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Watch: EU chief admits mistakes were made over vaccine rollout
The president of the European Commission has admitted “mistakes were made” over the EU’s vaccine rollout, after Brussels threatened to set up a hard border on the island of Ireland to block vaccines from entering the UK.
Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged on Wednesday the bloc had learned lessons after it was widely criticised for invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol on 29 January.
The agreement relates to NI's trading arrangements with the EU and other parts of the UK post-Brexit.
The article overrides part of the NI Protocol that prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland and was intended as an emergency measure not to be used.
The EU backtracked on the decision, but not before it caused massive political fallout in the UK.
"I deeply regret that," von der Leyen told the European Parliament, adding that the commission would do its utmost to protect peace in NI.
Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca's announcement it would initially supply 31 million doses of its COVID vaccine to the EU in the first quarter rather than the anticipated 80 million due to production problems set off a fierce dispute.
Officials in Brussels said they feared the company was treating the bloc unfairly compared to other customers, such as the UK, and wanted some of the vaccines produced in British factories to be diverted to EU member states.
But AstraZeneca's chief executive Pascal Soriot said its contract only committed to meet the EU’s demands to its “best effort”.
He said AstraZeneca and its partner Oxford University had signed a deal with the UK government for 100 million doses three months before the EU deal for 400 million doses was agreed.
The commission then said it was tightening rules on exports of coronavirus vaccines including invoking Article 16, sparking an angry response from Britain.
Brussels has since made clear the new measure will not limit vaccine shipments produced in the 27-nation bloc to NI.
AstraZeneca later agreed to supply 9 million additional doses of its coronavirus vaccine but the European Commission was still criticised for the way it handled the rollout.
The delivery problems infuriated member state leaders and populations.
Von der Leyen said on Wednesday that 26 million vaccine doses had been delivered and that, by the end of the summer, 70% of adults in the 27-nation bloc should have been inoculated.
"And yet it is a fact that we are not today where we want to be in the fight against the virus," she said.
"We were late with the approval. We were too optimistic on mass production.
“And perhaps we were also too certain that the orders would actually be delivered on time.”
However, von der Leyen defended the commission's oversight of vaccine orders, saying it would have been unfair and "economic madness" for the single market if just a few large member states had guaranteed doses.
The EU could also not have cut corners in its approval of biological substances injected into people's bodies, even if this lost three to four weeks to rivals, she added.
The bloc will launch a new network of clinical trials to give regulators data more rapidly and the commission will create a taskforce to help boost vaccine production, Von der Leyen said.
On Tuesday, Ireland’s european affairs minister Thomas Byrne said the country's government is seeking a new safety clause, to prevent a repeat of the EU invoking Article 16.
He told the Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs: “The reaction of government that day was complete shock and surprise, and with no knowledge of what was being planned.
“We had spent the previous few weeks being asked about Article 16 from another perspective, and quite rightly pointing out that this was a pretty standard safeguarding clause in the trade agreement.
“And not designed to either eliminate the protocol or not designed be used, except in the most extreme circumstances.”
He said the government is continuing to engage on multiple levels with the European Commission and the UK to find a resolution.
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