head of the German Red Cross in Berlin. No-shows for AstraZeneca appointments are widespread.

Chart showing that Germany’s vaccine campaign lags behind US and UK

But even to get an appointment in the first place, users must navigate a digital platform that has become a byword for clunkiness. Visitors to the portal, embraced by five of Germany’s 16 states, have to go through 10 online steps, including 2-factor authentication — a tricky task for an octogenarian. In Poland, by contrast, you simply enter your social security number.

“The system’s a piece of shit,” said one German health official in a state that had embraced the platform. He said he and his colleagues “want to shoot ourselves it’s so bad. I can’t believe we chained ourselves to this.”

The official said that for months the website was only able to give users one appointment — although two are needed for a full inoculation — and does not allow them to go on a waiting list to be notified when more vaccine doses become available. “It’s totally amateurish and incredibly inflexible,” he said.

The sense of shame is growing. “This chaos with the allocation of vaccine appointments is absolutely unworthy of a high-tech nation like Germany,” said Achim Berg, head of Bitkom, a digital lobby group.

Public perceptions of the system were not helped when authorities in the state of Lower Saxony mailed vaccination letters to a number of dead people, triggering public outrage.

German chancellor Angela Merkel at a session of the Bundestag in Berlin. Even some members of her centre-right bloc have called for urgent action to reform the vaccine delivery system © AP

MPs, even some from Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc, have called for urgent action to reform the appointment system. “What’s been happening in the past few weeks in some regions, with people aged 80 and over being put on hold for hours and getting stuck in online waiting rooms — that’s unacceptable, it’s undignified, and it shows a lack of respect for elderly people in this country,” Ralph Brinkhaus, head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, told the Bundestag last month.

Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus, health policy expert for the Free Democrats, said Germany should have spent last summer preparing for the vaccination drive and figuring out how best to distribute shots to its 82m population. “We missed our chance to digitise the entire health system,” she said.

She pointed to Israel, whose immunisation campaign was led by big health maintenance organisations (HMOs) rather than the state. “The HMO communicates with all its members over an app,” she said. “It knows everything about them and knew exactly who was first in line for a shot. That’s why it all happened so much more quickly than here.”

Officials insist that the pace of vaccinations is picking up. Czaja said a medical centre set up in Berlin’s old Tegel airport is now administering 1,000 AstraZeneca jabs a day, up from 400 in mid-February, in a sign that public attitudes to the Anglo-Swedish shot may be shifting. Meanwhile, Berlin’s four other big vaccination centres, which are distributing the BioNTech and Moderna shots, are operating “at full blast”, he said.

But the fear is that the big centres could quickly reach the limits of their capacity in the coming weeks, as supplies ramp up. Some experts are predicting a “vaccine jam” in the early summer, with about 3m unused doses a week from May.

Their solution: Germany’s general practitioners must also start administering jabs to their patients. Doctors’ groups say some 50,000 GP practices could potentially vaccinate 20 people a day, equating to a national daily total of 1m shots.

The government is currently working on plans to involve GPs. But some observers complain they should have acted much more quickly.

“It’s a huge mistake that GP practices weren’t brought into the vaccination campaign from early on,” said Weigeldt. “We’ve been saying since the start of the year that they should be.”

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