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Arlene Foster: UK should share surplus Covid-19 vaccines with Ireland


First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

The UK is to offer Covid vaccines to Ireland (Danny Lawson/PA)

The UK is to offer Covid vaccines to Ireland (Danny Lawson/PA)


First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster has said she believes the UK government will offer Covid-19 vaccine stocks to Ireland once its own vaccination programme is complete.

Her comments come as The Sunday Times reports that the UK is planning to offer 3.7 million Covid jabs to Ireland, partly to help lift the lockdown in Northern Ireland.

According to the newspaper Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis have had “outline discussions” about the plan.

It would be the first time the UK has exported vaccines to the EU, but the plan was described by a cabinet minister as a “poke in the eye for Brussels” because it could disrupt EU unity.

A cabinet source told The Sunday Times: “Everyone can see the logic of it. It’s good politics while at the same time solving a genuine public health concern in Northern Ireland.

“It is a balancing act, making sure that we have enough vaccines to give the UK’s adult population the second dose. Easter will be when we might be able to start offering vaccines to Ireland.”

Mrs Foster said she had raised the matter with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on his visit to Enniskillen earlier this month.

The DUP leader, who received her first Covid jab in her Co Fermanagh constituency on Saturday morning, told RTÉ's The Week in Politics programme, vaccine sharing should and hopefully will happen.

"I think it is a runner and when I'm next speaking to him (Mr Johnson) I'll be making that point again," she said.

She added: "I think it's important that we continue the conversation. I'll be listening very carefully to what our medical advisors are saying about the roll-out of the vaccine in Northern Ireland, where it is in the Republic of Ireland and what that means for both jurisdictions.

"I think it's the right thing that should happen, I think it's a very practical thing to do and I think it should happen and hopefully it will."

When asked if she had discussed the idea with Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Mrs Foster said she had not spoken with him "for quite some time now".

But Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has said the UK does not "currently have a surplus" of coronavirus vaccines.

Mr Dowden 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."

The Irish Government has said it is not aware of a specific UK plan to share vaccines with Ireland.

A spokesman said: "The UK has previously indicated that once it has achieved a high level of vaccination of its own population, it would consider sharing vaccines with other countries.

"We are not aware of any specific plans to share vaccines with Ireland at this stage.

"The Irish and UK governments maintain close contact across all matters of common interest."

Brussels, which has co-ordinated vaccine procurement and delivery on behalf of its member states, has made slower progress than the UK.

Amid an acrimonious dispute over supplies, the EU has threatened to block exports of vaccines and their ingredients.

The vaccination programme in Northern Ireland passed 800,000 doses this week, around 45% of the population.

That compares with around 13.2% who have been vaccinated in the Republic, where the rollout has been slower and the population is much larger.

This has led to concerns over travel between the two jurisdictions if Northern Ireland begins to lift restrictions before a majority of people in the Republic have been inoculated.

Stormont leaders have said they will consult with medical advisers over plans to reopen society in light of the slower vaccine rollout in the Republic.

Two weeks ago, Mr Johnson told Mr Martin the UK would not be giving out any surplus supplies until its population had been protected.

Developing countries could receive UK vaccines after Ireland. But the Cabinet Office is drawing up plans to send surplus vaccines to other EU countries this year amid fears that the poor vaccine programme in France and Germany could boost extremist parties.

Yesterday Mr Johnson said he could see “absolutely nothing” to stop Britain “getting back to the life we love” but, addressing the third wave in Europe, he said “bitter experience” had shown it could hit the UK “three weeks later”.

Public health officials in Northern Ireland have warned No 10 of the dangers of lifting lockdown restrictions, given the risks from the slower vaccination rate in the Irish Republic.

Mr Johnson also faces calls today to start donating vaccines amid claims that the UK is on track to have more than 100 million surplus doses.

In a letter to the prime minister, leading health and development charities urge him to take “accelerated action”.

Research by the ICC Foundation warns that vaccine nationalism and unequal distribution of jabs could cost the UK £106 billion if “dangerous variants” emerge in unvaccinated populations abroad.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a scientist on the Sage team, said the UK “must start sharing” its surplus doses.

“The world won’t be safe while any single country is still fighting the virus. If left to spread, it risks mutating to an extent where our vaccines and treatments no longer work. This goes beyond ethics — it’s a scientific and economic imperative.”

Kevin Watkins, head of Save the Children, said “vaccine nationalism” would “prolong the pandemic and risk the emergence of dangerous variants”.

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