The British government could get itself locked out of the EU's coronavirus vaccine programme by refusing to contribute financially, MPs have warned.
The House of Commons European scrutiny committee sounded the alarm on Wednesday over the UK's insistence that it will not pay increased EU budget contributions for 2020 to fund the scheme, which aims to get EU members priority access to a treatment for Covid-19.
Downing Street has said the UK is interested in taking part in a European Union programme but is disputing an EU budget increase designed to pay for it.
The EU has increased its 2020 budget by more than €4 billion to fund a variety of coronavirus related schemes, of which €2.7 billion is to be used to fund an Emergency Support Instrument, "intended primarily as a down payment on any future coronavirus vaccine for the EU’s member states, using the EU’s collective buying power," the committee of MPs said in a report.
The European Commission says the UK has to pay for the emergency support instrument but could also benefit from it. Under the terms of the Brexit transition period negotiated by Boris Johnson, the UK has to follow EU rules and policies without any say.
But the government is arguing that because the Covid-19 spending required a legal change to the EU’s spending limits for 2020 agreed only after the UK had left the EU, "it is not obliged to pay towards it under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement".
"It is not clear what the outcome of these 'discussions' with the EU is to date, nor how it will affect any potential UK participation in the EU’s scheme for collective Advance Purchase Agreements for a future coronavirus vaccine, on which part of €2 billion at issue — and therefore the UK’s putative share — is due to be spent," the European scrutiny committee says.
"The Government apparently disputes whether it has a legal obligation under that Agreement to contribute towards a €2 billion (£1.8 billion) increase in EU spending on the 'Emergency Support Instrument', which could affect the UK’s ability to participate in an EU-led initiative to use part of this money to secure a supply of any future coronavirus vaccine."
The government was accused of being "ideological" earlier this year after it declined to take part in an EU procurement scheme to buy personal protective equipment, of which the UK had a major shortage at the time.
Asked about the situation, a government spokesperson was vague and said only: “Work is ongoing to determine whether and how the UK participates in the EU Vaccines Strategy.”