Patrick Vallance has rightly come under fire over the use of statistics during the government’s now infamous lockdown press conference, but we ought to give him some credit for the UK’s preparedness for a Covid vaccine. It was Vallance’s forward thinking that established the taskforce responsible for securing 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine (enough to cover 20 million people) back in May 2020. This taskforce also made the call to spread the UK’s vaccine investment across six suppliers. People will quibble about the number of doses ordered, but thanks to Vallance, the UK is in a position to benefit from whichever vaccine reaches the market first.
After months of negative headlines, Boris Johnson's government also deserves some praise. Who knows what Labour – with its natural bias against Big Pharma – would have done had they been in power under Corbyn. They certainly wouldn’t have appointed the controversial Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist, to head up the vaccine taskforce, as Johnson and Hancock did six months ago.
Yet thanks to this taskforce, we’ve not only secured a significant number of doses from Pfizer, we’ve also ordered tens of millions of doses of the Oxford vaccine, which Matt Hancock is saying should reach completion in the new year. As the Regius Professor of Medicine John Bell at Oxford University claims, this success is down to Kate Bingham:
'She downed tools and did the due diligence and she was really effective and really ruthless and really tough. It’s not a given that the UK — given its record — would have ended up where it is now without her.'
Bingham has attracted controversy in recent weeks over the hiring of expensive PR consultants during her tenure on the taskforce and she is due to step down at the end of the year. But it would be a shame if her overriding legacy was this story and not the heavy-lifting she did to get Britain to the front of the queue in the race for a vaccine. Her team had the unenviable task of choosing between 150 vaccines in development – to land on two apparently successful ones is no mean feat. It doesn’t take much to imagine the sort of headlines we would be reading had the government backed the wrong horse.
On testing, curfews and track and trace, the government’s delivery has been sub-par but could vaccines be the moment where they redeem themselves? Hancock and Johnson say they have bolstered the NHS’s ability to deliver the vaccine through bringing in the armed forces to help with its delivery and instructing GPs to prepare for a seven-day a week roll out.
It remains to be seen how effectively these two vastly different institutions will work together on the ground and how readily the public will be able to access the vaccines. There’s already talk from the BMA of local GP surgeries grouping together on one testing site to deliver it. But this raises the question of how far will people have to travel to get vaccinated.
Yet what’s abundantly clear is that Labour would never have had the gumption or ideological incentive to work with big business and the private sector in the way that Johnson’s team have done. There is much about this government’s response to the pandemic that has gone against the fundamentals of conservatism: intrusion on personal liberty and huge public spending programmes have so far been the hallmarks of the government’s approach. But ultimately it could be the decision to stick to a very conservative principle which regains them the public’s trust: their belief in the efficacy of the private sector may end up paying political dividends.