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The UK government’s vaccine nationalism is not only distasteful – it’s dangerous

Scientists have a duty to warn ministers that their cheap and deceitful boasting could damage public health. 

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Vaccine nationalism was under way from the very start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Donald Trump tried to persuade the German company CureVac to earmark their future vaccine “only for the USA”. As progress on vaccines continued, added to the concern that countries would seek to grab the first stocks for their exclusive use – rather than respect global priorities – was the worry that some leaders might press for cutting corners for the kudos of being first to offer their population relief from the pandemic. Trump was inevitably a culprit in that department, too.

Now the British government has introduced a new variety of vaccine nationalism and, true to form, it is tawdry, parochial and deceitful. When the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the Covid-19 vaccine made by Pfizer for immediate roll-out on 2 December, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed in an interview on Times Radio that this swift decision had been made possible because the UK was no longer bound by the red tape of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The assertion was later parroted by fellow Tory MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, and repeated – unchallenged by the chair – by panellists on Question Time, despite having been debunked by the BBC’s own fact-checker.

In fact, the claim was contradicted by the government’s own announcement, which made it clear that the emergency approval was made possible by the Human Medicine Regulations 2012. And at a government briefing, the MHRA chief executive June Raine said: “We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law, which exist until 1 January.” Specifically, the EMA makes a provision that permits a member country to opt out of the usual regulatory procedures in the case of urgent public need. 

Meanwhile Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, tweeted that the MHRA’s decision meant this was “the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease”. This was both nonsensical and offensive. The vaccine had been developed by a German biotech start-up, BioNTech, founded by two Turkish immigrant scientists, partnered with an American pharmaceuticals giant, and is being manufactured in Belgium. The German ambassador to the UK, Andreas Michaelis, felt compelled to tweet back: “Why is it so difficult to recognise this important step forward as a great international effort and success.”

[See also: A Covid-19 vaccine is a remarkable achievement – but anti-vaxxers will be a problem]

Boris Johnson had presumably been briefed on the growing storm when, later in the same day, he suppressed his usual jingoistic instincts by declining to say that Brexit played any role in the UK’s swift decision. But seemingly not all the cabinet received the message. When asked about the decision on LBC Radio the following morning, 3 December, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I just think we have the very best people in this country and we’ve got the best medical regulators. Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all, as we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we?”

To see government ministers openly indulging in rhetoric normally associated with far-right nationalists is alarming enough in any situation. For them to be doing so in this circumstance, however, shows staggering irresponsibility, as it undermines public trust in health messaging as well as global efforts to end the pandemic.

Hancock’s remarks imply either that he did not understand the basis on which the Pfizer vaccine has been approved or that he was prepared to falsify it for political gain. On both counts, people might reasonably doubt whatever else he says about the situation.

“I am constantly amazed by the ability of ministers to get it so catastrophically wrong,” said Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist at the University of St Andrews who sits on the group that provides behavioural science advice to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. These comments are “profoundly damaging”, he added.

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This is a terribly delicate moment in the Covid-19 crisis. There is already widespread concern that a vaccine developed and approved faster than ever before won’t have been properly tested. It’s a valid question to ask, but there is a very clear answer: the Pfizer vaccine went through all the usual stages of clinical trials, the largest of which involved 43,000 people. We can be as sure of its safety and efficacy – if not more so – as about that of any other new drug. There are clear reasons why development happened so fast, not just for this but for the other two vaccines for which approval seems imminent, made by the US company Moderna and by AstraZeneca in collaboration with researchers at Oxford University. Mostly these have to do with the unprecedented level of funding made available.

All the same, there are concerns that vaccine hesitancy has been whipped up to such a degree that public uptake won’t be sufficient to ensure the vaccination programme achieves the herd immunity that would block transmission of Covid-19. Hancock may have sacrificed any credibility for offering reassurances about safety. Meanwhile, the childish idea floated at 10 Downing Street to brand the vaccine kits with a Union Jack is one more deterrent for Remain voters who are already wary of the drug. 

“The anti-vax discourse is based on the presumption that the official sources of information – government, politicians and scientists – are not trustworthy, not honest, not on your side,” said Reicher. “Anything that says to them that the vaccine is about political advantage fundamentally confirms the anti-vax narrative and undermines influence.”  

Crowing that Britain is “better” or “leading the race” also needlessly antagonises other countries when global cooperation and coordination is crucial. “Vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it,” the director-general of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in September.

“Academia thrives through international collaboration, and the vaccines are an example of that,” said Reicher.

[See also: Why the UK approved a vaccine before the EU​]

The success of the vaccine programme so far “has got nothing to do with nationalism”, David King, the former government chief scientific adviser and leader of the Independent Sage group, told me. By seeking to make political capital out of the MHRA’s decision, the ministers will leave people wondering whether its rapidity was influenced by political pressure. It emphatically was not, King stressed. “We can have faith that they have been through all of the regulatory procedures. The MHRA would not put their reputation on the line for this.”

But for ministers to risk inciting that concern by making this out to be a race that we plucky, independent Brits have won is utterly irresponsible. It prompts even those who are normally resistant to anti-vax sentiment to ask questions about the speed and rigour of development and approval, said Reicher. At first, “that’s a question even I had”, he said. 

To convince people that vaccination is safe and vital, “honesty and openness are really important”, he added. Already he worries that the government’s “paternalistic” approach of shying away from bad news – telling us, say, that things will be back to normal by Christmas – has damaged public trust. “Getting the messaging right at this stage is absolutely central.”

The groundless braying by Sharma was interpreted by Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish ambassador to the UK, as a reflection of “the lack of national self-confidence that led to Brexit”. Well, maybe. But what Hancock’s comment seems to imply instead is a lack of confidence about Brexit itself, so that arguments must be fabricated on the spot to “prove” it was a good idea.

In doing so, he and his colleagues have only soured what should have been a celebratory moment with more of the petty divisiveness that has curdled public discourse over the past few years. As with Dominic Cummings’s flouting of lockdown rules earlier this year, this might look superficially like a political spat  but it has serious implications for public health. For that reason, the government’s chief scientists must intervene. The deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam already did a sterling job, in the government press briefing on 2 December, of restoring the international perspective on vaccine development. But the scientists also have a duty to warn the government that its cheap and deceitful nationalism could do real harm to the already challenging vaccination programme. It has to stop.   

[See also: How to tackle Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy​]