Coronavirus: UK ‘set to offer 3.7 million vaccines to Ireland’ amid EU exports row

Plan would enable lifting of lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland with reduced risk of border crossings triggering third wave of infections

Joe Sommerlad
Sunday 28 March 2021 19:10
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The UK is planning to offer 3.7 million Covid-19 vaccines to the Republic of Ireland in a move that could exacerbate its rift with the EU, it has been reported.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis are said to have met privately to discuss the plan, which they see as integral to ensuring lockdown restrictions can be lifted in neighbouring Northern Ireland with the reduced risk of border crossings triggering a third wave of infections, according to The Sunday Times.

Transmission rates remain significantly higher in the Republic of Ireland at present, with 610 new cases recorded on Saturday compared with 138 in Northern Ireland.

But delivering jabs to Dublin would mark the first time the UK has shipped supplies to an EU nation and serve as “a poke in the eye to Brussels”, according to one cabinet minister quoted by the newspaper.

The EU’s response to the vaccine rollout has been far less smooth than that of Britain, and has seen the bloc threaten to suspend the export of vaccines or key ingredients as it seeks to catch up and safeguard its member states.

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“Everyone can see the logic of it. It’s good politics while at the same time solving a genuine public health concern in Northern Ireland,” a cabinet source told the newspaper.

“It is a balancing act, making sure that we have enough vaccines to give the UK’s adult population the second dose. Easter will be when we might be able to start offering vaccines to Ireland.”

Asked about the potential delivery of vaccines to Ireland by Sky News anchor Sophy Ridge on Sunday morning, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said that the UK does not yet have a surplus so it is premature to consider next moves.

“Clearly our first priority is ensuring that we deliver vaccines in the United Kingdom,” he said.

“We clearly don’t currently have a surplus of vaccines; should we get to the point where we have a surplus of vaccines, we’d make decisions on the allocation of that surplus.”

Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said on 9 March that there would be no question of the UK offering additional vaccines to his country until its own population had been inoculated.

“The British prime minister has made it clear to me that obviously his first priority is to vaccinate his people,” the taoiseach said.

“It would be helpful to Ireland if the situation arose, but right now he has to concentrate on vaccinating his own people. Until then he won’t be in a position to give vaccines to anybody and he has made that point to me, which I thought was fairly obvious at the outset.”

Currently, around 55 per cent of Britain’s adults have received their first jab so that prospect remains some way off.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a scientific adviser to the government’s Sage team, has said the UK “must start sharing” its extra doses and warned against “vaccine nationalism”.

“The world won’t be safe while any single country is still fighting the virus. If left to spread, it risks mutating to an extent where our vaccines and treatments no longer work. This goes beyond ethics – it’s a scientific and economic imperative.”

While any future vaccine surplus had been earmarked for developing countries, the Cabinet Office is also reportedly planning to send some supplies on to continental Europe to ease the situation in countries like France and Germany where dissatisfaction with the state’s response to the pandemic has led to a rise in support for extremist groups.

“The fear is that [Emmanuel] Macron has made such a mess of things that it might mean we end up with [far-right leader] Marine Le Pen getting elected,” a Whitehall source told The Sunday Times. “No one wants that.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told The Independent: “Our first priority is to protect the British public, and the vaccine rollout is continuing at pace. We remain on course to offer a first dose to all over 50s in the UK by 15 April and all UK adults by the end of July, as we continue to cautiously reopen society via our roadmap.

“We don’t currently have a surplus of vaccines, but we will consider how these are allocated as they become available.”

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