Britain’s stand-off with Brussels over vaccines intensified today as the EU took on powers to block the export of Covid-19 jabs in a move that could interrupt the delivery of millions of life-saving doses to the UK.
And there was fury in London that the new “transparency and authorisation mechanism” requiring companies to seek the approval of European authorities before shipping vaccines out of the 27-nation bloc will apply to Northern Ireland – even though the region is treated as part of the EU customs union under the Brexit divorce deal.
The Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, raised concerns with the European Commission’s vice president, Maros Sefcovic, over the lack of prior notification of the action, which entailed Brussels invoking a special “safeguard” mechanism in the Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK government is “urgently seeking an explanation” from the bloc over the move, which the Commission said was being taken because it was not possible to impose controls over goods moving on from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain. Labour called on Brussels to reverse course, with the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, describing the development as “deeply destabilising”.
Downing Street warned the EU that “as a friend” it should not try to disrupt the delivery of jabs to the UK.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts.”
He added that the prime minister had raised concerned during a conversation with Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin over the EU’s use of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He had urged the EU to “urgently clarify its intentions and what steps it plans to take to ensure its own commitments with regards to Northern Ireland are fully honoured,” the spokesman said.
Although Brussels insisted that the new mechanism was not directed at any particular country, the UK was the only one of the EU’s neighbours not to be included on an exemption list from the mechanism, widely seen as a precursor to a possible export ban if the bloc runs short of vaccines.
Mutual mistrust was fuelled by the suggestion of the EU justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, that “maybe the UK wants to start a vaccine war”.
There were fears the mechanism could be used to halt the delivery of 3.5 million jabs that are due to be sent to the UK from Pfizer’s plant in Belgium over the coming weeks.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “The pandemic is having devastating effects in Europe and all around the world. Protecting the health of our citizens remains our utmost priority, and we must put in place the necessary measures to ensure we achieve this.”
The move came as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) gave its long-awaited approval for the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed at Oxford University, to be used across the EU, amid a furious row with its manufacturer over supply levels.
But the French president, Emmanuel Macron, threw doubt on the value of the Oxford jab, describing it as “quasi-ineffective” for over-65s, despite the EMA’s assurance that it could be used safely on the elderly. Germany also confirmed that it will only give the vaccine to people aged 18-64.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, insisted that the AstraZeneca jab “can be used on all ages” and would deliver similar immune responses among both older and younger adults.
Mr Macron claimed the jab “doesn’t work the way we were expecting to” and also questioned the decision of countries such as the UK to leave a long gap between the initial and booster doses of the vaccine.
“The goal is not to have the biggest number of first injections,” said the French president. “When you have all the medical agencies and the industrialists who say you need two injections for it to work, a maximum of 28 days apart, which is the case with Pfizer/BioNTech; and you have countries whose vaccine strategy is to only administer one jab, I’m not sure that it’s very serious.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, welcomed the EMA’s approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine on a dosing schedule of up to 12 weeks, which he said showed that “British science and global collaboration is saving lives”.
But there was growing anger in the UK over the EU’s demand for the company to divert doses produced in Oxford and Keele to make up for a shortfall.
The European Commission published a partial copy of the contract it signed last year with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant, which stated that AstraZeneca must use its “best reasonable efforts” to manufacture 300 million vaccine doses for the EU, with an option for 100 million more.
The 41-page document said that capacity for production would be “at manufacturing sites located within the EU (which for the purpose of this section … shall include the United Kingdom)”.
Ms Von der Leyen said that this amounted to “binding orders” to deliver in full, while AstraZeneca insists that it is not committed to any timetable and that its separate contract with the UK gives Britain first claim on vaccines produced domestically.
Downing Street made clear that Britain is not willing to accept interruptions to its supplies, saying it expected all contracts for vaccines that it has struck to be “facilitated”.
Conservative MP Peter Bone accused Brussels of “bullying”, telling The Independent: “The EU is in a big hole because of its own incompetence and instead of trying to work with the vaccine companies, it is digging itself deeper.
“They are not cutting off supplies, but there is an implied threat there. I call that bullying and the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up them.”
Eurosceptic former cabinet minister David Jones said: “The EU have a dispute with AstraZeneca Sweden, so decide to respond by blocking the supply of vaccines to the UK, which is not a party to the dispute. Do the EU not care that they are trashing their international reputation? They were once so keen to talk about the rule of law.”
And European elder statesman Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden and current co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “I had hoped not to see the EU leading the world down the destructive path of vaccine nationalism. Our continent’s entire history of success has been one of open global value chains.”
AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, said the company was “working 24/7” to improve supplies to the EU, after being forced to slash planned deliveries from 80 million to 31 million for the first quarter of 2021 because of production problems at a Belgian factory.
Mr Soriot said: “We have millions of doses that we are ready to start shipping to the EU over the next few days and weeks.
“We have identified additional sources of drug substance that we are redeploying from other parts of the world so we can top up the supply in Europe and make sure we can vaccinate as many people as we can as quickly as we can.”