March 2021 has been a turbulent month, exacerbated by the seemingly never-ending pressures of COVID-19. While Harry and Meghan’s controversial interview dominated the news in the first few weeks, this attention has abated with the development of political and economic crises both at home and abroad. Here are some of the news highlights of last month:
AstraZeneca Dispute: UK v EU
As the key to ending the COVID-19 crisis, vaccine supply has become a site of bitter contention between the United Kingdom and the European Union. AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines, has been the battleground for this confrontation.
The dispute is over the terms of an agreement signed between AstraZeneca and the EU, catalysed by shortfalls in vaccine supply to the EU and their subsequent slow rollout. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that AstraZeneca had broken its agreement with the EU by failing to supply the promised vaccine quantities, and by supposedly prioritising its agreement with the UK.
On the other hand, Pascal Soriot, the Chief Executive of AstraZeneca, defended this decision, arguing that no timetable had been agreed with the EU on its rollout and that the contract included a “best-effort” clause. Meanwhile, the UK’s contract was signed months before and strictly stated that they would have priority over the vaccines made in the UK.
Despite the EU’s claims that their problem is with AstraZeneca and not the UK, this has the makings of a bilateral argument with political spillage from Brexit. The AstraZeneca dispute first arose mere weeks after the completion of Brexit in a climate of ongoing issues with trade and frustrations surrounding Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal. Furthermore, in an attempt to restrict vaccine exports to the UK, the EU threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which would prevent vaccines from entering the UK by implementing checks at the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While the European Commission performed a swift U-turn on this occasion, the dispute continues to be dogged with post-Brexit tensions.
As of 26 March 2021, the European Commission has stopped short of banning vaccine exports but insists that AstraZeneca must catch up with doses promised to the EU. An export ban could have dire consequences for the UK - and indeed the rest of the world’s - vaccination program, as it could also potentially disrupt the supply of the Belgian-made BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines.
Ship Closes the Suez Canal and Stalls Global Supply Chains
While navigating the Suez Canal on 23 March 2021, the 400m long ultra-large Golden-class container ship, Ever Given, was caught in 40-knot winds and ran aground, blocking the world’s most important trade route in the process: the Suez Canal. Lloyd’s List, a London-based shipping news journal, estimated that the value of cargo traveling through the canal was as much as US$ 9.7 billion (about GBP 7 billion) per day and that the blockage is costing US$ 400 million (approximately GBP 290 million) per hour in delayed goods. Nor are there any signs that the jam might be cleared soon.
Attempts to re-float or tug the vessel have been entirely unsuccessful, forcing ships to reroute along the longer, more dangerous, and more costly route around Africa’s southern tip. Measures such as offloading cargo to help refloat the vessel also look unrealistic — it would take weeks even if cranes worked 24/7. However, nature may come to the rescue: high tides this week may lift the vessel from its current lodging.
Mass Shooting in Boulder, Colorado
Investigators are attempting to determine the motive for a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado on 22 March 2021. Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, the 21-year-old suspect, has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and one charge of attempted murder after opening fire at King Soopers store. This comes mere days after mass shootings in Atlanta left eight people dead.
This has brought further scrutiny on gun laws which American political commentator Chris Hayes argues have made mass shootings “an unbearable normal”. Renewed calls for stronger gun laws by President Biden, including a ban on assault weapons and expanded background checks, have met stiff opposition from several Republicans. The National Rifle Association also accused Biden of trying to “politicise this horrific situation”. But many are questioning how Alissa’s violent history, including a conviction for misdemeanor assault, did not bar him from purchasing an assault rifle; while Colorado has a universal background check law covering most gun sales, he could still legally purchase a weapon.
Alex Salmond Launches the Alba Party
Alex Salmond’s announcement of the Alba Party has triggered a wide schism in Scotland’s independence movement. The SNP’s Woman Convener, Caroline McAllister, is the latest senior politician to defect to the newly fledged group. She joins former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, Neale Hanvey, who holds the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat, former MP Corrie Wilson, and Councillors Lynne Anderson, and Chris McEleny. Two days after its launch, the Alba Party has a greater presence in Commons than Scottish Labour or the Green Party. All eyes turn to the election, due on 6 May 2021, where Alba’s strength (and Salmond’s popularity) will be counted.
It is considered the latest in the acrimonious split between Sturgeon and Salmond, the closest of political allies before Salmond was accused of sexual harassment. Earlier this year, Nicola Sturgeon and her former mentor gave “contradictory and accusatory” accounts to the Holyrood committee, a body established to investigate the Scottish government’s fiasco when handling sexual harassment complaints against Salmond. Having admitted it had acted unlawfully, the government had to pay Salmond GBP 500,000 in legal fees. Salmond was subsequently cleared of all 13 charges after a trial in March 2020.