The war of words with the EU over vaccines has escalated as France’s foreign minister claimed Britain will struggle to source second Covid jabs but that Brussels would not be “blackmailed” into exporting doses to solve the problem.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, a close political ally of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, claimed that the UK’s success had been built on driving forward with first jabs without having secured the second doses necessary for full vaccination.
The intervention came as the EU and the UK are locked in talks about the fate of Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs produced in a factory in the Netherlands over which both sides are laying claim. Sources said that despite conciliatory language earlier in the week over finding a solution the two sides were struggling to find common ground.
In an interview with FranceInfo radio, Le Drian suggested that the EU should not have to lose out on the doses to help Britain with a problem of its own making. EU officials and top-rank politicians have repeatedly said they will block any export request by AstraZeneca.
“The UK is proud to have vaccinated many people with the first dose, but they will have a problem with the second dose,” Le Drian said. “And we are fully vaccinated with two doses, not one. Today we have the same number of fully vaccinated people in France and the United Kingdom.
“A cooperative relationship must be found with the UK so that AstraZeneca fulfils its signed commitments with the EU, but we can’t accept any sort of blackmail. The UK is pushing for the first jab, knowing there will be problems with the second one. Europe does not have to pay the price for this policy.”
The French government did not respond to requests for evidence for Le Drian’s claim.
Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, who has been given responsibility for increasing vaccine production, also warned on Friday: “We have the tools and will make sure everything stays in Europe until the company will come back to its commitments.”
British government sources say the delivery of second doses in the UK could still be carried out ahead on schedule, even if shipments from the Dutch plant are blocked – although they are keen to avoid that eventuality.
“Factoring in all the challenges, we still think we can meet the target set out,” said an official.
According to the UK government’s latest data, 55% of adults aged over 18 have received a first jab and 5.3% have had a second dose.
The speed of the government’s rollout was in part based on a the decision in early January to prioritise the first dose of a vaccine, with a second dose up to 12 weeks later, a larger gap than originally planned.
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson said the UK had sufficient supplies to ensure that people would be given their second jabs on time. “We will have the second doses that people need within the 12-week window, which means around 12 million people in April,” the prime minister said.
People in the UK are receiving doses of two vaccines approved by the medicine regulator: the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, of which 20m doses have so far been imported from Puurs, Belgium, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is sourced from two UK sites, in Oxford and Keele Science Park, Staffordshire, along with the Serum Institute of India and the Halix plant in the Dutch city of Leiden. The UK sites have, however, suffered yield problems, leaving the UK with only 30% of expected deliveries in this first quarter.
There have also been delays to expected deliveries from India and on Thursday the Indian government ordered the Serum Institute to halt exports until local needs were met.
The NHS has warned vaccination centres that the number of people getting the first dose of their Covid-19 jab will be “constrained” for four weeks from 29 March as a result of a “significant” reduction in the vaccine supply available.
The UK government has said it is prioritising the nine priority high risk groups and second doses, but that it is on track to offer a first jab to every adult by the end of July.
Officials are, however, insistent that the UK has the contractual right to the “significant number” of doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the Netherlands. The next conference call between EU and UK officials is expected on Saturday. The two sides have said they are seeking a “win-win” outcome but sources confirmed that the differences in positions were stark.
A European commission spokesperson said: “The discussions with the UK are ongoing. We do not have any comments to make at the moment on the content of those discussions.
“But as you know our common aim is to ensure that we have good cooperation in terms of supply chains in terms of producing the vaccine. We have noted the India decision … I have no comment to make on the link between the Indian decision and any discussions under way with the United Kingdom.”
In a sign of the difficulty of the issue, on Thursday evening, following a virtual summit of EU leaders, both the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and Macron insisted they would not allow AstraZeneca, which has only delivered to the EU 30m doses of the expected 120m this quarter, to export to the UK.
“Companies have to honour their contract to the European Union before they export to other regions in the world. This is of course the case with AstraZeneca,” Von der Leyen said. “I think it is clear that the company [AstraZeneca] has to catch up and honour the contract it has with the EU member states before it can engage again in exporting vaccines.”
Macron told reporters in Paris: “I support the fact that we must block all exports for as long as some drug companies don’t respect their commitments with Europeans.”
Additional reporting by Heather Stewart