The UK is prepared to offer a helping hand to the European Union as the bloc struggles to fix its COVID-19 vaccine supply issue, in what is seen as a conciliatory gesture after Brussels U-turned on its threats to block jab supplies at the border.
The focus is now shifting towards "collaboration" with the EU, Nadhim Zahawi, Britain’s Minister for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment at the Department of Health and Social Care, was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.
The official added that the UK has gone "out of our way" to help beleaguered Brussels with its vaccine production challenges and "will continue to do so".
COVID Jab Row
The announced move by the British government comes amidst a diplomatic row that has been gathering steam of late over vaccine exports. As the UK launched its sweeping inoculation programme, aiming to vaccinate no fewer than 14 million people in the four most vulnerable population segments by 15 February 2021, the European bloc has been under fire for delays in its anti-COVID roll-out.
Health Secretary @MattHancock tells @skygillian that the UK has 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on order and the roll out will begin on 4 January.— Sky News (@SkyNews) December 30, 2020
Read more: https://t.co/BqydNJZtMK pic.twitter.com/ghfoeBfkQ6
The problems were triggered by reported delays at the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca’s Belgium plant and other technical difficulties Pfizer has been experiencing while trying to scale up production.
Total vaccine doses given by country (Europe) pic.twitter.com/uO0BB3qu6g— 🌊 A Canadian in Germany 🇨🇦 🇪🇺 🇩🇪 #FBPE 💙 (@CanadianGermany) January 30, 2021
On Saturday, tensions were brought down a notch after Brussels backtracked on its earlier threats to prevent supplies of the Pfizer jab, produced at the pharmaceutical giant’s Belgium plant, from reaching Britain by imposing a ‘vaccine border’ on the island of Ireland.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the U-turn in the wake of a telephone conversation with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
However, ahead of the reversal of Brussels’ plan to impose controls on exports from Europe and invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, UK ministers had been forced to draw up a covert retaliatory plan to protect Britain's vaccine supplies, writes the outlet.
A six-page document had been hurriedly assembled amid the crisis, according to sources, that presupposed measures ranging from extending a six-month grace period on health checks for chilled meat products imported into Northern Ireland from the UK to threatening legal action against the European Commission.
Downing Street’s vaccine task force reportedly didn’t rule out resorting to airlifts to protect the country’s coronavirus inoculation supply if the EU imposed a ‘blockade’.
"There were a variety of things set out that were not needed. Things moved very rapidly. There was a paper drawn up with actions to respond, but thankfully it all got stood down," a Government source was quoted as saying.
As diverse options were said to have been weighed, a senior Downing Street source was cited as saying nothing was committed to paper at the emergency meeting.
"There was a conversation around 'if we need to do something in response, what should it be?'" said the source.
The White House reportedly voiced its concerns over the EU's export controls on Friday, with members of President Joe Biden's team seeking clarification regarding potential fallout for deliveries to the US.
On Saturday, Brussels moved to back down from its decision to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and impose export controls on vaccines that threatened the fate of a shipment of 3.5 million Pfizer doses to Britain.
According to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the EU had 'recognised they made a mistake', after the bloc faced condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast over the proposed move.
“I think the European Union recognises that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16 which would've meant the reimposition of a border on the island of Ireland. But now the European Union has stepped back,” Gove was quoted by Sky News as saying.
He added that after the conversation between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen ministers expected vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and AstraZeneca to be supplied to the UK according to previously-determined plans.
"The Prime Minister was very clear, we've entered into contractual arrangements with AstraZeneca and Pfizer and we expect those arrangements to be honoured. And President von der Leyen was clear that she understood exactly the UK government's position so we expect that those contracts will be honoured, we expect that vaccines will continue to be supplied,” said Michael Gove.
Gove also added that the UK government would work with the EU to make sure the bloc’s problems ‘can be tackled’.