When it comes to fighting COVID, Poland is stepping up with collective defense — for NATO headquarters anyway.
The Polish government will supply about 3,500 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine — enough to vaccinate all NATO employees at the headquarters in Brussels who have not already received inoculations through national programs, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed on Monday.
NATO had previously said that it was sticking to the national vaccine program of Belgium as the alliance’s host country — in keeping with normal diplomatic protocol — and that employees would be vaccinated in accordance with the Belgian rules on priority for different risk factors and age groups.
But on Monday, ahead of a meeting this week of NATO foreign affairs ministers, Stoltenberg confirmed the surprise reports that Poland would provide doses in order to vaccinate NATO personnel sooner.
“I’m grateful for Poland’s readiness to provide the vaccines against the COVID-19,” he said at a pre-ministerial news conference. “I think that demonstrates that Poland is a highly valued ally, and an ally which is ready to support NATO efforts in many different ways. Solidarity and resilience is at the heart of our alliance, and the Polish offer demonstrates exactly that.”
He added: “Poland is a strong and reliable ally who has provided support with medical equipment, personnel and expertise to many other allies and partners from the start of the pandemic. This is actually one other example of how Poland is contributing to support NATO, to manage the consequences of the pandemic. This is a joint fight, and we are stronger together. And of course, the vaccines will help and support our work here at the headquarters of NATO.”
Diplomats said that the jabs would be carried out later this week, after the foreign ministers had departed, and that it would ensure that headquarters was safe ahead of a NATO leaders’ summit, which is expected to take place in June.
On one level, the move by Poland could be seen as embarrassing to Belgium, which like many EU countries has been slow to vaccinate its citizens and residents, despite having a well-developed pharmaceutical industry. However, on another level, Belgium might be viewed as praiseworthy for refusing to give priority to NATO employees ahead of others who might be more vulnerable to severe disease.
A NATO official said the Polish effort would help Belgium, which would not have to provide does to the alliance. “This will help ensure NATO’s essential work continues and will also help ease the burden on the Belgian healthcare system,” the official said.
The situation had been so sensitive that NATO allies were precluded under an agreement with the Belgian government from vaccinating employees at headquarters who were working on local contracts, even as posted diplomats received vaccines sent by their governments.
EU institutions have taken a cautious approach, and so far have stuck in close accordance with the Belgian national rules, partly for fear of being accused of seeking unfair priority for politicians and civil servants.
The situation has created something of a quandary for politicians, particularly those who are regarded as essential workers and key to the continuity of government operations. Many such officials cannot work from home and, at times, are required to travel on government business. Still, officials have been reluctant to be vaccinated ahead of citizens.
Poland started out with one of the speediest vaccination programs in the EU, but its pace has been slipping in recent weeks. On Sunday, only 9,795 vaccinations were administered — bringing the country to a total of 5,026,182. Poland is seeing a surge in new COVID cases, and last week the government imposed tougher rules across the country.
The NATO official said Poland will supply the roughly 3,500 doses and the vaccines will be administered in a joint effort by NATO and the Polish authorities in two rounds, with the first occurring later this week. The vaccines will be offered to all NATO HQ staff, including those working at national delegations.
“NATO does not have its own vaccine supplies,” the official said. The official, and the two diplomats, insisted that Belgium was cooperating in the effort.
“We have been working very closely with Belgium, a valued ally, since the start of the pandemic and continue to do so,” the NATO official said. “All vaccination efforts contribute to our continued readiness and increased resilience as an alliance.”
Hans von der Burchard and Jan Cienski contributed reporting.