The UK is getting a coronavirus vaccine first because it is a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the US, says the education secretary.
Some UK ministers claim Brexit speeded the process up – but Gavin Williamson said it was down to having superior medical experts.
On Wednesday the UK’s medical regulator was the first to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use.
The EU said it was “definitely not in the game of comparing regulators”.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s decision means the vaccine will start to be rolled out to the most vulnerable people from next week.
‘Not football competition’
People will need two doses, three weeks apart, so the vaccination project is expected to take several months to complete.
Speaking to LBC radio on Thursday, Mr Williamson said: “I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, 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, because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
He said the UK had a “real competitive advantage, but do you know who it’s down to? It’s down to those brilliant, brilliant clinicians in the regulator who’ve made it happen so fast, so our thanks go out to them because by doing what they’ve done, they’re going to have saved lives.”
But European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the 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.
Conservative peer Lord Forsyth said it was “disappointing to see some folk trying to make political capital out of the brilliant vaccine news”.
“Frankly it’s just unseemly and we should just be united in our thanks to those responsible for this breakthrough and the hope it brings to every person on the planet,” the former Scotland Secretary wrote in a tweet.
And some have expressed concern that the UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine too quickly.
Dr Anthony Fauci, who is leading the response to the pandemic in the US, told Fox News that the US Food and Drug Administration was being more careful.
“The way the FDA is, our FDA is doing it, is the correct way,” Dr Fauci said. “We really scrutinize the data very carefully to guarantee to the American public that this is a safe and efficacious vaccine.”
He added: “I think if we did any less, we would add to the already existing hesitancy on the part of many people to take the vaccine because they’re concerned about safety or they’re concerned that we went too quickly.”
Both the MHRA and the EU have rejected Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s claim that Brexit allowed the UK to “speed up” doing “all the same safety checks and the same processes” as the EU.
The MHRA’s chief executive, Dr June Raine, said on Wednesday that “we have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law, which exist until 1 January”.
In the wide-ranging interview with LBC, Mr Williamson also said that Eton, one of the UK’s top private schools, that was attended by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, should start admitting girls.
Downing Street pushed back on the idea, with a spokesperson saying the government has “said consistently that single sex schools are an important part of our education system”.
It said the matter was one for Eton itself to decide, but it would “support” any future decision to admit girls to the boys’ school.