EU to publish revised rules after Covid vaccine border fiasco

Brussels will publish a revised regulation to potentially block vaccine exports out of the EU on Saturday, after an international outcry over its initial plans to erect an export border for doses on the island of Ireland.

The European commission’s newly drafted implementing regulation is expected to be both unveiled and come into force on Saturday with officials insisting they would now “ensure that the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol is unaffected”.

The original plans sought to avoid leaving a backdoor open for vaccines to be exported into the UK from the EU through Northern Ireland, as part of the commission’s new export register mechanism.

EU sources said the final regulation had been “fine-tuned” on Saturday morning. The European commission is still adamant that it needed to protect European citizens from doses of vaccines leaving the bloc in the wake of its row with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

An EU official said: “We have a serious issue with a company that has signed a contract with us saying that it was to put at our disposal vaccine from two factories from the UK – and has not delivered a single dose from those factories.

“And it was clearly saying, supported by the British government, that those factories will not be delivering vaccines to the EU until the UK has got the 100m doses it is supposed to get. This is a serious issue for us.”

Ireland’s Europe minister, Thomas Byrne, said he hoped lessons had been learned within the commission.

“This type of provision is standard in trade agreements but in the Northern Ireland situation, it obviously has a different political resonance and it’s perhaps the case that this wasn’t fully appreciated by the drafters,” Byrne told Newstalk radio. “Clearly a mistake was made,” Byrne said. “It’s too early for me to say [how it happened] … It’s clear the implications of article 16 weren’t fully thought through, that’s a pity, but it’s a lesson to us all at this point.”

Asked if the Irish prime minister Micheál Martin was given any forewarning of the planned triggering of the provision, devised as a last resort to alleviate serious disruption to trade in Northern Ireland after Brexit, Byrne said he was not.

The European commission had been forced to backtrack late on Friday evening on its plan to in effect erect a vaccine border on the island of Ireland after both Boris Johnson and the Irish taoiseach spoke personally to its president Ursula von der Leyen on Friday night.

The move had been part of the European commission’s announcement that all vaccine suppliers will have to seek authorisation of their exports, because of shortages in the EU.

Exports of vaccines could be blocked if they are regarded as a threat to the timely delivery of doses to EU citizens from companies that have contracts with the bloc.

The EU has been outraged by AstraZeneca’s announcement that it will only be able to deliver 25% of the 100m vaccine doses planned until the end of March.

The company has refused to divert vaccine from UK plants to make good the shortfall. Brussels has raised suspicions that doses have been moved from the EU to Britain in recent months.

The commission wanted to ensure that the vaccine could not be exported to the UK through the backdoor of Northern Ireland. But under the Brexit withdrawal agreement exports cannot be restricted between Northern Ireland, which remains within the EU’s single market, and Great Britain.

To ensure doses could not pass into the UK through Northern Ireland, the commission had said it wanted to trigger a clause in the withdrawal agreement to allow it to control exports between the south and north of the island of Ireland.

On Saturday, Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s absolutely disgraceful, and I have to say the prime minister now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

The DUP leader reiterated calls for the prime minister to replace article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol over the shortage of some food.

She said: “We’ve been asking the PM to deal with the flow problems and, indeed since 1 January, we’ve been trying to manage along with the government the many, many difficulties that have arisen between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and there are actions he could take immediately.

“There is great unrest and great tension within the community here in Northern Ireland so this protocol that was meant to bring about peace and harmony in Northern Ireland is doing quite the reverse.

“The protocol is unworkable, let’s be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland.”