'Pandora's Box' opened over UK-EU vaccine row, says Gove
The EU's threat to restrict vaccine exports to Northern Ireland has opened a "Pandora's Box" regarding post-Brexit arrangements, Michael Gove has said.
He told MPs an urgent "reset" was needed to the Northern Ireland protocol governing checks on GB-NI trade.
The agreement was "not working" and NI businesses and families were suffering too much "disruption and interference".
While the UK did not want to "ditch" it, it "reserved the right" to do what it must to protect Northern Ireland.
Unionist parties in Northern Ireland have called for the protocol - which came into force on 1 January - to be scrapped, saying it has created a border down the Irish Sea and threatened NI's place within the UK.
The protocol was designed to avoid checks along the border between Northern Ireland - which unlike the rest of the UK is continuing to follow many of the EU's rules - and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.
But after checks were introduced on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain, some exporters have scaled back deliveries or stopped fulfilling orders altogether, blaming the additional paperwork and costs involved.
And following last month's vaccine row, graffiti opposing the Irish Sea border appeared in some loyalist areas of Northern Ireland, while some staff involved in inspecting goods were stood down over security fears.
Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove said the EU's threat to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to control shipments of vaccines from the continent to Northern Ireland - amid concerns of a shortage in Europe - had been a mistake.
The European Commission, he said, owed its members an explanation why it didn't follow the dispute mechanism procedures in the protocol and consult with other member states, particularly Ireland, before acting.
Asked by Tory MP David Jones whether the "bad blood" between the two sides would cause long-term damage, Mr Gove said it would be "better" if the EU revoked the regulation in place allowing it to invoke Article 16 in future.
"The Pandora's Box has been opened and that is concerning," he told the European Scrutiny Committee.
"One of the consequences of opening that Pandora's Box has been the unfortunate effects we referred to on the ground in Northern Ireland."
Asked by a number of Conservative MPs whether the EU's actions were a reasonable cause for the UK to seek to suspend the protocol or to axe it entirely, Mr Gove said while it was not functioning smoothly, it could be "made to work".
While he said progress in the Joint EU-UK Committee on the protocol's implementation had not been as fast as he had liked, he hoped for better in talks with his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic in London on Thursday.
"There are disruptions and difficulties faced by Northern Ireland citizens in their daily lives," he said. "They can be resolved within the context of the protocol. We don't need to ditch it.
"But as the prime minister has spelt out, if we can't make progress in resolving those issues, then the UK government has to reserve its rights."