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Explainer: All the drama behind vaccine blunders and the Brexit row over Irish border


by Jennifer McShane
04th Feb 2021

A row has erupted between the European Union and the United Kingdom over the supply of coronavirus vaccines.

It all started when AstraZeneca informed the European Commission there would be a serious shortfall in its delivery of 81 million Covid-19 vaccine doses for the first quarter.

Over the previous few days, the dilemma over what to do about this has seen the European Union threaten to impose a vaccine border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In turn, this has risked reigniting one of Brexit’s most talked of disputes, with members of UK Government saying the move proved the need for an immediate overhaul of the bloc’s treatment of Northern Ireland.

What exactly happened?

The EU initially threatened to stop vaccines crossing freely from the EU to Northern Ireland, saying they would trigger an emergency provision in the Brexit deal to control Covid vaccine exports from the EU. The move could have seen checks at the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent shipments entering the UK.

The plans had been part of the EU’s new export controls on vaccines, to combat delivery shortfalls, which are ongoing. Reportedly, the EU commission suspected the shortfall in vaccine doses was a result of a “pecking order”, which meant the UK was getting its full slate from AstraZeneca, while the EU had been denied desperately needed supplies.

The reason the move was condemned was due to the Brexit deal, which guarantees an open border between the EU and Northern Ireland, with no controls on exported products.

Emergency provision 

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol part of the deal allows the EU and UK to choose to suspend any aspects they consider are causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” and last Friday, the EU announced it would trigger the clause and introduce the export controls on its vaccines entering Northern Ireland. Essentially, in a bid to prevent the region becoming a backdoor for vaccine jabs to be sent to the UK mainland. They claimed the move was “justified” in order to avert problems caused by a lack of supply.

However, the intended move was met with extreme concern, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin and all five parties in Northern Ireland’s government made their feelings known.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster described it as “an absolutely incredible act of hostility” that created a hard Irish border, while Simon Coveney also condemned the move.

Ultimately, the EU backtracked, which the Taoiseach said was “welcomed.”

“Welcome decision by the European Commission tonight not to invoke the safeguard clause of the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol… This is a positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling COVID-19,” he said in a Tweet.

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she had spoken to Martin to agree a “satisfactory way” to impose export authorisations for coronavirus vaccines.

The WHO had also criticised the EU’s announcement of export controls. Its director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said “vaccine nationalism” would only serve to draw out the Covid crisis.