By James Ward and Rebecca Black, PA
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has poured cold water on suggestions that Ireland could receive surplus Covid-19 vaccines from the UK.
A report in The Sunday Times claimed that Britain could offer as many 3.7 million inoculations to the Republic, in part to help ease lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland.
First Minister Arlene Foster backed the proposal on Monday, saying she had raised the issue with British prime minister Boris Johnson earlier this month and will do so again.
He was very clear that you have to vaccinate his people first
But speaking later, the Taoiseach said he had received no official contact from the UK government on the subject.
Mr Martin said: “I spoke to Boris Johnson six weeks ago.
“At that stage he was very clear that you have to vaccinate his people first, prior to vaccinating anybody else, and they’re some distance off that.
“So I think that’s where that is.
“There’s been no contact since then or no indication from any officials at the British government level in terms of offering any vaccines.
“Of course any vaccines that are available, If we require them, of course we will accept them.
“But there has been no offer at this particular point.”
The vaccination rollout in the Republic has lagged behind that in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
This had led to concerns over cross-Border travel if Northern Ireland begins to relax lockdown restrictions while a majority in the Republic are still unvaccinated.
However, the Republic's programme is ramping up, with a total of 786,569 doses of Covid-19 vaccines administered as of March 26th. Of these, 567,023 were first doses and 219,546 were second doses.
In Northern Ireland, Health Minister Robin Swann said he hopes that the Republic will “catch up” within a month.
Mrs Foster said she discussed the issue with Mr Johnson when he visited a vaccination centre in Fermanagh earlier this month, and pledged to continue that conversation.
“I think he does understand the difficulties, particularly around border areas and the movement of people in relation to vaccination,” she said.
“If there is surplus vaccine then we should share it with our nearest neighbours out of neighbourliness but also out of the fact it will have an impact of course on us here in Northern Ireland, so there’s a very practical reason why I believe that should happen.”
Mrs Foster received her first dose of the vaccine at the weekend. On Monday she commented that apart from a sore arm, she felt well.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she would like to see more co-operation.
“What happens across these two islands has implications because we move freely across the two islands, so it is crucially important that we have an all-island approach to dealing with vaccination rollout,” she said.
“It’s the right thing to do, it’s the good thing to do.
“It’s responding to a global pandemic and we are all in this together, so we need to work together in order to protect our people.
“I would like to see a lot more co-operation as we come out of this period and into the future.”
Mr Swann said offering vaccine surplus to the Republic of Ireland was the “right thing to do”.