Boris Johnson has urged international cooperation over vaccines, saying a third wave of coronavirus elsewhere in Europe would inevitably affect the UK.
The prime minister’s remarks came as one of his chief aides sought to shore up supplies of vaccines being manufactured in India during a visit to the country, and as UK ministers tried to dampen down the row over EU threats to block vaccine exports.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Lancashire, Johnson said he was in regular touch with EU leaders.
“We’re all facing the same pandemic, we all have the same problems,” the prime minister. “If there is one thing that is worth stressing is that on the continent right now you can see sadly there is a third wave under way. People in this country should be under no illusions that previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, it washes up on our shores as well. I expect that we will feel those effects in due course.
“That’s why we’re getting on with our vaccination programme as fast as we can but a vaccination campaign and developing vaccines, rolling them out – these are international projects and they require international cooperation.”
Johnson’s comments come as a Downing Street source said the prime minister had held phone talks on Sunday with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. No 10 normally announces such calls formally, but has not done so amid the vaccine negotiations, which have been taking place because of continuing disagreement about competing contracts for supplies, primarily of the Oxford/AstraZeneca version
Eddie Lister, one of Johnson’s most senior aides, was in India on Monday as part of what Downing Street said were scheduled talks before the prime minister’s visit to the country next month.
However, it is understood that Lister will also discuss vaccine production, notably continued UK supplies from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. India’s government faces political pressure to retain more of does of the domestically made vaccine in order to inoculate its own population.
The Financial Times said Lister was expected to travel from Delhi to Pune, the western Indian city where the institute is based, to try and help solve a political deadlock over the issue.
Downing Street has repeatedly refused to say what it will do if the EU does impose an export ban. Asked the UK might retaliate, Johnson’s spokesman said: “I’m obviously not going to get into hypotheticals, but we’ve been clear that the vaccination programme is an international effort.”
Speaking earlier on Monday, Helen Whately, the care minister, also refused to say if the UK would hit back. “I don’t think it’s very helpful to speculate at the moment,” Whately told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “What is clear – and the prime minister has made it clear – is that we expect the European Union to stand by their commitments.”
The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has raised the possibility of an export ban amid claims in Brussels that while both the UK and EU have signed contracts with AstraZeneca for millions of vaccine doses, the British-Swedish manufacturer is favouring supplies to the UK.
The disagreement appears to be around supplies made by an AstraZeneca subcontractor, Halix, at a plant at Leiden in the Netherlands. EU officials told Reuters that consignments manufactured there must remain in the EU and not be sent to the UK.
Johnson spoke to Von der Leyen last week, along with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, and the Belgian PM, Alexander De Croo, and is expected to hold more calls in the coming days.
Whately said: “We expect the European Union to stick by their commitments, and I’m sure the prime minister will be in touch with European counterparts regularly. But I don’t think this debate is helpful for anyone.”
According to an analysis for the Guardian by the data analytics company Airfinity, an EU export ban could delay the UK’s vaccine rollout by two months, while not providing much of a boost to EU member states’ troubled programmes.