AstraZeneca raises supply issues for Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's political parties have united to denounce an EU move to halt the operation of an element of Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the bloc's attempts to control the export of vaccinations from the EU.
First Minister Arlene Foster branded the EU's triggering of Article 16 of the protocol to stop the unfettered flow of vaccines from the EU into Northern Ireland as an "incredible act of hostility".
The EU has triggered Article 16 as part of wider EU controls on vaccine exports, in order to frustrate any effort to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Great Britain.
Iâve spoken with the Prime Minister @BorisJohnson and @michaelgove this evening. The Government must now take robust action including using Article 16 to advance Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. pic.twitter.com/ugemDdll9z— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@DUPleader) January 29, 2021
"By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner - over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives," said Mrs Foster.
"With the European Union using Article 16 in such an aggressive and most shameful way, it is now time for our Government to step up. I will be urging the Prime Minister to act and use robust measures including Article 16 to advance the interests of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom."
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she has spoken with the Irish government over the decision.
She tweeted: "I have just spoken with the Irish Govt to raise my very serious concerns in relation to the invoking of Art. 16.
"This is a totally ill judged move by the EU and should not have been triggered. Calm heads need to prevail, this needs sorted urgently."
The use of #Article16 is a grave error. Our citizens need timely access to lifesaving vaccines not trade disputes. Now is a time for cool heads and solidarity.— Mary Lou McDonald (@MaryLouMcDonald) January 29, 2021
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the decision undermines progress made to defend the interests of the island.
"We face a common threat. Our response to this virus, and to the supply of vaccines, should be characterised by our common values," he said.
Invoking Article 16 is disproportionate and a grave error in judgment by the European Commission.— Colum Eastwood (@columeastwood) January 29, 2021
We face a common threat. Our response should be characterised by our common values - cooperation & solidarity.
We're engaging with both governments & the EU to find a way forward.
Mr Eastwood added: "Frontline workers who have stretched themselves to exhaustion to keep people safe and administer a vaccine programme will find their hearts breaking at political manoeuvres in stark contrast with their solemn oaths to do no harm."
UUP leader Steve Aiken said Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis should be embarrassed.
He added: "The EU is unilaterally invoking Article 16 to protect its own interests and it's about time the UK Government did the same instead of being lead actors in a ridiculous charade that there is no border in the Irish Sea and that Article 16 can't be invoked."
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the EU was showing its "callous" true colours.
He said: "The idea that the EU cares anything for Northern Ireland or its people is exposed as utterly bogus."
Alliance MP Stephen Farry added: "We are in the middle of a global pandemic, there are no sides in the fight against Covid. Yet this completely unjustified and unwarranted move will only serve to heighten an already tense situation.
"We don't need a vaccine war, and other alternatives exist for the EU to manage its vaccine supply.
"The situation in Northern Ireland is already fragile and we should not be placed at the centre of this dispute."
Downing Street says Prime Minister Boris Johnson had "a constructive discussion" with Taoiseach Micheal Martin on the matter tonight.
A No 10 spokesman said: "The PM set out his concerns about the EU's use of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and what these actions may mean for the two communities in Northern Ireland.
"The PM stressed the UK's enduring commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and said the EU must urgently clarify its intentions and what steps it plans to take to ensure its own commitments with regards to Northern Ireland are fully honoured.
"The PM stressed the UK's commitment to working together with other countries in response to the coronavirus pandemic."
Mr Martin has also contacted EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the plans.
It's understood that the Irish Government was not given advance warning of the commission's decision and only contacted late this afternoon, after the announcement was made.
A spokesperson for Mr Martin said: “We are aware of the issue and the Taoiseach is currently in discussion with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to raise our concerns”.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “We are working with the EU Commission to try to resolve this issue and protect the integrity and operation of the NI Protocol.”
It comes as another 22 coronavirus deaths have been recorded in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health reported.
Eighteen of those deaths occurred in the 24 hours up to 10am on Friday and four happened previously.
The death toll has risen to 1,814
Another 669 new cases have been identified in testing.
There have been 3,991 cases in the past week, that is down from the 5,570 in the past week.
Over 750,000 people have been tested with over 100,000 found positive.
Hospital occupancy is at 92% with 745 people in beds. A total of 67 people are in intensive care.
And 127 care homes are dealing with a break out of the virus.
The latest vaccination statistics show 175,284 people have received the first dose and another 23,927 the second.
Mrs Foster earlier met with representatives of AstraZeneca who, she said, raised supply chain issues for Northern Ireland in terms of getting the vaccine here next year.
She said they also discussed the effectiveness of the vaccine.
AstraZeneca has been contacted for a response.