Boris Johnson has told the EU that Europe would be the loser if it imposes a Covid vaccine blockade on Britain, as Brussels empowered officials to prohibit shipments to countries with a better record in vaccinating their population.
The UK had been singled out by EU officials for failing to export any doses to the the bloc as the European commission introduced fresh export controls that could lead to a ban on shipments to Britain.
“I don’t think that blockades, of either vaccines or medicines or ingredients for vaccines are sensible and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very big,” the prime minister told the Commons liaison committee after the EU announcement.
“I would just gently push anybody considering a blockade or interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is sensible to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.”
Asked directly if he would rule out taking retaliatory action should a blockade be imposed, Johnson said: “Our priority is to continue the vaccine rollout to vaccinate the British people. We’ll do everything necessary that we can to ensure that happens.”
The UK government and the European commission said in a joint statement on Wednesday evening that talks on a compromise were ongoing, and that they were working on a “win-win” solution to expand vaccine supply. It was clear, however, that a resolution remained some way off.
Under the EU’s revised regulation published on Wednesday, countries with a high level of vaccination coverage or those that restrict exports through law or their contracts with suppliers risk having shipments to them prohibited.
The UK does not ban the export of vaccines, but the government signed a contract with AstraZeneca that obliges the Anglo-Swedish company to deliver doses produced in Oxford and Staffordshire to Britain first.
The UK also appears to fall foul of the EU’s new criteria on vaccination coverage, with 45 jabs administered per 100 residents compared with 13 per 100 on average across the 27 member states. The regulation previously only took into account whether a supplier was fulfilling their contract with the EU.
Valdis Dombrovskis, a vice-president of the commission, said it had been forced to act to “ensure vaccination of our own population”.
He said: “The EU still faces a very serious epidemiological situation and continues to export significantly to countries whose situation is less serious than ours, or whose vaccination rollout is more advanced than ours.
“Our export authorisation mechanism is not addressed at any specific country. But it is clear that you need to ensure vaccination of our own population. We are in a sense behind. And if you look at the same time, despite the fact that EU is one of the global hotspots of the pandemic, the EU is also the largest exporter of vaccines.
“Just since the introduction of the export authorisation [in January] some 10m doses have been exported from the EU to the UK and zero doses have been exported from the UK to the EU. So, if we discuss reciprocity, solidarity and say global responsibility, it is clear that we also need to look at those aspects of reciprocity and proportionality.”
The regulation notes that manufacturers in the EU “have exported large quantities of goods covered by the export authorisation mechanism to certain countries without production capacity, but which have a higher vaccination rate than the union or where the current epidemiological situation is less serious than in the union.
“Exports to those countries may thus threaten the security of supply within the union. Member states should refuse export authorisations accordingly.”
The EU has suffered from a major supply shortfall of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because of a yield problem at a plant in Belgium and the company’s subsequent refusal to divert doses made in the UK.
The EU is currently threatening to block the export to the UK of an unspecified number of doses being made at an AstraZeneca plant in the Netherlands. UK officials have been in negotiations since Monday on the issue.
The joint UK and EU statement said: “We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important.
“We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the UK and EU on Covid-19.
“Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take in the short, medium and long term to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens.
“In the end, openness and global cooperation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges. We will continue our discussions.”
The Guardian revealed on Monday that the UK’s vaccination programme would be delayed by two months if there was a total ban on doses being exported to the UK. EU officials said decisions on exports would be taken on a case-by-case basis. “It is not an export ban,” an EU official insisted.
The EU’s 27 heads of state and government will discuss the change to the export mechanism at a summit on Thursday.
A number of EU capitals have voiced their concern about the proposal, which was not briefed in detail to the representatives in Brussels ahead of publication.
“We hope this is a stick which we will not use because it might be a lose-lose and even before we use it we will want to know what the consequences are,” said one senior EU diplomat representing one of the sceptical member states. “We are hesitant about this, we are not convinced.”
Despite the concerns shared by Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium, among others, there is little prospect of the regulation being withdrawn. It would require a reverse qualified majority of member states to kill the proposal.
“What we put on the table is something very defendable,” said an EU official.
The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU was a global producer of vaccines, with 43m doses distributed to 33 countries since the end of January, but that the bloc needed to protect its supplies.
“While our member states are facing the third wave of the pandemic and not every company is delivering on its contract, the EU is the only major Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development producer that continues to export vaccines at large scale to dozens of countries,” she said. “But open roads should run in both directions.”
Only one export request has so far been prohibited by the EU: a 250,000-dose shipment by AstraZeneca from Italy to Australia.
The main export destinations for vaccines made in the EU include the UK with about 10.9m doses, Canada with 6.6m, Japan 5.4m, Mexico 4.4m, Saudi Arabia 1.5m, Singapore 1.5m, Chile 1.5m, Hong Kong 1.3m, South Korea 1m and Australia 1m.
The EU is also widened the scope of the export authorisation mechanism to take in all neighbouring countries including those with which it has a close trading relationship, such as Norway and Switzerland.