The European Commission confirmed late on Friday that it would not trigger controls on shipments of vaccines to Northern Ireland amid an ongoing row with the United Kingdom over access to treatments to prevent COVID-19.
Earlier on Friday the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, accused the EU of committing “a hostile and aggressive act” after speculation that tighter export rules of COVID-19 vaccines could stop them from being transported over the border from Ireland, an EU member state, to the north.
This would be in contravention of the post-Brexit deal signed between Brussels in London to prevent a 'hard border' between Ireland and Northern Ireland in contravention of the Good Friday peace deal.
“They are trying to stop the supply of a vaccine into the UK. For years we were told after the EU referendum vote that there couldn't be a hard border on the island of Ireland. And in one fell swoop they have put that hard border in place,” Foster said.
It followed the EU’s decision to put controls on exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine to prioritise EU member states and an ongoing dispute between London and Brussels over access to the drugs.
On Friday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen to "express his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have," according to a British government statement.
But in a statement late Friday, the Commission confirmed it was not invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allowing either side to override parts of their deal.
“The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause,” it said in its statement, adding that the restricting regulations have yet to be finalised and won't be adopted before Saturday.
The EU hit out at AstraZeneca this week after the company said it would only supply 31 million doses of vaccine in initial shipments, instead of the 80 million doses it had hoped to deliver.
Brussels claimed AstraZeneca would supply even less than that, just one-quarter of the doses due between January and March — and member countries began to complain.
In a tweet on Saturday after the EU issued a regulation to control exports, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said he was "reassured" by Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis that the EU "has no desire to block suppliers fulfilling contracts for vaccine distribution to the UK."
"The world is watching and it is only through international collaboration that we will beat this pandemic," Raab tweeted.
The European Commission is concerned that doses meant for Europe might have been diverted from an AstraZeneca plant on the continent to the UK, where two other company sites are located.
The EU also wants doses at two sites in Britain to be made available to European citizens.
“The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts,” the UK said.