Brexit bravado: building immunity

British Bulldog” by Terry Kearney is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Even as some hard-core Brexiters concede that the project isn’t working for the country, they reach for tired claims that there have been benefits in certain high-profile areas. The reality is very different, as Andrew Levi explains, in the case of the Covid vaccine public health response.

Radical Remainers

‘The Great British, world-beating, Covid vaccine triumph was due to Brexit.’

So (yet again) we are told. This time by a national news media commentator, [Andrew has deliberately left him unnamed as an act of charity…anyone remember or care to guess?] who says Brexit was right: the Brexit we have is wrong, but nonetheless it has brought benefits, Covid vaccine success being one of them. Anyone disputing the claimed link between Brexit and UK Covid vaccine achievements is, apparently, a ‘radical Remainer’ or (even worse) ‘rabid Rejoiner’.

This despite the well-known fact that the key UK decisions on Covid vaccines were taken while the UK was still subject to EU rules, during the EU exit transition period in 2020. That on its own is enough to refute this bizarre claim of Brexit benefit.

A Parallel Brexiter Universe

But there’s an interesting story to be told, so it’s worth playing along and examining the parallel universe in which, in some indefinable way, the advancing process of Brexit was so positively transforming the UK that it changed what our government was able to do about Covid vaccines and led, substantially, to what is claimed to have been an exceptionally good performance.

Rationally, to accept that you’d have to have evidence that no EU country got similar or better results than the UK. Or, being stricter, you’d look at the most comparable countries, correcting as well as you could for any confounding factors (in the jargon) which, for example, might affect mortality.

Fortunately, some good data are available. The three most obvious EU comparators are the UK’s G7 peers, France, Germany & Italy. So let’s look at their vaccine effort compared to the UK, in easy three-month sections.

(In the charts below, the first covers a slightly shorter time period. The cut-off dates for it and the subsequent charts were chosen to help clarify the picture in a fair way. But if that doesn’t suit your needs, look at them as a continuous whole. Or go to the Our World In Data website and create them in any format which suits you).


How quickly did each country get how much of its population fully vaccinated – the full, initial ‘vaccination protocol’, usually two doses?

In the very early phase, the UK was ahead, then its EU peers zoomed past. Apparently it wasn’t necessary to have left the EU to do well.

In the next three months, the UK moved ahead: it wasn’t necessary, apparently, to be in the EU to be able to do well on getting vaccines into arms.

The UK’s lead then rapidly fell away: apparently (again) it wasn’t necessary to be outside the EU to be able to do a good job.

Thereafter the UK fell, and has stayed, behind its EU peers on the proportion of the population which completed the initial vaccination protocol (‘full vaccination’).

Once more: being in the EU didn’t prevent countries from doing well on vaccination.

Of course, in late 2021 and beyond, we were looking at booster shots, not just the initial (usually two-shot) ‘full’ vaccination. Total doses delivered per 100 people gives us a good indication of what was happening. Here’s how the next three months looked on that basis – being outside the EU clearly wasn’t a magic bullet.

The Truth About Death

Alright, our Brexiter commentator friend might object, but the real issue is what the impact was, not just how many doses were injected.

True. And there are multiple, complex factors and impacts to consider. Economically, despite repeated government assertions to the contrary, the UK has done notably badly over the period concerned. But let’s stick to the health aspects here. Specifically, death, where we have useful figures over many months.

Here you see the UK against its G7 peers in the EU, over the whole pandemic period, up to the same end date as the charts above (the latest couple of months make no real difference).

The UK has done tragically badly. Italy even worse. France better. Germany much better.

Our Brexiter friend is a tough cookie. He has invested much emotional energy and most of his remaining credibility in being ‘right’ about Brexit. So perhaps he now counters with (specious) arguments about ‘deaths with’ rather than ‘deaths from’ Covid. And, more reasonably, he also raises questions about differing conditions in different countries.

Fortunately, we have calculations of multi-factor, excess mortality for the countries concerned. And it turns out they tell a very similar story.

If you’re European and in the G7, Brexit causes vast numbers of avoidable deaths in your population during a pandemic, compared to your EU peers. Except for Italy.

A ridiculous statement, you might reasonably think. But no more so than the claim that the UK achieved ‘world-beating’ (or other hyperbolic description) Covid vaccine success ‘due to Brexit’.

And let’s just pause for a moment to remember the tens of thousands of people lost to this horrible disease in the UK, compared to what would have been the case had our outcomes matched the more successful of our peers in the EU.


EU: a Giant, Making a Giant Effort

In case you were wondering, the EU as a whole has a somewhat lower Covid death rate per million than the UK. (There are no overall figures for excess mortality in the EU. Also, please note, this and the next chart show recent figures).

The EU & UK are about the same on initial, full vaccination as a proportion of the population. The UK is somewhat ahead on total doses, as a proportion.

In absolute terms, the EU as a whole has administered around six times the doses of Covid vaccine compared to the UK. As it had to, of course: but the effort and complexity were huge, including the political and logistical challenges of ensuring, to a substantial degree, that all – not just the richest countries, for example – got a fair deal and an effective service.

It Takes a Continent, and More

We should also recall that European (including UK) vaccine development, production and delivery is a continent-wide, and global, effort.

Important parts of that happened in the UK. Far more happened in the EU and the USA, as well as other locations around the world. The widely used Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for example, was developed by a German company, in partnership with an American pharma giant, allowing it to be produced at great scale. Some ingredients for some of its production came from the UK. Without deliveries of the finished product from the EU, the UK would have had a major problem.

Return to Reality

What have we learned?

First, what the UK achieved on the Covid vaccine front wasn’t a result of Brexit. But we knew that already, before nonetheless humouring our Brexiter friend and entering his alternative world, to test his hypothesis.

Second, our EU G7 peers did better than, or similarly well to, the UK in the early phase of vaccination delivery to the population; less well in the middle, and similarly well or better in the next period and beyond.

Third, on outcomes, two of the three key EU peers of the UK had lower death rates, measured by Covid 19 deaths, and by excess mortality. One had higher death rates.

Fourth, the UK was dependent on the EU and other international partners for key elements of its vaccine programme. It also made important contributions to some international partners’ vaccine capabilities.

Let’s now leave the space-time wormhole and our Brexiter friend’s universe, to re-enter the real world, with a realistic appreciation of the United Kingdom; of our neighbours and allies; and of Brexit.