As deaths in Britain from Covid-19 jumped to 100,162 since the outbreak began, officials were engaged in a bitter scramble for Europe's vaccine supplies.
The row centred on supplies of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, after it became clear that the British-based company would be unable to fulfil its EU quota on time.
AstraZeneca told the EU last week that it would only be able to deliver 31 million of 80 million shots that EU countries had been expecting by the end of March.
That led Brussels officials to demand diversion of supplies from Britain which drew a response from Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, on Tuesday. "I've got total confidence in our supplies," he said. "We expect and hope that our EU friends will honour all contracts and we fully expect that will happen. The delivery of the vaccine, the creation of the vaccine has been a multinational effort -- the virus knows no borders."
Tensions were not helped when the German press reported Berlin government sources suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine was only 8 per cent effective for the over 65s.The allegation was rebutted by the drugs company, which called the report “completely incorrect". German ministers later appeared to blame the story on a misunderstanding of data.
The differing speeds of Covid vaccination programmes raise concerns that disputes could “poison the political atmosphere” between Britain and Europe and cause long-term economic and political damage, leading politicians and academics have warned.
The issue blew up into a major post-Brexit clash between Britain and the EU and in particular – given the 8 per cent allegation – with Germany.
"This has happened because of the most incompetent displays of organisation by the European Union, whose vaccine processing has been an absolutely unmitigated disaster," Prof Angus Dalgleish, a cancer specialist and epidemiologist in London, told The National.
“To all the world Britain looks like it got it correct, so this is the first showcase that the UK is far better off outside the European Union.”
Prof Dalgleish, a strong Brexiteer, believes Germany is trying to bully Britain and dictate terms to other EU countries so it can vaccinate its population first.
He added that Britain, which has vaccinated almost seven million people, would not have been able to protect so many if it had remained in the EU, with its slow medical regulation process.
EU medical regulators are expected to announce whether the Oxford vaccine has been approved later this week.
The pro-Brexit oratory has been reported elsewhere, which leading figures believe could lead to a greater schism between the continent and Britain at a critical time.
“I can imagine a series of human-issue spats that become cumulative and really poison the political atmosphere,” said Prof Michael Clarke, of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence and security think tank.
“Now, we’re not there yet by any stretch, and I think this one will probably pass because the Covid crisis is so economically serious for everyone.”
His view was supported by Jeremy Hunt, MP, the former foreign secretary.
“If the EU were to take action unilaterally that restricted supplies of vaccines bought legally and fairly by the UK, it would poison economic relations for a generation,” he said
“At such a critical moment, the world needs vaccine nationalism like a hole in the head.”
What has become clear is that Europe has been humbled by the UK’s extremely fast vaccination programme, with one in ten Britons now inoculated, compared to one in 50 in Germany and Italy.
Prof Clarke believes that with Britain likely to become the first major economy to achieve nationwide vaccination it could have an effect on its international relations.
“You can see how this has already annoyed and upset others, the fact that we’re so far ahead because the British government backed this one very, very strongly when the EU Commission didn’t quite know who to back in terms of placing advance orders,” he said.
“We’ll have to handle the messaging of that very carefully and avoid posturing by the British government.”
Britain was also the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine.
As of Tuesday, nearly seven million people in the UK have received their first vaccine dose, including more than 80 per cent of the over-80s.