There were points of order and calls to correct the record at Prime Minister’s Questions today as Boris Johnson clashed with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Referring to the UK’s mass vaccination programme, which has just reached ten million jabs, Mr Johnson said: “If we had listened to the honourable gentleman, Mr Speaker, we would still be at the starting blocks, because he wanted to stay in the European Medicines Agency, Mr Speaker, and said so four times from that despatch box.”
Sir Keir replied: “The Prime Minister knows I’ve never said that, from this despatch box or anywhere else.” He added: “The truth escapes him.”
In fact, staying in the EU’s medicines regulator was Labour’s policy while Sir Keir was Shadow Brexit Secretary, and he said so at the time in the House of Commons.
The Labour leader has now admitted that he was wrong and made a mistake at PMQs.
The premise of Mr Johnson’s question – that being in the EU regulatory framework would have prevented Britain from rolling out its vaccine programme as quickly as we have done – is also false.
Labour wanted to stay in the EMA
There’s no dispute that Labour wanted to stay in the EMA. That was the considered position that Sir Keir set out in a speech to the House of Commons on January 31, 2017.
The then-Prime Minister Theresa May had said that Britain should not “seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave”.
Sir Keir said that approach was “short-sighted” and the UK should seek to negotiate membership of European organisations that regulate medicines, aircraft safety, nuclear power and more.
He told MPs: “Why would we want to be outside the European Medicines Agency, which ensures that all medicines in the EU market are safe and effective?”
He added: “We challenge the Prime Minister on these fronts and ask that consideration be given to finding ways to ensure that where we can we stay within those agencies, for the obvious benefits that they bring…”
Starmer ‘made a mistake’
Labour issued a statement today saying: “On a number of occasions the Prime Minister has wrongly claimed that Labour wanted to join the EU’s vaccine programme. That is inaccurate and the claim has been found to be untrue.
“This afternoon during Prime Minister’s Questions, Keir misheard the Prime Minister and assumed he was making the same false accusation again.
“Keir accepts that, on this occasion, the Prime Minister was referring to old comments about the European Medicines Agency and Keir admits he was wrong and made a mistake in his response.”
Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have previously claimed that Sir Keir would have joined the EU’s vaccination scheme rather than run a separate British programme.
The Conservatives were unable to provide FactCheck with any examples of the Labour leader saying this, and Labour deny this was ever party policy.
Labour MP Catherine West, the Shadow Minister for Europe and the Americas, criticised the UK’s decision to pull out of the EU vaccine programme in a tweet last year. She has since apologised and deleted the tweet.
EMA membership wouldn’t affect vaccine rollout
Boris Johnson said Britain’s vaccine rollout “would still be at the starting blocks” if we were still part of the European Medicines Agency.
As FactCheck has previously reported, an EU provision passed into UK law in 2012 meant that the government had legal powers to act alone in temporarily authorizing the use of a new vaccine without waiting for the European Medicines Agency to sign it off.
This was confirmed in statements by the government and the UK’s independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, who said this law was used to approve the Pfizer Covid vaccine unilaterally in December last year, when Britain was still in the Brexit provision period.
So Britain was still subject to the processes of the European Medicines Agency when the first vaccine was approved, but EU law gave the UK regulator emergency powers to act alone.
Keir Starmer said he “never” wanted to stay in the European Medicines Agency.
But that was Labour’s policy while Jeremy Corbyn was leader, and Mr Starmer set out that policy to parliament when he was Shadow Brexit Secretary.
Sir Keir says he misheard Mr Johnson’s remarks today and “made a mistake in his response”.
Boris Johnson said Britain’s vaccine programme would still be “at the starting blocks” if we had stayed in the European Medicines Agency.
But we were still part of that agency when we approved the first vaccine. We didn’t have to wait for the European regulator because existing UK and EU law gave us emergency powers to approve vaccines unilaterally.