The lifting of national lockdown coincided on Wednesday with the UK being the first country in the world to authorise a coronavirus vaccine
The Pfizer BioNTech jab has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and vaccinations will start to be administered from next week.
The most elderly, people in care homes and their carers will be the first to get the jab, before coming down the age range, with NHS staff and the clinically extremely vulnerable also high on the priority list.
Reactions ranged from delight to, er, excessive nationalism.
Alok Sharma was among the first to heap on the praise this morning, tweeting: “The UK was the first country to sign a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech, now we will be the first to deploy their vaccine.
“To everyone involved in this breakthrough: thank you.”
The business secretary seemed particularly effusive about the UK’s role in this momentous first, despite the fact that the actual British vaccine – a joint venture between Oxford Uni and AstraZeneca – has not yet been approved, and there are questions over some of its trial data.
Undeterred by these details, Sharma added: “In years to come, we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease.”
This may be *slightly* overstating things since approving drugs is sort of all in a day’s work for the MHRA. It can take years so the speed is undoubtedly impressive, but just for some context a Freedom of Information request in 2015 found it had approved 978 medicines and healthcare products that year alone, and the Pfizer vaccine may well be approved by regulatory bodies in the rest of the world in the coming days, so it isn’t exactly clear that we are “leading humanity’s charge against this disease”.
The prime minister’s spokesperson confused the issue further when asked why Sharma claimed the UK was “leading the charge”.
He replied: “You’ve seen the UK play a very important role in terms of stating the case to ensure developed countries also have access to the vaccine where possible and the amount of investment we put in, in terms of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. I believe that’s what he will be referring to.”
A moment later he had to concede this was not in fact what Sharma had meant in a tweet that explicitly referred to the Pfizer vaccine and to “this moment”.
“Apologies,” the spokesperson said, “what I meant by that was he was referring to the role the UK has played across the board when it comes to the pandemic.”
The government has secured access to 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and 40m of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Most responses fall into this category. Labour leader Keir Starmer tweeted thanks “to all those involved in this wonderful news – from the brilliant scientists to the trial volunteers”.
During PMQs he took the opportunity to grill the prime minister about the priority list for the vaccinations, asking when the top two priority groups would receive their doses, a question Johnson did not directly answer.
Johnson did however criticise Sir Keir’s abstention from major Commons vote on the new system of tiers, nicknaming him “Captain Hindsight”.
Meanwhile, Nadhim Zahawi, the newly-appointed minister responsible for overseeing the vaccination rollout, tweeted: “Major step forward in the fight against Covid-19 today.”
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was “the best news in a long time”.
She tweeted: “@scotgov ready to start vaccinations as soon as supplies arrive.”
Speaking at a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, she said this may be “the beginning of the end” of the pandemic, but urged Scots not to be complacent.
She said: “Today is genuinely a good day. We’re not at the end of the pandemic yet. [...] We cannot and must not ease up in our efforts to control it.
“But today does feel like it may well be the beginning of the end of this horrible experience.
“For that reason, I am sure I am far from the only one this morning who feels a lightness of heart that I haven’t felt for some time.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham tweeted: “The UK has one of the strongest medicines and vaccines regulatory systems in the world. I can say that with confidence as a former health secretary.
“So, please, don’t believe the scare stories. If the @MHRAgovuk says it is safe, it IS safe.”
Meanwhile Scotland’s national clinical director, Professor Jason Leitch, tweeted: “Remarkable science, collaboration and logistics has got us to this day. It’s a very important moment. There will be months of roll out until normality but it’s a crucial step. Thanks to all.”
Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster thanked the power of prayer, tweeting: “The vaccine is another step on the road back to normality. We are deeply appreciative of those in science who have helped deliver this good news.
“We will work collectively as an executive to ensure it is rolled out across NI. To all those who prayed for this – thank you.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock, whose step-grandfather died of coronavirus, told BBC Breakfast: “2020 has been such a terrible year, hasn’t it? And help is on its way.”
With slightly more enthusiasm, prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “It’s fantastic that @MHRAgovuk has formally authorised the @pfizer/@BioNTech_Group vaccine for Covid-19. The vaccine will begin to be made available across the UK from next week.
“It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again.”
3) Urging caution
During PMQs, however, the PM added: “I think at this stage it is very, very important that people do not get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we will be able to roll out this vaccine.
“It is beginning, as my right honourable friend the Health Secretary has said, from next week. We are expecting several million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine before the end of the year.
“We will then be rolling it out as fast as we possibly can.”
England’s chief medical officer, the permanently circumspect Professor Chris Whitty, similarly insisted that despite the vaccine news “we can’t lower our guard yet”.
He tweeted: “The independent regulator authorised the first vaccine for use against Covid-19.
“This is excellent news and a step towards normality. It will take until spring until the vulnerable population who wish to are fully vaccinated. We can’t lower our guard yet.”
Guards were also in place in the reaction from Stormont health minister Robin Swann, who tweeted: “This is a hugely significant day. My department has the plans and preparations in place.
“There will still be difficult days ahead and people must not let their guard down, but there are brighter days ahead.”
Health officials in Northern Ireland have already indicated that the vaccine rollout plan is scheduled to commence on December 14.
The first minister of Wales Mark Drakeford also welcomed the news without spilling his drink, calling it “significant” but adding: “We must all continue to follow the rules.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “This is fantastic news and will give us all hope as we head towards Christmas and the New Year.
“The government needs to put in place a plan to roll out the vaccine rapidly.”
Rayner, who has previously accused the prime minister of delivering “patronising guff”, added: “They failed on PPE, failed on testing and failed on track and trace. We cannot afford another failure.”