Tensions with the EU rose again today amid claims that the bloc is battling with the UK over 29million AstraZeneca doses in Italy – with Brussels unveiling plans to block exports.
The European Commission is set to defy anxiety over undermining legal contracts and publish new proposals widening the criteria for restricting exports.
EU sources suggested Britain will be put squarely in the crosshairs, as the plan will specify that supplies could be affected if they are bound for countries with higher vaccination rates than the bloc.
There are extraordinary report today that the two sides are battling over 29million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine being held at a plant in Italy. According to Italian paper La Stampa the huge stocks were earmarked for the UK, but discovered by the authorities after a tip-off from Brussels.
However, UK government sources insisted the claims are ‘not true’ and the supply figures being cited are ‘insane’.
The wrangling comes amid mounting panic in Brussels at its shambolic rollout. Hundreds of people from the Republic are said to have been trying to book jabs in Northern Ireland, where availability is far better.
Boris Johnson risked fuelling the row last night by suggesting to Tory MPs that ‘greed’ was responsible for the UK being so far ahead – although he quickly tried to retract the comment, realising it might cause anger.
Sources suggested the EU commission proposal, due to be released at 11am, could be broadened to include not just the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab but other vaccines, including the Pfizer jab, which is produced in Belgium.
The new regime will consider whether the country concerned is exporting jabs to the EU – which Britain is not.
The plan, backed by France and Germany, comes despite diplomatic efforts by Mr Johnson to head off a destructive vaccine war with the EU. It also comes in the face of opposition from some EU countries.
Boris Johnson (pictured out jogging this morning) has been trying to strike a compromise with the EU
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
The UK’s vaccine rollout has surged far ahead of the EU’s leaving the bloc under huge pressure to explain why
At a Downing Street briefing last night, the PM urged the EU to back down – and suggested a compromise was possible.
Mr Johnson reminded EU leaders that ‘we are all fighting the same pandemic,’ adding: ‘Vaccines are an international operation.’
The PM ducked questions about whether Britain could share AstraZeneca jabs from a plant in the Netherlands which is set to supply the UK.
But Mr Johnson suggested he would never sanction a retaliatory ban on exports, saying: ‘We in this country do not believe in blockades of any kind of vaccine or vaccine material. It is not something this country would dream of engaging in.’
After a frantic week of phone calls with EU leaders, he also tried to strike a positive note, saying: ‘I am encouraged by some of the things I have heard from the continent.’
But within hours he risked inflaming the spat again by joking with MPs that Britain had got the jabs ‘because of greed’.
In an online meeting with Tory backbenchers, the Prime Minister hailed ‘big pharma’ for making the vaccines quickly.
He told a private meeting of the 1922 Committee: ‘The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed my friends.’
He later added: ‘Actually I regret saying it’, and repeatedly asked MPs to ‘forget I said that’.
Government sources insisted Mr Johnson had been praising the way capitalism drove progress rather than aiming a swipe at the EU.
It is understood that chief whip Mark Spencer was also eating a cheese and pickle sandwich near him at the time, and ‘greed’ was also a reference to that.
Mr Johnson likes to joke the he is a fan of ‘big pharma’ as well as ‘big farmers’ – another ‘favourite’ piece of banter with the burly Mr Spencer, who comes from a farming background.
It is understood ‘several hundred’ adults from the Republic have tried to book slots as the delivery of the Covid jabs continue at pace across the north’s regional centres and GP surgeries.
According to the Irish News, the head of Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme Patricia Donnelly issued a warning yesterday after ‘several hundred’ adults from the Republic tried to book slots.
Ms Donnelly said people will be ‘turned away’ from centres if do not do fulfill the criteria.
Around half of the population in Northern Ireland have had their first dose – but in the Republic the figure is barely 10 per cent.
Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts said supply chain problems among vaccine companies are understandable, but accused AstraZeneca of repeatedly breaking its commitments to the EU instead of ‘engaging constructively’.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘AstraZeneca is a company that is not straightforward, that cannot be relied upon.
‘They commit, they decommit, then they decommit on their new commitments without any warning.’
Asked about the fact that the EU has millions of AstraZeneca doses that are being left in storage and not being used, he admitted that many member states have a poor track record on their vaccine rollouts.
But he added: ‘We obviously have also to do our job, but that does not exonerate suppliers of fulfilling their commitments regardless of what the customer does with their wares.
‘The right way to deal with that would be for the British Government, the EU Commission and AstraZeneca at the highest levels to get together and try to find a mutually agreeable solution.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel dodged today when asked during a round of interviews about Mr Johnson’s ‘greed’ remarks.
She told Sky News: ‘The Prime Minister always acknowledges the strong success we’ve had in terms of the vaccine, not just the rollout, which is incredible, but also our ability as a country to develop the vaccine, the role that pharmaceutical companies and science and technology has played in that.
‘And actually I think that speaks to a great strength we have as a country.
‘And linked to that, of course, look at our contributions to Covax, the international scheme, to get the vaccine supplies elsewhere and demonstrate that we are a very, very strong force for good internationally when it comes to vaccines, science and pharmaceutical development.’
Downing Street yesterday declined to comment on whether the UK could impose ‘tit for tat’ bans on vaccine ingredients if the EU presses ahead with the move.
But a Whitehall source said any ban would be viewed as a ‘hostile act’. The source said Brussels appeared to be trying to distract attention from its own failings by blaming Britain.
‘They are risking long-term damage to their relationship with us in order to save the political careers of a few,’ the source said.
Northern Ireland Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride receives his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Belfast last week
Brussels will today radically ramp up threats to block vaccine exports to the UK, despite a push by Boris Johnson to find a compromise (German chancellor Angela Merkel pictured)
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
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who is fighting to keep her job over the EU’s disastrous vaccine rollout, has toughened her stance towards Britain in recent days.
Today’s proposals are the latest development in the EU’s row with AstraZeneca, which the bloc accuses of prioritising Britain.
It could affect millions of doses of the AZ jab due to be exported from a plant in the Netherlands in the coming months. However, EU sources suggested the new proposal could be broadened to include other vaccines, such as the Pfizer jab, on which the UK is reliant on exports from Belgium.
France and Germany signalled they would support the move.
French Europe minister Clement Beaune confirmed the proposal would be discussed at a European summit tomorrow, adding: ‘We want to avoid AstraZeneca doses produced in Europe going to Britain when we are not receiving anything.’
German chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU had ‘a problem with AstraZeneca’.
But she signalled concerns about widening the ban to other vaccines. ‘There are a huge range of international interdependencies when it comes to vaccine production,’ she said.
‘You have to be very careful now about imposing general export bans – you have to take a very close look at the supply chains.’
Other EU leaders oppose the ban, fearing it would wreck the bloc’s reputation as a place to do business, and could spark off a global vaccine war.
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin warned that a ban would be a ‘very retrograde step’.
The Netherlands also opposes the jab ban, with Belgium and Poland among a string of other EU countries said to have serious concerns.