EU in U-turn over move to control vaccine exports to Northern Ireland

Brussels has been forced into a humiliating U-turn in the face of outrage in London and Dublin after seeking to trigger a Brexit deal clause to establish border controls on vaccine doses moving into Northern Ireland from the Republic.

The European commission was forced to backtrack on its plan to effectively erect a vaccine border on the island of Ireland after both Boris Johnson and the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, spoke personally to its president, Ursula von der Leyen.

EU sources said it had acted “in error” but the crisis highlighted the growing political furore over the lack of vaccine supply and tensions with the UK.

The move had been part of the European commission’s announcement that all vaccine suppliers wil 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 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.

Within hours of the intention becoming public, however, the commission was backtracking in the face of protest from the DUP, Sinn Féin, both the British and Irish governments and even the archbishop of Canterbury.

Johnson and Martin, had spoken directly to Von der Leyen, on Friday evening to express what sources described as “deep unhappiness” with the triggering of article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

A No 10 spokesperson said the UK was “urgently seeking an explanation from the European commission” about the move.

“The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts,” the spokesperson said, adding that the UK has “reiterated the importance of preserving the benefits of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”.

Later on Friday evening, the spokesperson said Boris Johnson and Martin had held a “constructive discussion ”.

Following a call with the taoiseach, Von der Leyen tweeted: “I spoke to Taoiseach Micheál Martin this evening to agree on a satisfactory way to introduce an export authorisation mechanism for COVID vaccines.”

In a subsequent statement, the commission said that when finalising an the export control mechanism they would “ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol is unaffected”.

“The commission is not triggering the safeguard clause,” the commission said. “Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.”

Martin tweeted his support of the change of direction by the European commission, saying it was a “welcome decision”.

— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) January 29, 2021

Earlier, underlining the intensity of the vaccine crisis, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, had warned in an interview with the Guardian that the EU had to “control” vaccine exports out of the bloc due to “questionable behaviour” by the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

Macron said controls needed to be erected out of concern that a major shortfall in doses by AstraZeneca, with which the EU has a 400m dose order, was a result of an “over delivery” of doses to countries outside the bloc.

“It should be controlled because there is questionable behaviour and we will be receiving fewer deliveries that do not honour the contractual engagements agreed,” he said

Quick GuideShow


Country US/Germany

Efficacy 95% a week after the second shot. Pfizer says it is only 52% after the first dose but the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says this may rise to 90% after 21 days.

The UK has ordered 40m doses and is rolling them out now

Doses Clinical trials involved two doses 21 days apart. The UK is stretching this to 12 weeks.


Country UK

Efficacy 70.4% 14 days after receiving the second dose. May have up to 90% efficacy when given as a half dose followed by a full dose. No severe disease or hospitalisations in anyone who received the vaccine. 

The UK has ordered 100m doses and has begun distribution

Doses Two, four to 12 weeks apart


Country US

Efficacy Phase 3 trial results suggest an rating of 94.1%.

The UK has ordered 17m doses, to be delivered in March or April

Doses Two, 28 days apart


Country US

Efficacy Phase 3 trials suggest 89.3%.

60m doses ordered by the UK, with distribution expected principally in the second half of the year

Doses Two

Janssen (part of Johnson & Johnson)

Country US

Efficacy 72% in preventing mild to moderate cases in US trials but 66% efficacy observed in international trials. 85% efficacy against severe illness, and 100% protection against hospitalisation and death.

30m doses ordered by the UK

Doses: One, making it unique among Covid vaccines with phase 3 results so far

Macron said the EU was not seeking to damage vital supply chains but said the bloc had to ensure that pharmaceutical companies were not under-delivering “because of pressure from one or other countries”.

Arlene Foster: EU limit on vaccines into Northern Ireland is 'hostile and aggressive' – video
Arlene Foster: EU limit on vaccines into Northern Ireland is 'hostile and aggressive' – video

“Vaccine exports should be controlled, not blocked or banned, which would make no sense because we are also dependent on non-European production,” Macron said.

In his interview with the Guardian and a small group of other media, Macron also took a swipe at the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it appeared to be “almost ineffective” on people older than 65, though he acknowledged he did not have any official information to support the claim.

His remarks reflected rising tension over the issue of vaccine supply, which threatened to overshadow news that two more pharmaceutical companies reported positive trial results.

The twin announcements raised further hopes that the global pandemic can be brought under control once regulators have approved their safety and manufacturers have robust supply chains that allow them to deliver at scale.

A nurse prepares Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19
A nurse prepares a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Epsom in Surrey. Supply of the vaccine is at the centre of a row between the EU and UK. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

On Friday, the US drugmaker Johnson & Johnson became the latest to announce positive trial results of its single dose vaccine.

It followed Thursday’s news that the Novavax vaccine, which will be manufactured in the UK, performed well in phase 3 trials.

Despite concerns raised in Germany about its efficacy for people over the age of 65, the European Medicines Agency also authorised the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine for use in all adult age groups on Friday.

The developments underlined the UK’s status as one of the world’s leading buyers of effective Covid vaccines – Britain has pre-ordered 30m doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and 60m Novavax doses.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the UK was in “pole position” in the race to protect its population against the virus.

“Our approach of buying abroad and making here at home is paying off,” he said.

But this approach, and Downing Street’s reluctance to offer any UK vaccine doses to the EU, has infuriated member states – the Croatian prime minister, Andrej Plenković, described it as “vaccine hijacking.”