Sunday, May 15, 2022

Why a fresh AstraZeneca fightback is required in Covid vaccine info row | Nils Pratley

The European Union ought to be delighted. The “discovery” of a “stockpile” of 29m vaccine doses in Italy is really a non-discovery. The consignment is held at an authorised plant, available for inspection, and is merely awaiting quality signoff.

Even better from the EU’s point of view, 16m of the doses are due for delivery to the bloc – 10m next week and the rest in April. And none of the other 13m is destined for the UK. That will instead go to low-income developing countries under established Covax arrangements the EU knows about.

That, at least, was AstraZeneca’s account of the latest flare-up in vaccine information wars but, on past form, it is the one to trust.

The bashing of AstraZeneca by EU politicians and Brussels commissions has become silly. The coordinated airing of safety worries (dismissed by the European Medicines Agency) was bad enough, but the exercise in making AstraZeneca a political football for the EU’s failures on procurement and rollout is simply ugly.

AstraZeneca isn’t wholly blameless, it should be said. It has twice had to downgrade its estimate of the quantities of vaccine it can deliver to the EU in the first half of this year. Chief executive Pascal Soriot is probably guilty of over-optimism, or being too eager to please. And the separate mini-quarrel with the US Data and Safety Monitoring Board over the fair presentation of trial data is not a good look.

None of it, though, merits the charge of dishonesty, which is the serious one being thrown about by EU politicians.

AstraZeneca, as far one can tell, is working flat-out to produce a safe and efficacious vaccine in the maximum possible quantities. And it has said it will do so for zero profit during the pandemic. That really ought to buy a bit of goodwill.

Back in January, at the height of the last round of AstraZeneca-bashing, Soriot gave a point-by-point interview to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in which he delivered a few hard truths to Brussels about contracts and the inevitable “glitches” that arise when you are trying to ramp up production via a biological process. It cleared the air for a while, but another fight-back exercise is required.

As John Lewis knows, hindsight always comes too late …

At one level it is astonishing that cities the size of Aberdeen, Sheffield and York have been deemed too small to support a John Lewis department store. It’s not as if their local areas are awash with other branches of the chain. After the latest round of closures, John Lewis will have 34 outlets, of which only one (Leeds) is in Yorkshire and only two (Edinburgh and Glasgow) in Scotland.

There is, though, another way to look at the store numbers. Back in 2008. John Lewis had 26 department stores. The oddity is perhaps why an expansion drive followed to take the tally to 50. Hadn’t the partners heard about the rise of internet shopping?

They had, of course: John Lewis was early to the online game. The mistake was to believe that both sides of operation could grow in happy harmony. More stores would mean shoppers, both offline and online, ran the thinking. In the event, the speed of online’s rise smashed every forecast. Even when the remaining 34 stores reopen, John Lewis now expects two-thirds of its sales to happen online.

The partnership was not alone in adding too much floorspace; and the Aberdeen and Sheffield stores, note, were opened decades before the post-2010 push. It is also true that, in the recovery after the financial crash and recession, revenues and profits were flying. In hindsight, however, the best strategy in 2010 would have been to vow never to open another department store.

… Foresight by Goldman Sachs or another rushed decision?

Why, though, do employers feel the need to make definitive decisions now? Yes, staff want to know what’s happening but, for many firms, remote working is not a one-way ticket to greater productivity. What if a competitor gains an edge by making staff turn up?

Equally, Goldman’s hardball stance may lead to defections. The point is that nobody really knows what will work best until offices can reopen. The rush to make decisions that may be hard to reverse is odd.

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