Cabinet minister Michael Gove has said there “will be no interruption” to UK vaccine supplies from AstraZeneca after the European Union demanded doses from British plants during a row over supply shortages.
Mr Gove said on Thursday the “first and most important thing” is that the supply schedule agreed with the UK-based pharmaceuticals giant is honoured so the domestic vaccine rollout can be delivered before neighbouring nations are aided.
But Downing Street declined to rule vaccines being sent to the EU before everyone in the UK is vaccinated to help address supply shortages being faced by the bloc.
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said there have been “constructive” talks with AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot after telling the firm it is contractually obliged to send jabs produced in the UK to 27 EU member states.
Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “First thing, we must make sure that we continue with the effective acceleration of our vaccination programme.
“That relies on the supply schedule that has been agreed to be honoured. That’s the first and most important thing.”
“Secondarily,” he said, the desire is to ensure allies receive vaccines but he added that “I think we best achieve that through dialogue and cooperation and friendship”.
Pressed on whether the Government would allow vaccines to go to the EU, he said: “No, the critical thing is we must make sure that the schedule that has been agreed and on which our vaccination programme has been based and planned goes ahead.
“It is the case that the supplies that have been planned, paid for and scheduled should continue, absolutely. There will be no interruption to that.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman failed to give a definitive answer when repeatedly pressed on whether jabs could be sent to Europe before everyone in the UK receives a dose.
Instead, he said: “We will offer doses to the priority groups and all adults by September that continues to be the case.”
The European Commission remained resolute, with spokesman Eric Mamer saying “we can and will” get doses from plants, including those in the UK.
Meanwhile, Belgian authorities carried out an inspection at an AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine plant in Seneffe, near Brussels, on Wednesday.
A statement from Belgium’s health ministry was reported to say the spot check was carried out “to make sure that the delivery delay is indeed due to a production problem”.
Mr Soriot has argued supply chain “teething issues” were fixed in the UK ahead of the bloc because Britain signed a contract three months earlier.
But Ms Kyriakides said: “We reject the logic of first come first served. That may work at the neighbourhood butchers but not in contracts.”
She denied the bloc would impose an export ban on vaccines leaving the EU but said the contract signed with AstraZeneca, which worked with Oxford University on its vaccine, contains two factories in the UK.
“The UK factories are part of our advance purchase agreements and that is why they have to deliver,” she added.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said vaccine nationalism, where nations prioritise their own access to the detriment of others, must be avoided.
He warned on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that new strains that “at some point in the future” may escape vaccines will develop unless transmission is driven down and vaccines are made available globally.
In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, Mr Soriot said “we are basically two months behind where we want to be” in supplies due to manufacturing issues in Europe, citing problems in a Belgian plant.
“So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced,” he said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the issue should be resolved through increased production rather than UK doses being diverted to the EU.
“I don’t want to interrupt the supply of vaccines into the United Kingdom,” he told LBC Radio.