UK

EU withdraws plans for vaccine controls on Northern Ireland border to stop jabs entering the UK

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The EU has sensationally backed down over its plans to impose Covid vaccine controls on Northern Ireland after the proposals were met with a strong and united backlash from UK politicians.

EU chiefs had been accused of an ‘incredible act of hostility’ after announcing controls on the export of jabs to the UK, including Northern Ireland.

In a move which would have effectively created a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland, EU officials had planned to override part of the Brexit trade agreement and demand checks of vaccines flowing from Ireland to Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin had also raised concerns, while Boris Johnson tonight said he had ‘grave concerns’ over the proposals demanded the EU ‘urgently clarify its intentions’.

But in a major climb-down, hours after announcing the proposals, EU leaders have now reversed the decision and say they will no longer go ahead with the controls.

The EU has said it is ‘not triggering the safeguard clause’ to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is ‘unaffected’ after widespread condemnation of its move as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines. 

The news came as, in an incendiary move, Brussels rode roughshod over the agreement by imposing controls on the export of jabs to this country, including Northern Ireland.

It effectively creates a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland despite the EU repeatedly insisting it would never allow one.

The bloc unilaterally invoked emergency powers in the withdrawal deal to stop Northern Ireland being used as a ‘back door’ for the export of jabs into the rest of the UK.

As the vaccine crisis on the Continent spiralled out of control, the bloc publicly rowed with AstraZeneca over its delivery contract, unveiled plans to potentially block millions of jabs from being exported to Britain and was even reported to be considering seizing control of production sites. 

The move to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol meanwhile has been slammed by the country’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, who tonight accused the EU of an ‘incredible act of hostility’.

What is Article 16 and why has the EU invoked it? 

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allows either the EU or the UK to override part of the Brexit trade agreement in relation to border controls in Northern Ireland.

The protocol itself was designed to avoid a re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

But in the deal, both parties agreed to a get-out clause, which could be used if the protocol was thought to be causing ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’.  

However the EU has now invoked the clause, to put measures on vaccines coming from the EU to Northern Ireland.

The move is being introduced amid a huge row between the UK and EU over vaccines supplies, with Brussels accusing the UK of ‘hijacking doses’.

The row started after Oxford vaccine maker AstraZeneca announced it would not be able to supply as many vaccines as it had first hoped to the EU by Spring.

The EU has since unveiled plans for an export ban which could stop 3.5million Pfizer vaccines – made in Belgium – from being exported to the UK.

The aim of this move will be to prevent the possibility of the UK bringing vaccines into Northern Ireland ‘through the backdoor’, by using the controls-free border to bring in vaccines from the EU. 

In a strongly-worded statement, the furious First Minister said: ‘This is an incredible act of hostility. The European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives.

‘At the first opportunity the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the Coronavirus vaccine.’ 

Ms Foster also called for Boris Johnson to step in and use ‘robust measures’ to ensure UK interests are put first.

Meanwhile, Irish Premier Micheal Martin has also raised concern. A government spokesperson said: ‘We are aware of the issue and the Taoiseach is currently in discussions with European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen to express our concerns.’ 

A Number 10 spokesperson tonight said Boris Johnson had spoken to Mr Martin and expressed his ‘concern’ about the EU’s move.

Mr Johnson has also demanded that the EU ‘urgently clarify its intentions’ and ‘what steps it plans to take to ensure its own commitments with regards to Northern Ireland are fully honoured’. 

A No 10 spokesman added: ‘The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts.’ 

Meanwhile Michael Gove lodged an angry protest with the vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans.

Labour also condemned the move, with Northern Ireland spokesman Louise Haigh urging Brussels to reverse a ‘deeply destabilising’ decision

But the EU tonight stood firm on the move, describing it as a ‘justified safeguard measure’ to deal with a lack of vaccine supply to its member states.

It comes after the EU’s vaccine war entered a dangerous new phase today as the bloc introduced rules that will allow it to block life-saving jabs getting to Britain and European politicians accused the UK of ‘hijacking’ doses. 

The new controls, which will come into effect on Saturday and last until March, allow the EU to keep track of all vaccines produced on the continent and block exports to certain countries – including the UK, which is expecting to take delivery of another 3.5million Pfizer BioNTech jabs from Belgium in the coming weeks.

The rules also back-date to three months ago, giving Brussels the ability to snoop on past vaccine shipments after Brussels accused AstraZeneca of sending doses meant for Europe to Britain.

Health minister Stella Kyriakides insisted today that the ‘transparency mechanism’ is not intended to target any country, even as Croatia’s PM branded the UK ‘hijackers’ while the EU’s justice commissioner said Britain had started a ‘war’.

As the vaccine battle raged on today:  

  • An EU bid to pressure AstraZeneca into diverting vaccine supplies from the UK backfired after lawyers said there was no contractual reason to do so;
  • European regulators finally gave approval for the firm’s vaccine, a month after it won the green light in the UK;
  •  The Croatian prime minister appeared to accuse the UK of ‘vaccine hijacking’ by ‘offering more money’ for doses;
  • France’s Emmanuel Macron gave an incendiary interview in which he wrongly claimed the AstraZeneca vaccine was ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people;
  • The UK vaccination programme powered ahead, with 15 per cent of adults having now received their dose – roughly seven times the figure in the EU;
  • A one-shot vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson cleared its penultimate hurdle, with the UK in line for 30million doses;
  • France announced it was closing its borders to non-EU countries except for ‘essential’ travel.

Boris Johnson (pictured) tonight demanded the EU ‘urgently clarify its intentions’ after European leaders imposed Covid vaccine controls on the Northern Ireland border

The move has been slammed by Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured), who tonight accused the EU of an 'incredible act of hostility'.

The move has been slammed by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured), who tonight accused the EU of an ‘incredible act of hostility’.

In a strongly-worded statement (pictured) tonight, a furious Ms Foster said: ‘This is an incredible act of hostility. The European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives.’

The EU's health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said today that vaccine export controls are not targeting any specific country - even as Croatia's PM called Britain 'hijackers' and the EU justice commissioner said UK had declared 'vaccine war'

Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, said the EU's deal with the pharmaceutical giant is 'crystal clear'

The EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, (left) said today that vaccine export controls are not targeting any specific country, while Ursula von der Leyen, (right) the German president of the European Commission, said the EU’s deal with the pharmaceutical giant is ‘crystal clear’

The UK has streaked ahead of Europe in terms of the number of vaccines administered, and has now jabbed more than 7million people compared to Germany's 2million

The UK has streaked ahead of Europe in terms of the number of vaccines administered, and has now jabbed more than 7million people compared to Germany’s 2million 

Lord Ricketts, a former UK ambassador to France, last night accused Brussels of ‘escalating recklessly in an attempt to get more doses [of the vaccine] from the UK’. He added: ‘The EU is all at sea on this.’

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: ‘The European Union was originally inspired by Christian social teaching – at the heart of which is solidarity.

Emmanuel Macron astonishingly claims AstraZeneca vaccine is ‘almost ineffective’ on over-65s despite EU just giving it the green light 

France‘s president Emmanuel Macron has astonishingly claimed the AstraZeneca vaccine is ‘almost ineffective’ on people who are over 65 years of age.

Macron made the explosive comments despite the EU giving the AstraZeneca vaccine full approval to be rolled out to its member states on Friday.

His comments came as the EU’s vaccine war entered a dangerous new phase on Friday as the bloc introduced rules that will allow it to block life-saving jabs getting to Britain, while European politicians accused the UK of ‘hijacking’ doses.  

Speaking to reporters only hours before the European Medecines Agency (EMA) recommended the vaccine for adults of all ages, Macron said there was ‘very little information’ available for the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish company and Oxford University. 

‘Today we think that it is quasi-ineffective for people over 65,’ he told the reporters, his office confirmed to AFP news agency.

‘What I can tell you officially today is that the early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca,’ he said.

Macron said he was awaiting the EMA’s verdict – which came later Friday – and also that of France’s own health authority ‘because they have the numbers’.

The French expert decision on the vaccine is expected at the start of next week, according to sources close to the health authority.

‘I don’t have any data, and I don’t have a scientific team of my own to look at the numbers,’ Macron acknowledged.

Meanwhile, Germany’s vaccine commission on Friday maintained its advice against using AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccines on older people, saying it was only 6.5 per cent effective for the age group.

‘The reason is because there is currently insufficient data on the effectiveness of the vaccines on people above 65 years old,’ said the commission known as STIKO.

The advice by the panel of medical experts will be taken into account by the government as it officially draws up its decree on usage of the vaccine.

Contrary to Macron’s claims, British scientists have insisted that Oxford University’s Covid vaccine will work on over-65s.

Doctors in England say elderly patients are already turning up worried that they will get a jab that won’t work for them because of ‘misleading’ news reports.

But the developers of the vaccine, Britain’s regulator and independent scientists say there is ‘really good evidence’ that the jab will work.

Even though it was only trialled on a small number of people over 65 – just 660 – before it was approved, lab tests showed that the immune response was strong, it was safe for people to take and appeared to affect elderly people as well as it did young people, for whom there is data proving it prevents Covid-19. 

 

‘Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others.’

The bloc yesterday confirmed plans to require vaccine manufacturers to gain approval before exporting batches from the Continent. Dozens of countries were exempted from the measures, including Switzerland. But the UK was included, in a move which could affect supplies here.

The UK is expected to receive 3.5million doses of the Pfizer vaccine from its factory in Belgium. The EU’s late decision to include Northern Ireland in the restrictions caught London by surprise – and appeared to underline the determination of Brussels to restrict exports.

In a statement, the Commission claimed it was justified to avoid ‘serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states’.

Commission officials refused to rule out a plan that could lead to their taking control of vaccine production plants but a source said no plan was ‘in action’ at present.

Brussels has been under growing pressure from member states over its sluggish vaccine programme, which has seen inoculations fall far behind the UK.

The EU was thrown into a tailspin this week after AstraZeneca warned production problems in Belgium meant supplies would be cut by two thirds in the first quarter of this year.

The Commission has piled pressure on the firm to divert supplies from its UK factories. In an extraordinary move, Mrs von der Leyen yesterday published the contract with British-based AstraZeneca, but lawyers said it would not help the Commission’s case.

While European ministers have publicly insisted that they are entitled to jabs under the terms of the AstraZeneca contract, Steven Barrett – a respected commercial lawyer with the Radcliffe Chambers – told MailOnline that it actually shows the opposite.

‘The EU’s public position is legally unsustainable, and they have made public comments that are demonstrably wrong,’ he said.

Pulling apart the EU contract, Mr Barrett pointed to section 5.1 as the most damning, saying that it ‘clearly shows’ the company is only under a ‘Best Reasonable Effort’ clause to supply the EU – as boss Pascal Soriot has stated. 

While section 5.4 does state that factories in the UK are considered to be part of the EU under the terms of the contract, he called this ‘a distraction’ that ‘is not relevant to the EU’s point’.

‘This is actually a mildly embarrassing climbdown from the EU, who have a rule that all vaccines used in the EU have to be made in the EU. 

‘What they have done in that clause is say, for the purposes of this contract, the UK counts as the EU.’ But, he added, it does not mean they are entitled to doses made in UK factories.

In addition, clause 6.2 of the contract states that ‘competing agreements’ signed by AstraZeneca might affect the supply of vaccines to the EU. 

‘They knew there would be competing agreements,’ Mr Barrett said. ‘Everyone in the world knew there would be competing agreements. They knew that might mean doses were delayed. 

‘I believe the EU is publicly asserting that it now has a right to jump the queue and take doses that belong to other people. That is expressly wrong,’ he added.

‘This merely is a demonstration that the EU’s mishandling of vaccine procurement and the roll-out has become a huge political problem for them,’ Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said.

‘Their knee jerk response [is] to become protectionists. They are getting hammered, quite rightly, so they are trying to deflect. It is a veiled threat.’ 

Fellow Tory David Jones added: ‘It is a form of blackmail that they are engaging in. They have got a dispute with AstraZeneca over the provision of vaccine.

‘How is that in any sense remedied by imposing a ban on Pfizer products being exported to the UK? They are behaving like playground bullies by trying to stop the UK from benefiting from the Pfizer vaccine. This crazy.’

Meanwhile the EU finally gave approval to the British-designed AstraZeneca jab, a month after the UK, dismissing concerns from Germans that there was not enough data to show it is effective in the over-65s. 

The European Union is currently embroiled in a very public war of words with AstraZeneca over its jab, after the company announced initial shipments to the bloc would be cut by at least 60 per cent while supplies to the UK would be unaffected. 

In an attempt to force the issue, the EU today published a version of the contract it signed with AstraZeneca - though a lawyer who spoke to MailOnline said it actually shows their position to be 'legally unsustainable'

In an attempt to force the issue, the EU today published a version of the contract it signed with AstraZeneca – though a lawyer who spoke to MailOnline said it actually shows their position to be ‘legally unsustainable’

This is the key paragraph that the EU hopes will bolster its claim to the UK vaccines – though AstraZeneca insists the UK and European supply chains are separate and that delays in one will not affect the other

Commercial lawyer pulls apart EU’s contract row with AstraZeneca  

A respected commercial lawyer has pulled apart the EU’s argument that it is entitled to AstraZeneca vaccines developed in the UK. 

Steven Barrett – a respected commercial lawyer with the Radcliffe Chambers – points a clause in the contract, section 5.1, that clearly states the vaccine developer only needs to use its ‘Best Reasonable Efforts to manufacture the Initial Europe Doses’. 

Section 5.4 of the EU’s contract with AstraZeneca, which the bloc published earlier today, states: ‘AstraZeenca shall use its Best Reasonable Efforts to manfuacture the vaccine at manufacturing sites located within the EU (which for the purpose of this section 5.4 only shall include the United Kingdom).’

Mr Barrett claims this is a ‘distraction,’ that is ‘not relevant to the EU’s point,’

‘What they have done in that clause is say, for the purposes of this contract, the UK counts as the EU.’ But, he added, it does not mean they are entitled to doses made in UK factories.   

In addition, clause 6.2 of the contract states that ‘competing agreements’ signed by AstraZeneca might affect the supply of vaccines to the EU. 

It goes on to state: ‘AstraZeneca shall not be deemed in breach of this Agreeemnt as a result of any such delay due to the aforementioned competing agreements’. 

Mr Barrett argues: ‘They knew there would be competing agreements.

‘Everyone in the world knew there would be competing agreements. They knew that might mean doses were delayed. 

‘I believe the EU is publicly asserting that it now has a right to jump the queue and take doses that belong to other people. That is expressly wrong,’ he added.

In an extraordinary move, the EU is trying to force the drug-maker to ship jabs made in the UK to the continent to make up for the shortfall, despite the company insisting the two supply chains are separate. 

Earlier in the day, Brussels published a version of the contract it signed with AstraZeneca to try and force the vaccine-maker to send doses made in the UK to Europe – but appeared to have shot itself in the foot.  

And in another embarrassing stumbling bloc for the EU, it emerged that they have not purchased any new Novavax shots – which passed phase III trials yesterday – while the UK bought 60million doses five months ago. 

Meanwhile, in a further blow to the EU’s shambolic vaccine roll-out, it emerged today that the bloc has yet to purchase any Novavax vaccines – the latest jab to pass phase III trials on Thursday with an effectiveness of 90%.

The UK, where the vaccines will be made, put pen to paper on a deal for 60million doses back in August last year, while the EU only completed ‘exploratory’ talks in December and is yet to sign up for the jabs. 

Britain’s medical regulators still need to give final approval for the vaccine to be used, but it is expected to enter circulation in late summer. The EU meanwhile, will likely be left playing catch-up with the UK once again.   

Separately, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders ramped up the war of words by accusing the UK of starting ‘a vaccine war’ and saying that Britain has shown ‘a lack of solidarity’.

‘The EU commission has pushed to co-ordinate the vaccines contracts on behalf of the 27 precisely to avoid a vaccines war between EU countries, but maybe the UK wants to start a vaccine war?

‘Solidarity is an important principle of the EU. With Brexit, it’s clear that the UK doesn’t want to show solidarity with anyone,’ he told the BBC.

Europe is running desperately short of Covid vaccines meaning its roll-out is now falling badly behind the UK – a shambles that one German newspaper this week described as ‘the perfect advert for Brexit’ – causing deep embarrassment among EU ministers.

The vaccine programme also hit another stumbling block on Friday as it emerged the EU has not yet secured a contract for British-made Novavax vaccines, which passed phase III trials yesterday with a 90% success rate. 

Ministers only completed ‘exploratory’ talks to buy Novavax in December last year while the UK put pen to paper on a contract to buy 60million doses back in August, more than five months ago.

It means the EU will once again be playing catch-up with the UK, which has so-far jabbed more than 7million people compared to Germany’s 2million.  

In retaliation, the EU has sent inspectors into the Belgian plant at the centre of supply issues – while also demanding that millions of AstraZeneca jabs made in Britain be shipped over to make up for the shortfalls. 

EU vaccine export ban could cut UK supplies 

The EU’s decision to introduce what amounts to an export ban on vaccines could affect the UK’s orders of millions of jabs made abroad. 

Brussels is currently trying to save face after its desire to introduce jabs across the 27 members states simultaneously left it lagging far behind the UK and other nations like Israel.

Today’s decision to require companies to have exports to certain countries approved before they are sent contains exemptions for many nations, but the United Kingdom is not on the list.

Britain is expecting to receive approximately nine million more jabs over the next three weeks from Oxford/AstraZeneca‘s factories in Wrexham and Oxford and Pfizer/BioNTech’s production centre in Puurs, Belgium. 

If European leaders decide to blockade vaccine exports across the English Channel, the American drugs company Pfizer could be left unable to ship supplies bound for the UK. 

This would mean some of the 3.5million doses reportedly set to arrive by mid-February could get stuck inside the EU. 

AstraZeneca’s boss pledged earlier this year that the company would start supplying the UK with two million doses per week from the third week of January. 

These supplies from the two firms alone would be just enough to cover all of the 8.6million people outstanding in the top vaccine priority groups, but if deliveries are stopped or fall short, the target could be in jeopardy. 

Boris Johnson has repeatedly this week played down any threat to the UK’s vaccine supplies. And his spokesman, asked about the threat by the EU today, said: ”AstraZeneca has clearly stated that it will be able to provide two million doses a week and we have stated we will get them out to people as quickly as possible.’

He added: ‘The deals we have in place with the seven vaccine developers will ensure our supplies continue to grow.’  

It is not clear how many doses are already sitting in Britain’s warehouses, with ministers refusing to reveal numbers because of security concerns.

But No 10 has confirmed that they are distributing vaccines out as soon as they can after they are delivered from the manufacturers.

Additionally the Pfizer vaccine has to be kept at -70C in order to work.

What this means is that there are unlikely to be large stocks of vaccines sitting in reserve in UK warehouses, ready to take up the slack if there is any cut in deliveries.

Last night it was revealed the Novavax jab, which will be manufactured in Stockton-on-Tees, appears to be effective against both the original strain of coronavirus and a mutant strain first identified in Kent. 

The UK has secured access to 60 million doses of the new vaccine, but it has yet to be approved by the regulator. This means it will be available in the second half of this year at the earliest. 

Ministers have refused to accept explanations given by AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot that the EU and UK supply chains are separate, that national favoritism has nothing to do with the delays, and that the true reason is European ministers placed their order three months behind Britain.  

Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, said the EU’s deal with the pharmaceutical giant is ‘crystal clear’ that supplies would come from four factories including two in Britain.

The UK signed a deal with AstraZeneca in May for 100million doses all made at labs in Oxford and Staffordshire and put into vials at a facility in Wrexham. The EU signed up for 100million doses of the British-designed jab three months later in August.

Ms von der Leyen said today that AstraZeneca, who warned Brussels this week that its first delivery at the end of March will be down 60 per cent, has offered ‘no plausible reasons’ for production problems.

She told Deutschlandfunk radio: ‘There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear.’ She said the contract set out delivery amounts for December and the first three quarters of 2021, and also mentioned four production sites, two of which are in Britain.

Her extraordinary statement this morning came as the bloc prepares to today unveil new powers that could see the shipment of millions of vaccine doses to Britain being blocked within days.

As the row over the EU jabs shortage intensifies, the European Commission will set out a mechanism to allow member states to refuse vaccine exports. 

The move will heighten fears about whether Britain’s expected supply of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine – which is manufactured in Belgium – could be disrupted. Britain has ordered 40 million doses.

It came as Belgian health authorities revealed they had been sent into an AstraZeneca factory in the town of Seneffe where doses of its vaccine are being made. The commission requested the inspection due to doubts over the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm’s explanation for its shortfall in deliveries to the bloc.

To add to the complications, Germany’s top vaccine panel said it is not recommending the AstraZeneca jab only for over-65s because there is not enough evidence on whether it works for the elderly.

Tory MP for Clwyd West, David Jones, said: ‘German efforts to cast doubt on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine make the EU’s extreme eagerness to get their hands on it all the more perplexing’. 

The European Medicines Agency is today due to approve the AstraZeneca jab for use in the bloc but Germany expects the regulator to impose restrictions on who it can be given to.

German health minister Jens Spahn told a press conference: ‘We’re not expecting an authorisation without limits.’ 

Europe is facing increasing pressure to back down over the vaccine row amid warnings that the continent’s rhetoric is ‘sounding like Donald Trump’. 

One EU diplomatic source told The Times: ‘When some Germans are sounding like Donald Trump it is time for everyone to take a deep breath and count to ten. A vaccine war between the EU and UK is one of the worst things that could possibly happen right now.’

But an EU official defended the bloc’s hardline stance, telling The Guardian: ‘In an ideal world, we would not be here, the whole story of vaccination would run smoothly without any problems. 

‘But unfortunately we are not in an ideal world, and we have seen over the last weeks that not all works well.’ 

The EU has been left furious by AstraZeneca’s announcement that it would have to cut deliveries of its Covid-19 vaccine to the bloc by 60 per cent because of production problems. Brussels has raised questions about whether doses from the factory have secretly been shipped to Britain.

That has led to the EU to reconsider whether jabs being manufactured on the continent should be allowed to leave while it is suffering a supply crisis.

As a result, under the proposals to be finalised today, customs authorities in EU countries will have to notify the commission every time jabs are being sent outside the bloc.

An EU official said: ‘There is a possibility in certain circumstances not to allow the export to move forward. We want to ensure we have a say about where these vaccines are ending up.’

It means the EU will once again be playing catch-up with the UK when it comes to getting its hands on the new jabs (pictured), having previously delayed a contract for AstraZeneca vaccines by three months

The official insisted that a refusal would happen only in ‘rare cases’ when companies were failing to fulfil their contractual commitments to the EU. 

The criteria for blocking exports will be published today, with the mechanism expected to come into force within days.

European Council president Charles Michel, who chairs meetings of EU leaders, backed the use of legal measures to protect the bloc’s vaccine supply. 

In a letter to the leaders of four member states, he wrote: ‘The EU needs to take robust action to secure its supply of vaccines and demonstrate concretely that the protection of its citizens remains our absolute priority.’

The EU is facing a shortfall in supply of vaccines after AstraZeneca warned Brussels last week that problems with production in Belgium meant the bloc will receive only a quarter of the 100 million doses it had expected to receive in the first three months of this year.

How did the UK end up as one of the world’s leading countries on the vaccine roll-out?

The UK is one of the world’s leading countries when it comes to the speed of the roll-out of its coronavirus vaccination programme – a fact made all the more impressive given where the nation started when the pandemic hit early last year. 

At that point the country had just one vaccine manufacturing site – a facility in Liverpool which made flu jabs.

But the Government quickly set up a vaccine task force in April to make sure the UK was well-positioned to benefit from medical breakthroughs.

The experts appointed to the task force reportedly recommended seven projects for investment within its first two weeks, according to The Times. 

Advance purchase orders were hammered out by the task force with suppliers despite the fact there were no guarantees that any of the vaccines would work or that they would be signed off by regulators.  

That early work meant the UK was in pole position to receive the jabs, if and when they were shown to be effective and safe. 

The task force’s strategy means two companies have been relied upon to do much of the heavy lifting during the UK’s vaccine roll-out: Pfizer and AstraZeneca. 

The UK ordered 40 million doses from the former and 100 million doses from the latter. 

Agreements are also in place with a handful of other would-be suppliers should their products get the green light. 

The speed with which the UK moved on vaccines was perhaps best illustrated this week when Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of AstraZeneca, revealed the deal with Britain was agreed three months before the EU’s. 

The UK’s supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine is made at sites in Oxford and Staffordshire before it is put into vials at a facility in Wrexham, while the Pfizer jab is made in Belgium.

Every new batch of vaccine in the UK has to be safety tested by the National Institute of Biological Standards and Control in Hertfordshire before it can be sent for delivery. 

This process takes about four days and once each batch has been rubber-stamped it is taken to secure Government warehouses where the NHS takes over the process and decides where the doses will be sent.

The physical roll-out of the vaccine is headquartered from an NHS office in London, with doses sent to more than 1,400 vaccine sites across the country.

It is easily the biggest vaccination drive in the history of the health service and many believe it will become an annual programme.   

French health authorities are already struggling with shortages. A number of regions across the country cancelled first-jab appointments that were due to be held in early February, postponing them by at least a month.

German health minister Jens Spahn said the country was likely to face a shortage of vaccines until at least April.

Spain’s Madrid and Cantabria regions have also stopped first vaccinations and are using remaining doses to administer second shots to those who have had the first one.

Portugal, where infections and deaths have spiked to record levels after Christmas, said delivery delays meant that people who have top priority – including health professionals – will all be fully vaccinated by April, around two months later than initially planned. The Netherlands will also struggle to execute its vaccination programme.

News of restrictions in Europe come after Nicola Sturgeon was accused of taking the EU’s side in the bitter vaccine row as she vowed to publish details of the UK’s supplies despite Boris Johnson ordering her to keep them secret. 

Despite the PM warning that the information must be confidential to protect the rollout, Ms Sturgeon told Holyrood she will release it from next week ‘regardless of what they say’. 

The timing of Ms Sturgeon’s intervention yesterday was particularly provocative given that it came as Mr Johnson was on an official visit to Scotland to make the case for the Union. 

Tory MPs vented fury at Ms Sturgeon – who wants Scotland to be independent and rejoin the bloc – saying she is ‘obviously more inclined to help the EU than she is the UK’. 

Tory MP Peter Bone told MailOnline: ‘The simple truth is she has a tendency to support the EU rather than the United Kingdom. 

‘It is wrong, her behaviour. I would have thought she would praise the success of the UK because Scotland shares in that. If she was in the EU and not part of the UK she would still be waiting for her vaccines. Get behind the UK government and stop playing petty politics.’ 

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said it would be ‘deeply irresponsible’ for Ms Sturgeon to publish the data.  

Tory former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith accused Ms Sturgeon of ‘showboating to try and curry favour’ with the EU.

Sir Iain told The Telegraph the SNP leader ‘should for once in her life, thank the UK Government, for having vaccines so people in Scotland have a better chance of surviving coronavirus than if it was stuck in the EU, which is her dream’.

Tory MP Mr Jones accused Ms Sturgeon of ‘trying to ingratiate herself with the EU, in the hope that if she won a referendum, Scotland would be allowed to join’.  

Earlier, MEPs had threatened a ‘trade war’ with the UK over the supply issue as the bloc continued to pile the pressure on AstraZeneca to bail out its shambolic vaccine rollout. 

European politicians warned the ‘consequences’ of refusing to divert stocks of the UK-made jabs to EU would be a ban on exports of the Pfizer version from Belgium – suggesting 3.5million doses due to arrive soon could be at risk. 

So far both AstraZeneca and Pfizer look to be holding firm against the sabre-rattling from Brussels. 

It comes after MEPs warned that the UK would ‘suffer’ for denying the EU, and the bloc’s health commissioner insisted Britain should not receive priority – even though it signed a contract with AstraZeneca three months before Brussels did.

Stella Kyriakides said: ‘We reject the logic of first come, first served. That may work in a butcher’s shop but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.’

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said the UK will discuss ‘how we can help’ the EU’s vaccination effort. But asked if the UK might lose out because the EU has not got enough doses, Mr Gove said: ‘No. The programme of vaccination has been agreed and assured and the supplies were fixed some time ago and we will make sure that the vaccine programme proceeds exactly as planned.’  

While AstraZeneca has committed to ‘even closer’ co-ordination with EU officials, the company stuck firmly to its guns, saying it had been ‘open’ with the bloc about the ‘complexities’ of scaling up its vaccine production.

The firm also left a small but poignant sting in the tail, with a reminder to European leaders of its commitment to provide millions of vaccines to people across the continent ‘at no profit’ during the pandemic. 

In an extraordinary move this afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon risked undermining the UK's position by announcing she will publish details of the country's vaccine supplies from next week

In an extraordinary move this afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon risked undermining the UK’s position by announcing she will publish details of the country’s vaccine supplies from next week

It comes as the German press (pictured inset: An article in Die Zeit) turned on Brussels as it denounced the EU's shambolic vaccine rollout as the 'best advert for Brexit'

It comes as the German press (pictured inset: An article in Die Zeit) turned on Brussels as it denounced the EU’s shambolic vaccine rollout as the ‘best advert for Brexit’

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said the UK will discuss 'how we can help' the EU's vaccination effort. But asked if the UK might lose out because the EU has not got enough doses, Mr Gove said: 'No.'

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said the UK will discuss ‘how we can help’ the EU’s vaccination effort. But asked if the UK might lose out because the EU has not got enough doses, Mr Gove said: ‘No.’

PM and UK health chiefs insist AstraZeneca vaccine IS effective for ALL age groups after Germany claims jab should not be used on over-65s yet 

Boris Johnson and UK health chiefs insisted the AstraZeneca vaccine works for all age groups after German scientists said they will not recommend it for over-65s because they believe there is not yet enough evidence.  

The PM and Public Health England struck a bullish note after a Berlin commission said there was ‘insufficient data to assess the efficacy of the vaccine for persons aged 65 years and older’. 

British regulators, by contrast, have approved the jab for all age groups – with AstraZeneca pointing to data published in a medical journal showing that 100 per cent of older adults generated antibodies in trials.

Germany’s stance comes amid an angry row between the EU and AstraZeneca over vaccine supplies, with the bloc lagging far behind Britain in immunising its population against Covid-19. 

Although it is possible the position could change with more evidence, it raises the prospect of splits between the UK and EU on what vaccines are regarded as effective – with speculation that in the future travel to some destinations could be contingent on having been inoculated.     

On a visit to Scotland this afternoon, Mr Johnson said he was not worried about the news from Germany. ‘No, because the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) our own authorities have made it very clear that they think the Oxford-AstraZeneca is very good and efficacious and gives a high degree of protection after just one does and even more after two doses,’ he said.

The PM said the MHRA concluded the vaccine is ‘effective across all age groups’ and ‘provides a good immune response across all age groups’. He added on the German conclusions: ‘So I don’t agree with that.’

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at PHE, said there had been ‘too few cases’ of coronavirus in older people in Phase 3 clinical trial to determine efficacy in this age group, but other data on immune response had been ‘reassuring’.  

AstraZeneca said: ‘The latest analyses of clinical trial data for the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine support efficacy in the over 65 years age group.’   

Britain is on course to produce 60million more Covid vaccines as UK-based Novavax jab passes phase three trial

Britain was on course to secure another 60million Covid jabs last night after the latest UK-backed vaccine cleared a crucial hurdle.

US biotech firm Novavax announced its vaccine had successfully completed its phase three clinical trials in the UK, paving the way for regulators to give final approval in the coming weeks.

Under a deal with the Government, 60million doses of the vaccine will be produced on Teesside for use in this country, in what could prove to be another triumph for Britain’s world-leading vaccine programme.

Novavax, which will be made at the Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies factory in Stockton-on-Tees according to local reports, last night said the trials had shown its vaccine was 89.3 per cent effective 

The trial is the first to be completed since the emergence of the new variant of the disease in Kent. Preliminary analysis suggests the vaccine was 85.6 per cent effective against this mutation.

The two-shot vaccine still requires final approval from the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

But Whitehall sources said that, if the regulatory process goes smoothly, the jabs could start coming on stream this summer, allowing a huge acceleration in the drive to inoculate all adults by the end of September.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the ‘spectacular’ results, adding in a tweet: ‘Good news that the Novavax vaccine has proved effective in UK trials.

‘Thank you to all the volunteers who made these results possible. Our medicines regulator will now assess the vaccine, which will be made in Teesside.’

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘Having taken part in Novavax’s vaccine trial myself, I am particularly thrilled to see such positive results.’ 

Two Pfizer doses ‘are 99.96 per cent effective’: Double jab weeks apart prevents almost ALL cases of Covid-19, research in Israel suggests

Almost all cases of Covid are prevented with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, research suggests.

Data gathered in Israel – which is leading the world in the vaccine rollout – found that just 0.04 per cent of those vaccinated with both doses went on to develop coronavirus.

Of 700,000 people who were vaccinated, just 300 later contracted the virus, with only 16 requiring hospital treatment, according to preliminary data released by Israeli health officials.

The vaccine also protects against the more infectious UK variant of Covid-19, the research suggests.

Professor Eyal Leshem, an Israeli infectious diseases specialist, said the reports were ‘very good news’. 

He added: ‘The initial findings are quite incredible.

‘After one dose, the cases fell substantially and after two, there were just 0.4 per cent.

‘Time will tell, we still need to accumulate data but these are very encouraging preliminary reports.’

More than 30 per cent of Israel’s population has received a vaccine, with several studies into its effectiveness under way. 

Professor Leshem added: ‘On one hand, we’re seeing very high community transmission rates with 1,000s of cases every day – the highest rates we’ve experienced since the beginning of the outbreak.

‘But when we look specifically at these hundreds of thousands of Israelis that are vaccinated, they don’t get infected.

‘And even in those few cases that get infected, they experience a mild disease – only a handful need to go to the hospital, only a handful experienced severe disease and needed to be admitted to the hospital.

‘It’s what we call real life, ecologic evidence of vaccine efficacy – the high efficacy of the vaccine.’ 

Ms Sturgeon’s comments came as she was grilled by Tory Ruth Davidson at First Minister’s Questions yesterday afternoon.

Pushed on why Scotland’s vaccinations were happening more slowly than England’s, Ms Sturgeon dismissed claims that the authorities north of the border were sitting on supplies.

And she referenced a previous row with Westminster when the Scottish government published information about supplies, only to be told to withdraw the material.

Ms Sturgeon complained that despite the orders the UK government has been ‘briefing’ the details out, adding: ‘I’ve said to my officials actually, regardless of what they say, I think we will just go back to publishing the actual supply figures from next week so we all have transparency around that.’ 

According to reports, the Belgian federal medicines agency completed an inspection at the AstraZeneca production site in Seneffe, Hainaut. 

Samples and records are said to have been taken and another visit is due in the coming days.

The firm has blamed a production problem at the site, owned by a French life-sciences company, for the reduction in how much supply the EU can expect. 

However, there is scepticism in Brussels over the explanation, with un-evidenced claims the UK is being given stocks. 

A prominent German MEP warned the UK would ‘suffer’ unless it agreed to the EU’s demands to share more vaccine.

Peter Liese, who is in Angela Merkel’s CDU party, suggested Brussels could block shipments of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, which is made in Belgium.

He said: ‘The BioNTech vaccine, which is only produced in Europe and has been produced with the aid of the German state and European Union money, has been shipped to the United Kingdom.

‘If there is anyone thinking that European citizens would accept that we give this high quality vaccine to the UK and would accept to be treated as second class by a UK-based company, I think that the only consequence can be immediately stopping the export of the BioNtech (vaccine) and then we are in the middle of a trade war.

‘So the company and the UK better think twice. When we see Europe is not treated well, not by the United States and not by the UK, then we have to show our weapons.

‘We need to tell the other companies in the world if we treat the Europeans as second class, you will suffer for this.’

To add to the complications, Germany’s top vaccine panel said it is not recommending the AstraZeneca jab only for over-65s because there is not enough evidence on whether it works for the elderly.

The panel of scientists said the Oxford/AstraZeneca product was ‘considered appropriate’ for 18-65 year-olds but should not be used for older people ‘based on available data’.

‘There is currently insufficient data to assess the efficacy of the vaccine for persons aged 65 years and older,’ it said.

The commission did not lend any credence to the sensational claim published by German media on Monday that the jab was only eight per cent effective among over-65s, a theory debunked by the manufacturers and German health ministry.

Instead, it said there was not enough data to make a decision either way – after AstraZeneca’s boss said the ‘very ethical’ Oxford scientists had slowed down trials on older people until the vaccine was proved to be safe.

Downing Street has refused to rule out giving UK vaccines to the EU once the most vulnerable in the country have been inoculated.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was repeatedly asked by reporters whether Number 10 was considering the idea.

The spokesman said it ‘remains our priority to vaccinate the most vulnerable people across the UK to ensure we can give those who are at clinical risk protection against the virus’.

Pushed on whether that left the door open to sending vaccines to Europe once the most vulnerable had been jabbed, he added: ‘Phase one includes those who are most vulnerable to the virus – that remains our priority to make sure we get vaccines to all those as quickly as possible.

‘Phase one is groups one to nine (on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation suggested priority list). The mid-February target is the first four groups within that.’

Put to him that after the first nine cohorts had been vaccinated, vaccines could then be shared, the spokesman added: ‘I didn’t say that.’

AstraZeneca warned Brussels last week the problems in Belgium meant the bloc would receive only a quarter of the 100million doses it had expected by April.

A spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Our CEO Pascal Soriot was pleased to participate in a meeting this evening with the EU’s Vaccine Steering Board.

‘We had a constructive and open conversation about the complexities of scaling up production of our vaccine, and the challenges we have encountered.

‘We have committed to even closer co-ordination, to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring our vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic.’

Government sources insisted only once the AZ factories in Oxford and Newcastle-under-Lyme had fulfilled their commitment to the UK will they be free to supply other countries.

The UK signed a deal with AstraZeneca last May to supply 100million doses of the vaccine it developed with Oxford University.

EU nations placed a joint order for 400million doses from AstraZeneca three months later, in August, to be made at two sites on the continent, as well as the two UK sites.

The resultant 75million shortfall in the first three months of this year has caused a major row between the two sides.

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘The fact is that we ordered the vaccine three months before the EU.

‘The EU are coming out with a very strange excuse for botching their procurement of vaccine at the moment.

‘They’re saying that the reason it took them three months longer than the UK to order the vaccine is because they were negotiating for better prices for and better value for money, which is ludicrous when the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, our own UK vaccine, is being produced at cost at £3 a dose subsidised by the UK taxpayer.

‘I don’t know how you get better value for that.

‘The EU then insisted on the contract that they did sign with AstraZeneca that they get delivery at the same time as the UK, which had ordered it three months before.

‘Obviously that’s going to be produced in Belgium at a new facility they’re setting up.

‘AstraZeneca made the EU aware that was going to be very difficult but they promised to make best efforts, that was in the contract.’

Aaron Bell, a Tory member of the Commons science committee, said: ‘I understand and sympathise with the EU’s disappointment that AstraZeneca is having yield issues at its Belgian plant, but the suggestion that the UK’s supply should be diverted to the continent is clearly inappropriate.’ 

Tensions rose when Mr Soriot told European newspapers in an interview on Tuesday that the supply schedule for the EU was not a ‘commitment’ but agreed as a ‘best effort’.

He said that as Brussels had signed its supply contract three months later than the UK it had left less time to sort out production ‘glitches’ at sites on the continent.

‘The contract with the UK was signed first and the UK, of course, said ‘you supply us first’, and this is fair enough,’ he added.

But Miss Kyriakides flatly rejected the argument and demanded the vaccines being made in the UK for domestic use be exported to the EU.

At a briefing in Brussels, she said: ‘There is no hierarchy of the factories. 

The EU’s health commissioner last night insisted that Britain should not receive priority – even though the UK signed a contract with Astra-Zeneca three months before the bloc did. Pictured: AstraZeneca office building in Brussels

The EU’s health commissioner last night insisted that Britain should not receive priority – even though the UK signed a contract with Astra-Zeneca three months before the bloc did. Pictured: AstraZeneca office building in Brussels

Britons dash for last flights home from Dubai before 1pm travel ban comes in TODAY

Models and social media influencers are among thousands of British travellers facing a race home today to avoid being stranded in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The scramble to get a flight comes after ministers added the United Arab Emirates to the so-called red list of countries from where travel to the UK is prohibited.

Some British passengers including make-up artist Amy Wilson from Glasgow said they had just managed to get home just before the ban on direct inbound passenger flights from the UAE to Britain comes into effect at 1pm today.

Ms Wilson tweeted: ‘Can’t believe how lucky me and Jack have been with flights. Got back from Turkey two hours before the quarantine deadline and getting the last flight home from Dubai before the UK closes its boarders to the UAE. Someone’s looking out for me.’

But others including Only Fans model Honey Evans from Leeds said they would stay out in Dubai. She tweeted: ‘Flights from Dubai to the UK are banned. Guess I have no choice but to stay out here. Shame.’

Emirates and Etihad Airways said all UK passenger flights from the UAE have been suspended, although British Airways told passengers that some were still running. 

Up to 10,000 UK residents are thought to be in the country, which is popular with wealthy winter sun-seekers for its luxurious hotels and beaches.

Scores of social media influencers and millionaires have flocked there recently.

Ministers announced the move at 5pm yesterday, giving holidaymakers less than 24 hours to scramble for tickets on the handful of direct flights scheduled to arrive in the UK before the deadline.

Britons will still be allowed to come back on indirect flights. Business trips to the UAE will no longer be considered essential.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted last night: ‘From Friday 29 January at 1pm, we’re extending our travel ban with the United Arab Emirates, Burundi and Rwanda all added to the UK’s red list.

‘This means people who have been in or transited through these countries will be denied entry, except British, Irish and third country nationals with residence rights who must self-isolate for ten days at home.’ 

‘You are aware in the contracts there are four factories listed but it does not differentiate between the UK and Europe.

‘The UK factories are part of our advance purchase agreements and that is why they have to deliver.’

The commissioner said the EU was losing people to the pandemic every day, adding: ‘These are not numbers. They’re not statistics. These are persons with families with friends and colleagues that have been affected as well.

‘Pharmaceutical companies, vaccine developers, have moral societal and contractual responsibilities which they need to uphold.

‘The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a best effort agreement is neither correct nor is it acceptable.

‘The 27 European Union member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments in our agreements.’

Following talks with AstraZeneca, Miss Kyriakides tweeted on Wednesday evening: ‘We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule and request a clear plan from AstraZeneca for the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved.’ 

It was also reported Britain had ordered enough vaccines for the year – of 367million doses, enough for 5.5 per person – and could end up dishing them out to other countries anyway – meaning EU countries would benefit.

A source told the Times: ‘There is plenty of vaccine. It exceeds what the government wants to do.’

The industry insider also told the newspaper the demands from Brussels were ‘political rhetoric’ and would be a ‘human rights issue’ if they did try to divert doses.

They said: ‘They cannot stop vaccines that are contracted for delivery. Some of these vaccines have already been given to people who are due to receive their second dose. It would be a human rights issue for millions of people if that process was stopped.’

Mr Johnson said it would have been a ‘great pity’ if the UK had stayed in the EU’s vaccine programme rather than set up its own plan.

‘I do think that we’ve been able to do things differently, and better, in some ways,’ the Prime Minister told MPs. More than a tenth of the UK population has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

This compares to just 1.75 per cent in France, 1.96 per cent in Germany, 2.50 per cent in Spain and 2.15 per cent in Italy.

Meanwhile experts revealed how Britain’s vaccine roll out will limit the spread of coronavirus, but by exactly how much will not be made clear until mid-February.

Providing a boost to the UK’s hopes of ending lockdown, England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said jabs ‘couldn’t fail to have some effect on transmission’.

He said it was less a question of ‘will they?’ and rather ‘to what extent’ will inoculation help to reduce the spread.

But Mr Johnson and his chief scientists said last night that experts won’t know much effect the coronavirus vaccines are having on the country’s epidemic until mid-February.

These set of graphs show the number of vaccines ordered by the UK and the EU. The EU has also ordered a number of other vaccines, including 300million Sanofi-GSK doses and 405million CureVac doses

These set of graphs show the number of vaccines ordered by the UK and the EU. The EU has also ordered a number of other vaccines, including 300million Sanofi-GSK doses and 405million CureVac doses

The PM said the impact of the jabs won’t be felt in hospital and deaths data until then due to the lag in time it takes between getting injected and developing immunity.

He told a Downing Street press conference tonight that he would not consider lifting lockdown restrictions until he’d seen concrete ‘evidence that those graphs are coming down’.

The immunisation drive has only really got up to speed in the last few weeks and it takes between a fortnight and a month for a person to build up immunity.

Both the Pfizer and Oxford University vaccines have been proven to block severe illness, so experts hope they’ll start to make a dent in the death and hospitalisation rates in the coming weeks.

No10’s scientists will be monitoring those metrics, specifically in the most vulnerable groups – including the over-80s, over-75s and care homes residents – who are currently receiving the jabs.

So far 6.8million, or one in 10, people in Britain have received at least one dose of the vaccines. In three weeks time, when most of those people have protection, experts will expect to see a near 10 per cent drop in hospital admissions.

Not all of the people vaccinated will be immune, however, because the jabs are not perfect. Pfizer’s is 95 per cent effective at blocking severe disease, while Oxford’s is around 70 per cent.

Another burning question which will determine how gung-ho ministers can be with easing restriction is to what extent the vaccines stop people from spreading Covid.

The Government has commissioned a study to investigate the vaccines and their role on transmission, which is being overseen by Public Health England. It is focused on frontline healthcare workers who’ve been jabbed.

England’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told a Downing Street press conference earlier this week: ‘I think you’ve got to be extremely cautious and wait until we’ve got proper data.

‘It’s too early to say what’s happening in the UK. It’s being looked at very, very carefully. You shouldn’t expect to see nobody getting ill who’s been vaccinated. Vaccines are not 100 per cent effective. We will still see people who get disease.

‘We will still see people who get severe disease, but it will be much, much reduced with the vaccine, and we need to wait and look at the data and get proper estimates of that rather than try to make early cuts and guesses as to what this is showing.’

STEPHEN GLOVER: The day the bullies of Brussels went mad

By Stephen Glover for the Daily Mail

We have known for a long time that the European Union is a bully. It bullied Greece during the financial crisis which started in 2009, and from the moment the British people voted to leave the bloc, it tried to bully us into submission.

But never until now have we seen the increasingly tyrannical nature of the EU – and in particular the European Commission in Brussels – quite so starkly. It is behaving in a manner that is both disgraceful and more than slightly mad. The Eurocrats really have lost the plot.

The Commission’s introduction of rules yesterday that will allow it to prevent life-saving jabs getting into Britain – even though they have been ordered and paid for – is a shamelessly aggressive act.

At the same time, Brussels dramatically invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This move has effectively removed the province from the EU Customs area, in contravention of an agreement made with the UK. Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, rightly called this ‘an incredible act of hostility’.

So desperate is the EU to ensure vaccines do not leave its territory and find their way into Britain, it is prepared to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A hard border, it must be said, which it resisted tooth and nail during negotiations with the Government.

There is even talk of the Commission invoking powers which would enable it to seize intellectual property and data from pharmaceutical companies. The move would be targeted in particular at the Anglo-Swedish giant AstraZeneca, which Brussels outrageously accuses of withholding vaccines it has ordered.

The EU, which is supposed to be a union of liberal democracies friendly to Britain, is acting as though it were an authoritarian state such as Russia or China, with a deeply antagonistic mindset towards a former member.

The truth is that Brussels is not only a bully. It is an incompetent one. Whereas Britain ordered hundreds of millions of vaccines from several different sources in good time, the Commission was slow, blundering and inept. Meanwhile, brilliant researchers at Oxford University, supported by AstraZeneca, came up with the goods.

Now the Commission is trying to punish this country for what are actually its own multiple errors. It won’t work, not least because AstraZeneca has two plants in this country producing vaccines. They will go to the British Government first for the simple reason that it signed an agreement three months before the EU did.

One amusing sub-plot of this crazy story is that while the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, insists that Britain must give up tens of millions of its Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, President Emmanuel Macron of France continues to question whether they are effective for those over 65.

Where is Germany’s Angela Merkel in all this? Can she and other grown-up leaders of EU countries relish the spectacle of the flat-footed, overbearing and unelected Commission poisoning relations with an ally? Is this really the Europe they want?

Perhaps even once-intransigent Remainers will now see the point of our leaving the EU. More than ever before, we should be relieved and grateful to have left this increasingly malign madhouse.

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