Boris Johnson has hit back at claims from the European Council president who accused the UK of banning exports of COVID-19 vaccines.
The fresh row over vaccine nationalism between the UK and the EU was reignited on Tuesday by an article penned by Charles Michel in which he said: “the facts do not lie. The United Kingdom and the United States have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.”
The British prime minister moved to “correct the suggestion” by the EU leader, a former Belgian prime minister, in Parliament on Wednesday.
“Let me be clear that we have not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine components,” Johnson told the House of Commons. “This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms.”
He also told MPs the government was proud of the support the UK had given to the international response to the pandemic, including £548 million (€639 million) donated to the global COVAX initiative.
The prime minister’s rebuttal follows an earlier outright rejection by London of the EU claims.
“The British government has never blocked the export of a single vaccine. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false,” a government spokesman said on Tuesday.
EU envoy summoned in London
An EU source confirmed to Euronews that a representative had been summoned in London to a meeting with a UK Foreign Office (FCDO) official on Wednesday morning.
It’s understood that EU chargé d’affaires Nicole Mannion was due to be received by Philip Barton, Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCDO, at 8.30 am London time.
The source said the British government had summoned the EU ambassador, João Vale de Almeida, adding that he wasn’t currently in London. She also cited the UK’s refusal to grant the ambassador full diplomatic status as a factor in the decision to send a lower-ranking envoy.
Charles Michel appeared to qualify his remarks on vaccine exports later on Tuesday, tweeting that there were “different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines.”
“Glad if the UK reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports, to EU and third countries,” the EU Council president said.
But on Wednesday a German MEP intervened to support Michel over his original claim.
“We know that significant amounts of the AstraZeneca vaccine went from the continent to the UK,” said Peter Liese, one of the main parliamentary experts on the issue. He claimed that “for example, from the plant in Dessau IDT Biologika in Dessau, Germany, and still the company is not ready to give vaccine that is produced in the UK to supply the European Union.”
The AstraZeneca company has denied it has syphoned off vaccines that were meant for the EU to any other destination.
In a strong defence of the bloc’s vaccination programme in his article, Charles Michel said he was “shocked” by the accusations of vaccine nationalism against the EU, after the establishment of a mechanism to control the exports of vaccines produced on its territory.
The EU “never stopped exporting” and “the majority” of the doses that enabled mass vaccination in Israel came from Belgium, said the top official from the European Council — the EU body representing national leaders.
The “EU is providing vaccines for its citizens and rest of the world”, Michel added in his tweet.
Last week a Commission spokeswoman told Euronews: “The EU continues to be a leading provider of vaccines around the world. During the period from 30 January to 1 March, 174 requests for exports requested in the context of the Regulation have been approved by the Member States.”
Row follows January dispute
The UK is leading the rest of Europe in administering first vaccination doses, while the EU — and some individual countries — have faced criticism for the slow rollout of vaccine campaigns in the bloc.
By March 8 the UK had given first jabs to 33% of the population, compared to 6.5% across the EU, according to the Oxford University project Our World in Data. However, the EU leads in terms of second doses given, with 3% of the population inoculated compared to 1.7% in the UK.
It is the second time this year that a row has broken out between the UK and the EU over vaccine supplies — and the latest of several acrimonious clashes since the practical effects of Brexit kicked in at the start of the year.
Amid a row with the manufacturer AstraZeneca over supplies in January, the EU briefly moved to trigger controls on shipments of vaccines to Northern Ireland — part of the UK — angering London.
The EU plan was quickly abandoned but by invoking — even briefly — emergency provisions under the Brexit divorce deal, it prompted a broader row over agreed arrangements for Northern Ireland, which has experienced supply problems from Great Britain because of new red tape.
EU under pressure to speed up rollout
The supply crisis also saw the European Commission adopt a regulation to control the export of coronavirus vaccines manufactured in the EU.
This week Italy moved to block a shipment of coronavirus vaccines headed to Australia, the first time the new EU export control mechanism has been used.
Deliveries to the European Union of COVID-19 vaccines should accelerate to 100 million doses per month from April, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday.
On Wednesday she announced further an agreement with BioNTech-Pfizer for the supply to EU countries of four million more vaccine doses in March, “before the end of the month”.
On Tuesday the OECD issued a warning to Europe that sluggish vaccine rollouts threaten to hold the economy back.
“In Europe, we are late. Not only are we not producing enough (vaccines), but on top of that, even with the doses we have in Europe, we’re not using them. We must absolutely move up to a war footing,” the OECD’s Chief Economist Laurence Boone told Euronews.