Britain is going through its darkest days of the pandemic. The delayed effect of a highly contagious virus variant has pushed daily deaths well into four figures. Hospitals are struggling to cope with a higher caseload than at the peak of last year’s first wave. Yet one chink of light is the encouraging early pace of its vaccine rollout.
From procurement of protective gear to the test and trace programme, from its lockdown timings to its handling of school exams, much of the government’s response to Covid-19 has been behind the curve, or simply inept. There are reasons why UK deaths per capita are in the world’s top five. But on vaccinations, with nearly 5m people or 7.5 per cent of the population already given a first jab, the UK is ahead of any large economy. It lags behind only Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on vaccinations per capita.
The success reflects, in part, the fact that the NHS and public health bodies are at the heart of the initiative. The health service has long experience of vaccine programmes, and has built a strong immunisation culture. Take-up of annual flu jabs is higher than in many counterparts. While volunteers and private groups are involved the government has not — as in areas such as track and trace — contracted out the effort or tried to build a new operation, but relied on a trusted institution. The contrast with the US, where the lack of a national healthcare system has led to a fragmented approach, is stark.
While Britain is not unique here, the vaccine effort is benefiting too from early — risky — decisions to invest in development and pre-order millions of doses. Kate Bingham, the venture capitalist and chair of the UK vaccine task force, faced criticism for hiring costly PR advisers. But she deserves credit for shrewd investments in a portfolio of seven vaccines. Those decisions helped developers, including the homegrown Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, begin manufacturing doses before it was even known if they worked. They were assisted by a flexible response from UK regulators, who agreed to assess data on a rolling basis and issue rapid emergency approvals for three vaccines. Despite US and EU criticism, they insist standards were not loosened.
Large caveats remain. Wide variations in progress exist between regions. Analysis by the Financial Times has found hundreds of thousands of people in England will struggle to reach their nearest vaccination centre without access to a car, deepening concerns over a “postcode lottery”. Red tape slowed recruitment of retired medics to assist, and community pharmacies could have been brought in earlier.
Most significantly, the high numbers given a first dose are in part a function of the controversial decision to delay second doses for 12 weeks or more. Oxford/AstraZeneca says it is comfortable with the strategy, and tested a range of intervals between doses. The makers of the BioNTech/Pfizer jab are wary. Though the data are not definitive, an Israeli study has suggested a single dose of the BioNTech vaccine may be less effective than UK government assumptions, and than trial results indicated.
Speaking positively of an early-stage initiative is a temptation to fate. Supply shortages may develop; the split-dose strategy may backfire. Worse, a vaccine-resistant variant could emerge, forcing Britain — and others — to start all over again. Even without hitches, a successful inoculation programme should not eclipse the past year’s egregious mistakes once a public inquiry into the government’s handling is held. Yet Britons for months have been starved of good news on the virus. Here, for now, they have some.
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