Britain’s foreign minister said Sunday there is only about a week left for the U.K. and the European Union to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, with fishing rights the major obstacle to an agreement.
As talks continued between the two sides in London, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “I think we are into the last week or so of substantive negotiations.”
The U.K. left the EU early this year, but remained part of the 27-nation bloc’s economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides tried to negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect Jan. 1. Talks have already slipped past the mid-November date long set as a deadline for agreement to be reached if it is to be approved by lawmakers in Britain and the EU before year’s end.
Despite the stalemate, Raab told Sky News that “there’s a deal to be done.”
He said the two sides had made progress on “level playing field” issues — the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU.
The biggest hurdle appears to be fish, a small part of the economy with an outsized symbolic importance for Europe’s maritime nations. EU countries want their boats to be able to keep fishing in British waters, while the U.K. insists it must control access and quotas.
“On fisheries, there is a point of principle: As we leave the transition, we are an independent coastal state and we’ve got to be able to control our waters,” Raab said.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who met through the weekend with U.K. counterpart David Frost, has said there are still “significant divergences.”
If there is no deal, New Year’s Day will bring huge disruption, with the overnight imposition of tariffs and other barriers to U.K.-EU trade. That will hurt both sides, but the burden will fall most heavily on Britain, which does almost half its trade with the EU.
Diplomats like to remain neutral but Nanaia Mahuta let the veil slip a little when a winner was declared in the U.S. election by tweeting a smiley-face emoji.
Mahuta, the first indigenous Maori woman to be appointed New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister, suppresses a real-life smile when asked about it.
“Look, what I can say is that there were encouraging signs in those speeches,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. She said the victory speech by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was “inspirational to many women around the world.”
Mahuta, 50, was a surprise pick for the role, despite being a respected performer in Parliament for almost half her life, since she was first elected in 1996 at age 26. She is part of the most diverse group of lawmakers ever appointed to the top roles in Cabinet after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won a second term in a landslide victory last month.
Mahuta said she felt joyous at being chosen and promised to bring a new perspective to foreign affairs.
She didn’t have to wait long for her first contentious moment. New Zealand has long been cautious of criticizing China, its largest trading partner.
But Mahuta last week took the step of joining Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. in condemning China for imposing new rules to disqualify legislators in Hong Kong.
China reacted with anger.
“Be careful not to get poked in the eye,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in response, referring to the “Five Eyes” military alliance among the five countries.
Mahuta said she had talked with Ardern before deciding to sign the statement and felt it was a natural progression to “turn the dial up” and join with other countries. She said she thinks the relationship with China is mature enough to withstand such disagreements.
Still, it will pose a challenge for Mahuta to find the right balance to strike with an increasingly assertive China and a combative U.S. For now, Mahuta said she intends to focus on building relationships with New Zealand’s immediate island neighbors in the Pacific, even if the coronavirus prevents her traveling there in person.
“This could be the period of the Zoom diplomacy,” she said.
People around the world have been curious about Mahuta’s moko kauae, or sacred facial tattoo, which she got four years ago to celebrate her heritage, ancestors and connection to Papatuanuku, or Mother Earth.
“The most common question is, did it hurt?” she laughs.
The answer? Not really, because her mind went to a different place.
She said wearing the moko makes her more mindful “in how you want to be as a person, how you treat other people. So that it’s almost like a compass.”
Thirty years ago, before there was a revival of Maori culture in New Zealand, facial tattoos tended to be associated with gang members. Mahuta said she still finds negative reactions to hers in some parts of the country, but these days most people recognize it as an affirmation of culture.
Mahuta is the daughter of the late Sir Robert Mahuta, a key figure in the Tainui tribe who helped settle a groundbreaking financial claim with the government for land that was taken during colonization.
Mahuta said her father was her mentor and a tough taskmaster. But it was the students she met as a university tutor who convinced her to go into politics, not her dad.
“I think if he had his way, I wouldn’t be in politics, I’d be in the tribe,” she said.
Lara Greaves, a lecturer in politics at the University of Auckland, said Mahuta is well prepared for her role because she has spent her whole life steeped in high-level cultural diplomacy in Maori society.
“I think it’s a really positive move,” Greaves said.
She said the surprise at Mahuta’s appointment -- her own included — likely reflected the dominance that men still have internationally in foreign affairs.
Mahuta said she’d like to see more women involved.
“I’m a part of a very small group of women who have now reached out and linked arms to say, well, there’s is a lot that we can do together,” she said.
In her office, Mahuta points out various artifacts that have meaning for her — the baskets of knowledge from the Pacific, the pictures of the prime minister who invited her ancestor into Parliament. And then she gets to the Silvanian Families village in the corner.
“I have a 7-year-old daughter who’s made part of this office hers,” Mahuta said. “One of the things I’ve learned when I’ve been in Parliament is to make it family friendly.”
With major COVID-19 vaccines showing high levels of protection, British officials are cautiously — and they stress cautiously — optimistic that life may start returning to normal by early April.
Even before regulators have approved a single vaccine, the U.K. and countries across Europe are moving quickly to organize the distribution and delivery systems needed to inoculate millions of citizens.
“If we can roll it out at a good lick … then with a favorable wind, this is entirely hypothetical, but we should be able to inoculate, I believe on the evidence I’m seeing, the vast majority of the people who need the most protection by Easter,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday after vaccine makers in recent weeks have announced encouraging results. “That will make a very substantial change to where we are at the moment.”
The U.K. has recorded more than 55,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, the deadliest outbreak in Europe. The pandemic has prevented families from meeting, put 750,000 people out of work and devastated businesses that were forced to shut as authorities tried to control the spread. England’s second national lockdown will end Dec. 2, but many restrictions will remain in place.
The British government has agreed to purchase up to 355 million doses of vaccine from seven different producers, as it prepares to vaccinate as many of the country's 67 million people as possible. Governments around the world are making agreements with multiple developers to ensure they lock in delivery of the products that are ultimately approved by regulators.
The National Health Service is making plans to administer 88.5 million vaccine doses throughout England, according to a planning document dated Nov. 13. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are developing their own plans under the U.K.'s system of devolved administration.
The first to be vaccinated would be health care workers and nursing home residents, followed by older people, starting with those over 80, according to the document, first reported by the London-based Health Service Journal. People under 65 with underlying medical conditions would be next, then healthy people 50 to 65 and finally everyone else 18 and over.
While most of the injections would be delivered at around 1,000 community vaccination centers, about a third would go to 40 to 50 “large-scale mass vaccination centers,” including stadiums, conference centers and similar venues, the document indicates.
The NHS confirmed the document was genuine but said details and target dates are always changing because the vaccination program is a work in progress.
Professor Mark Jit, an expert in vaccine epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said Britain has the advantage of having a well-developed medical infrastructure that can be used to deliver the vaccine.
But this effort will be unlike standard vaccination programs that target individuals one at a time.
“The challenge now is to deliver the biggest vaccine program in living memory in the U.K. and other countries around the world,’’ Jit said. “We’re not vaccinating just children or pregnant women like many other vaccination programs.... We’re trying to vaccinate the entire U.K. population. And we’re trying to do it very quickly.’’
Other European countries are also getting ready, as are the companies that will be crucial to the rollout.
For example Germany’s Binder, which makes specialized cooling equipment for laboratories, has ramped up production of refrigerated containers needed to transport some of the vaccines under development. Binder is producing a unit that will reach the ultra-cold temperatures needed to ship the Pfizer vaccine.
The German government has asked regional authorities to get special vaccination centers ready by mid-December. France, meanwhile, has reserved 90 million vaccine doses, but has not yet laid out its plan for mass vaccination. A government spokesman said last week that authorities were working to identify locations for vaccination centers, choose companies to transport vaccines and set the rules for shipping and storage.
In Spain, health workers will get priority, as will residents of elder care homes. Spain hopes to vaccinate some 2.5 million people in the first stage between January and March and have most of the vulnerable population covered by mid-year. The vaccinations will be administered in 13,000 public health centers.
But sticking syringes in people's arms is just the last part of the enormous logistical challenge the worldwide mass vaccination campaign will pose.
First, drugmakers must ramp up production, so there is enough supply to vaccinate billions of people in a matter of months. Then they have to overcome distribution hurdles such as storing some of the products at minus-70 degrees Celsius (minus-94 Fahrenheit). Finally, they will need to manage complex supply chains reminiscent of the just-in-time delivery systems carmakers use to keep their factories humming.
“It will be the challenge of the century, basically, because of the volumes and everything else which are going to be involved ... ,'' said Richard Wilding, a professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management. “It’s just the absolute scale.''
Vaccines from three drugmakers are considered leading candidates. Pfizer and Moderna have released preliminary data showing their vaccines were about 95% effective. AstraZeneca on Monday reported interim results of its vaccine developed with Oxford researchers that were also encouraging. Dozens of other vaccines are under development, including projects in China and Russia.
Britain and other Northern Hemisphere countries may also get a boost from the weather, said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer. Transmission of respiratory viruses generally slows during the warmer months.
“The virus will not disappear, but it will become less and less risky for society.”
But Johnson, who credited NHS nurses with saving his life after he was hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this year, warned restrictions will continue for months and Christmas celebrations will be curtailed this year.
“We can hear the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the brow of the hill, but they are not here yet,” Johnson said.
Russia released new results Tuesday claiming its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was highly effective, and promised it would cost less on international markets than vaccines by some of its Western competitors.
According to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled the development of the jab, Sputnik V will cost less than 10$ per dose — or less than $20 for the two doses needed to vaccinate one person — on international markets. The vaccination will be free for Russians, the Fund said.
The two-shot jab, the fund promised in a statement, will be “two or more times cheaper” than those by Pfizer or Moderna, which cost about $20 and $15-25 per dose respectively, based on agreements the companies have struck to supply their vaccines to the U.S. government.
Kirill Dmitriev, head of the fund, told reporters Tuesday that over 1 billion doses of the vaccine are expected to be produced next year outside of Russia.
Russia drew international criticism for giving Sputnik V regulatory approval in early August, even though it was yet to complete advanced testing among tens of thousands of people, required to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine before it is given widely.
An advanced study among 40,000 volunteers was announced two weeks after it received government approval. The trial is still ongoing, but the vaccine is already being offered to people in risk groups — such as medical workers and teachers — despite multiple expert warnings against its wider use before it completes all the necessary testing. Several high-profile officials have said they have already taken it, too.
President Vladimir Putin, who announced Sputnik V’s approval with much fanfare in August, saying one of his daughters had been vaccinated, has touted the jab as effective and safe, but appeared in no rush to take it himself.
Asked whether the president has been vaccinated, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Putin “can’t use an uncertified vaccine.” Peskov pointed out that “widespread vaccination hasn’t started yet, and the head of state can’t take part in the vaccination as a volunteer.”
Two weeks ago, the developers of the vaccine said analysis of the study's early data showed that the vaccine “had an efficacy rate of 92%.” The conclusion was based on 20 infections that occurred among 16,000 volunteers.
In a new statement on Tuesday, developers of the vaccine put its effectiveness at 91.4%, after the second interim analysis of the trial data was carried out based on 39 infections among 18,794 study participants that received both doses of either the vaccine or the placebo.
The statement said that eight cases of the virus were registered among 14,095 recipients of the vaccine, and 31 among 4,699 volunteers who got the dummy shots in the trial of Sputnik V. It remained unclear from the statement how coronavirus was diagnosed among the participants of the trial and whether all of them, including those showing no symptoms, were tested for the virus.
It is much lower than the number of infections Western drugmakers looked at when assessing the effectiveness of their vaccines.
Moderna said last week its vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective after having registered 95 cases of the virus among study participants. Pfizer’s 95% efficacy rate was announced after 170 infections were accumulated. On Monday, another drugmaker, Britain’s AstraZeneca, said late-stage trials showed its COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective, in a conclusion based on 131 infections.
Developers of the shots said “no unexpected adverse events were identified as part of the research.” Some of those vaccinated experienced pain at the injection point and flu-like symptoms, such as fever, weakness, fatigue and headache.
Mass vaccination is expected to start in 2021, and more than 2 million doses of Sputnik V will produced in Russia this year, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said Tuesday.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday he hopes a reset of U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration can end years in which Europe was mainly concerned with “damage control.”
Maas’ counterpart from Portugal, which will have taken over the European Union presidency when Joe Biden is inaugurated, said Europe wants to be treated as a “full and equal partner” rather than an enemy of the U.S.
Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump has been greeted with relief in Europe, where differences with the outgoing administration ranged from trade tensions to defense spending, relations with China and how to handle Iran’s nuclear program.
Biden has made clear that he wants to “repair” the trans-Atlantic relationship, “and that is urgently necessary,” Maas said at a panel event in Berlin.
Recent years, he said, were an exercise in “damage control” on international diplomacy and issues such as climate change. “Enough of that — with this, we are not doing justice to the challenges we face at present.”
“The result, because the West wasn’t working together any more, was that in many issues a vacuum arose that was used by China or Russia,” Maas said. But he cautioned that the Europeans “will have to get out of our seats” to grasp new opportunities, and offer to do more themselves in their immediate neighborhood as part of what he has termed a “ new deal ” with the U.S.
Germany holds the EU’s rotating presidency until the end of December, when it will hand over to Portugal.
Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva called for new talks with the U.S. on trade relations. And he noted that a major objection to the Trump administration’s approach was its language.
“We were permanently treated by our American friends, and the Trump administration, not as friends and allies but as adversaries or even enemies,” he said. “And we were always asked to choose: either you are with us, the Americans, or you are with China.”
“Of course we are with the Americans, but not as the minor partner, not as a follower ... it’s a question of being a full and equal partner of the United States,” Santos Silva said. Europe’s interests include good relations with all world regions, he added.