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The Big Thing Wrong: How Brexit Undermined the UK’s COVID Vaccine Rollout

James Grace addresses Boris Johnson’s falsehoods about the impact of the EU on the speed of our jabs

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Public Health England. Photo: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street

The Big Thing WrongHow Brexit Undermined the UK’s COVID Vaccine Rollout

James Grace addresses Boris Johnson’s falsehoods about the impact of the EU on the speed of our jabs

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In 2020, the UK approved and procured 40 million doses of the Pfizer COVID vaccine and 100 million of AstraZeneca – all under EU rules.

From 7 December 2020 to 7 April 2021, the UK did indeed have the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe. But then, on 7 April, after 79 AstraZeneca recipients experienced rare blood clots, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended that alternative vaccines should be offered to under-30s – soon updated to the under-40s.

However, we had already used 11.2 million first doses and 8.5 million second doses of Pfizer, meaning that even with the most creative accounting possible, we only had roughly 10 million courses left for 35 million under-40s.

In a state of panic, I suspect, the Government rapidly (on 28 April 2021) ordered another 60 million doses from Pfizer – money no object – to fill the gap created by the AstraZeneca doses being soft-banned overnight. But Pfizer could not deliver until late September.

This was potentially hugely embarrassing for both Boris Johnson and his pet Brexit project. The Great British vaccine, the AstraZeneca-Oxford collaboration, was effectively contraindicated, leaving us dependent on the EU’s Pfizer vaccine.

The 60 million extra doses of Pfizer – now being procured under post-Brexit rules – were going to take five months, whereas if we had been part of the EU procurement deal, extra doses would have been redirected our way immediately.

The only reason we approved Pfizer and AstraZeneca faster than the EU initially was that we took a gamble on safety and gave manufacturers a waiver on liability. The AstraZeneca blood clot problem shone a very harsh light on that particular “big call”.

So, in early April 2021, the Government slammed the brakes on the rollout of first doses – as the graph below shows:

Graph: Institute for Government

The Government appears to have desperately tried to eke out the remaining Pfizer vaccines from the 40 million we had ordered back in 2020 while still under EU rules.

In another strain of Johnson’s COVID mendacity, the Government lied about the success of our vaccine programme while it slowed to a crawl and was soon overtaken by Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Denmark and others.

So, to summarise, Brexit had no bearing on our early vaccine rollout: it was approved and procured under EU rules – and mostly manufactured in the EU. In fact, leaving the EU delayed our vaccine rollout after the AstraZeneca jab became contraindicated for under-40s.

These fact have not only been concealed by the Government and broadly ignored by the media, but the story has in fact been reversed – under the suggestion that Brexit directly allowed Britain to surge ahead in its vaccine rollout.

This lie has now been endlessly repeated by the Prime Minister, without much opposition resistance or fact-checking. A Government floundering due to its lies is also, ironically, being propped up by them.

James Grace is the partner and co-founder of a London-based environmental engineering consultancy

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