LONDON — The EU has moved to assure Britain that vaccine exports into the country won’t be stopped by the bloc’s new trade restrictions, British Trade Secretary Liz Truss said.
“We have received reassurance from the European Union that those contracts will not be disrupted,” Truss told Sky News on Sunday.
“Vaccine protectionism is fundamentally problematic,” she later told BBC presenter Andrew Marr, reiterating that the U.K. government has “had reassurances about our contracted supply” coming from the EU.
The flow of vaccines was thrown into doubt after the EU passed a regulation telling customs agents to block exports of COVID-19 vaccines to many richer countries including the U.K. unless they receive an export authorization. The implications of the ban, which took effect Saturday, are so far unclear.
The EU made the move after manufacturer AstraZeneca said it would fall short of delivering doses promised to the bloc. The firm is one of the U.K.’s main suppliers.
But the European Commission was forced to reverse course on part of its plan after it originally sought to override the Brexit deal by triggering a provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol known as Article 16, imposing an effective trade border with the Republic of Ireland. That prompted fury in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“We’re pleased that the EU admitted that the Article 16 invocation … for the border in Ireland was a mistake and they are now not proceeding with that,” Truss said. “It is vital we keep borders open and we resist vaccine nationalism and we resist protectionism.”
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told the BBC’s Andrew Marr there were “a lot of lessons to be learned from how all of this transpired.” When asked whether it might have been prudent for the European Commission to run its decision to invoke Article 16 past Dublin, he replied: “Yes.”
But he denied claims that the first Dublin had heard about the row was a telephone call from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “I don’t where you got that from but that was certainly not the case,” he said. “The Commission issued a public announcement and that’s where we first became aware of it.”
Truss said Britain’s own export controls on COVID-related medicines target “drugs specifically for the U.K. market” from being “sold on at higher prices or hoarded.” The U.K. last year imposed export restrictions on around 100 medicines that could be used to treat COVID-19 on top of scores of related drugs, as POLITICO reported.
The trade secretary’s comments come after after the U.K.’s vaccines minister emphasized the need for “collaboration” with the EU. Nadhim Zahawi told the Sunday Telegraph that Britain had gone “out of our way” to help Brussels with production problems and said it would “continue to do so.”
“I don’t think this is a Brexit issue,” he said. “This is about making sure that we protect the most vulnerable. It’s a race against death in many ways.”
Asked whether the U.K. might eventually help the EU out with its shortage of jabs, Truss said the government — which has 367 million doses of various vaccines on order and looks set to eventually have a surplus — would continue to look at how it could help both neighbors and poorer countries further afield.
“It won’t benefit people in Britain if we become a vaccinated island and many other countries don’t have the vaccine, because the virus will continue to spread,” she said, but declined to commit to a timetable or threshold at which the U.K. might start sending vaccine abroad.
The World Health Organization has suggested Britain should pause vaccinations after vulnerable groups have received their jabs to aid the global rollout. WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC on Saturday that was morally and economically “the right thing to do.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.