UK plans to fly in Covid-19 vaccine if no EU deal reached

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the leading candidate to be the first to receive approval for use. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK has contingency plans to fly doses of the coronavirus vaccine being developed by Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE into the country if there's disruption at the border when the post-Brexit transition period ends Dec 31.

"We have a plan for the vaccine, which is being manufactured in Belgium, and if necessary we can fly in order to avoid those problems," Hancock told BBC TV's Question Time show late Thursday (Nov 12), when asked about the impact of Brexit.

"We've got a plan for all eventualities."

He reiterated that he's "confident" the lack of an EU deal wouldn't hold up delivery of the vaccine.

The issue matters because with eight weeks to go until the transition period ends, the UK and EU are yet to strike a new trading regime to replace it. That's left companies and business groups warning of border chaos with customs systems not yet ready and overwhelming new paperwork requirements.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the leading candidate to be the first to receive approval for use after early findings this week showed it protects most people from Covid-19. The UK has already agreed to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine, but manufacturing takes place outside the country, raising the importance of smooth border operations.

On Thursday, the supplier of an ingredient for the vaccine warned that avoiding border disruption was key to the smooth roll-out of the vaccine.


"Making sure that we are free from friction at the borders is a crucial step for the vaccine," Croda International Chief Executive Officer Steve Foots told Sky News. "The last thing we need is a problem with a lack of an agreement, and you've got friction at the borders."

Foots warned that it wasn't just the vaccine that would need smooth transit into the UK, but also possibly refrigerants and refrigeration technology to help transport doses.

Unlike regular vaccines, Pfizer's messenger RNA-based shot must be stored at an ultra-cool temperature of around -70 degrees C.

Speaking to Parliament's science committee earlier this month, Kate Bingham, chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, estimated the UK would have as many as 10 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine ready to deploy by year-end.

Hancock's remarks came after Business Secretary Alok Sharma earlier Thursday refused to rule out Brexit disruption hampering the UK supply of the vaccine. In a news conference Thursday, he was asked three times whether it would be an issue, and three times he failed to rule it out, saying supply chains would be "an issue across many sectors."

"Whatever deal we end up in terms of our future relationship with the EU, there will be changes for business and businesses do need to be prepared," he said.

"If we all get prepared, we will be in the right place post-transition."

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