Ursula von der Leyen has promised Boris Johnson that future EU controls on vaccines will not disrupt contracted supplies of the Belgian-made BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to Britain.
The European Commission president made the commitment to the prime minister in a tense Friday night call, which followed the Commission’s controversial plan — hastily abandoned — to impose emergency border controls on vaccines entering Northern Ireland from the EU.
Ms von der Leyen tweeted that the talks with Mr Johnson had been “constructive”, adding: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”
Mr Johnson’s allies confirmed that this included the 40m doses that Pfizer is contracted to supply Britain from a plant in Belgium. The Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The dropping of the implied threat to Pfizer exports and the abandonment of the proposal to include Northern Ireland in new export controls has calmed tension between London and Brussels.
Mr Johnson has tried this week to avoid stoking tension and inflaming a vaccine war which he believes would harm both sides and hinder the global fight against Covid-19.
“The call was fine, hopefully that’s the end of it,” said one ally of the prime minister. “We don’t plan to dwell on it.”
But Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, on Saturday called on Mr Johnson to follow Brussels’ lead and override part of the Brexit agreement to ease the flow of goods between GB and NI.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol has a “safeguard” clause to override the agreement, which is intended to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland. It includes checks on GB/NI trade.
The European Commission said it would invoke Article 16 to justify its initial plan to impose vaccine export controls on Northern Ireland, even though the region remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.
It cited the risk of “serious societal difficulties” in the EU if the bloc was unable to deploy enough vaccines to its own citizens.
Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland secretary, said the EU had “pulled the emergency cord” without following the proper processes that had been agreed over years of negotiations.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the move came “without anywhere near the level of understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland”.
“It was an almost Trumpian act — I’m very pleased that they’ve changed their minds,” he said.
The Commission has since republished its vaccine shipment control measures with the Article 16 proposals stripped out.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove said that he had spoken to Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president and co-chair of the EU-UK joint committee.
“Our shared priority is making sure the protocol works for the people of Northern Ireland, protecting gains of the peace process and avoiding disruption to everyday lives. Jointly committed to redoubling our efforts to address outstanding issues,” they both tweeted from their individual twitter accounts.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Gove said it had been made clear that the vaccine supply would not be interrupted, “so we can proceed with our plans and make sure that our so far highly successful vaccination programme can continue.
“I think the European Union recognise that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16, which would have meant the reimposition of a border on the island of Ireland.”
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said that he was “confident” of vaccine supplies through to March and said that co-operation between the UK and EU would be key to combating the virus.
“I don’t think this is a Brexit issue. This is about making sure that we protect the most vulnerable. It’s a race against death in many ways”, he told the paper.
The export restrictions had drawn criticism from business groups including the International Chamber of Commerce, which warned they could lead to retaliation from other countries and have a devastating impact on global vaccine supplies.
It has also emerged that Belgium, a key location for vaccine production in the EU, has notified the Commission of a draft health law that would give it new powers to curb medicines exports.
The proposed legislation would allow Belgian authorities to restrict or ban the shipment of critical medicinal products and active ingredients, in case of shortages or potential shortages.
A spokesperson for Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgium’s health minister, said the notification to the commission was not related to vaccine exports or uncertainties about jab supplies.
The draft law aimed to set up a “future legislative framework for managing pandemics more efficiently,” he added.