Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hit back on Tuesday night against the European Council president Charles Michel after he claimed the UK had imposed an ‘outright’ ban on coronavirus vaccination exports.
Britain also summoned the EU’s UK delegation as Raab wrote to European Council chief after he made the claims in his newsletter published earlier on Tuesday.
‘The United Kingdom and the United States have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory,’ Michel wrote, sparking anger in London and resulting in the letter of complaint from Raab.
‘I wanted to set the record straight. The UK government has not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine components,’ Raab wrote in the letter, according to the Foreign Office.
‘Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false. We are all facing this pandemic together.’
In his newsletter to 20,000 subscribers across the EU, Michel rejected charges of ‘vaccine nationalism’ levelled against the EU after the 27-member bloc found itself under fire at home for a vaccine roll-out.
The EU’s programme has been much slower than those of former member Britain or the United States, and the bloc has also faced criticism abroad for so far doing less than China, Russia or India to supply vaccines to poor countries.
The ministry added that Britain had summoned the EU’s representative in London over the issue of Michel’s claims of an export ban.
‘Given that this false claim has been repeated at various levels within the EU and the Commission…a representative of the EU’s delegation to the UK has been summoned to a meeting… to discuss the issue further,’ it said.
It is the latest in a series of ugly vaccine spats since Britain fully left the EU in January.
While the EU is under pressure over its much-criticised Covid-19 inoculation strategy, Britain has been largely praised for its vaccine rollout and is eyeing a total easing of restrictions by June.
The EU partly blames Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca for failing to fulfil its order due to production problems in its European factories.
Brussels, Dublin and London were plunged into chaos on January 29 when the EU unveiled plans to unilaterally undo elements of the Brexit deal’s ‘Northern Ireland protocol’ in order to prevent vaccines leaving the bloc.
The special post-Brexit trade rules – painstakingly negotiated since Britain’s 2016 decision to split from the bloc to guarantee peace in Northern Ireland – had been operating for less than one month.
An outcry from Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland forced the EU into a speedy U-turn – reversing a plan now widely considered to have been a diplomatic bungle.
Michel’s lengthy statement on Tuesday afternoon also defended the bloc’s strategy.
He said that without Europe, it would not have been possible to develop and produce several vaccines in less than a year, and EU solidarity had ensured that poorer countries of the bloc received their first doses.
He took aim at the ‘highly publicised’ supply of vaccines by China and Russia to other countries.
‘We should not let ourselves be misled by China and Russia, both regimes with less desirable values than ours, as they organise highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines to others.’
Michel also noted that China and Russia had both vaccinated fewer people at home than the EU. ‘Europe will not use vaccines for propaganda purposes. We promote our values,’ he said.
Michel also defended a system to control the export of doses produced in EU countries, invoked by Italy last week to block a shipment of AstraZeneca shots to Australia.
‘Our objective: to prevent companies from which we have ordered and pre-financed doses from exporting them to other advanced countries when they have not delivered to us what was promised,’ Michel said. ‘The EU has never stopped exporting.’
He said the EU would become the world’s leading vaccine producer in the coming months and was the best equipped to adapt vaccine output quickly to virus mutations.
Meanwhile, weekly deaths involving coronavirus in the over-80s in England and Wales have fallen 79 percent since a peak five weeks ago, figures showed on Tuesday.
There were 1,118 Covid-19 deaths in adults aged 80 and over which took place in the week ending February 26, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
This is a fall of more than three-quarters since the week ending January 22, when 5,326 deaths involving coronavirus took place in this age group, according to PA news agency analysis.
Deaths in adults aged 75-79 have dropped 79 percent over the same period, while for 70 to 74-year-olds the fall was 76 percent.
Some deaths in the latest week may not yet have been fully recorded.
The fall in Covid-19 deaths among the over-80s up to the previous week, ending February 19, was still significant, at 66 percent.
Adults aged 80 and over were included in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s second priority group for the vaccine, followed by those aged 75 and over, and 70 and over.
Doses were first offered from early December.
By mid-February, the Government said it had offered the jab to everyone in these groups.
A total of 2,914 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending February 26 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, a drop of 29 percent on the previous week.
The figure is the lowest total since the week ending December 25.