Vaccine row: Whately addresses prospect of UK retaliation
With the UK and EU on the brink of a vaccine war, the Prime Minister is expected to speak to his counterparts on the continent and threaten retaliatory action if a ban on jabs being shipped to the UK is implemented. His calls will take place ahead of a Brussels summit on Thursday when EU leaders will hold a virtual meeting and vote on blocking shipments of Covid doses to outside the bloc.
Ministers believe the move would be legally dubious and there are concerns an export ban could set back Britain’s immunisation programme by as much as two months.
Tensions were ramped up last night with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen threatening AstraZeneca it had the power to “forbid” jabs leaving the EU.
“That is the message to AstraZeneca,” she added as she demanded the drugs manufacturer provide more doses for the EU.
AstraZeneca informed the bloc earlier this year it would only be able to provide the bloc with about a third of the vaccines it had promised in the coming months due to manufacturing issues.
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Brussels is now demanding jabs earmarked for other countries be given to the EU.
Speaking this morning, health minister Helen Whately told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We expect the European Union to stick by their commitments and I’m sure the Prime Minister will be in contact with European counterparts – he speaks to European counterparts regularly- but I don’t think this debate is helpful to anybody.
“What matters is for all countries to be getting on and deploying and vaccinating their population.”
She added: “What we’re hearing at the moment is some speculation, some conjecture, an element of rhetoric.
“But what is actually important is that the EU and no country should follow vaccine nationalism or vaccine protectionism.”
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are both thought to support introducing an export ban.
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Boris Johnson will threaten the EU with retaliation if jabs are blocked
The two countries are understood to have privately spoken in support of triggering article 122 of the EU’s treaty which allows the bloc to take control of the distribution of essential goods.
It would be the first time the emergency measure has been used by the EU in over 40 years.
The Prime Minister is set to hold phone calls with both Mr Macron and Ms Merkel in the coming days to urge them not to ban vaccine shipments to the UK.
Mr Johnson spoke to both Ms von der Leyden and Belgium’s Prime Minister – where the Pfizer jab is manufactured – to warn against a ban.
Yesterday Defence Secretary Ben Wallace hinted Britain would ban vital ingredients used to manufacturer the Pfizer vaccine from travelling from the UK to Belgium if an export ban was introduced on Thursday.
“We all have different ingredients and the European Commission will know that,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
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Ursula von der Leyen said the EU could ‘forbid’ jabs being sent to the UK
“They will know you wouldn’t want to cut off your nose to spite your face.”
A new report by the data analytics company Airfinity found an export ban would significantly damage the UK’s inoculation efforts with a two-month delay to the timeline laid out by Mr Johnson.
However, the research suggested the block on shipments leaving the EU would be of little help to the continent with the vaccination programmes of member states sped up by “just over a week”.
Ministers have sought to ease concerns the delay could slow down England’s roadmap out of lockdown, saying the easing of restrictions would go ahead as planned because all over-50s had now been protected against the virus.
The EU’s immunisation programme lags massively behind Britain’s.
While the UK has administered 42.7 injections per 100 people, the EU has administered just 10.4 doses.
Covid vaccinations latest
The lethargic rollout is in part due to distrust in the AstraZeneca jab on the continent following the spread of misinformation and panic about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
New polling from YouGov suggests confidence in the safety of the vaccine has dropped in the last two weeks in Spain, Germany, France and Italy.
Some 55 percent of Germans said the AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe while 32 percent said it is safe.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine was already seen as unsafe in France but concerns have increased even further, with 61 percent now saying it is unsafe while 23 percent say it is safe, according to the survey of almost 9,000 people in seven countries.
The latest drop in confidence comes after more than a dozen European countries suspended the use of the vaccine over concerns about blood clots, although most have now resumed its use.