Brussels stepped back from the brink of a vaccine war with Britain last night following a furious backlash by member states.
In an apparent climbdown, the European Commission agreed a joint statement with the UK offering to work to find a ‘win-win’ solution to the row.
The statement came at the end of a day of brinkmanship in which Brussels tabled proposals allowing it to block the export of vaccines to the UK.
Boris Johnson warned that blockading life-saving vaccine supplies would do lasting reputational damage to the EU and deter international firms from wanting to invest there.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt branded the proposed export ban ‘idiotic’ and warned it could wreck the EU’s relations with Britain for years.
‘Step by step the EU is destroying the possibility of a long-term partnership and friendship with its closest neighbour,’ he said.
Boris Johnson warned that blockading life-saving vaccine supplies would do lasting reputational damage to the EU and deter international firms from wanting to invest there
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 24
French President Emmanuel Macron gives an interview at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 23, 2021
At a press conference in Brussels, vice-president Valdis Dombrovkis complained that the EU had exported 43million doses to 33 countries since January
The UK’s vaccine rollout has surged far ahead of the EU’s leaving the bloc under huge pressure to explain why
The UK-EU joint statement last night acknowledged the third wave of cases in Europe made co-operation more important but said no resolution had yet been reached.
Merkel sorry for Easter shutdown row
Angela Merkel has issued an extraordinary apology to the German people as she reversed an Easter lockdown announced just 24 hours previously.
Germany’s Chancellor said the mistake ‘was mine alone’ and asked forgiveness for ‘creating uncertainty’.
Leaders were forced to back down after public outcry over plans for a five-day shutdown over the Easter weekend on top of existing coronavirus restrictions. Church services were told to move online and family gatherings were limited.
There had been no public discussion before the plan emerged in the early hours of Tuesday.
Mrs Merkel said yesterday: ‘The idea of an Easter shutdown was drawn up with the best intentions, because we must urgently manage to slow and reverse the third wave of the pandemic. ‘There were good reasons for it but it could not be implemented well enough in this short time.
‘This mistake is my mistake alone, because in the end I bear ultimate responsibility…
‘I know the whole process has caused additional uncertainty, for which I ask all citizens to forgive me.’
Infections continue to rise in Germany, with 15,813 new cases reported in 24 hours yesterday.
‘Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short, medium and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens,’ it said. ‘In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.’
However, EU leaders will meet today to decide whether to press ahead with restricting vaccine exports to the UK and ministers remain concerned that Brussels could yet deploy its new powers.
Mr Johnson refused to rule out retaliatory action – which could see the UK suspend the export of vaccine ingredients – although he made clear he was not in favour of the move at this stage.
Negotiations are thought to centre on an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands.
One Whitehall source said: ‘They have armed themselves with a bazooka and pointed it at us – it is quite incendiary, not to mention morally and legally outrageous.’
France and Germany have backed a hardline stance as they try to deflect attention from their own sluggish vaccination campaigns. A source close to French president Emmanuel Macron warned that the EU would no longer continue to be ‘the useful idiot’ in allowing jabs to be shipped overseas while the bloc struggles for supplies.
But the prospect of a damaging ban has alarmed a string of other EU countries. Ireland has declared the idea a ‘very retrograde step’, while Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Sweden are also said to harbour concerns.
Yesterday began with an extraordinary raid by Italian authorities on an AstraZeneca plant wrongly suspected of preparing to export millions of doses to Britain. In fact, the 29million jabs were destined for other EU countries and parts of the Third World.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen then published ‘temporary’ powers allowing the EU to block the export of jabs to countries such as the UK which have higher vaccination rates.
The plan could threaten millions of doses of the AZ vaccine due to be shipped from the Netherlands. But it could also cut off the UK’s entire supply of the Pfizer jab, which comes from Belgium. Such a move could jeopardise the ability of the NHS to administer second doses of the vaccine.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who is fighting to keep her job over the disastrous vaccine rollout, has toughened her stance towards Britain in recent days
Northern Ireland Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride receives his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Belfast last week
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (pictured with EU Council President Charles Michel), who is fighting to keep her job over the EU’s disastrous vaccine rollout, has toughened her stance towards Britain in recent days
A further threat to the UK rollout emerged last night as India was reported to have blocked all major exports of the AZ vaccine because infections there are soaring.
Two weeks after five million doses for the UK were stopped, sources said Narendra Modi’s government has now implemented a complete ban on exports by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer.
The move will also affect supplies to the Covax vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 poorer countries are expected to get doses, one of the sources said. Covax would also be hit by any EU ban. Its co-chairman Jane Halton said any threats from Brussels to hold vaccine exports hostage would be ‘extremely regrettable’.
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides denied the plans amounted to an export ban, adding: ‘We’re dealing with a pandemic and this is not seeking to punish any countries.’
One EU diplomat said Britain had ‘taken a risk’ by leaving itself ‘extremely dependent’ on the EU for second doses of the Pfizer jab.
Summer holidays all but cancelled as downbeat Boris Johnson warns ‘things are looking difficult on the continent’ with a new wave of Covid and refuses to confirm if he will go abroad with his family
- The Prime Minister faced a wide-ranging grilling from senior MPs this afternoon
- Foreign travel due to restart no earlier than May 17 but he was more pessimistic
- He refused to confirm if he would take a foreign holiday this summer
Boris Johnson dealt another blow to Britons’ hopes of foreign summer holidays today.
The Prime Minister warned that things were ‘looking difficult on the continent’, where there is a third wave of Covid cases, as he faced a grilling from senior MPs this afternoon.
Under his roadmap out of lockdown, foreign travel can restart no earlier than May 17. But the surge in cases in mainland Europe have raised threats that many countries will have to be put on the Covid red list, meaning people visiting them will have to go into a fortnight’s hotel quarantine.
Mr Johnson even refused to confirm if he would take a foreign holiday this summer, when he appeared at the Liaison Committee this afternoon.
Questioned by Tory Huw Merriman about the summer in prospect, the Prime Minister said: ‘On April 5, we’ll get the findings of the global travel taskforce and I’ll be setting out what I think may be possible from May 17.
‘Things are looking difficult on the continent and we’ll have to look at the situation as it develops.’
The Prime Minister said the ‘natural wanderlust’ of Britons would lead to a ‘miraculous change’ in the desire to go abroad once it is safe to do so.
The Prime Minister warned that things were ‘looking difficult on the continent’, where there is a third wave of Covid cases, as he faced a grilling from senior MPs this afternoon.
Asked how the Government could help reverse foreign holidays being a ‘dirty word’ since the coronavirus outbreak, Boris Johnson said: ‘I think do not underestimate the natural wanderlust, spirit of inquiry, general dynamism of the British people that has served us for hundreds and hundreds of years.
‘As soon as people feel it is safe, you will see a miraculous change in the mood and what happens. That is what this is all about.
‘We’re getting there step by step, jab by jab – we’re not there yet but I’ll be saying more on April 5 and then on April 12, and we will do what we can.’
Questioned on whether he would be looking to go abroad if it is declared safe this summer, Mr Johnson added: ‘I think whatever I do, I will be making sure to tell the British public what I think is safe and sensible, and I certainly won’t be doing anything other than that.’
It came after Care Minister Helen Whately urged Britons to ‘hold off’ on booking a foreign trip this year, saying it would be ‘premature’. She echoed comments made over the weekend by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who said summer holidays were ‘potentially risky’.
A spike in coronavirus cases in some European countries and the spread of variants of the disease have sparked fears of the May 17 date being pushed back.
When France required the testing of hauliers crossing the channel in December it led to thousands of lorries being stranded in Kent while the arrangements were put in place
But some Tory MPs are concerned a delayed return to foreign travel could harm the vaccine roll-out because holidays abroad are the ‘main reason’ many younger people will get the jab.
Mr Johnson also confirmed he is considering imposing tougher restrictions on travel from France to prevent the importation of coronavirus variants despite the risks to cross-Channel trade.
The Prime Minister said a balance had to be struck between the need to protect public health and the major disruption that would be caused to the flow of goods including food and medicine.
Mr Johnson said the Government will ‘take a decision, no matter how tough’ and that measures may be needed ‘very soon’.
His comments to MPs came amid concerns about the spread of the South African and Brazilian variants of coronavirus.
Home Affairs Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said France had 2-3,000 cases of the variants and questioned why it was not on the ‘red list’ of countries from which travel is effectively banned.
She acknowledged that the need for trade would mean quarantine was not appropriate for hauliers but questioned why they were not being tested for coronavirus.
Mr Johnson said putting France on the ‘red list’ was ‘something that we will have to look at’ due to concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccines against new variants.
The PM said ‘we have to look at the situation at the Channel’ and ‘we can’t rule out tougher measures and we will put them in if necessary’.
When France required the testing of hauliers crossing the channel in December it led to thousands of lorries being stranded in Kent while the arrangements were put in place.
Mr Johnson said: ‘There is a balance to be struck and what we don’t know is the exact state of the efficacy of the vaccines against the new variants and we have to balance that against the very serious disruption that is entailed by curtailing cross-channel trade.
JOHN HUMPHRYS: This has destroyed the faith of an old Remainer like me
By John Humphrys for the Daily Mail
I failed in the eyes of many listeners when I was presenting the Today programme in the long run-up to the EU referendum in 2016
BBC news presenters like to pretend that they are impartial – except when it comes to distinguishing between good and evil. They have no choice. That’s the test that the great Lord Reith set a century ago and, by and large, it applies today. But it’s not easy.
I failed in the eyes of many listeners when I was presenting the Today programme in the long run-up to the EU referendum in 2016. They accused me of being so biased in favour of Brexit that I never gave the Remainers a fair chance to state their case. They were right about me being biased – but wrong about where my bias lay.
I was so determined not to show my true colours that I might just possibly have given Remainers a slightly rougher ride than they deserved when I interviewed them. In the highly charged atmosphere of the most bitterly fought referendum in this nation’s history, that was more than enough to condemn me in the eyes of Remainers.
The fact is, I was one of them: A Remainer through and through.
But this week it’s hard for an old Remainer like me, waiting to have his second jab, not to muse on his referendum vote back in 2016 and wonder whether he might have voted differently if he’d known then what he knows now.
It is a loss of faith that would never have occurred to my younger self.
I’d been a pro-European ever since we signed up to the EEC in 1973. How could any idealistic young man, born even as German bombs were falling on his home city, fail to be moved by the grand notion of a united Europe?
I’ll admit that my faith was shaken more than once in the decades that followed but never enough to join the ranks of the Brexiteers.
Europe was, by a mile, our biggest trading partner and therefore crucial to our future prosperity. And, yes, I might have had growing misgivings about the Brussels dream of an ‘ever closer union’ but surely that was a small price to pay for peace on a continent racked by war for centuries.
So it was that I went to bed as the referendum polling stations were closing on June 23, 2016, confident that I’d be downing a glass of bubbly with my Today colleagues after the results came in the following morning. Instead the newsroom resembled a wake after the death of a loved one. The mourning was led by the big bosses.
In the five years since there have been many occasions on which I’ve been able to say: Told you so! But the fiasco of repeated failures to strike a decent deal pale in to insignificance compared with what is happening as I write. It is not being melodramatic to claim that lives are at stake.
Vaccination against Covid saves lives. Denial of the vaccine kills people. It’s one thing for the bureaucrats of Brussels or Whitehall to squabble over the finer details of how the Northern Ireland border might (or might not) operate. It’s something else again for the EU – led by the risible figure of Ursula von der Leyen – to threaten a vaccine war with the United Kingdom.
It is a threat that seems to have little justification other than to distract attention from the EU’s own pathetic failure to procure the jabs that are needed for the EU’s own citizens and deliver them speedily to those most at risk.
It is both shameful and devious to try to blame Britain for having succeeded so magnificently where the EU has failed. Boris Johnson, who looked so careworn when he appeared before the media this week – as well he might – must be thanking his lucky stars for President von der Leyen’s performance.
It’s like a boxer who’s been on the ropes for most of the bout watching his opponent punch himself on the nose.
Brussels must have had high hopes of a morale-boosting performance from the respected politician and MEP Philippe Lamberts when he appeared on the Today programme yesterday. And indeed all went well when he launched an attack on the inability to fulfil promises of the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca. They had, he said, ‘performed with a track record of dishonesty. Over promising. Under delivering by massive amounts. We have seen that they have also bungled up at least twice their test data so everything points to a company that cannot be relied upon.’
Strong stuff but, as my old friend Justin Webb pointed out, it would sound more cogent coming from the European side if it weren’t for the fact that there are millions of AZ doses available in Europe that are not being used. They’re just being stored.
Mr Lamberts, doubtless to the dismay of his EU President, agreed. Indeed, he made no attempt to conceal his admiration for what Britain has done. As he said, the track record of member states pales in comparison.
He even agreed with Justin that ‘AZ has been the subject of a scurrilous campaign around Europe, a campaign that went right to the top of European politics, that suggested things about the vaccine that weren’t true, that have led to all sorts of confusion for Europeans on whether to take it.’
So where do we go from here?
What many European politicians, including Mr Lamberts, wanted is for the British Government, the EU commission and AZ at the highest levels to sit together and try to find a mutually agreeable solution. And last night the UK and the EU did exactly that.
Afterwards they issued a joint statement saying they are working together ‘to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens’, adding: ‘In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges.’
Such emollience came not before time. Earlier in the day, Brussels had upped the ante by publishing proposals widening the criteria for restricting exports to countries with high jab rates. The Italian authorities went so far as to impound unilaterally 29million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Vaccine nationalism is something we should all fear. Some estimates suggest a European ban could delay Britain’s vaccine drive by two months and affect supply by 20 per cent.
As Johnson has put it, ‘We are all fighting the same pandemic… Vaccines are an international operation.’ What he does not want is a retaliatory ban on exports: ‘We do not believe in blockades of any kind.’
And what does Brussels really want? Hard to say.
The French Europe minister Clement Beaune has said: ‘We want to avoid AstraZeneca doses produced in Europe going to Britain when we are not receiving anything.’ The German Chancellor Angela Merkel no less has said the EU has ‘a problem with AstraZeneca’.
And a ban on exporting drugs is not the only weapon in the Brussels armoury. The European Council President Charles Michel has raised the prospect that the EU could adopt ‘urgent measures’ by invoking an emergency provision in the EU treaties which ostensibly could be used to force vaccine makers to share their patents or other licenses.
In the formal language of an EU treaty it is known as compulsory licensing. Drug companies might prefer the word ‘theft’.
But perhaps all this is unnecessarily alarmist. Perhaps there will be no ban, no vaccine war, no enforced ‘sharing’ of patents.
Perhaps. But I would need to regain my faith in the Remainer religion to accept that.