UK accepts Brussels ‘made a mistake’ over NI coronavirus vaccine controls

Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent
·3-min read

Ministers have expressed confidence that the European Union will not block vaccines entering the UK, after the two sides agreed to a “reset” in relations to de-escalate tensions.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Saturday that the EU recognises it “made a mistake” in its short-lived but widely-condemned move to override part of the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland to control shipments of jabs.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he was “reassured the EU has no desire to block suppliers fulfilling contracts for vaccine distribution to the UK” after talks with European Commission executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish premier Micheal Martin held emergency talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Mr Gove said vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca are expected to be supplied to the UK as planned.

A compromise was struck to prevent a possible hard border with the Republic of Ireland after a flurry of diplomacy followed the EU’s surprise move to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The U-turn came after Brussels installed export controls and demanded British-manufactured AstraZeneca jabs, as the bloc is embroiled in a row over shortages from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

Mr Gove welcomed the EU having “stepped back” from triggering the article, which Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster described as an “incredible act of hostility”.

“I think the European Union recognises that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16, which would have meant the re-imposition of a border on the island of Ireland,” he told reporters.

“I’ve spoken to the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic about this and we both agreed that we need a reset, that we need to put the people of Northern Ireland first.”

Coronavirus graphic
(PA Graphics)

The Cabinet minister said that the Government was “confident that we can proceed with our vaccine programmes exactly as planned” after discussions between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen.

It was understood vaccines crossing between the Republic and Northern Ireland will now be recorded in Dublin but will not be at risk of being blocked.

Despite criticism from the World Health Organisation, the EU is pushing ahead with imposing controls on vaccines manufactured within member states.

The heads of the UK- and Europe-wide pharmaceutical industry bodies warned that export bans would leave them “trying to fight the pandemic with our hands tied behind our backs”.

Coronavirus graphic
(PA Graphics)

In a joint warning in the Observer, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations said: “Alongside the scaling up of capacity, companies without Covid-19 vaccines are lending their own manufacturing capacity and expertise to produce even more doses.

“Export bans undermine this collaborative effort. Companies are working as fast as they can to protect everyone. Export restrictions do no-one any good and we urge governments to avoid them.”

Mr Gove also said the Government is “fully on course” to hit its target of vaccinating the 15 million most vulnerable individuals in the UK by mid-February, as official data showed 8,378,940 had received first doses.

But the increase of 487,756 first doses came as ministers announced a further 1,200 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, bringing the official UK total to 105,571.