Is the UK about to be forced into a vaccine war? That's the concern in Westminster after Brussels upped the ante over a potential vaccine export ban. Ursula von der Leyen suggested last week that the European Commission could block vaccine exports to countries with a high volume of jabs already. Now an EU official has said that the EU will rebuff any British government calls to ship Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines from a factory in the Netherlands.
The primary complaint among EU leaders is that AstraZeneca is yet to make good on its contractual obligations to them and deliver them the number of doses first promised. The Dutch plant can make between five and six million doses a month so has the potential to boost supply for both the UK and EU. The UK helped to develop the plant — sending engineers there for the setup. What's more, the doses currently being made there can't actually be used in the EU yet as they still need to be approved by the regulator.
While all this has led to frantic headlines, it's worth pointing out that no direct request has yet been made by the UK — and there will be no final decision by the EU until Thursday when EU leaders are due to meet virtually to discuss a ban.
The Prime Minister will make calls to EU leaders in advance of their meeting in an attempt to talk them down. A hint of what he could say came from Ben Wallace's appearance on the Sunday morning television round. The Defence Secretary implied the UK could retaliate if pushed — arguing that any ban would be 'counterproductive because the one thing we know about vaccine production and manufacture is that it is collaborative'.
For now, government figures are keen to play down the idea that this could significantly impact the UK or the roadmap out of lockdown. Given that the UK produces a large amount of its AstraZeneca supply on British soil, a much bigger problem for the government would be an export ban on Pfizer — which is not made in the UK. However, given that Pfizer relies on UK made ingredients, the hope is that such a proposition would be too counterproductive to ever see the light of day.
In terms of what this means for UK-EU relations, there is growing hostility now on both sides. While Brussels consider an export ban, the UK side has so far been reluctant to engage or throw petrol on the fire. But privately UK ministers are seething over the way EU leaders have criticised and raised concerns over both the efficacy and safety of the Oxford vaccine.
After Emmanuel Macron initially suggested the vaccine was 'quasi-ineffective' among the elderly, France has now advised against its use in the young — citing blood clot concerns (a new study in the US has said there is 'no increased risk' of blood clots). Little wonder then that the latest YouGov data on European attitudes to AstraZeneca jab finds 61 per cent of French respondents and 55 per cent of Germans view the vaccine as unsafe. If the EU succeed in increasing their supply, leaders will then have a job on their hands encouraging their citizens to take it.