A coronavirus vaccine may have to be airlifted into the UK by the armed forces in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a government minister has admitted.
Junior foreign minister James Cleverly said the army could be used to help transport the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Belgium, where it is manufactured.
His comments follow a warning last week by a committee of MPs of “serious disruption and delay” at Channel crossings after the Brexit transition period expires at the end of this month.
Last month, ports and trade bosses expressed their concern about the UK’s Brexit border readiness.
The first 50 hospitals in the UK received batches of the vaccine at the weekend, ahead of immunisations beginning this week.
Health workers on the front line, people aged 80 and over, and care home staff will be the first people to receive the vaccine.
Watch: James Cleverly insists there is still time for Brexit deal to be reached
In an interview with BBC Breakfast on Monday, Cleverly was asked by presenter Dan Walker if the army would help transport the vaccine here.
He replied: "Potentially – we are looking at non-commercial flight options."
When asked about the potential delays a no-deal Brexit could cause to transporting the vaccine, Cleverly said: "This is such an important product, it's probably perhaps the most important product, so we will look to ensure that those supplies are available in the UK in whatever circumstance."
Asked if this meant the army could be deployed, he said: "If we need to."
On Sunday, Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Brexit talks between the UK and the EU are on a “knife edge”, putting the chances of a deal at “50/50”. Talks are set to continue on Monday.
Earlier, Cleverly refused to rule out the introduction of so-called “immunity passports” for people who have the COVID vaccination, despite the government insisting they are not being planned.
Cleverly dodged questions from interviewer Kay Burley on Sky News about the possibility.
He said: “Ultimately, what we’re looking to do is get this vaccine rolled out as quickly as possible.
“It’s about making sure there is a wide rollout. It’s about unlocking people’s lives, it’s about unlocking the economy.”
Last week, the government insisted “immunity passports” will not be issued in the UK.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said last Tuesday that Britons won’t need a COVID-19 vaccine passport to go to the pub.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, that’s not the plan,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“What we want to do is to make sure that we can get vaccines effectively rolled out.
“Of course, individual businesses have the capacity to make decisions about who they will admit and why.
“But the most important thing that we should be doing at this stage is concentrating on making sure the vaccine is rolled out.”
But his comments appeared to contradict those made by newly appointed vaccine rollout minister Nadhim Zahawi, who had suggested the previous day that the hospitality industry could refuse entry to those who haven’t had a COVID-19 vaccine.
Zahawi had said: “We are looking at the technology. And, of course, a way of people being able to inform their GP that they have been vaccinated.
“But, also, I think you’ll probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues, sports venues, will probably also use that system.”
Patients aged 80 and over who are already attending hospital as an outpatient are first in line to receive the vaccine.
And hospitals have already begun working with care homes to book in appointments for over-80s.
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