Parties across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland have condemned a bid by Brussels to block the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to the region.
The EU has moved to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to funnel coronavirus vaccine from the bloc into the rest of the UK.
Politicians on both sides of the Brexit debate were united in their condemnation of the move.
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster branded the EU’s triggering of Article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol to stop unfettered flow of inoculations from the EU into the region as an “incredible act of hostility”.
Boris Johnson spoke with the head of the European Commission on Friday night, outlining his “grave concerns” at the move.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister spoke to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen this evening.
“He expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have.”
Ms Foster spoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove about the issue on Friday evening, and called for a “robust response” from the UK Government.
Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill also condemned the move.
She wrote on Twitter: “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.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the move had been “a grave error of judgment”.
He said: “The disproportionate decision to invoke Article 16 of the Ireland Protocol by the European Commission is a grave error in judgment that undermines the work that has taken place over the last five years to defend the interests of people on this island.
“We face a common threat. Our response to this virus, and to the supply of vaccines, should be characterised by our common values.
“I am a proud European because I believe in co-operation, compromise and solidarity across national borders. This decision sadly places the commission at odds with those values.”
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said: “For weeks now we have been told that Article 16 cannot be invoked accompanied by all sorts of feeble excuses for not doing so. The EU has unilaterally blown that concept out of the water by invoking Article 16.
“They have done it at the drop of a hat. Activating Article 16 is clearly not the nuclear option as portrayed by Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein.
“We were told time and time again that it couldn’t be done. Despite EU claims that they always acted in the best interests of Northern Ireland, when push came to shove, the EU looked after itself.”
Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said the EU’s decision was not justified or warranted.
He 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.”
The protocol, which is part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, normally allows for free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the protocol, goods should be able to move freely between the EU and Northern Ireland as the region remains in the single market for goods and still operates under EU customs rules.
The EU has triggered Article 16 of the protocol to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines.
It comes amid a deepening row over the allocation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the company announced delays to its EU operations.
The move to activate Article 16 will frustrate any effort to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Great Britain.
Mrs Foster said: “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.
“At the first opportunity, the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.”
The regulation means Northern Ireland will be considered an export territory for the purposes of vaccine sent from the EU/the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s vaccines arrive from the rest of the UK at present so those will be unaffected.
The DUP leader added: “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.”
The DUP has previously pressed the British Government to invoke the Article 16 mechanism because of disruption to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the EU was showing its “callous” true colours.
He said: “This afternoon’s invocation of Article 16 of the protocol to inhibit exports of Covid vaccines from the EU to Northern Ireland is the most telling illustration imaginable that for the EU the protocol is a plaything to be exploited when it suits its selfish interests.
“The idea that the EU cares anything for Northern Ireland or its people is exposed as utterly bogus.
“The effect of today’s regulation is to disavow the much vaunted free trade from the EU to Northern Ireland as part of its single market and instead to treat deliveries of vaccines from the EU to Northern Ireland as ‘exports’, which they can then restrict, lest such vaccines would make their way to Great Britain.”