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‘No interruption’ to UK vaccine supply amid EU row, says Gove

PABest Members of the public at Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. Pic by Jacob King

By Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent

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.

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 as the bloc faces supply shortages.

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.”

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.

“There is no hierarchy of the factories. You are aware in the contracts there are four factories listed but it does not differentiate between the UK and Europe. 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.

Asked if it is now a reality in Europe, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Yes, I’m afraid it is and it’s something that we absolutely have to negotiate, we have to avoid, and it doesn’t serve anybody to have these fights over vaccine supply.”

He said the only answer is to “drive down transmission, to keep it low and to make these vaccines available globally, otherwise we will see new variants coming up, new strains of this virus which will come back to all of our countries.”

Such new strains “at some point in the future” might escape vaccines, he added.

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.

He said there had been “teething issues” in the UK supply chain as well but that the deal with Britain was signed three months ahead of the EU’s.

“So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced,” he said.

He rejected the suggestion the firm was selling to the highest bidder “because we make no profit everywhere” under the agreement signed with Oxford University.

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.

“But we do need to resolve this, it is a war of words, it has got to be resolved and there is no interest in other countries not getting the vaccine because unless this is dealt with globally, we will simply reintroduce variants across the world.”

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