British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Preston, England, March 22 2021. Picture: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Preston, England, March 22 2021. Picture: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the EU does not want to launch a vaccine battle, despite the bloc warning it is set to restrict exports of coronavirus shots to the UK.       

In an attempt to defuse the tensions with Brussels, Johnson said avoiding blockades of vaccine supplies is vital because immunisation programmes require countries to work together.

“I’m reassured by talking to EU partners over the last few months that they don’t want to see blockades,” Johnson said in a pooled interview with broadcasters on Monday. “That’s very, very important.”

“We are all facing the same pandemic, we all have the same problems,” he said.

The comments underline his government’s position that the EU should keep to its earlier promises not to get in the way of exports to the UK. The tone he struck was conciliatory even as political tempers flared.

“People in this country should be under no illusions that previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, it washes up on our shores as well,” Johnson said. The UK is mulling the next steps for easing restrictions.

The prime minister was speaking after the EU set out plans to restrict the export of vaccines and components to the UK, a step that is aimed at companies it says have not met delivery obligations to the bloc.

The EU will likely reject authorisations to export AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccines and their ingredients to the UK until the drug manufacturer fulfils its contracts, according to a senior European official.

The move, which comes as the bloc struggles to accelerate its inoculation programme, risks creating a further deterioration in relations with London. The vaccine issue, as well as trade and tensions over Northern Ireland, are straining the fragile post-Brexit relationship agreed on in December.

In London, politicians united to criticise the EU’s stance.

“I don’t think the EU is helping itself here, I don’t think it’s helped itself much in the last few weeks and months on the whole question of the vaccine,” opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told LBC radio on Monday, joining Johnson’s team in condemning the bloc’s actions. “I don’t think we should go down the road of banning exports.”

Earlier, Helen Whately, a junior UK health minister, told Sky News that “vaccine nationalism, this kind of breathless speculation about limiting supply, doesn’t do anybody any good”.

EU leaders meeting later this week will discuss the vaccine plan, but not all governments support such a dramatic step, giving Johnson a chance to persuade some to reject the idea.

He has called EU leaders about the dispute in recent days, including Dutch premier Mark Rutte and Belgium’s Alexander de Croo and plans more conversations before the meeting, a person familiar with the matter said.

The EU official, who asked not to be named because the decisions are under consideration and have not been made public, said there are no outstanding requests for UK exports from Astra’s production facility in the Netherlands, but should such a request be made, it is likely to be rejected. A production plant in the Netherlands and one in Belgium produce ingredients for the Astra shot.

The Times newspaper reported on Monday that the UK may share stockpiles at the Halix site in the Netherlands. The newspaper said that if the EU limits demands to those, then the British government will negotiate.

Astra has been at the centre of the EU’s vaccination problems since first cutting delivery targets because of a production problem. Most recently, its shot was temporarily suspended in much of Europe over blood-clot fears.

While the EU drug regulator backed the vaccine last week, and US trial results published on Monday said there were no safety concerns, public trust in the shot has plummeted in Europe. The majority of people in Germany, France, Italy and Spain now see the vaccine as unsafe, according to a survey by YouGov published by The Telegraph. 

Such public concern could be bad news for the EU, which is struggling to overcome a slow start to its inoculation campaign.

The European Commission said last week that it would restrict exports of vaccines to countries that don’t reciprocate or that already have high vaccination rates.

The UK is the largest recipient of doses made in the EU, receiving 10-million of 42-million shots exported by the bloc so far. The EU has previously demanded AstraZeneca use doses manufactured in the UK to meet its contractual obligations to the bloc.

“This is not about banning vaccine exports, this is about making sure that companies deliver on their contracts,” EU Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer told reporters in Brussels.

But Pfizer has warned that the free movement of supplies between the UK and EU is critical to the production of its own vaccine. Manufacturing of lipids — the fatty substance used to deliver the genetic material at the heart of the vaccine Pfizer makes with its German partner BioNTech — takes place at a secret location in the UK before shipping to the EU where the shots are completed.

The EU is not alone in having supply issues. The UK is facing a “significant” four-week cut to the supply of Covid-19 vaccines from late March. A delayed shipment of the Astra vaccine from India and a batch requiring retesting are behind the disruption.

Edward Lister, one of Johnson’s closest advisers, is in India this week after the delay of Astra doses earmarked for the UK from the country’s Serum Institute. Johnson’s office said it was a pre-planned trip ahead of the premier visiting India next month rather than an attempt to address shortages.

Bloomberg

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