Gavin Williamson: ‘UK got vaccine first because we're a much better country’

3 December 2020, 09:04 | Updated: 4 December 2020, 00:09

By Fiona Jones

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today told LBC that the reason the UK was first in the world to approve a Covid vaccine, ahead of France, Belgium and the US, is because "we're a much better country."

This was after Nick Ferrari asked Mr Williamson whether Brexit impacted the UK approving a vaccine before anyone else.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in the UK on Wednesday by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), paving the way for mass vaccination to start as early as next week.

The jab has been shown in studies to be 95% effective and works in all age groups but needs to be stored at minus 70C - a factor which the Prime Minister admitted will provide "immense logistical challenges" when it comes to distribution.

Mr Williamson told Nick Ferrari at breakfast today: "I just think we have the very best people in this country and we've got the best medical regulators. 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 as we're have a much better country than every single one of them, aren't we?"

Nick pushed Mr Williamson to answer whether Brexit has had an impact on the UK approving the vaccine, however he did not provide a clear answer.

"I just think being able to get on with things, deliver it and with brilliant people in our medical regulator making it happen means that people in this country are going to be the first ones in world to get that Pfizer vaccine," he said, praising the "brilliant clinicians" in the regulator that have "made it happen."

Responding to the comments, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said MHRA's experts are "very good" but "we are definitely not in the game of comparing regulators across countries, nor on commenting on claims as to who is better".

"This is not a football competition, we are talking about the life and health of people," he said.

However, Downing Street defended Mr Williamson, saying he was entitled to express his pride in the UK.

"I think what you have seen is the Secretary of State, rightly, being proud of the United Kingdom," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

"We are proud of the action that we have taken throughout the pandemic to protect the public and save lives.

"I think the Secretary of State was emphasising his pride in the United Kingdom."

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine approved - but who will get it first?

Across the pond, the USA's director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci, claimed British regulators did not scrutinise the data as carefully as their US counterparts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“We have the gold standard of a regulatory approach with the FDA,” Dr Fauci said on Thursday.

“The UK did not do it as carefully and they got a couple of days ahead.”

In response to the comments, the MHRA said in a statement: "We have rigorously assessed the data in the shortest time possible, without compromising the thoroughness of our review.

"Covid-19 vaccines, including this one, are being developed in a co-ordinated in a way that allows some stages of this process to happen in parallel to condense the time needed, but it does not mean steps and the expected standards of safety, quality and effectiveness have been bypassed."

Dr Fauci later clarified his comments, telling the BBC he has "a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint".

Back in Britain, the London Mayor responded to the "unnecessary" comments on LBC's exclusive phone-in Speak to Sadiq.

Mr Khan told James O'Brien, "This is jingoistic nonsense..this guy is the person responsible for education in our country", adding, "the good news for us Londoners is he's not a Londoner."

He continued: "What this politician is doing is typical English jingoism that I think is unnecessary and what it does is it just leads to a sort of 'us versus them' that we don't really need."

Mr Williamson has already received backlash on Twitter for his comments to LBC's Nick Ferrari, with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas branding him "pathetic".

She wrote: "This from a Government minister - it’s pathetic. The kind of thing you’d hear in the playground. Maybe that’s why he’s Education Secretary."

Former Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato wrote: "This is the sort of thing that gets your promoted under this Tory government No need for competence, intelligence or compassion".

Labour politician and former MEP Seb Dance also took to Twitter to respond to the education secretary, implying the comments were of a childish nature: "He later added that they also smell of wee and that they’re big poo poo heads."

He added a baby face and milk bottle emoji to emphasise his point.

SAGE adviser Jeremy Farrar also took exception to the comments, Tweeting: "Vaccine nationalism has no place in COVID or other public health matters of global significance.

"Science has always been the exit strategy from this horrendous pandemic - that science has been global & has needed an unprecedented global partnerships & global financing."

"Public health interventions, vaccines, diagnostics & treatments now starting to be available because of those partnerships. Every single one come about by work across borders.

"Vaccines made possible by science & support of so many. No country could have delivered these vaccines."

Speaking from Downing Street on Wednesday, the Prime Minister made no such comments and instead said the "searchlights of science" had picked out the "invisible enemy" in getting the vaccine to the public.

Mr Johnson praised scientists for performing "biological jiu-jitsu" to turn the virus on itself and create the drug.

The first 800,000 doses are expected to be rolled out next week, and with two jabs needed per person, 400,000 Britons will be vaccinated.

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