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Britain’s Covid-19 vaccine success contains an important lesson for the rest of the world: a pandemic is no place for the rigid application of free-market principles. Boris Johnson has got many things wrong in the past year, but his decision to mobilise the Keynesian state has saved lives. Faced with deadly coronavirus, Mr Johnson followed in the slipstream of the US to fund, develop and produce vaccines through centralised bureaucracy.
The UK government helped to pump-prime the industry by buying large quantities of untested technologies months before almost anyone else. While others worried about where the potential liabilities would lie, Mr Johnson said the UK state would bear the risks. His administration was content for regulators to fast-track Covid vaccine approvals. A combination of strong planning, a willingness to spend and the centralised NHS structure has put vaccines into people’s arms at world-beating rates.
The UK ordered 360m vaccine doses from seven companies. This is more than the country needed, and leftover stock ought to be distributed equitably in poorer nations. But the purchase mitigated for potential delays from a single manufacturer. These risks were real. When production problems at AstraZeneca’s plant in Belgium impacted supplies, the resulting standoff with the European commission prompted an ill-advised export control on vaccines leaving the bloc. Cooler heads eventually prevailed. Brussels’ problem is a lack of government involvement in its vaccine strategy. It will now expand its reach along British lines.
The way crises are defined and unfold is a political matter. Democracies can be slow off the mark in assessing the nature and scale of unknown perils. Mr Johnson failed to appreciate the threat from Covid-19, to impose lockdowns early and to procure protective equipment for health workers. The reckoning for those monumental mistakes is yet to arrive. But it is proper to note that there is a role for failure in stimulating political creativity. Errors, as the prime minister and the EU have discovered, are a precondition for ongoing success. In the words of Samuel Beckett, one can only “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
With Sars-CoV-2 there is a race between infection and vaccination. The rate at which people are vaccinated will be limited by supply and logistics, whereas infection can grow exponentially. Lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing can reduce the infection rate. But the emergence of new variants reduces the efficacy of vaccines. Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia has worked out that this means less chance herd immunity can be achieved by ending viral transmission with only a section of population inoculated.
Everybody will have to get a jab. This will reduce hospitalisations and death rates. There is emerging evidence that suggests Covid transmission can still occur even when people are vaccinated, so restrictions can only be slowly lifted. It is a sobering thought that we as a society will have to embrace: Britain will not be back to a pre-Covid normal until almost until everybody has either had the vaccine or been infected with coronavirus. That won’t happen any time soon.
Mr Johnson is burdened by optimism. He prefers the sunny to the sombre. Instead of getting schools open or hotels back on their feet, the prime minister wonders whether the public can have a summer holiday this year. Mr Johnson needs to get serious. He took too long to read the writing on the wall and now seems sedated by his vaccine success. He has an opportunity to put things right after months of getting things wrong. For the country’s sake, he should take it.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on the vaccine rollout: the state we’re in | Coronavirus