Covid-19: Row over AstraZeneca travel ban threat for five million Britons

·5-min read
Vials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine (PA Wire)
Vials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine (PA Wire)

Boris Johnson has said he sees “no reason” why people who received Indian-made AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines should be unable to travel to European Union countries.

About five million people in Britain are thought to have had the vaccine made by Serum Institute in India, known as Covishield.

It emerged on Thursday night that UK citizens who received doses from those batches do not have their jab status recognised by the European Union’s new vaccine passport scheme.

This is because the Indian factory has yet to apply to license the doses with the European Medicines Agency — meaning the EU does not regard it as a valid vaccine for entry into the bloc.

Mr Johnson told a joint press conference with German’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday afternoon: “I see no reason at all why the MHRA-approved vaccines should not be recognised as part of the vaccine passports and I’m very confident that that will not prove to be a problem.”

UK vaccine experts earlier voiced confidence that an “administrative hurdle” preventing Britons who received the India-made AstraZeneca jab from travelling to Europe would soon be resolved.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said it was a bureaucratic issue and there was no suggestion that the Indian-manufactured jab was less able to protect against Covid.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “They’re exactly the same vaccine. They’re just made in a different factory. People should be reassured, who have received these batches, that they have received exactly the same stuff as people who have received other batches made elsewhere.”

He continued: “I think this is an administrative hurdle that needs to be straightened out but people should not be concerned that they are in some way less well-protected.”

There are fears that the current situation could see holidaying Britons trying to enter countries such as France turned away at the border when their vaccine data on the NHS App, which includes the batch number of the doses they have received, is scanned.

Earlier this week, there were problems in Malta, with the country unable to read the QR code on the NHS App and asking UK travellers for paper documents proving their vaccination status.

Britons seeking to enter the US also face problems because of its reluctance to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine. No version of the AZ jab has been licenced by the US.

The EU’s newly launched digital Covid certificate is meant to allow Covid-secure travel across the continent without the need to quarantine or take extra Covid tests.

But it does not recognise Covishield, the name of the Oxford/AZ vaccine produced in India, because the manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, has yet to apply for EU approval.

Up to five million doses of this version of the vaccine are thought to have been administered in the UK. The batch numbers are 4120Z001, 4120Z002, 4120Z003. These numbers should have been written on the credit card-sized vaccine cards given to Britons after receiving a jab, and will also appear on the NHS App when downloaded by vaccinated Britons who have a NHS number. As many as 10 million doses of Covishield were reportedly ordered by the UK Government.

Professor Finn said there were no health grounds to differentiate between the AZ vaccines made in India and those made elsewhere. He blamed the issue on teething problems with the international roll-out of “vaccine passports”.

The problem is likely to cause problems for millions of travellers.

Professor Finn said: “It’s clearly ultimately not in anybody’s interests, including the European Union’s, to create hurdles that don’t need to be there. I would anticipate this will get straightened out in due course.”

Doses of the AZ vaccine manufactured in the UK and Europe, which is known by the brand name Vaxzevria, plus the Pfizer and Moderna jabs also being given in the UK, are recognised by the EU vaccine passport scheme.

A further 46 per cent weekly increase in the number of Delta cases of the Covid variant first seen in India was reported by Public Health England on Friday. It said that a total of 161,981 confirmed and probable Delta cases have now been identified in the UK — up by 50,824 on the previous week.

In London, a further 2,705 cases of Covid — of which Delta accounts for about 95 per cent of infections — were diagnosed yesterday. The number of Covid patients in London hospitals increased by about 30 to 329.

About 2.7 million more jabs are needed in London for it to hit the Prime Minister’s national targets of offering a first dose to all over-18s and double-jabbing all over-40s by July 19.

Martin Machray, the capital’s joint chief nurse, appealed on Friday to younger Londoners to get jabbed this weekend ahead of the England v Ukraine Euro 2020 clash on Saturday.

“Make sure that it’s football coming home this weekend, not Covid,” he said.

Hundreds of vaccination centres, park pop-ups, pharmacies and sports stadiums will open, including Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park stadium and Saracens’ StoneX Stadium in Hendon. More than 5.2 million people in London have had the jab so far, including 3.5million who have had both doses.

Mr Machray said: “We’re calling on all those who haven’t been vaccinated to come forward to protect themselves and their families.”

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