Healthcare news

European Commission decision to trigger Article 16 was 'baffling' Arlene Foster says

First Minister Arlene Foster
Michael McHugh, Press Association

The European Commission's decision to prevent coronavirus vaccine from crossing the border into Northern Ireland was baffling, First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

Arlene Foster claimed the hastily-reversed gaffe exposed the true priority of Brussels - protecting its own trading bloc.

The European Commission was forced into an embarrassing U-turn after facing intense criticism for attempting to hinder the free flow of Covid-19 vaccines across the border using a legal clause called Article 16 in the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP leader said: "It is baffling beyond baffling."

She added: "It was wrong in so many ways, the fact the EU were going to use a mechanism we were told could only be used in extremis, to stop vaccine from coming into the UK through Northern Ireland."

The decision to suspend part of the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland during the vaccine supply row was an "oversight", the bloc's ambassador to the UK has admitted.

It came amid a furore over coronavirus vaccine supply in the bloc, with Brussels angered by AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm, reducing the amount of the Oxford-designed inoculations it could deliver to the EU.

Senior European politicians conceded it was a mistake to try to unilaterally suspend part of the protocol to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a back door to move inoculations from the EU into Britain.

The move caused consternation on both sides of the Irish Sea, angering British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin.

The protocol, which governs the movement of goods in and out of Northern Ireland post-Brexit, was created to ensure continued free flow of trade across the border.

It does so by moving regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea, with checks focused primarily on produce moving from Britain into Northern Ireland.

The DUP has vowed to oppose the protocol.

Unionists and loyalists believe Northern Ireland's position within the UK has been undermined by the protocol, which was incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement.

Trade in items like plants and soil has been disrupted.

Ms Foster told the Stormont Assembly today: "These are not just teething problems. There are huge problems and they need to be addressed."

The PSNI is aware of "growing discontent" around the problems in unionist communities.

It has expressed concern about manpower levels as it faces potential challenges arising from Brexit and the pandemic.

Northern Ireland's police chief has warned the service is likely to lose 300 officers over the next year.

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said the force is facing a £23 million funding deficit.

Ms Foster said she had spoken to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis today about funding for recruitment of police officers.

"It is absolutely critical that instead of a reduction in police numbers we actually see an increase," she said.

Ms Foster said that was critical for public confidence in policing and "making sure everyone in society feels protected and feels safe".

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