Mass immunisation against coronavirus will begin next week, Boris Johnson announced as he moved to defuse a diplomatic row over claims that Brexit was responsible for the fast-track approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The prime minister said hopes of normal life returning in the spring had given way to “sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed” after Britain became the first country in the western world to approve a Covid vaccine.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said no corners had been cut in licensing the jab in record time, and the vaccine had been subjected to the most thorough scrutiny by experts working round the clock. The UK has bought 40m doses of the vaccine, which has been shown to have 95% efficacy.
Jonathan Van-Tam, a deputy chief medical officer for England, said the announcement of the news on Wednesday morning had made him feel “quite emotional”.
He said once all of the vulnerable groups highlighted as a priority by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had been protected – including elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions – it should help to prevent 99% of deaths from the virus, which has claimed up to 75,000 lives in the UK.
But the prime minister also moved to prevent what he called the “huge moment” being tarnished by a row after Matt Hancock suggested Brexit had paved the way for the move.
The health secretary claimed that “because of Brexit”, the UK had been able to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, rather than wait for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to do so. The EMA said on Tuesday that it may wait until the end of December under a less fast-tracked authorisation process.
“Because of Brexit, we’ve been able to make a decision to do this based on the UK regulator, a world-class regulator, and not go at the pace of the Europeans, who are moving a little bit more slowly,” Hancock told Times Radio.
That sparked a backlash from the EU, however. Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said Berlin had also considered the fast-track licensing chosen by the UK – and allowed by any country in emergency circumstances under EU law – but the task of convincing people of the safety of vaccines was crucial.
“The idea is not that we’re the first, but the idea is to have safe and effective vaccines in the pandemic and that we can create confidence, and nothing is more important than confidence with respect to vaccines,” he said.
Later, with negotiations on a free trade agreement at a delicate stage weeks from the end of the transition period, Johnson eschewed the language of “world-beating” UK science and twice declined the opportunity to hail the rapid approval as a Brexit dividend.
“I’m going to exercise a self-denying ordinance, my fabled diplomacy and tact, and just say I think that this is something that the NHS has been working on for a long time; the vaccine taskforce; many people have been working on this for a long time and I pay tribute to all of them,” he told a Downing Street press conference.
The UK remains under the remit of the EMA until the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January, and EU laws allow other member states to approve medicines for emergency use without EMA authorisation.
Johnson said it was important to avoid “overoptimism” and the public should stick to the tough restrictions in place after England’s lockdown ended on Wednesday, including strict limits on indoor socialising, because it would take months for the vaccine to be rolled out.
“It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected. Long and cold months. So it is all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with overoptimism, or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over,” he said.
And Van-Tam sounded a note of caution about whether normal life would resume in full. “I don’t think we’re going to eradicate coronavirus, ever; I think it’s going to be with humankind forever,” he said.
“Do I think there will come a big moment where we have a massive party, and throw away our masks and hand sanitiser, and say: ‘That’s it, it’s behind us!’ like the end of the war?
“No I don’t. I think those kind of habits, that we’ve learned from, that clearly help prevent the spread of other respiratory viruses, like the flu, will perhaps persist for many years, and it may be a good thing if they do.”
Johnson responded: “That may be a good thing … on the other hand, we may want to get back to life as pretty much as close to normal.”
The first 800,000 doses of vaccine for the UK will be sent from Belgium to 50 “hospital hubs” that have the capacity to keep them in dry ice at minus 70C. They will be given to people aged over 80 and care home residents while the MHRA works out a safe way to split the boxes containing 975 doses into smaller batches that can be taken to care homes at fridge temperature, which is 2 to 8C. The vaccine is stable at that temperature for five days.
Hancock said a network of specialist vaccination centres were being built. He said the vaccine would also be available from some GPs and pharmacists if they had cold storage facilities.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, warmly welcomed the approval of the vaccine but called on Johnson to do more to tackle the risk of misinformation, which he called “a real cause for concern”.
“It’s really important that we do everything possible to counter dangerous, frankly life-threatening disinformation about vaccines,” he said, urging the PM to pass emergency legislation to combat anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories online.
Dr June Raine, chief executive of the MHRA, said “everyone can be absolutely confident that no corners have been cut” in the approval process. She contradicted Hancock, adding: “We’ve been able to authorise supply of this vaccine under provisions under European law which exist until 1 January.”
Albert Bourla, chair and chief executive officer of Pfizer, added: “Today’s emergency use authorisation in the UK marks a historic moment in the fight against Covid-19.
“This authorisation is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win, and we applaud the MHRA for their ability to conduct a careful assessment and take timely action to help protect the people of the UK.”