The European Commission on Friday said it was not triggering an emergency override clause in the Brexit deal relating to the sensitive Irish border with new restrictions on vaccine exports.
The European Union’s executive arm “will ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected. The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause,” it said in a written statement.
Hours earlier, the announcement of new restrictions on the Coronavirus vaccine exports from the European Union triggered backlash in Belfast, Dublin and London because of how they could have blocked exports to Northern Ireland.
In exchange for keeping Belfast aligned with EU customs rules, the protocol keeps goods flowing between EU state Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, to avoid the creation of a hard border.
The final version of the full legal text setting up the tool will be published on Saturday, according to the commission.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused the bloc of triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol after the plan – intended to stop much-needed shots leaving the bloc amid a row over shortages – was presented to the public.
“(Johnson) expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports,” in a call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a Downing Street spokesperson said.
“We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities,” von der Leyen said in a tweet, calling the talks “constructive.”
“Welcome decision by the European Commission tonight not to invoke the safeguard clause of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol following constructive discussions with @vonderleyen,” Ireland Prime Minister Micheal Martin tweeted on Friday night.
“This is a positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling COVID-19.”
Earlier in the day, confusion broke out over the contents of the new regulation, which was reportedly briefly viewable on the commission’s website but is no longer accessible.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster was among those hitting out at the announced tool, calling it “an incredible act of hostility.”
“At the first opportunity the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” the head of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party wrote in a statement shared on Twitter.
Northern Ireland has remained largely aligned with EU customs rules precisely to avoid extensive checks at the Irish border.
Howeve, EU export controls could hinder vaccines from being sent to Northern Ireland, which Foster says runs counter to the Brexit deal.
Senior World Health Organisation official Mariangela Simao also condemned the scheme, saying it was not helpful at this stage of the pandemic.
“It’s a very worrying trend,” said Simao, an assistant WHO director general who is responsible for the world’s access to pharmaceutical products.
“We all need these vaccines to be shared equitably” among all countries, she added.
Simao also argued that that the free flow of vaccine ingredients and materials must be ensured, as making vaccines requires several countries in a series of production steps.
WHO officials warned that the world’s poorest countries stand to suffer the most if vaccines are being hoarded by wealthy countries.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did not directly comment on the EU scheme but warned that the world should learn from the HIV/AIDS crisis and from the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009.
HIV medications arrived in developing countries almost a decade after patients in developed countries got them, and H1N1 vaccines reached developing countries only when the epidemic was over, Tedros said.
“Do we want to repeat the same history now? I don’t think so,” he said.
At this stage, rich countries should immunize their health staff and old citizens but should not go further down their priority list, Tedros said.
Rather, any shots that remain after the top-priority group has been inoculated should be given to poorer countries, which also need to protect their medical workers and elderly now.
“When a village is on fire, it makes no sense for a small group of people to hoard all the extinguishers to defend their own houses,” said Tedros.
“The fire will be put out faster if everyone has an extinguisher and works together,” he added.