A dispute between the U.K. and European Union over coronavirus vaccines has deepened, as London said it would have to slow down its inoculation program because of a cut in supplies.
The country’s National Health Service blamed the looming short-term reduction of doses on a drop in “inbound vaccines,” adding to tension with Brussels over shipments. That was after the EU threatened to block exports to its former member state, prompting British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to suggest the bloc was engaging in brinkmanship and that “the world was watching.”
The further souring of relations comes as the EU gets increasingly desperate to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, while Britain wants to ensure its inoculation program remains a stand-out success after recording the continent’s highest death toll from COVID-19.
A series of setbacks with Europe’s supply was exacerbated this week after countries including Germany and France halted the use of doses from AstraZeneca PLC because of a scare over blood clotting. The company said its vaccine was safe and the European Medicines Agency, which has consistently backed the shot, will issue updated guidance Thursday.
With the EU significantly trailing the U.K. in vaccinations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that all options were on the table to secure their own supplies.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, meanwhile, is now preparing to prioritize giving second doses to the most-vulnerable people due to the expected four-week reduction in supply from March 29.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock downplayed the supply delays, telling a news conference that vaccine shipments have always been “lumpy.” He said the goal is still to offer a first dose to the entire U.K. adult population by mid-July, with over-50s on course to get their shots by the middle of next month.
Even so, vaccination centers and pharmacies have been ordered to stop taking new bookings from the end of March and not to upload new appointments onto the national booking service for the whole of April.
More than 25 million people in Britain have now had a first shot of the vaccines by AstraZeneca or BioNTech and Pfizer Inc., about half the adult population. That translates to about 40 per 100 people, compared with 12 in the EU.
It remains unclear whether the U.K. supply reduction is due to any direct action by the EU, or production shortfalls at the vaccine manufacturers. AstraZeneca said there were no issues with its British distribution. “Our U.K. domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule,” a spokesperson said.
Raab said he had sought assurances from EU officials this week that there would be no impact on the supply to the U.K.
“We were reliably informed that they weren’t aware of any plans to restrict lawfully contracted supply to the U.K.,” he told reporters Wednesday. “We expect those assurances and legally contracted supply to be respected.”
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