Boris Johnson has told Tory MPs that “capitalism” and “greed” are behind the UK’s vaccine drive success.
The Prime Minister made the comments at a private meeting of Tory MPs, but then hastily sought to backtrack, repeatedly asking those at the 1922 Committee to forget he used the terms as he praised AstraZeneca for supplying the Oxford vaccine at cost.
He told MPs at the 1922 Committee: "The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed my friends." He later added, "Actually I regret saying it,” and asked MPs repeatedly to, "forget I said that".
The comments risk inflaming a row with the European Commission over access to vaccines, with the organisation’s president Ursula von der Leyen threatening a ban on exports of jabs to the UK because it is angry that AstraZeneca has not supplied the doses expected for the bloc.
But sources insist the PM was not discussing the row, but instead talking about the wider scientific endeavour.
Witnesses say the comments came as he hailed pharma giants for producing the jabs, and that the PM made a joke about how details of the 1922 Committee virtual meetings often leak.
‘An incredibly revealing remark’
Vaccine campaigners have accused Johnson of a “warped” understanding of the crisis, with the Global Justice Now campaign, which is campaigning for wider international access to jabs, hitting out at the Prime Minister.
The organisation’s director Nick Dearden said: “The Prime Minister will call this comment a slip of the tongue, but it’s an incredibly revealing remark. It shows just how warped his understanding of this crisis is.
“We have a vaccine because of massive public investment and the remarkable work of scientists at publicly-funded universities. We’ve rolled it out because of our incredible National Health Service.
“Greed, however, drove big pharma to privatise this work and withhold doses from millions worldwide to protect their profits. And, if Boris Johnson keeps letting it happen, there’ll be more coronavirus mutations that could send us back to square one.”
Former shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon said Mr Johnson was “wrong” as “billions in public funds went into developing the vaccines”.
“Now the vaccine patents must be waived to ramp up production and save lives all across the world,” the Labour MP said.
‘We were fighting a novel disease’
The gaffe came shortly after a Downing Street press conference held on the one year anniversary of the nation’s first coronavirus lockdown, and following a day of mourning on Tuesday (23 March) for those who had lost their lives during the pandemic.
At the briefing, Johnson said: “In retrospect there are probably many things that we wish that we’d known and many things that we wish we’d done differently at the time.”
"We were fighting a novel disease under very different circumstances than any previous government had imagined,” he added.
Answering questions from journalists, the Prime Minister said the “single biggest” false assumption the Government made was that about the potential for asymptomatic transmission, which governed “a lot of policy in the early days”.
He added that the reality of asymptomatic transmission “certainly led to real problems that we then had to work very, very hard to make up ground.”
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said having adequate testing in place at the beginning of the pandemic would have made a “big difference”.
He told the conference: “The one thing that I think would have been really important earlier on is to have much better data on what was happening.
“We simply didn’t have that at the beginning and it was very difficult to know the speed at which things were moving and therefore make decisions based on the real-time data which we can do now and that would’ve made a big difference.”
‘A litany of errors’
Today (24 March), the Prime Minister is due to be grilled by senior MPs over his handling of the pandemic as he also admitted the events of the past year would live with him for the rest of his life.
He will spend Wednesday afternoon in front of the Liaison Committee, made up of Commons select committee chairs, in which he will be asked about his response to coronavirus.
The session will take place after Mr Johnson’s weekly sparring with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said there had been a “litany of errors” from Mr Johnson during the crisis and that “lessons must be learnt”.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics showed a total of 149,117 people have had Covid-19 recorded on their death certificate since the pandemic began.
The Government said a further 112 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus as of Tuesday, bringing the total by that metric to 126,284.
Be ‘very wary’ of a third wave
As part of Tuesday’s press briefing, Johnson also said the nation is “step by step, jab by jab” on the path to “reclaiming our freedoms”.
He told the Downing Street press conference: “We will meet our targets, offering a first dose to everyone over 50 by the middle of next month, as well as those under 50 who are clinically vulnerable, and offering a first dose of a vaccine to every adult by the end of July.
“And cautiously but irreversibly, step by step, jab by jab, this country is on the path to reclaiming our freedoms.”
But the Prime Minister said we must be “very wary” of the potential for a third wave, when asked by a member of the public how the Government is planning to stop the spread from Europe into the UK.
He told the Downing Street briefing: “On the European continent we are seeing distinct signs of a third wave and they’re taking steps to abate that, to deal with that.
"In so far as it’s necessary to take extra measures to protect this country against new variants, variants of concern, of course we’re going to do that.”