EU Covid-19 vaccines row explained – and whether supplies to the UK will be hit

First shortages. Then legal threats. Then it simmered over into a full-blown diplomatic incident threatening peace in Northern Ireland.

The EU triggered an almighty spat on Friday night by restricting vaccine exports after its vaccine supply stuttered.

That threatened supplies of jabs to the UK, which has given first doses to more than 8million people.

And the EU looked set to impose a hard border in Northern Ireland, overriding the Brexit deal, before Brussels backed down amid fury on Friday night.

We want the Pfizer vaccine – which is produced in Belgium.

And they want the AstraZeneca vaccine – which is produced in the UK.

But what are the actual details of the row? Why did it involve the UK and Northern Ireland? And will supplies actually be hit?

Here we take you through the basics of what on earth happened.

What’s it all about?

The row kicked off when AstraZeneca revealed it would deliver 60% fewer vaccine doses than hoped to the EU by March.

Due to a production glitch – said to be at a hub in Belgium – it will supply only 31million doses rather than 80million planned.

That prompted fury from the EU, which complained AstraZeneca continued to supply other buyers at the same time.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday: “There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear.”

She is worried because the EU’s vaccine rollout is slipping behind, while the UK is far ahead of any individual EU country so far.

Why was the UK dragged into it?

Because we’re home to one of the factories where the AstraZeneca jab is produced, and are using it in very large numbers.

The EU believed our factory is one of those from which it had a contractual right to demand doses of Covid vaccine.

That meant it was hoping to lean on AstraZeneca – possibly with legal action – to shift UK-made doses to the EU.

At the same time, the EU is also home to the Belgian plant where doses of Pfizer vaccine are made and shipped to the UK.

Brussels officials on Friday announced tighter export controls on doses of vaccine that leave the EU – including those headed for the UK.

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So as well as demanding doses of vaccine made in the UK, EU chiefs were trying to restrict the number of vaccine doses we get from Belgium. That exploded within hours into a diplomatic incident.

Margaret Keenan, 90, the first patient in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech jab
Margaret Keenan, 90, the first patient in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech jab

How did Northern Ireland get dragged into it?

The EU sparked fury by triggering part of the Brexit agreement as part of its export control on vaccines from the EU.

The bloc said it would invoke Aricle 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in an attempt to stop vaccines made in the EU from getting into the UK through the back door.

The protocol, which is part of the Brexit deal, allows goods to cross from the Republic of Ireland (EU) to Northern Ireland (UK) without checks. It is vital to preserve peace and stability on the island of Ireland.

Triggering Article 16 would have created a “hard border” – invoking many of the problems of the Troubles.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster described the move as an “incredible act of hostility” and Boris Johnson made a furious call to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Even ardent Europhiles such as the Lib Dems and Tony Blair, plus the Labour Party, condemned the EU’s behaviour on the issue. Irish premier Micheal Martin also spoke to the European Commission.

Has the EU backed down?

Yes – although the exact details may have to come out in the wash.

After the apoplectic response from the UK on Friday night, the EU confirmed it would not trigger Article 16. Officials accepted they’d made a “mistake”.

On export controls to the UK in general, Ms von der Leyen said: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”

This suggests vaccine supplies from Belgium to the UK – which has a contract with Pfizer – won’t be blocked. But the power still appears to exist if the EU wish to invoke it.

Ursula von der Leyen has said the contract is 'crystal clear'
Ursula von der Leyen has said the contract is ‘crystal clear’

So will our vaccine supplies be blocked or not?

Ms von der Leyen’s statement suggests there will be no block on the Pfizer vaccine moving from Belgium to the UK.

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And the AstraZeneca jab is made in the UK so we have more control over that. Ministers have said they could send doses to the EU, but suggest this may only be in Autumn once all adults have been vaccinated.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss guaranteed there will be no disruption to Pfizer vaccines being supplied to the UK from within the EU.

Asked if she could absolutely guarantee the Belgium-made Pfizer jabs would not be disrupted, she told The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC: “Yes, I can.

“The Prime Minister has spoken to the President of the European Commission, she has assured him that there will be no disruption of contracts that we have with any producer in the EU.”

Is the UK being given special treatment?

There’s no doubt the UK is getting extremely high numbers of doses compared to some countries – more than 8million first doses given out so far.

But AstraZeneca insist they’re not playing favourites with the UK government.

Chief executive Pascal Soriot said the UK signed its contract with the firm – for 100million doses – three months before the EU signed its deal for 400million last year.

That means we had more time to iron out glitches in production of the jab, made with Oxford University.

UK Vaccine Taskforce chief Kate Bingham said we also started work to manufacture the jab extraordinarily early.

She told the BBC we “actually started scaling up manufacture of the Oxford vaccine from February” last year – before a contract was even signed, let alone a jab passing trials or being approved.

So essentially, we took a massive gamble on the AstraZeneca jab and it paid off.

Frances Muir, site director at Valneva, shows the Prime Minister Boris Johnson one of the labs
Frances Muir, site director at Valneva, shows the Prime Minister Boris Johnson one of the labs

What has AstraZeneca said?

Chief executive Pascal Soriot said his contract never committed him to meet the EU’s demands – only make a “best effort”.

“It’s not a commitment we have to Europe: it’s a best effort, we said we are going to make our best effort,” he said.

“Europe wanted to be supplied more or less at the same time as the UK, even though the contract was signed three months later.

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“We said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do our best, we’re going to try, but we cannot commit contractually because we are three months behind UK’.”

But EU chief Ms von der Leyen claimed this “best effort” clause was only valid if it was not clear whether AstraZeneca could develop a vaccine.

What does the contract say?

The EU on Friday published its contract with AstraZeneca to try to prove its point – but it’s still not entirely clear.

On the one hand, the contract says the firm will use its “best reasonable efforts” to manufacture the vaccine for the EU – including specifically in the UK – if asked.

The contract also required AstraZeneca to pledge it is “not under any obligation, contractual or otherwise, to any third party” that “would impede the complete fulfillment of its obligations” to the EU.

On the other hand, it does not include UK plants in a separate paragraph about AstraZeneca using its “best reasonable efforts” to get the initial order out to the EU by the end of March.

How many doses of vaccine has the UK ordered?

The UK Government has ordered 40million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and 100million of the Oxford/AstraZeneca.

We have also ordered 17million from Moderna – the most-recently approved vaccine. But supplies of the US firm’s jab are not expected to arrive until spring.

The UK has also ordered 60 million doses of the Novavax jab – to be produced on Teesside – but it’s not been approved yet.

Phase 3 trials showed strong efficacy and it’s hoped the MHRA regulator could approve it for use within weeks.

How many doses does the UK currently have?

We don’t know.

The UK Government refuses to publish figures about how many doses are currently moving into the country.

But that could change after comments from Nicola Sturgeon – who is facing criticism over the speed of Scotland’s rollout.

She suggested Scotland will “go back to publishing the actual supply figures from next week”.

That has prompted fears that the data could be used by EU politicians to push for export controls and jabs from the UK.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said publishing supply data would be “deeply irresponsible”

And Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer claimed the figures were being hidden “for national security reasons”.

What we do know is the number of jabs actually going into arms. As of Thursday, official figures showed 7,447,199 people in the UK had received a first dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines.



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