The Prime Minister yesterday warned Brussels to come to a deal on sharing jab doses instead of attempting to block exports of medicines to the UK. He warned that the EU’s aggressive action risked “long-term damage” to Europe by scaring business investment away. British and EU officials were last night scrambling to try to resolve the row and create a “win-win” agreement on sharing vaccines. With some European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, increasingly nervous about European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s approach, EU diplomats are seeking a compromise.
The UK Government and EU last night issued a joint statementconfirming that diplomatic talks to resolve the row are under way.
It 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.
“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 overcoming this pandemic and ensuring better preparation for meeting future challenges. We will continue our discussions.”
But a Brussels summit of European leaders is today expected to agree on Ms Von der Leyen’s proposals for emergency restrictions on Covid vaccines leaving the EU for nations like the UK who are racing ahead with rolling out jabs.
At a hearing of the Commons Liaison Committee of senior backbench MPs, the Prime Minister urged the EU to back down.
He said: “I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of ingredients for vaccines are sensible, and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very considerable. I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade or an 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.”
He also refused to rule out taking retaliatory measures if the EU blockade goes ahead.
The EU moves, following panic in the bloc over the sluggish rate of vaccinations in member countries, sparked fury yesterday.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt branded the move “idiotic in the extreme”.
Senior Tory MP Peter Bone said: “It’s almost beyond belief what the EU is suggesting. Restricting vaccine exports to countries that are deemed successful is clearly an attack on the United Kingdom.
“It does appear to be deliberate intimidation of the United Kingdom. The fact is, we’re leading Europe on vaccinations and the EU has made a pig’s ear of it.”
EU insiders said the diplomatic talks followed pressure from Chancellor Merkel and other EU leaders for the European Commission to back down.
One senior diplomat said: “Having the stick should be enough. We don’t want to use the stick because this will lead to a lose-lose situation.
“Things should not go sour. That’s the worst thing that could occur. Let’s get back to what we’re all looking for, which is vaccinating our people.”
Dutch premier Mark Rutte intervened to ease tensions after talks with Mr Johnson last Friday on a possible compromise.
In a series of follow-up calls to Ms von der Leyen he stressed the risk a vaccine war would pose to supply chains.
Earlier yesterday, EU officials had announced the beefed-up powers to prevent life-saving Covid immunisations from being sent abroad for at least six weeks in response to growing anger over the bloc’s jabs shambles.
Under the plan, they would be able to block shipments to countries with higher vaccination rates and less infections than EU nations.
Ms Von Der Leyen said: “We have to ensure timely and sufficient vaccine deliveries to EU citizens. Every day counts.” Her deputy Valdis Dombrovskis warned Britain was a potential target because our factories have not shipped any doses to the Continent.
The Commission vice-president suggested Brussels could retaliate by snatching doses of the Pfizer vaccine heading to our shores.
The threat to seize vaccines came as British diplomats were locked in talks with the EU to avert a full-blown trade war with the bloc.
Mr Dombrovskis said: “The EU still faces a very serious situation and continues to export significantly to countries whose situation is less serious than ours, or whose vaccination is more advanced than ours.”
Downing Street has even said it is willing to help the EU get its vaccination scheme back on track.
Figures showed the UK’s daily Covid death toll rose by 98 yesterday to an overall total of 126,382.