'Welcome news': relief as EU backtracks on NI Covid vaccine move

By Lisa O'Carroll

The EU has said it is “not triggering the safeguard clause” to block Covid vaccine exports from the bloc to Northern Ireland after widespread condemnation of the move.

The EU’s initial decision to trigger a Brexit deal clause to place controls on the export of vaccines sparked criticism on both sides of Irish border and led to frantic talks including a call between the UK and Ireland to avert a full-scale crisis.

On news that the move to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol was not going ahead, the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, tweeted that it was a “welcome decision by the European commission” and “a positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling Covid-19”.

— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) January 29, 2021

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, described the U-turn as “welcome news” but warned in a tweet: “Lessons should be learned; the protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many.”

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she had spoken to Martin to agree a “satisfactory way” to impose export authorisations for coronavirus vaccines. The move comes amid a deepening row over the allocation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the company announced delays to its EU operations.

Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, told BBC’s Newsnight the use of article 16 was an “accident” and “a mishap” that had been “repaired”.

Before the EU’s U-turn, a No 10 spokesperson had said the UK was “urgently seeking an explanation from the European commission” about the move. They added that Boris Johnson and Martin had held a “constructive discussion” about the events.

“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”.

Article 16 was agreed in the original withdrawal agreement and gives both sides the power to unilaterally introduce checks on goods if not doing so could result in “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

It is designed as a “last resort” but would have been used as an emergency brake on the UK government using Northern Ireland as a back door route to secure EU supplies of the Covid vaccine in the event of a blockade.

Irish government sources told reporters the initial decision was “completely unnecessary” and had “explosive political implications”.

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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

Arlene Foster, Stormont’s first minister, had branded the decision to use article 16 an “incredible act of hostility”. She added it was a “despicable” move that would create the hard border on the island of Ireland that the Northern Ireland protocol was designed to prevent.

The European commission said the move was “justified as a safeguard measure pursuant to article 16 of that protocol in order to avert serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states”.

It is believed the decision was made without consultation with either the UK or Ireland government.

Before the U-turn, a senior EU diplomatic source said: “This is an extraordinary misjudgement and shows a complete misunderstanding of the protocol and article 16, which is meant to be used as a last resort. There was no discussion about this and came like a shot out of the blue.”

They warned that tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol had risen over the past fortnight with traders unhappy with the extent of checks on goods traded across the Irish Sea and controversy over the future movement of troops between Great Britain and NI.

“Irrespective of what Brexit we got, we knew there were going to be unforeseen consequences and these issues go to the very core of the troubles, sensitivities over identity and sovereignty and instead of the EU taking every effort to tackle the vaccine issue with the British government it has decided to use the Northern Ireland protocol.

“To retaliate in this way using the Northern Ireland protocol as a football is very dangerous,” they said.