It was three years this week since the UK formally left the European Union, and there has been considerable discussion of the merits of the decision.
Some significant figures from the Leave campaign have appeared in the media to discuss what positives they believe came from Brexit and the UK’s current position.
One regularly highlighted claim relates to the UK’s vaccine rollout.
In a video promoting Brexit day, former prime minister Boris Johnson claimed “taking back control” of the medicines and healthcare products regulatory agency (MHRA) allowed the UK to do its vaccine rollout faster than the rest of Europe.
Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it False.
The UK’s vaccine rollout was one of the fastest in Europe, and was able to administer more vaccines than other European Union countries in the early part of 2021 when vaccines were ready.
This was partly down to the UK ordering vaccines early, signing a contract for 100 million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses in June 2020. Another deal for access to 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was announced a month later.
Johnson claimed that “taking back control” of the MHRA allowed the UK to approve vaccines faster. “Taking back control” is a term used regularly by supporters of leaving the EU to mean removing EU influence over British regulations.
The MHRA is the UK’s medicines regulator and it had to approve the Covid-19 vaccines were safe and effective before they could be rolled out across the country.
The EU has its own regulatory agency, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which coordinates regulation of medicines across the union. The UK officially left the EMA after the Brexit transition period ended at the end of 2020.
The Covid-19 vaccines were approved using a process called a “rolling review”, which allows checks and assessment of a promising medicine to be done in the shortest possible time when there is an ongoing public health emergency.
Regulation 174 allows the MHRA to “temporarily authorise the supply of a medicine or vaccine, based on public health need”.
These rules were negotiated with the EU and became UK law in 2012, so the UK would have been able to do so in an emergency situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic at any time since then.
The head of the MHRA, Dr June Raine, confirmed that European law allowed the UK to authorise supply via this regulation prior to the end of the transition period, which was still in place when the UK announced the first Covid-19 vaccine had been approved.
For the vaccine rollout, the EU decided to work together for vaccine procurement and rollout, and it is possible that if the UK had still been in the EU it would have taken a different course, which meant vaccine rollout might have been slower. But it would not have been a requirement of membership, and would not have affected the ability of the MHRA to approve Covid-19 vaccine separately.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: False
Johnson’s claim that “taking back control” of the UK’s medicines regulatory agency meant the vaccine rollout was easier because the UK could approve it faster than EU countries is not accurate.
Existing legislation allowed the UK to take a different approach to the rest of Europe before it left the EU, and allowed for the UK to approve vaccines in emergencies without the European Medicines Agency.