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EU chief Von der Leyen admits to significant vaccine mistakes – 'I deeply regret it'

Jimmy Nsubuga
·4-min read

Watch: EU chief admits mistakes were made over vaccine rollout

The president of the European Commission has admitted “mistakes were made” over the EU’s vaccine rollout, after Brussels threatened to set up a hard border on the island of Ireland to block vaccines from entering the UK.

Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged on Wednesday the bloc had learned lessons after it was widely criticised for invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol on 29 January.

The agreement relates to NI's trading arrangements with the EU and other parts of the UK post-Brexit.

The article overrides part of the NI Protocol that prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland and was intended as an emergency measure not to be used.

The EU backtracked on the decision, but not before it caused massive political fallout in the UK.

"I deeply regret that," von der Leyen told the European Parliament, adding that the commission would do its utmost to protect peace in NI.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran speaks to people waiting to be vaccinated or with the AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine or with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the South Ile-de-France Hospital Group (Groupe Hospitalier Sud Ile-de-France), in Melun, on the outskirts of Paris, on February 8, 2021. - The top French medical authority (Haute autorite de Sante) has approved the vaccine AstraZeneca-Oxford for use in France, but only for people under 65, echoing decisions made in Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland over concerns about a lack of data on the effectiveness of the vaccine for over 65s. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

French Health Minister Olivier Veran speaks to people waiting to be vaccinated or with the AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine. (Getty)

Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca's announcement it would initially supply 31 million doses of its COVID vaccine to the EU in the first quarter rather than the anticipated 80 million due to production problems set off a fierce dispute.

Officials in Brussels said they feared the company was treating the bloc unfairly compared to other customers, such as the UK, and wanted some of the vaccines produced in British factories to be diverted to EU member states.

But AstraZeneca's chief executive Pascal Soriot said its contract only committed to meet the EU’s demands to its “best effort”.

He said AstraZeneca and its partner Oxford University had signed a deal with the UK government for 100 million doses three months before the EU deal for 400 million doses was agreed.

The commission then said it was tightening rules on exports of coronavirus vaccines including invoking Article 16, sparking an angry response from Britain.

Brussels has since made clear the new measure will not limit vaccine shipments produced in the 27-nation bloc to NI.

AstraZeneca later agreed to supply 9 million additional doses of its coronavirus vaccine but the European Commission was still criticised for the way it handled the rollout.

The delivery problems infuriated member state leaders and populations.

Von der Leyen said on Wednesday that 26 million vaccine doses had been delivered and that, by the end of the summer, 70% of adults in the 27-nation bloc should have been inoculated.

"And yet it is a fact that we are not today where we want to be in the fight against the virus," she said.

"We were late with the approval. We were too optimistic on mass production.

“And perhaps we were also too certain that the orders would actually be delivered on time.”

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 31: A man walks past freshly painted loyalist graffiti in Belfast city centre on January 31, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has said it has been monitoring growing unionist discontent regards the implementation of a so called Irish sea border and comes as the EU reversed its decision to invoke Article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal agreement to control the export of coronavirus vaccines from the EU into NI. Northern Ireland's first minister and leader of the main unionist party, the DUP, Arlene Foster said the move to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol was an act of hostility. The EU countries are experiencing a huge shortfall in vaccines and there was concern the Irish border could be used as a backdoor for supplies entering the UK. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The EU was widely criticised when it invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (Getty)

However, von der Leyen defended the commission's oversight of vaccine orders, saying it would have been unfair and "economic madness" for the single market if just a few large member states had guaranteed doses.

The EU could also not have cut corners in its approval of biological substances injected into people's bodies, even if this lost three to four weeks to rivals, she added.

The bloc will launch a new network of clinical trials to give regulators data more rapidly and the commission will create a taskforce to help boost vaccine production, Von der Leyen said.

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On Tuesday, Ireland’s european affairs minister Thomas Byrne said the country's government is seeking a new safety clause, to prevent a repeat of the EU invoking Article 16.

He told the Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs: “The reaction of government that day was complete shock and surprise, and with no knowledge of what was being planned.

“We had spent the previous few weeks being asked about Article 16 from another perspective, and quite rightly pointing out that this was a pretty standard safeguarding clause in the trade agreement.

“And not designed to either eliminate the protocol or not designed be used, except in the most extreme circumstances.”

He said the government is continuing to engage on multiple levels with the European Commission and the UK to find a resolution.

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?