This is an article which might help those who have never understood why people voted for Brexit. I use the example of the respective performances of the UK and EU member states in relation to delivering Covid-19 vaccinations – the most important government intervention of my lifetime.
I should make clear at the outset that I voted to Remain for lots of reasons (but mainly because I didn’t think that it was in our economic interests to leave and as a father of two kids I wanted them to have the same opportunities as I had growing up – to work and travel in the EU).
However, I didn’t find being asked our view regarding membership objectionable. I half anticipated the outcome of the referendum and accepted its result.
I never joined marches calling for a second vote nor did I think one was ever going to take place. Indeed, I won a few hundred quid off people who were convinced Brexit would never happen even after the referendum – by the way, some of you still owe me!
Anyway, I think the vaccine programme reveals something about why people voted for Brexit.
Last summer the Prime Minister appointed Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist, to head the UK’s Vaccine Task Force. Her job was to consider the two hundred-odd vaccine candidates on offer, select which ones we should procure, negotiate with the suppliers and place orders to ensure we had a ready supply upon approval of each. Bingham reported directly to the PM himself.
Her appointment caused controversy. She was married to Tory MP and Minister Jesse Norman. Jolyon Maugham from the Good Law project has initiated a judicial review contesting her appointment. The Sunday Times ran several stories about her PR expenses. Some claimed her recommendation that the UK should pursue its own procurement process would lead to avoidable deaths.
By 31 December she had stepped down from her post but has since appeared at Select Committee meetings as she has throughout her tenure to account for her decisions.
So far, at least, the UK has had a very successful roll out of vaccinations. We have approved three vaccines and adopted a 12-week dosing policy that may soon become the norm across the world. Crucially, Bingham completed negotiations and placed orders before most other countries, including the EU. The NHS, care homes, pharmacies and tens of thousands of volunteers have had ready access to a supply of vaccines to administer since December.
Meanwhile the EU has, by comparison, been very slow to implement its vaccination programme. As has been reported widely, in the last 72 hours the UK has vaccinated more people than France has in total to date. The EU procurement process got bogged down, the approval process was slow and unsurprisingly the bloc is now short of vaccine supplies.
But let’s imagine it had worked out differently. Imagine if the EU had used its size and greater purchasing power to negotiate deals with suppliers before the UK and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had implemented emergency approval processes sooner. Many claimed this was likely.
Instead of reading daily reports of how well we were doing compared to the EU, imagine the EU had vaccinated six times as many people as we had.
In that scenario you would doubtless be hearing a lot more about Kate Bingham and how she and the PM had denied millions a jab that could have saved their lives.
Now think of the 400 million EU citizens and how they must feel right now. Who led their procurement and to whom are they accountable? Who appointed them? How often have they been subjected to media and Parliamentary scrutiny?
Every time people have been asked why they voted Leave in 2016 they have expressed a desire for something we have come to call sovereignty. It’s been routinely derided as meaningless and outdated in the modern world by many and social media is awash with posts to that effect.
Last summer we diverged from the EU and took control of our vaccine programme. The accountability for doing so was clear. No one has a clue who is responsible for the EU vaccine programme and in all likelihood no one ever will.
I still wish we were members of the EU but after this past month I feel much less disparaging about those who didn’t because our membership didn’t feel democratically accountable and they wanted our parliament to have more control.
As I wait for the good news about vaccine numbers each day, I don’t just feel the pride that so many of us do right now – I sense something else. I guess you could call it empathy. A new empathy for those who concluded sovereignty trumped all other arguments five years ago.