Boris Johnson has accused Brussels of endangering global efforts to combat the covid-19 pandemic, as France signalled it could follow Italy and block AstraZeneca vaccines leaving the EU.
Downing Street suggested the European Commission had reneged on previous assurances it had made, after it approved Italy’s request to stop 250,000 jabs destined for Australia from leaving the country.
A “frustrated” and “disappointed” Australia has also demanded a review of the decision, and has sought assurances from Brussels that future vaccine shipments will go ahead.
The blockade is the first time that EU-wide export controls, which require manufacturers to seek permission from the national authorities and Commission to export vaccines outside the bloc, have been used.
It has already led France to threaten similar action, as member states seek to catch up with other nations which have surged ahead in their vaccination programmes.
Defending the move on Friday the Commission’s chief spokesman said that it was necessary to send a “message” to AstraZeneca over its failure to hit its contractual targets with the bloc.
He added: “The EU continues to be a leading provider of vaccines around the world. During the period from 30 January to 1 March, 174 requests for exports requested in the context of the Regulation have been approved by the Member States.”
However, hitting out at the move, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters that the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had assured Mr Johnson just weeks ago that the new export controls would not be used in this way.
“The PM spoke to President von der Leyen earlier this year, and she confirmed that the focus of their mechanism was on transparency and not intended to restrict exports by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities,” he added.
“We would expect the EU to continue to stand by its commitments. The global recovery from covid relies on international collaboration. We are all dependent on global supply chains and putting in place restrictions endangers global efforts to fight the virus.”
Separately, a Government spokesman also dismissed claims from Brussels that the UK is effectively operating its own export ban on vaccines, describing the suggestion as “completely false”.
“The UK champions the multinational effort to create and deliver effective vaccines across borders,” they continued.
“We have not put restrictions on exports of Covid-19 vaccines, or any medicines that have been manufactured and are intended for markets abroad.”
While Australia said the move would not affect its inoculation programme, the country’s finance minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News Australia: “The world is in uncharted territory at present. It's unsurprising that some countries would tear up the rule book. We are obviously disappointed and frustrated by this decision.”
Canada, Japan and South Korea have also raised their concerns over the EU “export transparency mechanism”, while the World Health Organisation claimed it was part of a “worrying trend” that risked derailing global supply chains.
Despite the backlash, Olivier Veran, the French health minister, said that his country could also block shipments of Covid vaccines to non-EU countries and was in discussions on the matter with European counterparts.
“I understand [the Italian position]. We could do the same thing,” he told French broadcaster BFM TV. “We’ll see. The more doses France has, the happier I will be as health minister.”
AstraZeneca has been embroiled in a rumbling row over supply shortfalls with the EU since January. Brussels says it is in breach of contractual obligations, which AstraZeneca denies.
The British-Swedish pharmaceutical company cut its supplies to the EU in the first quarter to 40 million doses from 90 million foreseen in the contract, and later said it would cut deliveries by another 50 percent in the second quarter.
Amid escalating tensions between the company and the EU, a number of political leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, made unsubstantiated claims about its effectiveness in people aged over 65, which has been blamed for fuelling low uptake across Europe.
However, European leaders now increasingly see the Oxford jab as pivotal in their efforts to kickstart the EU’s vaccination programme, which lags far behind the UK, US and Israel.