European leaders were divided last night over whether to press ahead with an extraordinary ban on vaccine exports to Britain.
Brussels sources confirmed that the EU is ready to block a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the UK from a plant in the Netherlands.
But the issue has triggered a major rift among leaders of member states ahead of a key summit on Thursday.
One senior EU official described internal talks on the issue as a ‘total s*** show’.
Boris Johnson has launched a diplomatic offensive in recent days in a bid to head off a ban which could delay the UK’s vaccine programme.
The PM has sent his senior adviser Lord Lister to India for talks on unblocking a shipment of five million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine delayed last week on orders of the New Delhi government.
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson holds a power tool during a visit to BAE Systems at Warton Aerodrome in Preston, northwest England, on March 22
Government sources confirmed that the Prime Minister held private talks with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on Sunday in a bid to defuse the row.
Mr Johnson played down the threat yesterday, saying he was ‘reassured by talking to EU partners over the last few months that they don’t want to see blockades’. However, some ministers are alarmed by the protectionist rhetoric emerging from the EU and fear Brussels will press ahead with the ban in a bid to distract attention from the dismal performance of its own vaccine rollout.
One insider said: ‘It is madness, but for some politicians it is easier to have a row with AstraZeneca and Britain than to have people focusing on the contracts they didn’t get.’ Both France and Germany indicated that they will back the hardline position adopted by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, despite Mr Johnson’s diplomatic intervention.
French President Emmanuel Macron waits for the arrival of Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on March 22
Mrs von der Leyen warned last week she was ready to block vaccine exports to the UK as part of a ‘Europe first’ agenda designed to ensure that AstraZeneca and other drug firms meet their commitments to the bloc before supplying others.
A spokesman for Mrs Merkel said factories in EU countries had exported 34million doses to 30 countries, but that those in Britain and the US had shipped ‘almost nothing’. During a phone call on Sunday she told Mr Johnson that Mrs von der Leyen was right to be considering ways to further restrict shipments.
French Europe Minister Clement Beaune, a close ally of Mr Macron, said Paris also backed Mrs von der Leyen’s plans. ‘This must be the strategy of a Europe that moves faster and defends its interests: produce more, enforce contracts, and control exports,’ he said.
The Netherlands also opposes the jab ban, with Dutch PM Mark Rutte (pictured) pushing for emergency talks between Mr Johnson
But a string of other EU countries are alarmed by the idea of blocking exports, amid fears it could do serious international damage to its reputation as a place to do business. Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin warned that a ban would be ‘a very retrograde step’ which would prove counter-productive.
Mr Martin, who could face the prospect of the EU imposing a hard border with Northern Ireland to prevent vaccines entering the UK, said he had made it ‘very clear’ to fellow leaders he was opposed.
‘They’re not EU vaccines,’ he said. ‘These are vaccines paid for by other countries that are manufactured in Europe.’
Government sources confirmed that the Prime Minister held private talks with Angela Merkel (pictured) and Emmanuel Macron on Sunday in a bid to defuse the row
The Netherlands also opposes the jab ban, with Dutch PM Mark Rutte pushing for emergency talks between Mr Johnson, Mrs von der Leyen and AstraZeneca to thrash out a compromise.
EU sources yesterday suggested the first action against the UK was likely to be a block on the export of AstraZeneca vaccines from the Halix plant in the Netherlands.
The Dutch plan would see No 10 agree to free up some production capacity at the plant, which currently supplies only Britain, to make jabs for Europe as well.
A senior Dutch government source said Mr Rutte wants to avoid a ‘lose-lose scenario’ where Brussels forces his country to block exports: ‘We must avoid a tipping point whereby exporting to third countries becomes problematic.’
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin warned that a ban would be ‘a very retrograde step’ which would prove counter-productive
Belgium also opposes the ban, fearing it could hamper supply chains worldwide. The Pfizer jab is produced there.
UK sources played down the idea of a compromise that would allow the sharing of vaccines produced at the Halix plant. A source said there had been ‘no indication of that’. Health sources insisted that the bulk of the Britain’s AstraZeneca supplies are manufactured in the UK.
The PM’s spokesman said: ‘We have said throughout the vaccination programme that supplies will fluctuate, but we remain confident in our supplies.’
However, one independent analysis suggested a total EU export ban could push the UK’s vaccination programme back by two months, potentially delaying Mr Johnson’s road map for lifting the Covid lockdown.
Whitehall sources played down this estimate but confirmed ministers had been warned a ban by the EU could hit supplies during May and June.
Vaccine supplies are already due to dip next month because of the delay to the shipment from India.
Downing Street said the vaccine rollout had to remain an ‘international effort’.
The PM’s spokesman told reporters Britain expects the EU to continue to stand by its commitment, adding: ‘It’s important that the whole world works together.’
How Yorkshire firm could hit back
A BRITISH chemicals maker could disrupt the EU supply of Pfizer jabs if the bloc tries to bring in an export ban.
Croda International, based in Snaith, East Yorkshire, makes key ingredients for the fatty droplet used to deliver the genetic code within the vaccine into the body.
This has reportedly allowed Pfizer to warn EU leaders that production at its main factory in Belgium could ‘grind to a halt’ within weeks if the UK stopped Croda deliveries from crossing the Channel. Croda, better known for making ingredients in shampoo and sun cream, has a five-year deal with Pfizer which it has said will boost sales by at least £90million this year.
The contract means there could be an option to fight back if the EU does stop vaccine exports to the UK. A spokesman for Croda, which does not make the vaccine ingredients in Snaith but elsewhere in the UK, said the company ‘is supplying lipid components manufactured in the UK and the US to multiple Pfizer facilities’.