Boris Johnson forced the EU into an extraordinary double climbdown during a dramatic late-night intervention to protect the UK’s record-breaking vaccine rollout.
During two phone calls just 30 minutes apart, the Prime Minister made European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ditch plans to stop 3.5 million doses of the Pfizer jab from reaching the UK from a factory in Belgium and abandon the ‘nuclear option’ of imposing a hard border on Northern Ireland to prevent them reaching the UK.
Following his diplomatic victory, Britain yesterday recorded a daily record for first-dose jabs – 487,756 – to bring the total to almost 8.4 million.
In his phone calls, Mr Johnson warned Ms von der Leyen that her actions risked denying millions of British pensioners their second Pfizer injections.
She immediately capitulated in a tweet sent out shortly before midnight on Friday.
Boris Johnson made European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ditch plans to stop 3.5 million doses of the Pfizer jab from reaching the UK from a factory in Belgium
Mr Johnson warned Ms von der Leyen (pictured) that her actions risked denying millions of British pensioners their second Pfizer injections
As part of an implicit ‘peace deal’ with the EU, No 10 yesterday adopted a conciliatory tone. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the EU recognised that it had ‘made a mistake’ and both sides agreed on the need for a ‘reset’.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster was less diplomatic, branding the EU’s move an ‘incredible act of hostility’.
Meanwhile Tory MPs were jubilant, with one describing the EU’s surrender as Mr Johnson’s ‘Falklands moment’.
The Mail on Sunday understands that before Brussels was forced to blink twice, the Government had drawn up contingency plans to break any EU blockade.
Under a ‘vaccine security exercise’ adapted from plans for a No-Deal Brexit, supplies of the Pfizer jab could have been airlifted out of the continent.
The EU – and Ms von der Leyen in particular – were savaged by the European media for their handling of the row as governments across the bloc faced a backlash from their voters.
And with the EU having only vaccinated 2.5 per cent of its population – compared to 12 per cent in the UK – Ms Foster suggested that Northern Ireland could help to provide vaccine supplies to Dublin.
The astonishing diplomatic drama came as:
- Figures showed daily positive Covid tests have fallen by 31 per cent in the past week to 23,275, with hospital admissions down by 16 per cent over the same period, and deaths down six per cent to 1,200;
- German claims that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective in over-65s were rubbished by senior government adviser Professor Andrew Harnden, who said: ‘We are absolutely confident the vaccine is safe and effective’;
- Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer writes in today’s Mail on Sunday in support of the Jabs For Teachers campaign for all school staff to be vaccinated during half-term so pupils can return more quickly – although a major teaching union repeated its opposition to classes reopening;
- Mr Johnson signalled that he wanted to relax lockdown rules on exercise, but was urged to move quickly by allowing cooped-up children to enjoy half-term sports;
- Some of the UK’s biggest firms, including John Lewis and Tata, told this newspaper that rapid workplace tests have prevented thousands of sick days and the closure of sites;
- A major US study found proof that Covid-19 originated in China, undermining Beijing’s claims it may have come from elsewhere.
The UK has streaked ahead of Europe in terms of the number of vaccines administered (pie chart shows the number of vaccines given by January 26)
The Prime Minister visiting a French biotechnology laboratory in Livingston, Scotland
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said this afternoon the EU ‘recognises they made a mistake’ and ‘stepped back’ following the conversation between the two leaders
The simmering row over vaccines exploded on Friday evening when Brussels said it would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – thereby creating a hard border on the island of Ireland – and take other measures to stop supplies of the Pfizer vaccine from reaching Britain.
Mr Johnson called an emergency meeting at No 10 to decide the UK’s response, then spoke to the Commission President just before 10pm to set out his demands and warn Ms von der Leyen her actions could threaten the Irish peace process.
They spoke again at 10.30pm when Ms von der Leyen agreed to issue a climbdown message that ‘there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities’.
The fiasco has put Ms von der Leyen’s position in doubt, with one senior EU source saying ‘the disquiet is growing’.
Tory MPs on both sides of the Brexit divide heralded Mr Johnson’s efforts. One Remainer said: ‘If this had happened in 2016, I would have voted to Leave without blinking.’
The move was slammed by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster (pictured), who accused the EU of an ‘incredible act of hostility’
Another Tory backbencher said: ‘This could be Boris’ Falklands moment… Ministers have played a blinder.’
But former Brexit Secretary David Davis warned: ‘I fear we are still going to see them trying to do similar things by the backdoor.’
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said: ‘The EU cocked up big time.’
Mr Gove said: ‘I think the EU recognises they made a mistake in triggering Article 16… But now the EU has stepped back.’
The row came just before today’s first anniversary of Britain leaving the EU.
Marking the day, Mr Johnson said: ‘The destiny of this great nation now resides firmly in our hands. I take on this duty with a sense of purpose.’
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.
He has asked former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith to set up a taskforce of MPs to ‘think more inventively about how we boost growth, innovation and competition’.
Last night Ms von der Leyen tweeted: ‘Constructive talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson tonight.
‘We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.’
It came about an hour after a statement from the Commission outlining the detail of the export controls of vaccines.
It said: ‘To tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU, the Commission is putting in place a measure requiring that such exports are subject to an authorisation by Member States.
‘In the process of finalisation of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected.
‘The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.
‘Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.
‘In the process of finalising the document, the commission will also be fine-tuning the decision-making process under the implementing regulation.’
Following the conversation between the PM and Ms von der Leyen, an ally of Mr Johnson told the FT: ‘The call was fine, hopefully that’s the end of it.’
But the move by Brussels to initially say it was triggering Article 16 – seen as the nuclear option – left figures in Britain and Ireland reeling.
Stormont’s first minister Arlene Foster called the move an ‘incredible act of hostility’ and this morning said the rift emanated from the ‘EU’s vaccine embarrassment and mismanagement’.
Meanwhile former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said the EU’s move offered no understanding of the delicate political landscape of the island of Ireland.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘Years have been spent trying to ensure goods will flow freely and there will be no hard border and last night the EU pulled the emergency cord without following any of the process that are in the protocol if one side wants to suspend it.
‘And they did that, in my view, without anywhere near the understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and it was an almost Trumpian act.’
European newspapers lashed out EU leaders on Saturday after the bloc tried to impose Covid vaccine controls on the Northern Ireland border. A leading correspondent for Germany’s Die Welt paper savaged European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, saying she had committed an ‘unforgettable Brexit own goal’
France’s Le Monde editorial called the move ‘deplorable’, adding that Von Der Leyen had ‘fortunately’ given up on the inflammatory border decision
Elsewhere the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU’s U-turn was ‘welcome’ but added ‘lessons should be learned’.
In a statement on Twitter, he said: ‘Welcome news, but lessons should be learned; the Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace & trade for many.’
Brussels had triggered the controversial Article 16 just 29 days after the UK and EU struck the post-Brexit trade deal when Britain left the transition period.
The EU’s chief negotiator in that agreement, Mr Barnier, today called for ‘co-operation’ between Brussels and the UK over the supply of vaccines across Europe.
Mr Barnier told The Times: ‘We are facing an extraordinarily serious crisis, which is creating a lot of suffering, which is causing a lot of deaths in the UK, in France, in Germany, everywhere.
‘And I believe we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of oneupmanship or unhealthy competition. I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us.’
Last night, Lord Ricketts, a former UK ambassador to France, 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.
‘Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others.’
The World Health Organisation also said the export ban was a ‘very worrying trend’.
Vaccines expert shoots down Macron’s claim that AstraZeneca jab is ineffective in over-65s
A top scientist with Oxford’s vaccine team has accused Emmanuel Macron of demand management’ after casting doubt on the AstraZeneca jab’s efficacy.
Professor Sir John Bell today slapped down the French President’s baseless claims that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is ‘quasi-ineffective’ for the over-65s.
He said: ‘I suspect this is a bit of demand management from Mr Macron… if he didn’t have any vaccine the best thing you could do is reduce demand.’
Macron stoked tensions yesterday by questioning the efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab in older patients, despite it being approved by the EU regulator.
Sir John today told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I’m not sure where he got that from.’
He acknowledged its original study only had small numbers of elderly people, with many shielding themselves from the pandemic, but added: ‘The numbers still pointed toward a very highly effective vaccine but the numbers were small, in fairness, we always accepted that.’
He said other studies proved ‘elderly people responded just as well in other age groups’ and that ‘there’s really persuasive evidence that this is a protective vaccine in those populations’.