The EU has conceded that the UK did not ban vaccine exports, as Boris Johnson waded into a row with Brussels by publicly “correcting” the European council president over his claims about British policy.
The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that Charles Michel, the council president and a former prime minister of Belgium, had been wrong to allege the UK had imposed a prohibition on vaccine exports.
Johnson said: “We can also be proud of the support the UK has given to the international Covid response, including the £548m we’ve donated to Covax. I, therefore, wish to correct the suggestion from the European council president that the UK has blocked vaccine exports. Let me be clear, we have not blocked the export of a single Covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components.
“This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms. I trust all sides of the house will join me in rejecting this suggestion and call on our partners to work together to tackle this pandemic.”
On Tuesday, Michel, who chairs the summits of EU leaders and helps direct policy, provoked an angry reaction in Whitehall after stating in a newsletter that the UK had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory”.
When asked about the claims, on Wednesday, a European commission spokesman confirmed there was no such ban. He declined to comment directly on the claims made by Michel.
“We know that different countries have got different measures in place – that doesn’t concern vaccines, as far as we understand, coming from the UK,” the spokesman said.
Officials nevertheless pointed to the lack of vaccine exports from the UK as compared to the EU as proof of the value of the European council president’s intervention. “We need some transparency on that,” one said.
According to the latest figures obtained by the Guardian, of the 34,090,287 doses exported from the EU, 9,106,162 went to the UK; 3,917,640 went to Canada; 3,134,204 went to Mexico; 2,720,210 went to Japan; and 1,368,900 went to Saudi Arabia. Other beneficiaries of EU exports were Hong Kong (1.3m), Singapore (967,030), the US (953,723), Chile (942,825) and Malaysia (751,140).
In his contentious newsletter, Michel had sought to compare the EU’s exporting record to that of the UK and other countries, including the US, in response to suggestions that the bloc was verging on protectionism in barring a recent export of vaccines from Italy to Australia.
Two weeks ago Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European commission, had also suggested that Britain and the US had blocked the export of Covid-19 vaccines. The EU has been seeking to defend its export authorisation mechanism – which forces companies to secure approval – against accusations that it is damaging vaccine supply chains.
The UK has regulations to stop profiteering on medicines and medical items such as masks but does not impose a ban on vaccine components or completed doses.
In a sign of the testy state of relations Michel’s claim about a British export ban was on Tuesday denounced by the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, as “completely false”.
The EU’s ambassador João Vale de Almeida was summoned to the Foreign Office but he was in Brussels. Instead, the EU’s charge d’affaires in London, Nicole Mannion, the Irish deputy head of the Brussels delegation to the UK, was received on Wednesday morning by Sir Philip Barton, the permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office. Barton is understood to have conveyed the government’s irritation about the claims.
A UK government spokesman said: “This morning a senior representative of the EU’s delegation to the UK was summoned to a meeting with [Barton] to discuss the issue of incorrect assertions in recent EU communications.”
Michel tweeted on Tuesday night: “Glad if the UK reaction leads to more transparency and increased exports to EU and [other] countries. Different ways of imposing bans or restrictions on vaccines/medicines.”
While there is no export ban or authorisation scheme in the UK, the government did ensure that vaccine doses produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca at the sites in Staffordshire and Oxford were directed in the first instance to residents in Britain. The EU has been angered by the refusal of the Anglo-Swedish firm to redirect doses in the light of production shortfalls from European facilities. The company has in response pointed to its policy of having dedicated and largely separate supply chains for the UK and the EU.
UK sources said the government had suffered supply shortfalls as heavy as those experienced by the EU, with AstraZeneca only delivering a third of what was anticipated by the end of the first quarter of 2021. The high number of EU exports is also a reflection of the business model of Pfizer and others who produce largely from EU sites to distribute globally, an UK official added.
“The UK taxpayer paid for the development of this low-cost vaccine and has exported the knowhow, on a not-for-profit basis, to set up manufacturing capability all over the world,” a source added, referring to its contract with AstraZeneca.
Germany’s ambassador to Britain, Andreas Michaelis, called for an end to the sparring between the EU and UK. Michaelis, a former head of Germany’s diplomatic service, said the relationship had to improve in the wake of disputes over vaccines and the Brexit withdrawal agreement. “It should not continue like this,” he tweeted. “We have important things to do. Jointly!”