The UK could help the EU and other nations with coronavirus vaccine supplies even before the domestic vaccination programme has been completed, the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, has said.
As ministers sought to smooth relations with Brussels after the EU’s much-criticised and swiftly rescinded decision to impose a vaccine border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Truss sought to stress the need for international cooperation.
Speaking overnight, the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, talked about collaborating with the EU, saying Britain had gone “out of our way” to help the bloc with vaccines supplies and “will continue to do so”.
In a series of interviews on Sunday, Truss reiterated this point, while stressing that any moves to send some of the 367m vaccine doses the government has ordered to other countries would only be done if it did not affect the UK vaccination timetable.
Asked about Zahawi’s comments to the Sunday Telegraph, Truss told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show: “Of course, we first need to make sure that our population is vaccinated. We have a target to get the most vulnerable vaccinated by late February. It’s a bit too early to say how we would deploy vaccines, but we certainly want to work with friends and neighbours, we want to work with developing countries.”
The timetable says the four most vulnerable groups should be vaccinated by late February, with the top nine contingents – all people over 50– should receive a first dose by spring, with every adult offered vaccinations by September.
Downing Street has so far declined to rule out the idea of excess doses being sent to the EU after the first nine groups are completed. Speaking on Sky, Truss seemed to indicate any offer could instead wait until the end of the programme.
“There have been supply issues, so we need to make sure that the new drugs that are coming online are delivered, that the population is vaccinated,” she said. “But of course, as we’re developing that, we are also working with other countries about how we can help. It won’t help Britain if we become a vaccinated island and many other countries don’t have the vaccine.”
But in a subsequent interview with Times Radio, Truss said it was possible that helping other countries could happen while the UK programme was still taking place.
“We’ve got enough vaccines to more than vaccinate the whole population and also help the rest of the world,” she said. “So those two things can both happen.”
Asked if this meant UK supplies could be diverted elsewhere after more vulnerable UK adults had been vaccinated, Truss said: “That could well be the case, but I can’t preempt what the situation will be in two months’ time.”
In her interview on Sky, Truss said she could “absolutely guarantee” enough supplies of vaccines for the UK programme, despite the EU insisting it must also have sufficient stocks.
Boris Johnson had talked to Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, Truss said, adding: “She has been very clear that those contractual supplies won’t be disrupted.”
The EU has faced a significant backlash over its announcement of potential export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc. The World Health Organization condemned the move and the pharmaceutical industry said the measures would damage their vaccination efforts.
The EU’s threat to stop vaccines crossing freely from the EU to Northern Ireland set off a diplomatic crisis between Ireland, the EU and the UK, and has prompted Conservative Brexiters to demand an overhaul of the Brexit deal over Northern Ireland.
Also speaking on the Ridge show, Tony Blair said the EU’s threat to impose a vaccines border on the island of Ireland was “a very foolish thing to do”.
A key part of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland was to maintain a free border, the former prime minister said: “That’s why what the European commission did was unacceptable, but as you say, fortunately they withdrew it very quickly.”