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Vaccines. The United Kingdom v a “rules-based organisation”.

One challenge for Brexiteers trying to sell their project to sceptics is overcoming the widespread psychological tendency towards loss aversion. This is a pattern of behaviour which, when applied to economics, is defined by Wikipedia as “the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains”.

Simply put, and perhaps not unreasonably, people tend to react more strongly to the prospect of missing out on something they already have, which is real and tangible, than on gaining something new, which is not.

This raises obvious difficulties when it comes to selling Brexit. Even if you are convinced that leaving the European Union will make Britain better off in the long-run, those gains lie in the future (and are in any event subject to our making the right policy decisions to reach them, which isn’t a given). Meanwhile the downsides, in the form of port delays, trade disruption, and so on are felt at once.

Not all of these will endure – some will simply be the reality of de-alignment, others ‘teething issues’ – but they still make the costs of Brexit more apparent than the benefits to those not predisposed to support the idea.

Which is why the extraordinary story of the UK’s vaccine rollout is so significant. Not only because by providing a happy ending to the Covid-19 saga it might yet, as Tom McTague argues, salvage public perception of Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic despite our passing the grim milestone of 100,000 casualties. It’s also an unusual example of an immediate, tangible benefit to Britain being outside the bloc.

As this interview with Pascal Soriot, the CEO of AstraZeneca, makes clear, that benefit was simply that London was able to conclude a deal months before Brussels could. This gave the company more time to work the kinks out of its supply chain, and meant that by the time the EU finally got to the table all AstraZeneca could offer was a “best efforts” contract that reflected the difficulty of scaling production up in the time available. As he puts it:

“We’ve had also teething issues like this in the UK supply chain. But the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the UK we have  had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced. As for Europe, we are three months behind in fixing those glitches.”

In response, the EU is trying to claim that its contract with AstraZeneca doesn’t contain a clause to the effect that other customers have higher priority, although unless there’s a clause to the effect that the EU itself has priority it isn’t obvious that matters, and even whilst ‘upping the ante’ Brussels does seem to admit the implications of the ‘best efforts’ formulation.

Either way, it’s pretty desperate stuff that doesn’t exactly smack of ‘modern, rules-based organisation’ behaviour and has the potential to deeply poison UK-EU relations if it looks like the latter is trying to make off with our vaccine supplies (especially if they break international law, perhaps in a “specific and limited way”, to do so).

Some will doubtless point out that there was nothing technically stopping the UK pursuing an independent vaccine policy. But the fate of the ‘Inclusive Vaccine Alliance’, which saw France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands team up to secure vaccines before being browbeaten into giving way to the European Commission, strongly suggests that we wouldn’t have. Especially when the UK was home to the European Medicines Agency and had a general track record of gold-plating, rather than subverting, the EU order.

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