Europe feuds with Britain over vaccine supplies as global tension rises

EU accusation seen as an attempt to make the UK a ‘vaccine bogeyman’ amid bitter race for doses

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a protective face covering to combat the spread of the coronavirus, leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on March 10, 2021, to take part in the weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) at the House of Commons.  / AFP / -

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain has not stopped a single vaccine export leaving the country as tension rises with Europe over accusations from Brussels that London is hoarding its supplies.

Amid counter-claims that the European Commission is portraying Britain as a “vaccine bogeyman” to offset its own inoculation problems, the spat between the UK and the EU has become increasingly acrimonious. The dispute comes as global anger grows over the imbalance of supplies between countries and continents.

Mr Johnson was forced to defend the UK in parliament on Wednesday, telling politicians “we have not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine”. He added that he opposed vaccine nationalism “in all its forms”.

The row over the EU’s slow vaccine delivery was reignited after Charles Michel, the European Commission President, accused the UK of “vaccine nationalism” on Tuesday and said it had imposed an “outright ban” on exports of its Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Britain’s fury at the accusation gathered pace after UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused Mr Michel of making “completely false claims” and called in the EU’s senior UK representative for a dressing down.

British officials are incensed over Mr Michel’s comments, which were made in a newsletter, seeing them as an attempt to divert attention from the EU’s dilatory vaccine programme. While Britain has inoculated 35 per cent of its adult population, the EU lags behind at only 9 per cent.

“It says something that Turkey is ahead of Europe on its vaccination distribution programme,” said Dr Alan Mendoza, director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London. “This is clearly a bid to cover the EU’s embarrassment. They have to find a bogeyman and Britain is a convenient bogeyman at the moment because of the whole Brexit issue.”

Post-Brexit politics have played a part in the row since Britain independently developed, ordered, regulated and distributed its vaccines before EU states.

The European Commission has faced criticism, including from member states, for being slow to order vaccines and certify them.

Some European countries have also compounded EU failings by disparaging Britain’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine with the false claim that it was ineffective for people aged over 65.

"This latest claim is particularly extraordinary given the lurid EU claims made about the inadequacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the early days," Dr Mendoza said. "This is another example of them trying to blame Britain when it turns out that in the real world ...  AstraZeneca is better than Pfizer."

With 450 million people to vaccinate in the EU, Mr Michel has called for patience in what will be a marathon effort, but some EU countries have begun importing their own vaccines from China and Russia.

The political pressure is growing, with more questions being asked about why the European Commission is not doing more to speed up its vaccination programme.

“If I was a European, I’d be demanding answers from my national government as to why the EU failed repeatedly to do so, but rather than confess to this, they've played the blame game,” Dr Mendoza said.

Mr Michel’s assertions that the EU has not banned exports have also been questioned after Italy used an EU export control mechanism last week to block a shipment of 250,000 vaccine doses to Australia. Exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Britain to Australia then replaced the European supplies.

In a strongly worded statement, the British Foreign Office said, “The UK has not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false.”

Last month, Britain also exported 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Ghana and has provided $734 million for the Covax global vaccination programme.