The government’s successful deal to secure 40 million shots of Pfizer's vaccine is a political coup in more ways than one. Not only have ministers successfully backed what looks like the winning vaccine from a pool of 150, it has also pipped the EU to the post.
The EU has only just signed on the dotted line with Pfizer to secure 200 million shots of the vaccine, with the coordinator of the European parliament's committee on public health Peter Liese saying that pharmaceuticals 'need to respect EU law and that’s why it took a while’.
Yet free from the shackles of having to balance the interests of 28 member states, Britain has shown itself to be nimble-footed compared to the behemoth of EU bureaucracy; it signed its own deal for thirty million doses back in July.
What’s more, Brussels' negotiating hand has been significantly weakened by this week’s breakthrough. It’s unlikely the EU will have been able to secure a deal on anything like the same terms as Britain now that the vaccine is publicly known to be 90 per cent effective. And Britain's early support for the Pfizer vaccine will have been vital to helping get the project off the ground. Without the support of big government backers like Britain, it is unlikely that the development of what appears to be a successful vaccine could have happened so quickly.
While EU states were never obliged to negotiate a collective vaccine deal, Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn seemed keen to cast aspersions this week on ‘whether that would have reflected our understanding of European solidarity.’ As always, the EU’s decision to negotiate collectively with Pfizer was as much political as it was pragmatic.
But Spahn’s words are somewhat ironic in the light of the details that have emerged about the nature of the EU’s Pfizer deal. Out of the 200 million shots that the EU Commission claim to have secured (it also has a further option to buy another 100 million), 100 million have apparently been earmarked for Germany. Given that BioNTech – the lab responsible for developing the vaccine with Pfizer – is German, and that the German government have invested 375 million euros (£330m) in the program, it’s no surprise that the bulk of the vaccine shots should be German-bound. But it does seem disingenuous for the German government to claim that the proposed EU deal is simply an act of altruistic ‘solidarity’ with smaller member states.
Yes, Germany has the largest population in the EU, yet it only accounts for 18.6 per cent of Europeans. Despite this, it seems that over half the procured vaccine will go to German citizens. What is France, with a population of 67.1 million, to make of this news?
Would Britain’s interests have been served so well by an EU vaccine deal? It’s doubtful. And if the UK had decided to negotiate on its own, it's likely that we would have been accused by our European neighbours of selfish isolationism.
The government received its fair share of flak for not having participated in the EU’s collective procurement schemes for PPE earlier in the year. Indeed, many people suggested that Britain’s PPE shortages could have been avoided had we teamed up with the EU. But when it comes to the vaccine race, Britain’s independence has enabled us to respond with a speed that would have been much harder if we were still part of the EU block. Brexit could yet prove to be our best weapon in the fight against Covid-19.