Gavin Williamson: UK is 'a much better country than every single one of them'

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has claimed the UK was the first country in the world to clinically approve a coronavirus vaccine because the country has “much better” scientists than France, Belgium or the US.

Williamson said he was not surprised the UK was the first to roll out the immunisation because “we’re a much better country than every single one of them”.

Asked whether Brexit was to credit for the world-first, Williamson told LBC radio station on Thursday: “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators.

Now that the UK has authorised the first Covid vaccine, who will get it first?

The government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says its priority is to prevent Covid-related deaths and protect health and social care staff and systems.

Elderly care home residents and their carers are first on the JCVI’s list because their risk of exposure to the virus is higher and because the risk of death closely correlates with older age. They are followed in priority by anyone else over 80 and frontline health and social care workers.

Even so, for pragmatic reasons NHS staff are likely to be the first group to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. This is because the vaccine needs to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, which can be achieved more easily by using hospital facilities

Are there enough doses to reach all the priority groups?

Together, care home residents, their carers and the over-80s make up nearly 6 million people, and frontline NHS staff a further 736,685. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has said he expects 10m doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be available this year, so if this is the only vaccine authorised, everyone else would have to wait until further doses become available next year. 

Where will I go for the vaccine?

Covid-19 vaccines are expected to be delivered at three types of venue: NHS trust “vaccine hubs” at hospital sites; mass vaccination centres, which are in the process of being set up at places such as football stadiums, conference buildings and racecourses – these are expected to vaccinate up to 5,000 people a day; and at GP surgeries and pharmacies. GPs can also visit care home residents and housebound patients at home without them needing to travel.

How far apart will the two doses be administered, and will I protected after the first?

While there is some evidence to indicate high levels of short-term protection from a single dose of vaccine, a two-dose schedule is what has been approved by the MHRA.

The second dose will need to be delivered at least 21 days after the first, and both will be injected into the deltoid muscle – the thick triangular muscle we use to raise each arm.

For the Pfizer vaccine, its efficacy rate was calculated seven days after the second shot. It is likely that people will have some protection before this, but this is how long it will take for full protection to kick in. We will learn more about the extent of protection and how long it lasts as data from ongoing clinical trials comes in.

Can I pay to get the vaccine privately?

Unlikely. England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, has said he believes Covid-19 vaccines should be delivered according to clinical priority rather than allowing people to jump the queue if they can afford it.

Will I be able to choose which vaccine I have?

Also unlikely, at least in the short to medium term. Assuming more than one vaccine is approved, the priority will be distributing any available doses to the people who need it as quickly as possible.

Linda Geddes

“Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we.”

It is unclear whether Williamson made his remarks in jest but they came barely 24 hours after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the UK was the first to approve the vaccine “because of Brexit”. He contrasted the UK approach with the “pace of the Europeans, who are moving a little bit more slowly”.

Hancock’s claim was contradicted by both Downing Street and the UK’s medicines regulator. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is in charge of approving the vaccine for the European Union, also issued a rare robust statement suggesting that the UK had prioritised speed over winning public confidence so that it could be the first to roll out the jab.

Williamson followed up his claim about the UK having “much better” clinicians than other countries by saying we were “able to get on with things”, a remark which could be seen to be a swipe at the pace of the European approval process.

Asked a second time on LBC whether he meant that Brexit was to credit with the development, the education secretary said: “I think just being able to get on with things, deliver it, and the brilliant people in our medical regulator making it happen means that people in this country are going to be the first country in the western world – in the world – to get that Pfizer vaccine.

“A real competitive advantage. But do you know who it’s down to? It’s down to the brilliant clinicians in the regulator who’ve made it happen so fast, so our thanks go out to them. By doing what they’ve done, they’re going to have saved lives.”

The UK government announcement of the decision said it had taken place under a provision of the Human Medicines Regulations, passed in 2012, which permits the rapid licensing of medicines in the event of an emergency such as a pandemic.

The UK is still under the remit of the EMA until the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January, and EU laws also allow other member states to approve medicines for emergency use without EMA authorisation

At a government briefing on Wednesday, the head of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority, which made the decision, cited EU rules. “We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law, which exist until 1 January,” said June Raine, the MHRA’s chief executive. Boris Johnson’s spokesman also pointedly declined to back the health secretary.


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