The UK ruled out joining the European Union’s 2 billion-euro ($2.3 billion) coronavirus vaccine program, fuelling concern among doctors that a go-it-alone approach after Brexit risks delaying vital medical supplies.
Signing up would prevent the UK from pursuing parallel negotiations with potential vaccine suppliers, the UK’s
ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, wrote in a letter to the European Commission.
“The Commission has also confirmed that it is not possible for the UK to have a role in the governance shaping decisions on which manufacturers to negotiate with, or the price, volume and delivery schedule negotiated,” he said.
Coronavirus has put the UK’s attitude to collaborating with its nearest neighbours under the spotlight. Earlier in the pandemic, a decision not to participate in EU programs to acquire ventilators and personal protective equipment — even as the UK faced shortages — triggered claims that ministers were putting Brexit ideology over saving lives.
“We will be seeking official clarification on the reasons why the government has come to this decision and seeking reassurance that this will not lead to any supply issues or delays for the UK population” said David Wrigley, deputy chair of the British Medical Association. “It is vital we all work collaboratively to beat this deadly virus.”
Barrow said the UK is still willing to strengthen its collaboration with the EU outside the vaccine program, in particular in vaccine trials and negotiations with manufacturers.
That Britain can handle its affairs better outside the 27-member bloc is a key argument for the Brexit supporters who dominate Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, and it’s likely the decision not to take part in the vaccine program will be seen as an extension of that approach.
Opponents say the dangers of the strategy have been exposed by Britain’s response to the virus: the United Kingdom entered lockdown later than many other countries in Europe and now has the highest death toll in the region. Though ministers have repeatedly said the EU programs for PPE and ventilators yielded little benefit to participants.
In the case of vaccines, medical experts including Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said an Oxford University project is leading international efforts. The UK has a deal with AstraZeneca Plc to receive 30 million doses by September if the Oxford vaccine is successful.
Britain is also planning to open its own vaccine production facility in the summer of 2021, capable of manufacturing 70 million doses within four to six months of starting.