Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused the EU of “brinkmanship” and warned it not to block the export of coronavirus vaccines after a threat from European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen.
He warned that the “world’s watching” as he suggested the bloc was acting like a “less democratic” regime and that its threat would break direct assurances it had given Britain.
The European Commission president issued the threat on Wednesday as she continues to be embroiled in a row over supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and faces pressure over rollout delays.
She criticised the British-Swedish firm for having “underproduced and underdelivered” and said the EU will consider halting vaccine exports to countries with higher coverage rates than its own, as it struggles to achieve the pace of rollout managed in the UK.
With the Pfizer jab being produced in Germany and Belgium, and Moderna being finished off in Spain, Downing Street urged the EU to “stand by its commitment” not to restrict exports.
Mr Raab warned it would be “wrong to curtail or interfere with lawfully contracted supply”, telling reporters: “I think it takes some explaining because the world’s watching.”
He said that the threat “cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the commission” and from EU officials within recent days.
“We, like our European friends, are keeping supply chains open. Keeping trade and vital supplies of medical equipment and vaccines is critically important. We have all been arguing for this and we expect those assurances and legally contracted supply to be respected.
“Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation. It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock failed to explain whether the EU’s threat was behind the NHS warning there would be a four-week “significant reduction” in supply from the end of March due to “reductions in national inbound vaccines supply”.
Instead he said supply is “always lumpy”, adding that the supply from the EU “is indeed fulfilling contractual responsibilities and we fully expect those contracts to be delivered on”.
Ms von der Leyen had told reporters in Brussels that “we will reflect on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate”.
“We want reliable deliveries of vaccines, we want increase in the contracts, we want to see reciprocity and proportionality in exports and we are ready to use whatever tool we need to deliver on that,” Ms von der Leyen said.
She defended the EU against a charge of “vaccine nationalism”, arguing the bloc has granted 314 requests for vaccine exports and has only refused one since export authorisation was introduced on February 1.
Ms von der Leyen added that “41 million doses have been exported to 33 countries” as she warned “open roads run in both directions”.
The EU rate of vaccine doses administered per 100 people stands at 11.81, according to a tracker on the Our World In Data website. This compares to the UK’s rate of 39.04 and the US’s 33.11.
Ms von der Leyen made clear the UK is not a nation where she deems there is “reciprocity” in terms of vaccine supply, describing it as “country number one” in terms of exports from the EU.
“We are still waiting for doses to come from the UK, so this is an invitation to show us that there are also doses from the UK coming to the European Union so that we have reciprocity,” she added.
Downing Street pointed to an apparent commitment received from Ms von der Leyen in January as the EU backtracked on its widely-condemned move to impose vaccine controls by overriding part of the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “She confirmed then that the focus of their mechanism was on transparency and not intended to restrict exports by companies where they are fulfilling their contractual responsibilities.
Amid the ongoing row, multiple EU nations including France, Italy and Germany have suspended the rollout of the AstraZeneca jab in light of a small number of reports of bleeding, blood clots and low blood platelet counts.
The EU’s regulator, the European Medicines Agency, is conducting a full scientific review but has said it “remains convinced” the “benefits of this vaccine outweigh the risk”.
The message was echoed by the World Health Organisation as UK leaders sought to reassure the public that the jab is safe.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is to receive the AstraZeneca jab “very shortly” in an attempt to allay concerns.