How Britain's Brexiters ‘Won the Vaccine War'

Trade talks with the European Union have reached the endgame for real this time. Whether or not a deal is announced in the days ahead, the outcome bears no resemblance to the vision that was sold to U.K. voters in 2016 and ever since. Brits were told they’d keep all the benefits of the single market, while the country would regain all of its sovereignty. That’s clearly not going to happen. 

As usual, Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party is trying to brazen this out. Its tactic seems to be: Put on a pair of Brexit-tinted glasses and you’re good to go, regardless of the economic cost of splitting from the continent (assessed here by Bloomberg Economics). The U.K.’s rapid approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine provides a taste of how this attempt to claim Brexit victories is going to work.

The Pfizer vaccine was jointly developed by a German company founded by two scientists from Turkish migrant families, and it’s being manufactured in Belgium. But never mind that. “Because of Brexit we’ve been able to make a decision to [approve the treatment] based on the U.K. regulator, a world-class regulator, and not go at the pace of the Europeans, who are moving a little bit more slowly,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Wednesday.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory arch-Brexiter, doubled down: “We could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU.” He suggested it was new U.K. regulations introduced in October that untethered the country’s regulator from the EU’s drug approval process.

It’s a nice, feelgood Brexit story — if only it were true. Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is indeed world class. Before Brexit, it worked closely with the formerly London-based European Medicines Agency, carrying out up to 20% of the scientific assessments for new drugs in the bloc, and benefited from EU funds. But, as MHRA head June Raine made clear at Wednesday’s press conference announcing the vaccine go-ahead, the Pfizer-BioNTech approval relied on “provisions under European law, which exist until Jan. 1.”

The October U.K. legislation, updating the 2012 Human Medicines Regulations, smoothed the way for the vaccine to be administered in Britain, but the idea that it would otherwise have been held up by the EMA doesn’t hold water. EU rules allow individual members to temporarily approve the distribution of an unlicensed product “in response to the suspected or confirmed spread of pathogenic agents, toxins, chemical agents or nuclear radiation any of which could cause harm,” as the relevant 2001 EU directive notes.

Prime Minister Johnson, the inventor of the Brexit-tinted spectacles game, wisely stayed clear of claiming the vaccine approval was the result of Britain’s EU departure; there are still trade negotiations taking place. But the episode highlights the reckoning his government now faces as Brexit talks reach their conclusion. At the end of a bitter, polarizing four-plus years, how does Johnson sell a Brexit that, even with the deal he’s hoping to conclude, is miles away from the sunlit brochure that was sold to voters?

You can see why his ministers are snatching at imagined benefits such as a speedy vaccine approval. Unfortunately, some sound as if they’re spouting off in a schoolyard game of who’s better. “We’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a radio interview Thursday. “Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.”

One potential get-out for Johnson, if people don’t buy the flag-waving, is that voters are tired of Brexit. The pandemic has been a rude reminder that there are bigger things to worry about. Opinion polls have shown more people now think it was a bad decision, but most don’t want to relitigate the past few years. If Johnson can create a diversion — a successful vaccine program, an economic recovery and the semblance of governing competence might do it — then the skin-and-bones trade deal he’s hoping to serve up may be enough.

Things will be harder if there’s no deal. In its recent report, the independent Office of Budget Responsibility noted that border disruptions, tighter credit conditions, lower levels of business investment, reduced productivity and a rise in structural unemployment would be compounded by a no-deal exit. If that happens, Johnson and his allies will hope voters will just blame the virus, or Brussels, for being difficult.

Either way, as with the vaccine approval, expect to see more good news stories retold through a rosy lens. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.