Last summer the UK and the European Union were locked in fierce negotiations, with both sides refusing to budge.
Behind the scenes, officials from both sides were searching for a landing zone for a potential deal.
Yet the key sticking point was not the level playing field, nor the future of the fishing industry: it was how best to secure vital Covid vaccines.
And unlike the Brexit negotiations, there was to be no last-minute breakthrough. In the second week of July, the UK walked away.
Officials involved in those talks now believe the UK’s ‘vaccine no deal’ with the EU was the “best decision we’ve made in the whole pandemic”.
Speaking to The Telegraph on condition of anonymity, multiple Whitehall sources said the decision taken by then-business secretary Alok Sharma in early July had freed this country to lead the world in rolling out the lifesaving jabs.
“At the time, a lot of people said it was madness. They said it was putting Brexit over lives,” one senior official said.
“But whether you agree or disagree with the decision to leave the EU, if we were still a member state we wouldn’t be this far ahead.”
Talks between the two sides began in June, when the UK had already signed deals with AstraZeneca and Pfizer, with agreements for millions more doses in the pipeline.
Officials from the EU offered the UK the chance to join the combined purchasing power of 27 member states, but under a few conditions.
To join, the UK would have to immediately cease all negotiations with any supplier also in talks with the EU. The European Commission would have an exclusive right to negotiate with vaccine manufacturers on our behalf, while the UK, unlike EU Member States, would have no say on which companies to negotiate with, how many doses to buy, at what price and on what delivery schedule.
“There was a complete loss of control and complete loss of say over the entire strategy,” one Whitehall official said.
“We told the EU, we can’t participate like this. For a few weeks we tried to negotiate on governance – basically we were saying we would only take part if we had more of a say.
“But the EU wouldn’t move.”
Pressure to join forces with Brussels was intense. Leading scientists had published a letter in the Guardian suggesting that a failure to do so would likely leave the UK in a queue with other non-EU countries to acquire the vaccine after EU member states, and on less-favourable terms.
In the first week of July, business secretary Alok Sharma made the final decision: as a newly non-EU member state, the UK would go it alone. On July 10 the UK’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, sent a letter to the European Commission confirming the ‘no deal’.
“The UK Government has decided on this occasion not to join this internal EU Initiative,” Sir Tim wrote.
That decision, although potentially risky at the time, has arguably proven a master stroke.
Little more than six months later, the EU’s rollout is in disarray. Brussels finally approved the purchase of 300 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in December, while the UK struck a deal for 30m doses in June.
Global vaccine rollout – Europe
This country became the first in the world to sign deals with AstraZeneca in May, and accelerated approval of the Oxford vaccine through the MHRA on December 30.
On the Continent, the Oxford vaccine is yet to be approved. After the EU relaxed the rules on member states striking their own deals, the German government has come under fire for lagging behind other countries in accessing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – despite BioNTech being a German company.
Meanwhile the Netherlands only began vaccinating on January 6, nearly a month after the UK.
Speaking to Der Spiegel magazine, the inventor of the Pfizer vaccine Uğur Şahin suggested this week that the EU had hedged its bets, and lost.
“The process in Europe certainly didn’t proceed as quickly and straightforwardly as with other countries,” he said.
“In part because the European Union isn’t directly authorized, and member states also have a say. That can result in a loss of time in a negotiation situation where a strong message is needed.
“There was an assumption that many other companies would produce vaccines. There was apparently an attitude of: We’ll get enough, it won’t be that bad, we have everything under control. That surprised me.”
UK officials accept that we are likely to have paid a premium price for vaccines compared to the negotiating might of Brussels.
But in the corridors of Whitehall, there is a quiet satisfaction.
“We don’t really want to rub people’s noses in it,” one Whitehall source said.
“But at the end of the day time is of the essence and getting early supply of vaccine was the absolute priority. It’s turned out to be perhaps the best decision we’ve taken.”