Prospect of UK sharing vaccines with State many, many weeks away, says Coveney

Minister believes ‘politics being played’ in report of British offer to export 3.7m doses

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson  at Hillsborough Castle  in Belfast last year. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson at Hillsborough Castle in Belfast last year. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The Government is unaware of any offer from the British government to give excess Covid-19 vaccines to the Republic, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

It comes after a Sunday Times report that outlined how the British government is considering offering 3.7 million vaccines to the State, in part to help ease lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland.

“Of course, if there was, we’d be very interested in, in talking to the British government about that,” Mr Coveney said but added that “there is politics being played here too”.

He said he heard the comments of Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster that surplus vaccines should be offered to Ireland “and I think that’s welcomed language”. But he said that looking at the numbers while 55 per cent of adults in the UK have received their first jab, “less than 6 per cent of adults in the UK have received their second jab. So there are tens of millions of people still to get their first jab in the UK.”

He added: “There may well be excess vaccines at some point in the future but I don’t think we’re realistically, looking at that for, for many, many weeks yet.”

The proposed exports to the Republic would be the first time Britain exported jabs to the European Union and the Sunday Times reported a cabinet minister saying it would be a “poke in the eye” for Brussels amid a row over supplies.

The newspaper reported that UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab, cabinet minister Michael Gove and Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis have had “outline discussions” about the plan with a cabinet source saying it could begin after Easter.

An Irish Government source said there had been no outreach to Dublin ahead of the newspaper report, and questioned its timing as it came as Britain faced a supply shortage while deliveries to the Republic are about to ramp up.

“There’s been no contact whatsoever,” an Irish Government source said. “It’s coming at a time when they’ve publicly announced they have a vaccine shortage in April.”

“We don’t expect to have any vaccine supply issues . . . vaccine rollout in Ireland is actually starting to take off like a rocket, the supply is clearly ramping up.”

Supply squeeze

Britain has largely reliant on vaccines exported from the EU for much of its rollout, after getting a headstart due to its earlier emergency regulatory approval of the jabs. But it is facing a vaccine supply squeeze as India tightens controls in response to rising domestic infections and Brussels insists that outstanding orders to the EU must be met ahead of exports.

Nevertheless, if there were any vaccines available the Irish Government would certainly welcome them.

“Don’t take it that we’d turn it down,” the Government source added. “If they were available we’d take them, no one is going to turn down those vaccines.”

Speaking prior to the report, Ms Foster said the British government should share vaccines with the Republic once its own vaccination programme is completed.

She said this was for “practical reasons” related to avoiding a situation where the slower vaccination programme in the South risks undermining the situation in the North and because the two jurisdictions are neighbours.

Ms Foster told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics: “I think it is a runner.”

She said she had spoken about the issue with British prime minister Boris Johnson and she would make the point with him again.

Ms Foster said: “I think it’s important that we continue the conversation and I’ll be listening very carefully to what our medical advisers are saying about the rollout of the vaccine in Northern Ireland, where it is in the Republic of Ireland, and what that means for both jurisdictions.”

Responding to the Sunday Times report, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the UK did not “currently have a surplus” of coronavirus vaccines.

He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “Clearly, our first priority is ensuring we deliver vaccines in the United Kingdom.

“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.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “I don’t believe that qualified as an offer”, when asked about the Republic receiving spare vaccines from Britain.

“It’s a statement of the obvious on one level that if you have a surplus of vaccines, that you shouldn’t stockpile them. It’s a matter of enlightened self-interest”.

Speaking on Newstalk’s On the Record with Gavan Reilly, she said: “I would expect that if the British government had excess vaccines that they would do the logical thing and as a matter of self-interest that they would be looking to distribute that vaccine onwards.”

She also said that while she had deep concerns about Britain’s behaviour in relation to Brexit and the Northern Irish protocol, “I don’t believe that on the issue of vaccine distribution that a politics of confrontation should play out because there are no winners”.

Ms McDonald said some at European level might regard talk of Britain helping the State with additional vaccines “as a cynical poke in the eye it’s more productive to regard it as enlightened self-interest”.

Diplomatic tensions between the EU and Britain are real, she said but “I don’t believe getting into a war of words or any kind of trade war in respect of vaccines or components will help anyone ultimately” – Additional reporting: PA