Gavin Williamson has been accused of “jingoistic nonsense” after suggesting the UK secured approval of a coronavirus vaccine before close allies France, Belgium and the United States because it is a “much better country”.
The education secretary’s remarks came after Britain’s medicine regulator contradicted erroneous claims by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, that the UK got the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine approved faster due to the UK’s departure from the European Union.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, also declined to echo Mr Hancock’s boast at a No 10 press conference and rather praised the work of the government’s vaccines taskforce as he set out plans to rollout jabs across the country.
But asked on LBC whether Brexit had meant the UK was able to approve the vaccine ahead of other countries, Mr Williamson replied: “I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators – much better than the French, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.
He added: “That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
It was unclear whether the cabinet minister was attempting a joke, but went on: “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 ones in the world to get that Pfizer vaccine.
“It’s down to those brilliant, brilliant clinicians in the regulator whose made it happen so fast, our thanks go out to them. By doing what they’ve done, they’re going to have saved lives.”
Pressed on whether there would be any further national lockdowns to combat the spread of coronavirus, Mr Williamson also said he couldn’t “see a place where we’ll be having another lockdown”.
He said: “The British people are very sensible, very responsible, we recognise this is a virus that we’re still having to deal with and it’s great news we see the vaccine heading our way but it is going to take time to rollout.
“That’s why we’ve got the tiered restrictions and if we continue to follow those rules there will be no need to be going into another national lockdown, especially with a vaccine heading our way.”
In response to Mr Williamson’s comments, Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), however, warned: “Vaccine nationalism has no place in Covid or other public health matters of global significance.”
He added: “Science has always been the exit strategy from this horrendous pandemic – that science has been global and has needed unprecedented global partnerships & global financing.
“Public health interventions, vaccines, diagnostics and treatments now starting to be available by work across borders. Every single one come about by work across borders. Vaccines made possible by science and support of so many. No country could have delivered these vaccines.”
Former Tory foreign minister Alistair Burt said: “To use the vaccine and the pandemic for boastful and questionable Brexit jibes devalues a remarkable international achievement with crass insensitivity.”
He claimed the comment was “even more foolish when considered against the background of the UK’s remarkable contribution” to Gavi, the international vaccine alliance.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, also described the education secretary’s remarks as “jingoistic nonsense”, adding: “This is the guy is the person responsible for education in our country and that is the problem.
“He was being serious by the way – he wasn’t making a joke. This sort of British exceptionalism I think is misleading. What this politician is doing is typical English jingoism that I think is unnecessary.”
Downing Street did not disown the education secretary’s remarks. Prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “What we see is the secretary of state rightly being proud of the UK.”
Speaking on Wednesday – moments after the UK medicines agency approved the vaccine for use among the general population – Mr Hancock said the authorisation process was faster than in the EU because Britain was no longer an EU member state.
But asked if this was the case, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) chief executive June Raine said the process was undertaken under the terms of European law, which remains in force until the completion of the Brexit transition at the end of 2020.
“We do all the same safety checks and the same processes, but we have been able to speed up how they’re done because of Brexit.”
But when she was asked at a 10 Downing Street press conference whether Brexit had made any difference to the speed at which the MHRA was able to work, Dr Raine stressed the fact that the regulator is still working under the terms of EU law.
“We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law which exist until 1 January,” she said.
“Our speed, or our progress, has been totally dependent on the availability of data in our rolling review and the rigorous assessment and independent advice we have received. So I hope that clarifies the point about the European relationship.”