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8 February 2021

Why the EU’s vaccine disaster doesn’t prove Brexit was right

The UK’s vaccine success does not compensate for its catastrophic handling of the pandemic or the cost of leaving the EU.

By Martin Fletcher

The Brexiteers are crowing. They say the success of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme proves we were right to leave the European Union. Freed from Brussels’s suffocating embrace, we were able to procure, approve and rapidly distribute hundreds of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccine while the EU’s bumbling bureaucrats were still getting out of bed.

Much of that is true. Britain’s vaccination programme is a triumph compared to the EU’s feeble effort. We have already vaccinated about 18 per cent of our population compared to barely 4 per cent in the EU. And although I was a passionate Remainer, I rejoice at our success in this vital endeavour. I’m delighted that our government has finally demonstrated some competence and hopefully hastened the lifting of this seemingly interminable lockdown. 

I also acknowledge that the EU has performed dismally and compounded its failings with its unseemly attempts to appropriate some of Britain’s vaccine supplies. Sadly, it has played into the Eurosceptics’ caricature of itself

But does this validate Brexit? It certainly does not, although I can understand why the Brexiteers desperately need to find a flauntable dividend from their reckless ideological gamble with the nation’s future. 

First of all, and most obviously, the government has done nothing that it could not have done as a member of the EU. It was still bound by European rules when it preordered and approved the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines last year because the UK was still in the Brexit transition period. 

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We were free to opt out of the EU purchasing programme and buy our own vaccines, just as another member state, Hungary, has since bought two million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine. Likewise, regulation 174 of the UK’s Human Medicines Regulations allowed Britain temporarily to approve vaccines independently of the European Medicines Agency in response to a public health emergency.

It might have been politically harder for Britain to act independently were it still an EU member, but far from impossible.

[See also: Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU’s vaccines debacle]

Second, Remainers such as myself never claimed the EU was perfect. On the contrary, as Brussels correspondent of the Times for three years, I witnessed first hand its arrogance, inefficiency, wastefulness and general clunkiness. We argued that it was far better to be in than out of the world’s largest and most prosperous trading bloc, for all its faults, and that Britain was a big, influential member state with lots of allies that should have fought for reform from within.

The shortcomings of the EU’s vaccine programme stem from weak central management, but the fundamental concept of a single pan-European purchasing and approval system was sound. The alternative would have been rampant “vaccine nationalism” with 27 member states competing for limited supplies despite Covid-19’s contempt for national borders, and the smaller, poorer ones inevitably losing out. 

Thirdly, even if the success of our vaccination programme was a consequence of Brexit, it would have to be set against the punishing costs of the UK leaving the EU. These become daily more apparent. Yesterday the Observer reported that exports to the EU through British ports fell by a startling 68 per cent last month compared to January 2020. Last week the Financial Times reported that the entire au pair childcare system was threatened by post-Brexit immigration rules. The Economist reports that London has lost 7,500 jobs in financial services, and £1.2trn in assets, thanks to Brexit. 

The seafood industry, meat producers, car companies, hauliers, musicians, artists, fashionistas and thousands of small and medium-sized companies were already complaining vociferously about the lack of the “frictionless trade” they were promised. The complaints will only grow when Britons are allowed to travel for work and holidays again, and discover they can no longer do so freely.

The much wider costs of Brexit should be weighed in the balance too: Britain’s loss of global influence, the possibly terminal strain on the Union as Scotland moves towards independence, and the deep and lasting societal fractures.

There is one other obvious riposte to those who cite the vaccination programme as a vindication of Brexit, and as proof of the British exceptionalism and entrepreneurial flair that underpinned it. If that is really the case, why was Britain’s handling of the pandemic before the vaccination programme so dire? Why have we suffered one of the world’s highest mortality rates, and more deaths – 112,000 – than any other country in Europe? Why did we lock down so tardily, fail to secure enough personal protective equipment, omit to protect our care homes and fall so dismally short when it came to test-and-tracing? 

The 2016 EU referendum was a battle of two narratives – an overbearing European superstate scheming to destroy the traditions and sovereignty of plucky little Britain versus a noble experiment in multinational cooperation designed to ensure peace and prosperity across the continent.  

We are now engaged in another such battle. Backed once again by a jingoistic right-wing press, Brexiteeers hope that the story of a liberated, self-reliant and nimble Britain defeating Covid-19 with its home-generated vaccine while the hopelessly bureaucratic EU fails to protect its peoples will eclipse the government’s generally catastrophic response to the pandemic and the exorbitant wider price of Brexit.

They won the first battle, through fair means and foul. They should not be allowed to win the second.

[See also: Brexit is no cause for celebration – this is a moment of national shame]