The fresh row over vaccine nationalism between the UK and the EU was reignited on Tuesday by an article in which Charles Michel said the UK and the US had “decreed an outright export ban on vaccines or vaccine components”.
“Let me be clear that we have not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine components,” the British Prime Minister told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms.”
The top official from the European Council — the EU body representing national leaders — 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, Michel wrote in a strong defence of the bloc’s vaccination programme.
Boris Johnson’s rebuttal follows an earlier outright rejection of the EU claims from the UK government.
“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 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.
The “EU is providing vaccines for its citizens and rest of the world”, Michel added.
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.