France and Germany threatened legal action against AstraZeneca on Sunday as they scrambled to explain their shortages in vaccine supplies and warned that any firm which favoured UK orders for the jabs would be penalised.
Clement Beaune, the French Europe minister, threatened sanctions against the Anglo-Swedish firm, which produces the Oxford vaccine, if it emerged that Britain had been given priority. “If there is a problem and that other countries have been favoured – for example the UK over us – then we will defend our interests,” Mr Beaune said on Sunday. “Contracts are not moral commitments, they are legal commitments.
Penalties or sanctions can be triggered in every contract.” It came as Berlin and Rome issued similar threats to vaccine providers, in the latest stage of a bitter row in Europe over delays in the production and delivery of Covid jabs. “If we find out that individual companies are not maintaining their side of the bargain then we’ll have to make a decision on legal measures,” Peter Altmaier, the German economy minister, told Die Welt newspaper. Mr Altmaier, a close confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel, also warned vaccine producers that “it is in no way acceptable that another country is retrospectively favoured over the EU.”
AstraZeneca says it will deliver 4.6 million doses to France by the end of March, which is half the amount that was initially agreed upon. It has also significantly reduced its delivery targets for the EU for the first quarter of the year, leading to a furious response from Brussels, which accuses the company of offering preferential treatment to the UK. Among the sanctions being considered by France include withholding payments, cancelling subsequent orders and seeking compensation for a breach of contract.
Mr Beaune said an investigation into vaccine deliveries to Britain by EU-based factories was already underway. As the third wave of coronavirus spreads across the continent, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is resisting calls to impose a third lockdown and has instead tightened existing restrictions. “When you’re French, you have everything you need to succeed providing you dare to try,” he is said to have told ministers on Friday, though the refusal to declare a full lockdown went against his own scientific advisers’ recommendations.
Polish police launched tear gas and stun grenades over the weekend as they shut down illegal discos and parties in the cities of Wroclaw and Rybnik. As in other European cities, some businesses have opened for trade in defiance of the rules while protests over Covid restrictions have broken out in the Netherlands, Spain, France and Denmark. Dutch police arrested at least 30 people in Amsterdam on Sunday as they struggled to prevent a fresh outbreak of anti-lockdown rioting.
Thousands of protesters also took to the streets of Vienna over the weekend, taking part in an anti-lockdown demonstration organised by a far-Right group. Similar scenes unfolded in Hungary where a group of 100 restaurants said they would reopen despite facing threats of heavy government fines. It also emerged over the weekend that Boris Johnson forced the EU into making two u-turns on vaccines after Brussels tried to prevent doses in a Belgian factory from reaching the UK, and moved to impose a hard border in Northern Ireland for the same purpose.
During two phone calls with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, Mr Johnson is said to have persuaded the EU chief to abandon both proposals, the Mail on Sunday reported. Micheál Martin, the taoiseach (Irish prime minister), told the BBC on Sunday that they were “blindsided” by the EU threat to seal off the frontier. “The problem is the commission took the wrong mechanism in revoking Article 16 of the protocol to deal with it,” he said, adding that there were “a lot of lessons to be learned” over vaccine supplies. On Sunday night, Ms von der Leyen announced on Twitter that the EU would ramp up vaccine supplies this week. “[AstraZeneca] will deliver 9 million additional doses in the first quarter (40 million in total) compared to last week’s offer & will start deliveries one week earlier than scheduled. The company will also expand its manufacturing capacity in Europe,” she wrote.