This week, the Boris Johnson government’s PR machine went into hyperdrive to announce the UK regulatory approval of a vaccine to combat coronavirus (Covid-19). Meanwhile, government figures revealed there have been more than 60,000 coronavirus deaths in the UK. The only problem there is that the statistical agencies, including the Office for National Statistics, have produced a completely different set of figures – shockingly different.
The true death figures
The “official” government figure for coronavirus deaths across the UK, as reported on 3 December, was 60,113.
But professor Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine and a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists, explained:
If you want to know the actual number of deaths, well then you have to go to death certification, which is really the best data.
Indeed, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the National Records of Scotland (NRS), and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) provide a figure in excess of 76,000. And that figure includes deaths where coronavirus is given on the death certificate.
Only the day before on 2 December, the Johnson government announced with great excitement that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had approved the use of a vaccine, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, to combat coronavirus.
The vaccine appears to be safe and well-tolerated, and there were no clinically concerning safety observations. The data indicates high efficacy in all age groups (16 years and over), including encouraging results in older adults. The committee advises that this vaccine be used in the first phase of the programme, according to the priority order set out below.
It was very welcome news.
Following the government’s announcement, The Canary reported that a number of high profile Tories had made comments about the vaccine – comments that can only be described as triumphal, if not jingoistic.
For example, UK business secretary Alok Sharma commented:
In years to come, we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease.
The Guardian reported how health secretary Matt Hancock even claimed it was Brexit that led to the breakthrough:
In a series of media appearances on Wednesday morning, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, erroneously claimed that emergency authorisation had been possible “because of Brexit”, contrasting the UK approach with the “pace of the Europeans, who are moving a little bit more slowly”.
However, MHRA head Dr June Raine went on to explain that EU law allows for regulators in member states – including the UK, currently in transition – to apply their own approval mechanisms:
The regulator seems to disagree with Hancock.
Matt Hancock – “Because we’ve left the EU, we’ve been able to move faster."
Dr June Raine(Boss, MHRA) – “We’ve been able to authorise supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law which exist until January 1st.” pic.twitter.com/QmZR4TqdmE
— Haggis_UK 🇬🇧 🇪🇺 (@Haggis_UK) December 2, 2020
And there was this gem from UK education minister Gavin Williamson:
Gavin Williamson on vaccines: UK is 'a much better country than every single one of them'
— Peter Jukes (@peterjukes) December 3, 2020
But neither Hancock, Sharma or Williamson remembered to mention that the vaccine is produced by the US company Pfizer in collaboration with German company BioNTech. Or that the latter organisation’s coronavirus vaccine programme is funded by the EU via the European Investment Bank.
As to whether Brexit had a role in the vaccine’s approval, Channel 4’s FactCheck quoted the government on this matter:
if a suitable COVID-19 vaccine candidate, […] becomes available before the end of the transition period, EU legislation which we have implemented via Regulation 174 of the Human Medicines Regulations allows the MHRA to temporarily authorise the supply of a medicine or vaccine, based on public health need.
So even if we were still a member of the EU, the UK regulator would have been able to take this decision on its own because EU law already allows it. Incidentally, that legislation took effect in the UK in 2012, long before Brexit was on the cards.
It further added:
even if Brexit hadn’t happened, we’d still have been entitled, under EU law, to opt out of the joint system and “go it alone” with the Covid vaccine.
Assuming all goes well with the newly approved vaccine, that’s something to celebrate.
But any attempt by politicians, or their supporters, to generate political capital from the pandemic should be condemned. For the Johnson government’s record on coronavirus deaths – even using the government’s questionable figure – when compared to other European countries, is nothing short of appalling.
As to those government ministers who are triumphal about the vaccine, they should at least admit to the real number of coronavirus-related deaths. But that might be too much an expectation.
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