Leading article

What have we learnt from this pandemic?

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

So great have been the government’s failures over Covid that it would be easy to forget to give credit where it is due. The fact that Britain was the first country to begin a public vaccination programme — and this week became the first to have two vaccines in use — did not come about by chance. It happened because the government had the foresight to pre-order large quantities of promising vaccines and because Britain’s medicines regulator, the MHRA, worked fast and effectively to assess the data from the trials of those vaccines. The vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca underline the lifesaving role played by an often-maligned pharmaceutical industry.

But Britain’s head start will count for little if the momentum cannot be sustained. Israel is showing the world what is possible: a country barely bigger than Wales has so far administered vaccines to a greater proportion of its population than the UK. The US is also catching up. A speedy vaccine rollout has become all the more essential thanks to the apparent greater transmissibility of the new strains of Sars-CoV-2. It’s easy to envisage circumstances where the epidemic spreads so rapidly that even the UK’s current ambitious rollout plan will not be enough.

Two million doses a week can be made in the factories. Ministers say they have the apparatus to vaccinate at this rate and faster. Holdups come in other areas. Each fresh batch of the Oxford vaccine needs to stay in storage for 20 days, then be tested by the regulator. So 15 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine have been manufactured and four million of them put into vials, but only 530,000 doses were available for distribution at the beginning of this week. Speeding up this process will not be an easy task.

Covid has tested the functioning of government and its agencies like never before in modern times. It is not a case of one political philosophy triumphing over another. There have been cases of bungling and inflexible bureaucrats, illustrated by the demand (now retracted) that retired doctors and nurses volunteering with the vaccination programme prove their competence in ‘preventing radicalisation’.

Yet Covid has exposed weaknesses in public–private partnerships too. Handsome sums have been paid to consultants to develop a test-and-trace system whose contribution to controlling the epidemic has been marginal at best. Covid has shown that ‘calling in the private sector’ is no guarantee of success. The rush to procure PPE by enlisting new private contractors allowed a scandalous waste of public money. Our unpreparedness for this pandemic is an indictment of the extensive contingency plans that went before — and the hubris that led to British officials genuinely believing we were better placed than almost any other country for a pandemic.

How to handle a future pandemic will rightly be the subject of great debate in years to come. Firm conclusions may be elusive: we have had a worldwide experiment with lockdowns and school closures, to mixed results. And then there is the role of public opinion. The Prime Minister has privately remarked that he has been astonished to find how easy it was to take away liberty — and how hard it is to give it back.

We may or may not settle on using lockdowns to tackle future pandemics. What we do know, however, is that Britain’s disaster planning is inadequate. There must be a greater emphasis on preparing for ‘black swan’ events. And — importantly — a recognition that the major tools deployed will be ones that are not imaginable until the event actually arises. This time last year, who would have imagined lockdown being deployed in a democracy? Or that vaccines, which normally take ten years to develop, could be invented and rolled out in ten months?

The best insurance against disaster is to have an agile government that is able to respond quickly: to innovate quickly, to experiment, to be prepared to fail. All this is expensive and Britain has just borrowed more money, relative to the size of our economy, than almost any other country on earth. This is not a trick we can repeat. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, tells us on p14 that the strategy was to place big bets on many horses. One of them — the Oxford vaccine — has come off. But the cumulative cost of the other bets has pushed national debt to over 100 per cent of GDP. This will narrow the ability of future governments to act.

Because ministers long for the pandemic to end, there’s a danger of overlooking new challenges. What if millions of ‘at-risk’ people do not show up for vaccination? What if the vaccines are less effective against new variants of the virus, the South African variant for instance? And what if a new variant turns out to be more deadly, as well as more contagious? Optimism — and exhaustion — should not prevent contingency planning.

If we are in the final few months of the pandemic, it will be tempting for the Prime Minister to give us deadlines: he speaks of Easter Sunday as the day for national resurrection. It might turn out that he is right. But over–promising and under-delivering — on everything from avoiding lockdown to schools reopening — has been a constant feature of his response to the pandemic. When this country begins a proper recovery there will be a place for optimism — but misplaced optimism damages public trust.

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