In Depth

Has Britain’s Covid response finally become ‘world beating’ - and did Brexit boost vaccine rollout?

Health secretary claims speedy approval of Pfizer jab is thanks to UK’s impending departure from EU

With the highest Covid death toll in Europe and the botched launch of the NHS Track and Trace app, Britain’s promised “world-beating” response to the pandemic has failed to live up to that billing since Boris Johnson made the pledge back in May.

“For once, the UK really was world-beating,” says Politico. But can the country maintain its lead - and what does Brexit have to do with it all?

How the vaccine was delivered

The vaccine was authorised for emergency use by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) this week, under special powers granted to the executive agency.

The vaccine will be free but not compulsory, and will be delivered in three ways, the BBC reports. Patients will receive the jab at either a hospital, at GPs or pharmacists, or at vaccination centres that Health Secretary Matt Hancock says will be “a bit like” the Nightingales hospitals set up to add capacity to the NHS during the first wave of coronavirus.

About 50 hospitals are on stand-by, and vaccination centres in venues including conference centres or sports stadiums are being prepared.

The prime minister has hailed the vaccine approval as “unquestionably good news”, but also warned that the Covid immunisation rollout is “by no means the end of the story”.

Is jab victory thanks to Brexit?

Hancock and some other politicians have claimed that Brexit allowed the UK to approve the vaccine faster than any other country.

The health secretary told Times Radio yesterday that the UK was doing “all the same safety checks and the same processes, but we have been able to speed up how they’re done because of Brexit”.

Meanwhile, leader of the House of Commons and arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, tweeted: “We could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU.”

However, “both Downing Street and the UK’s medicines regulator have contradicted” that claim, says The Guardian. The goverment announcement of the vaccine approval “said it had taken place under a provision of the Human Medicines Regulations, passed in 2012, which permits the rapid licensing of medicines in the event of an emergency such as a pandemic”, the paper reports.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also dismissed the notion that the UK won the vaccine race because of Brexit - but still struck a jingoistic note.

“I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators... much better than the French, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have,” Williamson told LBC radio.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”

Who will grant approval next?

The Telegraph reports that EU authorities have “set out a rough timeline for a decision” on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, with the European Medicines Agency’s scientific committee for human medicines due to meet “to conclude its assessment by 29 December, at the latest”.

The US, meanwhile, is a little further behind. “Unlike many of its counterparts”, the US Food and Drug Administration has rules that “require the agency to complete an internal assessment and to consult an external advisory board prior to making a decision”, causing significant delays, says the newspaper.

China and Russia are developing and distributing their own vaccines, with Russia’s Sputnik V jab thought to be the most promising for either country so far.

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