Ministers will seek to calm tensions over a potential EU ban on vaccine exports to the UK in a diplomacy blitz this week as sources raised the possibility of sharing jab supplies from a Dutch plant.
Sources said the UK government was keen to offer support and expertise at the AstraZeneca vaccine production plant in the Netherlands, run by the subcontractor Halix, to help scale up production.
The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has mooted blocking exports to the UK amid claims that AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish manufacturer, is favouring supplies to the UK. EU officials have said the bloc could ban exports from the plant until AstraZeneca provides the doses they say it is contractually obliged to supply.
One Whitehall source said there were early talks on what the UK could offer to avoid a major international dispute, but it was too early to say whether supplies were likely to be shared. Sir Tim Barrow, the former ambassador to the EU, is among the senior advisors trying to negotiate a solution to the dispute.
Sources in the Dutch government said the instinct of its ministers would be to permit any export request to the UK from the plant in Leiden but that the decision could be taken out of their hands.
“There hasn’t been a request but the system means that whatever decision we make it has to go to European commission and if they want to block it they can,” said one source. “It would be better if we didn’t get to that point and AstraZeneca, the British government and the European commission could just find an agreement. AstraZeneca has oversold what they could do to everyone.”
On Monday, Boris Johnson urged international cooperation, saying a third wave of coronavirus elsewhere in Europe would inevitably affect the UK. He spoke to leaders from France, Germany and the Netherlands in recent days and has privately urged his own ministers to dial down any tit-for-tat language over the row as diplomacy efforts continue, a Whitehall source said.
But France and Germany continue to press Brussels to be firmer on exports. On Thursday, EU leaders will also discuss whether the commission should be granted new powers to seize control of distribution and production in EU territory.
The French Europe minister, Clément Beaune, said: “This must be the strategy of a Europe that moves faster and defends its interests; produce more, enforce contracts and control exports.” The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is expected to speak to EU foreign ministers in Brussels on the sidelines of the Nato meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, one of Johnson’s chief aides sought to shore up vaccine supplies being manufactured in India. Edward Lister was in the country on Monday for talks before the prime minister visits next month.
It is understood that Lister will also discuss vaccine production, notably continued supplies from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. India’s government faces political pressure to retain more doses for its own population. The Financial Times said Lister was expected to travel from Delhi to Pune, where the institute is based, to help break a political deadlock.
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