The UK has managed the feat of becoming the first Western country to approve a Covid vaccine. But Brexit isn’t the reason why and it could make the roll-out harder, writes James Kane
Shortly after the announcement that the UK’s medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), had approved the first Covid vaccine to be rolled out, health secretary Matt Hancock asserted that it was “because of Brexit” that the UK had been able to do this ahead of its EU neighbours. The government also explained its refusal to participate in the joint EU vaccine purchasing scheme earlier this year by saying that it could secure doses more quickly itself. Others, however, have claimed that Brexit will actually make the rollout of the UK’s vaccination programme more difficult. Who is right?
The UK will be faster off the vaccine mark than its neighbours
The government has stated that the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will be administered in the week of 7 December. This makes it the first Western country to approve the widespread rollout of a vaccine: the US is likely to follow in a week or so, while the EU is unlikely to approve any Covid vaccine for use until the start of 2021. At a time when hundreds of people are still dying of coronavirus daily, the UK authorities’ speed in approving a vaccine could well save lives.
The UK is also better supplied with vaccines than its EU neighbours. The UK authorities have bought more vaccine doses per head of population than almost any other country in the world, with contracts signed for over five doses per Briton. Only Canada and the US have bought more. The EU’s joint procurement scheme has acquired only three doses for each European citizen.
The UK could have followed the same course of vaccine action if it were an EU member
That said, none of these successes can be chalked up to Brexit. As the chief executive of the MHRA swiftly pointed out, Mr Hancock was wrong to say that the UK could approve the vaccine early because it was no longer subject to EU rules. The MHRA’s decision was taken in accordance with the relevant EU legislation, which allows member states to grant temporary authorisation for a medicinal product in response to the spread of infectious diseases (among others). 4 Article 5(2) of Directive 2001/83/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 November 2001 on the Community code relating to medicinal products for human use. This legislation still applies to the UK until the end of the transition period. Any EU member state could have used the same provision of the legislation to approve the vaccine. They decided not to for political and technical reasons, not legal ones.
Similarly, the member states were in no way obliged to take part in the EU’s joint vaccine procurement scheme. The EU has very limited competences for public health under its founding treaties: it can take action only to “support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States”. The EU member states in this case voluntarily decided to opt into the joint procurement scheme. If one or more of them had decided to follow the UK’s path and procure its own vaccines, no one would have stopped them.
Tariffs won’t impede vaccine rollout – but border delays might
From the other side of the debate, some voices have claimed that Brexit will make the UK’s vaccination programme more difficult. While the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that is likely to be the workhorse of the UK’s vaccination programme is manufactured domestically, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that MHRA has just approved will be imported from Pfizer’s facility at Puurs in Belgium.
Fortunately, tariffs will not drive up the price of a vaccine, even if the UK leaves the transition period without a free trade agreement. Both the UK and the EU have set their “most-favoured nation tariff” – the tariff they charge countries with which they don’t have a trade deal – for vaccines at zero. (Even if they hadn’t, they could still set it to zero temporarily – as the EU did for personal protective equipment earlier this year.)
Perhaps a greater risk is supply chain disruption caused by the introduction of new customs checks on 1 January – which will happen whether or not there is a deal. When the UK was preparing for a no-deal exit in March and October 2019, the government developed plans to ensure the flow of medicines into the UK. Pharmaceutical importers would have been issued special “tickets” giving them priority access to ferries. Similar measures have been adopted this year, with additional ferry capacity for priority goods like medicines due to be available away from the short straits – where disruption is most likely – and more advanced traffic management plans in place.
But as the Institute pointed out in its recent paper on Brexit preparedness, the poor state of government and business preparations means that disruption at the border seems inevitable come 1 January. With less than a month to go, the government will need to make sure it has done enough to ensure its vaccination programme is not caught up in that disruption.