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At today’s Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson refused to allow himself the opportunity to claim that the speed with which the UK has approved the Pfizer vaccine is in part due to Brexit. “I’m going to exercise self-discipline by favour of diplomacy and tact,” he said. Boris and diplomacy? Pull the other one.

Some members of Johnson’s cabinet, such as Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, have claimed that Britain’s departure from the EU meant that it did not have to follow the European Medicines Agency’s much slower vaccine approval process, leading to today’s head start in the race to vaccinate. Conversely, pro-EU types say it has nothing to do with Brexit.

The reality is somewhere in between. Pro-EU commentators would be correct to note EU member states have the power to ignore the European Medicines Agency and follow their own approval process, as the UK has done, but, crucially, all EU member states took the decision several months ago to collectively follow the EMA’s slower process in order to maintain solidarity.

As an EU member, Britain would have faced extreme pressure to be a team player, and not to be the only country that insists on diverging. In that respect, Rees-Mogg and others are theoretically correct to claim that Britain was freed from this encumbering collectivism by Brexit.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, acknowledged as much today. “We have member states, including Germany, which could have issued such an emergency authorisation if we’d wanted to,” he said. “But we decided against this and what we opted for was a common European approach to move forward together.”

EU solidarity seems to have cost the continent three or more crucial weeks of vaccinations. The European Medicine Agency’s response today was to claim that its process is superior because a longer assessment period would increase trust in the vaccine. Really?

Britain has a two month advantage over the European Union in terms of how quickly it will vaccinate the majority of its population, according to analysis by Goldman Sachs. The investment bank’s economists believe the UK will have vaccinated 50 per cent of its population by March next year, while the EU would reach this marker in May.

This advantage comes down to two factors. First, the swift actions of the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and second, the UK government’s genuinely world-leading vaccine procurement scheme which has secured more doses per person than the EU and the US.

The UK government faced pressure to join the EU’s vaccine procurement scheme earlier this year, but opted to follow its own path. This UK-specific approach appears to have produced better results.

Britain’s regulator is expected to authorise the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the coming days, vastly increasing the supply of doses, while American regulators are expected to grant up to two emergency use authorisations next week.

The European Medicines Agency is not expected to issue any authorisations until at least December 29th.

More Brexit progress

EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier this afternoon claimed that the UK negotiating team has lowered its demands on fish catches. In a briefing to EU ambassadors, Barnier said that British negotiators were now asking EU fishing fleets to hand over 60 per cent of the value of stocks taken from British waters, down from the original demand of 80 per cent.

While the two sides remain far apart on the matter, with the EU offering to repatriate the value of just 15-18 per cent of catches, today’s development shows that Downing Street is still prepared to make serious concessions. Both sides are now expected to make further concessions, meeting around the 40-50 per cent mark.

Barnier also told ambassadors that common ground was slowly being found on the question of level playing field provisions, with British negotiators showing flexibility this week over a mutual arbiter to prevent unfair competition. He added that London was also giving increasingly substantive assurances over future subsidies (state aid).

For all the talk of fish, the level playing field and state aid are the two most controversial and economically important issues that remain outstanding. Recent progress on both matters suggests the deal is nigh – even if it takes a few more days.

Mutaz Ahmed
Political Reporter