The European Union amended its controversial measures seeking to limit exports to Northern Ireland on Friday evening.
The bloc had moved to restrict exports of vaccines into Northern Ireland by overriding parts of the Brexit deal, sparking widespread anger from politicians in Belfast, after an escalation in the vaccine row.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster described the move as “an incredible act of hostility” by the EU to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol, which allows Britain or the EU to take unilateral action if there is an unexpected negative effect arising from the agreement.
Just hours after the announcement, the EU clarified it will “ensure that the Ireland/North Ireland Protocol is unaffected”.
On Friday the EU introduced export restrictions on Covid vaccines produced in the bloc, as Brussels attempts to assert its authority following a bitter tit-for-tat with Astrazeneca.
European Commission vice president Valdis Dombrovskis said companies producing vaccines will now be required to provide “much more transparency”.
“Companies applying for export authorisation will now have to provide information on their export destinations, quantities and so on for a period of three months prior to entering into force,” Dombrovskis told an EU press conference.
“This will help to shed light on export tendencies in recent weeks and months.”
Dombrovskis confirmed exports to the UK will be affected by the changes, alongside a raft of other European countries.
And while the EU moved to change its threats on the Irish border it it warned it would consider using “all instruments” if the vaccine export bans are evaded.
The move follows an escalating dispute between the EU and Astrazeneca, after the Anglo-Swedish firm said it would no longer be able to supply the bloc with the number of vaccine doses originally agreed.
Astrazeneca’s vaccine received the green light from the EU’s medicines regulator this afternoon for emergency use in all over-18s.
However, the firm last week said manufacturing issues meant it would only be able to fulfil around 40 per cent of its original 400m-dose order to the EU.
The announcement sparked furious backlash from the EU, with the bloc on Wednesday announcing it would consider restricting exports of vaccines made on the continent as a result.
EU officials demanded that Cambridge-based Astrazeneca divert some of its vaccine supplies from UK plants to be distributed across the continent.
But Astrazeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said the company was contractually obliged to supply the UK first.
“We reject the logic of first come, first served,” said Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for health and food safety. “That may work in a butcher’s shop but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”
Announcing the export controls this afternoon, Kyriakides said: “Commitments need to be kept, and agreements are binding. Advance purchase agreements need to be respected.”
“Today, we have developed a system which will allow us to know whether vaccines are being exported from the EU. This increased transparency will also come with a responsibility for the EU to authorise, with our members states, these vaccine exports.”
UK health officials have warned that the changes may affect the UK’s supplies of both the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine.
A spokesperson for Number 10 yesterday insisted that any export controls would “not affect the current timetable” of the UK vaccine rollout, but refused to comment on whether they would reduce Britain’s vaccine supplies.
It is understood that any export restrictions on vaccines from the EU into the UK are in violation of the Irish Protocol, which came into effect at the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January.
Under Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal all products should be exported from the EU to the country without checks or controls.
However, the EU invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol which allows parts of the deal to be unilaterally overridden.
Foster slammed the export restrictions as “an incredible act of hostility”.
“By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once againshown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interest but in the most despicable manner — over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save elives.”
“At the first opportunity the EU has placed a hard border everween Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.”