Brexit Squabble Clouds Boris Johnson’s Day of Vaccine ‘Triumph’

As they celebrated Britain becoming the first western nation to approve a coronavirus vaccine, Boris Johnson and his ministers found themselves in yet another row over Brexit.

Britain beat the U.S. and the European Union in authorizing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday -- described by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as a “triumph for humanity.”

Brexit Squabble Clouds Boris Johnson’s Day of Vaccine ‘Triumph’

But Hancock’s comment that the U.K. had been able to act so fast because Brexit gave the government extra freedom to move sparked a squabble that dominated debate on social media and prompted questions to Johnson at a press conference.

The argument began when Hancock told Times Radio on Wednesday morning that “because of Brexit we’ve been able to do this.” He was then backed by fellow cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg who tweeted that the U.K. “could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU.”

But June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which approved the jab, contradicted them, saying the approval had been made “using provisions under European law.”

German lawmaker Peter Liese, a member of the European Parliament’s public health committee, said individual EU member states could have authorized the vaccine but had chosen to wait for the European Medicines Agency to scrutinize the data further, suggesting the U.K.’s decision was “hasty.”

Brexit Squabble Clouds Boris Johnson’s Day of Vaccine ‘Triumph’

The U.K. used a regulation in place since 2012 -- four years before the Brexit referendum -- to bypass the EMA to authorize the temporary supply of the vaccine. The government updated that rule in October to extend immunity from civil liability to vaccine production companies and allow for a wider range of professionals to administer the shots.

When asked at a press conference if the announcement was the U.K.’s first major “Brexit bonus,” Johnson carefully avoided repeating his ministers’ claims. “These are global efforts,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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