(Bloomberg) — A minister in Boris Johnson’s government said the U.K. won the race to approve a coronavirus vaccine because it’s a “better country,” threatening to amplify a row over Britain claiming credit for the shot.
“We’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told LBC Radio on Thursday. “That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
— Rachael Venables (@rachaelvenables) December 3, 2020
Johnson’s office backed Williamson, saying the minister was right to be “proud” of the U.K.
The comments came after Business Secretary Alok Sharma was slapped down by Germany’s ambassador in London for claiming that the decision to approve the shot — which was developed in the U.S. and Germany — was a sign that “the U.K. led humanity’s charge against this disease.”
“Why is it so difficult to recognize this important step forward as a great international effort and success,” Andreas Michaelis said on Twitter. “I really don’t think this is a national story. In spite of the German company BioNTech having made a crucial contribution, this is European and transatlantic.”
Brexit Squabble Clouds Boris Johnson’s Day of Vaccine ‘Triumph’
The spat also inflamed tensions just as London needs friends in the European Union while talks on a post-Brexit free trade agreement reach their climax. France — which was at the center of Williamson’s boast — is threatening to veto a deal.
Williamson’s comments were met with bemusement in Whitehall. One official said they were in direct contradiction to the latest communication guidelines issued to officials and diplomats and would upset the government’s own messaging and foreign policy objectives.
The guidelines, titled “Cross-Whitehall vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics communications narrative”, were last updated on Dec. 1 and emphasize “global cooperation.” Williamson’s reference to competition broke with the government’s plan to encourage the sharing of vaccines, according to the official, who asked not to be named discussing internal communications.
Officials and diplomats have also been specifically told to push back against “vaccine nationalism,” the guidance showed. A section of the document said “the global effort to discover a coronavirus vaccine is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent endeavor of our lifetimes.”
But the prime minister’s spokesman supported Williamson. “What you’ve seen is the Secretary of State rightly being proud of the United Kingdom,” 10 Downing Street spokesman Jamie Davies said on a call with reporters on Thursday. “We are proud of the action we’ve taken throughout the pandemic to protect the public and save lives.”
Even as they celebrated becoming the first Western nation to approve a coronavirus vaccine, the comments from Johnson’s officials revived old arguments over Brexit.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who welcomed a “triumph for humanity,” said the U.K. had been able to act so fast because Brexit gave the government extra freedom to move. But that was immediately disputed by June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which said their decision was made “using provisions under European law.”
While Johnson himself tried to stay out of the row, others agreed with Hancock. Hugo Fry, managing director of French drugmaker Sanofi’s U.K. business, told the Telegraph newspaper that the U.K.’s decoupling from the EU’s regulatory and purchasing mechanisms allowed for “nimble buying” of vaccine doses and a quick decision on the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.
“We are definitely not in the game of comparing regulators across countries nor on commenting on claims as to who is better,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “This is not a football competition.”
(Updates with Downing St comments from third paragraph)
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