Coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca are expected to be supplied to the UK as planned, despite the EU’s export controls and demands for British-manufactured jabs, after a discussion with Brussels’ chief, Michael Gove has said.
The Cabinet Office minister said the EU recognises it “made a mistake” and has agreed to a “reset” after its short-lived but widely-condemned move to override part of the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland to prevent shipments of jabs entering the UK.
Mr Gove said the Government expects the vaccines to be supplied successfully, after Boris Johnson held an emergency discussion with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday night after the EU’s surprise move to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The bloc backtracked after condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast, with leaders all blindsided by the earlier decision as the EU is embroiled in a row with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca over shortfalls in the delivery of jabs.
Despite criticism from the World Health Organisation, the EU is pushing ahead with imposing controls on vaccines manufactured within member states, which it is feared could hinder the UK’s access to further supplies, particularly to the Belgian-made Pfizer jab.
Brussels has also demanded doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in British plants, to solve its supply shortage issues, as member states have been forced to pause or delay their rollouts.
But on Saturday, Mr Gove told reporters: “The Prime Minister was very clear, we’ve entered into contractual arrangements with AstraZeneca and Pfizer and we expect those arrangements to be honoured.
“And President von der Leyen was clear that she understood exactly the UK Government’s position, so we expect that those contracts will be honoured, we expect that vaccines will continue to be supplied.”
Mr Gove added: “We’re confident that we can proceed with our vaccine programmes exactly as planned.”
He welcomed that the EU “has stepped back” from the move, 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,” Mr Gove said.
Mr Gove said he and commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic agreed in a call that “we need a reset” and “that we need to put the people of Northern Ireland first”.
He 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.
On Friday, an EU source acknowledged to the PA news agency that the move had been a “misjudgment”, as the commission backtracked to say it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the protocol is “unaffected”.
The U-turn on Northern Ireland late on Friday night came after the Prime Minister expressed his “grave concern” to Ms von der Leyen, who also faced pressure from Irish premier Micheal Martin.
The EU chief said she had agreed a “satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism” for vaccines with Mr Martin, who was said to be furious about the initial move.
Ms von der Leyen said she had held “constructive talks” with Mr Johnson, adding: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
But attempts to soothe tensions did little to stem the flow of criticism.
DUP leader Ms Foster said the move was “absolutely disgraceful” and reiterated calls for the Prime Minister to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol over food shortages being faced in her nation because of Brexit.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme of “great unrest and great tension” in the region and urged Mr Johnson to tear up and replace the protocol, which is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and is designed to allow the free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland and prevent a hard border.
EU Com statement tonight confirming NI Protocol Art 16, safeguard clause, will not be triggered. Welcome news, but lessons should be learned; the Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace & trade for many. pic.twitter.com/QLKpfhR9Yt
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) January 29, 2021
But the deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, said the “Irish Protocol, while imperfect, must be preserved”.
Julian Smith, a Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland secretary, told Today the EU’s move was “an almost Trumpian act”.
Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez-Laya told BBC Newsnight the EU’s triggering of the article was “an accident”.
But the bloc continued to warn of further action, saying: “Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.”
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said “lessons should be learned” and warned the protocol “is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard-won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many”.
The EU had sought to justify the measure as being needed to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a back door to move coronavirus vaccines from the bloc into the UK, “due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states”.
Regardless of the U-turn, French President Emmanuel Macron backed the EU seeking to “control” vaccine exports, as he raised questions about a lack of doses being delivered by Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca.
“It should be controlled because there is questionable behaviour and we will be receiving fewer deliveries that do not honour the contractual engagements agreed,” he said in an interview with media, including the Guardian.