Boris Johnson has warned the EU of a future trade war over vaccines if Brussels presses ahead with threats to block the export of doses from the continent to Britain.
New rules unveiled on Wednesday would give the European Commission the right to stop firms such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer from sending EU-made vaccines to countries which do not export doses themselves and have vaccinated more of their population than Europe.
In response, the Prime Minister suggested that the measures could dissuade pharmaceutical giants from investing in the EU, for fear of finding themselves banned from fulfilling their contracts with other countries.
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He told MPs on the Commons liaison committee: “I don’t think that blockades of either vaccines or of medicines, of ingredients for vaccines, are sensible and I think that the long-term damage done by blockades can be very considerable.
“I would just gently point out to anybody considering a blockade or an interruption of supply chains that companies may look at such actions and draw conclusions about whether or not it is significant to make future investments in countries where arbitrary blockades are imposed.”
The measures come amid the EU’s ongoing row with AstraZeneca. They are seeking ways to block the company from sending vaccines outside the bloc while it is failing to deliver the number of doses it has promised to Brussels.
The rules make it easier to stop exports of vaccines going to countries which do not display “reciprocity and proportionality”, with Britain singled out as one state which has been allowed to receive more doses than it has exported. Politicians in the UK and EU claimed the moves risked escalating the dispute and could prove counterproductive.
The new measures, which must be signed off by member states at a European Council summit over the next two days, state that companies must apply for permission whenever they want to send vaccines out of the bloc. Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president of the European Commission, said that the EU “continues to export vaccines to countries that have production capacities of their own but when these countries do not export to the EU there is no reciprocity”.
The UK has not exported significant numbers of vaccines abroad, but the Government argues that because there is no formal exports ban it would be unfair to block deliveries from the EU to Britain. But Mr Dombrovskis said: “If a country of destination which has a large production capacity restricts its own exports of vaccines or substances – either by law or other means – it may be appropriate to consider whether exports to this country are justified.”
So far the row has centred mostly around a factory in the Netherlands which is due to produce at least 10 million doses for the UK. However, Brussels has not ruled out blocking Pfizer exports too, which could prevent Britain from administering second doses to those who have already had their first jab from the company.