With first doses of the vaccine due to be given within hours, the UK is facing another epic problem that could derail everything.
The UK government has been forced to develop contingency plans to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine can enter Britain without delay as the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms large.
On Monday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to speak to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to see if progress was still possible in talks on the future trading relationship between Britain and the 27-member bloc.
The temporary transition period between the UK and EU is due to end at midnight on 31 December 2020 which is when Britain could revert to trading on World Trade Organisation terms.
This week is crunch time for political negotiations due to the time it will take for a deal to be translated into European languages and ratified by parliament on both sides of the channel.
However talks remain deadlocked over key issues such as fishing and the “level playing field” between the two sides and the chance of no-deal has been put by some at more than 50 per cent.
The stakes have now been raised even further by the fact the UK is relying on a Pfizer manufacturing plant in Belgium to supply doses of the only COVID-19 vaccine it has approved for use.
On Monday local time, doses of the lifesaving immunisation were on board trucks crossing into Britain in specialist cold-storage boxes ahead of the first mass rollout on Tuesday morning.
“Time is obviously now in very short supply. We are in the final stages. We are prepared to negotiate for as long as we have time available, if we think an agreement is still possible,” the spokesman said.
“We’ve been clear on multiple occasions that we won’t be extending the transition period. That remains the case.”
Asked about whether talks could continue based on a provisional deal, he said, “I can rule that out.”
The potential for a no-deal Brexit against the brutal economic backdrop of COVID-19 has been painted as a major failure of statecraft and diplomacy on both sides.
In recent days UK ministers and health officials have been at pains to point out alternatives are in place for vaccine delivery should roads and ports become blocked and chaotic as predicted in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Conservative MP James Cleverly assured Sky News on Monday the government had “extensive plans in place to ensure the protection of the vaccine supply.
“As you can imagine that is the absolute priority product and we are committed to make sure that we get that vaccine supply to the UK,” he said.
When pressed on the detail, Mr Cleverly said he hadn’t “got the details at hand” but “we’ve looked at use of non-commercial flights, we’ve got border arrangements in place.”
“I have no doubt that the EU will help us to facilitate the travel,” he said, adding “There’s lives at stake.”
Dr June Raine, the Chief Executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) who approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine also assured the public a no-deal Brexit won’t interrupt supply.
“We are ready and we know that whatever the deal we will be able to ensure that people have access,” she said.
Director of UK in a Changing Europe, Professor Anand Menon said he still wouldn’t hazard a guess at which way the talks will go, with issues at hand “with or without a deal.”
He said with pharma firms already under pressure during the pandemic, there is certainly a risk of delays and tailbacks at the border which could be particularly challenging for a vaccine that needs to be stored at -70 degrees.
“If you’re having to keep things at -70 it makes them more difficult because you need specialist storage facilities and there are fewer of them than there are bog-standard warehouses,” he said.
When asked about whether the economic backdrop could mean a no-deal Brexit would risk public wrath on both sides, he said “it depends how the impacts are felt and come through” adding that both sides are likely to blame the other.
“You could call it a failure, or you could call it a victory of principle on both sides. It would be a testament to the priority that is given to politics over economics.”
The UK is preparing for its biggest ever immunisation drive in 2021 as officials roll out a coronavirus vaccine, initially targeting those over 80 and frontline healthcare works.
Tuesday has been dubbed “V-Day” by health secretary Matt Hancock. Around 50 hospitals have started receiving the initial consignment of 800,000 doses – enough to cover 400,000 people – with military flights on standby to transport more across the channel if roads are blocked. A total of 40 million doses are on order so far
Other vaccines, such as the Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca versions are still being evaluated but could also prove viable.
At one Croydon hospital that had already received doses of the vaccine, a lab technician lifted a package of doses out of dry ice in a box and transferred the batch to a specialist freezer.
“To know that they are here, and we are among the first in the country to actually receive the vaccine and therefore the first in the world, is just amazing, I’m so proud,” said Louise Coughlan, joint chief pharmacist at the Croydon hospital trust.
The Queen, 94, and Prince Philip, 99 are expected to get the jab early because of their age and will let the public know when they have done.