The European Union on Wednesday threatened to ban the export of COVID-19 vaccines to the UK to protect scarce doses for its own citizens ahead of a third wave of pandemics that would jeopardize plans to restart travel this summer.
As the number of COVID-related deaths in the EU exceeds 550,000 and less than a tenth of the bloc’s population was vaccinated, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the epidemiological situation was deteriorating.
“We are in the crisis of the century,” she told reporters.
“We are seeing the peak of a third wave forming in the Member States, and we know we need to speed up the vaccination rate.”
Von der Leyen said the flow of vaccine products was smooth with the US but sent frustration over the lack of supplies from AstraZeneca in the UK. She said that 10 million doses had gone from EU facilities to the former member state.
“We are still waiting for doses to come from Britain,” von der Leyen said in the latest sign of an acid bond between Britain and the 27-nation bloc since Brexit.
“If this situation does not change, we must reflect on how exports to vaccine-producing countries depend on their transparency. We will reflect on whether exports to countries with higher vaccination levels than us are still proportionate.”
Accusation of the brink
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab retaliated, accusing the Commission of persuasion and calling for a statement after the government had been assured that the EU did not intend to restrict exports under contract.
“I think it takes some explanation for the world to look at … It also cuts across the direct assurances we had from the Commission,” Raab told Reuters. “We expect these insurances and legal, contractual delivery to be respected.”
“Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation. It’s normal what Britain and the EU are working together to reject, when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.”
Von der Leyen spoke when six EU countries complained to Brussels about reduced deliveries hampering the bloc’s already troubled inoculation campaign fighting among reduced deliveries from AstraZeneca.
Further complicated matters, various EU countries including its largest members Germany, France and Italy this week stopped AstraZeneca shots while waiting for security checks.
The situation threatens the plans announced by the Commission to launch a “green digital certificate” that would gather information on vaccinations, tests and COVID recovery to allow travelers to cross borders freely again.
Southern EU countries that are dependent on tourism hope that the new certificate can win final approval in June and go online in time for the high season. But countries such as France, Belgium and Germany have expressed skepticism.
EU countries will be under pressure to quickly agree on a common position for their 450 million people. The task is further complicated by uncertainty about whether the vaccinated can transmit the virus and general skepticism about vaccines.