The PM reportedly made the remarks to Conservative Party colleagues last night (23 Mar) during a meeting of the 1922 Committee, before hastily trying to take back his comments.
The Prime Minister allegedly instructed colleagues to “forget I said that” and told MPs: “Actually, I regret saying it”.
Some have interpreted the comments as relating to the UK’s strategy of securing significant numbers of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine ahead of the European Union (EU). It has also been pointed out that the AstraZeneca vaccine has been manufactured at cost.
Johnson’s comments have attracted criticism from some, while others have sought to place them in context. Downing Street has been keen to play down the remarks in relation to the ongoing dispute with the EU over vaccines.
What did the Prime Minister mean?
The Prime Minister himself was reportedly quick to row back on the comments, for fear of how they may be viewed in light of the ongoing vaccine row with the EU.
However, allies of the PM have claimed that Mr Johnson was making general comments in defence of pharmaceutical firms and capitalism generally, arguing that, without them, the vaccine wouldn’t have been produced, according to Politico’s Playbook.
The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reported comments from someone who was present at the meeting, claiming that the remarks were “banter”, directed at chief whip Mark Spencer.
She Tweeted: “More on PM's 'greed' comments - one of those present says Johnson was having a crack at Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, who was gobbling a cheese + pickle sandwich while he was talking about the vaccine, 'it was hardly Gordon Gekko', 'it was banter' directed at the Chief, it's said.”
How do the comments factor into the ongoing EU vaccine row?
Downing Street has denied that the comments were a reference to the UK’s vaccine strategy, particularly in light of forthcoming proposals from the EU to restrict the export of Covid jabs to countries they deem to be acting unfairly.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is due to reveal plans today which could see the EU place export restrictions on the jab. This would likely affect countries which produce vaccines but are not exporting them to the same extent that they are trying to import them.
It is also understood that the plans could target countries which have already achieved particularly high rates of vaccination compared to countries within the EU.
The plans will need to be agreed by EU leaders tomorrow (25 Mar) before they can be put in place.
If accepted, the proposals could see the EU commission place a block on exports of the Moderna and BioNtech/Pfizer vaccines, as well as the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is partly manufactured in Holland.
When asked about the vaccine export row, Boris Johnson said the UK will continue to work with the EU to come to an agreement, and that the UK would not retaliate with a reciprocal ban were it to be confirmed.
He said: “We in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind of vaccines or vaccine material, it’s not something that this country would dream of engaging in.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also warned about the potential risks of an export ban yesterday. Speaking at a press conference, she said: “You have to be very careful about imposing blanket export bans, and you have to look very carefully at the supply chains.”