I suppose it was inevitable. After the political reverberations of every covid-19 related decision, from the original belated lockdown to the fiasco of Track and Trace to the mess of secondary school exams, exacerbated by the machinations at the court of King Boris (who sits a King who struggles to make decisions or stick with them for more than 72 hours if he is in danger of losing popularity, surrounded by courtiers of mediocre quality) – even the relatively benign news that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine has been given early approval by the MHRA has become political.
I don’t for a moment doubt that MHRA has given its express timetable approval on the basis of the available evidence and the extent and urgency of the crisis, and if our chief scientific and medical advisors approve, we should be reassured, because we follow the science (unless it becomes too unpopular for the government to follow the science).
That is not the question. But why was it necessary for the Secretary of State for Health to foolishly claim that the fast approval was somehow due to Brexit allowing the regulator to make this decision (a completely factless claim)?
And why did the failed Defence Secretary and failing Education Secretary, smart enough not to repeat the claim, suggest that somehow it was down to Britain’s regulators being better than those of Belgium and France (a fairly random selection, why not pick Denmark, or Spain, or Slovenia, all of whom are following the EU’s regulatory timetable?)?
The experts at MHRA are far too scientific and even-headed to make such a claim for themselves, and the Education Secretary’s claim that somehow
Britain was better than other countries should be understood in the light of the highest number of covid-19 deaths recorded in Europe and one government blunder after another during this crisis.
The reason expedited vaccine approval has become political, and weirdly nationalistic, is twofold.
First, it has been an atrocious last two months for the government, with rebellion in the Tory ranks over the tiered lockdown, the political survival of the Home Secretary who was meant to quit, the farce of the Chief Courtier’s departure from Downing Street (cardboard box in hand), a sense that the government is hopelessly adrift.
So, to a struggling, exposed cabinet any really good news is pounced on and maximised.
The second of course is Brexit. Whichever way negotiations go in the last couple of weeks, the outcome will be negative for the government. Either the arch-Brexiteers get their wish for a no-deal Brexit, allowing maximum divergence and de-regulation, but ordinary shoppers may see food prices go up and even food shortages, with lorry queues on the M20, not to mention the impact on critical manufacturing supply chains.
Or Boris caves in to the EU’s demands, and weakens his position with the Brexiteers, to whom he owes his Kingship. Brexit negotiations have become a no-win for the government, and another potentially depressing, and longer-term problem for the new year.
So expect to see 1) Britain’s supposed superiority over other nations in approving a vaccine quickly celebrated for some time to come 2) whichever the outcome of Brexit negotiations dressed up as a sign of Britain’s superior standing – either pragmatic, commercial business partner to the EU prepared to make (limited) concessions, or proudly sovereign, independent nation taking back control and prepared to pay whatever price the unjust, inequitable Europeans are forcing it to pay, because they cannot accept an independent Britain.
Either way, there is no hiding the fact that the government is lurching from one contested decision to the next with no discernible, consistent leadership. There is a quiet, competent man in No11 waiting his turn.
The chair of the immensely powerful Backbench 1922 Committee voted against his PM this week on the tiered lockdown proposals. That is an ominous warning, and a first step.
More will surely follow once the Covid-19 crisis is mastered and Brexit has taken its effect.