The European Union is set to pass emergency legislation that will let it curb the export of Covid vaccines for the next six weeks, it has emerged. Faced with shortages and a chaotic rollout, the bloc is now looking to hold back more doses for its citizens. Draft legislation seen by the New York Times and confirmed by two EU officials will make it harder for pharmaceutical firms to export Covid vaccines. While the UK isn’t specifically singled out, it will lost out the most from the new law, which is set to be made public on Wednesday. The latest export curbs being pushed through by the European Commission will allow a degree of discretion and won’t mean a blanket ban on exports, according to EU officials. It is thought they will encourage the blocking of shipments to countries that do not export vaccines to the European Union or to countries with a ‘higher vaccination rate’ than the bloc, ‘or where the current epidemiological situation is less serious’. Tensions between the UK and the EU over the restriction of vaccines have been simmering for months, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen saying she is ‘not ruling out anything for now’.
Boris Johnson risked adding fuel to the fire after allegedly joking about Britain’s vaccine rollout success during a Zoom meeting. According to the Sun, he told MPs: ‘The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed my friends.’ But he quickly backtracked, adding: ‘Actually I regret saying it. Forget I said that.’ A Downing Street spokesman declined to comment on what was said, but he did not deny the PM’s reported comments. Since January, the EU has been at odds with Astrazeneca, claiming British-Swedish firm failed to deliver on its contract after delivering less than originally expected.
The pharmaceutical giant said this was due to production problems, but Brussels suspected it was giving preferential treatment to Britain and even sent inspectors round to a Belgian facility to check if they were having issues. An EU diplomat told the BBC: ‘AstraZeneca appears to have promised the UK priority for the first X million doses – using production facilities in the EU, as well as the UK. This doesn’t add up. Though this isn’t the UK’s fault.’ But last week Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the EU should ‘live up’ to its obligations and strongly discouraged any export blocks. He added: ‘We fully expect those contracts to be delivered on, because there are very significant consequences to breaking contract law.’
The European Union authorised the export of more than 40million doses to 33 countries between February and mid-March, with 10million going to the UK and 4.3million to Canada. The bloc has kept around 70million for its 27 member nations, but it has hit a number of snags along the way due to supply problems. The EU first introduced export controls for vaccines on January 29, which were used for the first time on March 4 when Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses to Australia.