The EU has rebuked claims the UK was able to approve a coronavirus vaccine before any other nation due to being better than other countries, saying “this is not a football competition, we are talking about the life and health of people”.
The UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use on Wednesday, becoming the first nation in the world to do so.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson declared on Thursday the reason the UK was able to approve the vaccine first was because it was a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the US.
Watch: UK got COVID vaccine first ‘because we’re a much better country’, says Gavin Williamson
Williamson said the UK’s status as the first country to approve a vaccine is due to its superior experts.
“I just reckon 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,” he told LBC Radio.
“That doesn’t surprise me at because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
Responding to the claims, Eric Mamer, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said: “We are definitely not in the game of comparing regulators across countries, nor on commenting on claims as to who is better. This is not a football competition, we are talking about the life and health of people.”
Downing Street has defended Williamson’s comments, saying he was entitled to express his pride in the UK.
“I think what you have seen is the secretary of state, rightly, being proud of the United Kingdom,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
“We are proud of the action that we have taken throughout the pandemic to protect the public and save lives.
“I think the secretary of state was emphasising his pride in the United Kingdom.”
Several Tory MPs – including health secretary Matt Hancock – have claimed the reason the UK was able to act so quickly was because of the regulatory freedom that Brexit provided.
Top scientists and regulators from across the UK quickly denied Brexit was the reason the vaccine was approved so quickly and highlighted the international effort involved in researching and producing the vaccine.
The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency chief June Raine said the approval was made using provisions under European law and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which the UK is still part of until the end of the year.
Hancock told Times Radio on Wednesday the reason the UK has been able to move so fast was “because of Brexit” as they had been able to use an independent regulator and were no longer part the EMA.
We could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU. Last month we changed the regulations so a vaccine did not need EU approval which is slower. https://t.co/y2Az7okPdx
— Jacob Rees-Mogg (@Jacob_Rees_Mogg) December 2, 2020
Meanwhile, leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said on Twitter: “We could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU. Last month we changed the regulations so a vaccine did not need EU approval which is slower.”
The PM has sought to distance himself from such comments and Downing Street did not back Hancock’s claim about Brexit.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “It is clear that we are the first country in the world to approve this vaccine and it is incredibly positive news that we will be able to start to distribute it.”
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is expected to be rolled out in the coming days. However, the immense logistical challenges it presents and the need for two jabs three weeks apart before it takes effect will mean it will be some time before the nation can put coronavirus behind it.
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