Who should we thank for our Covid vaccines? For many, the answer is straightforward: the National Health Service.
‘Thank you NHS’, says a profile sticker shared by thousands of Brits on Facebook. But while Britain’s undoubtedly successful vaccine programme owes a great deal to the efforts of NHS staff, is it right to thank the NHS itself? Left to its own devices, would the NHS have delivered in quite the same way? And how much should we credit Boris’s vaccine task force – rather than the health service – for the vaccine rollout?
I am a critic of the NHS – but not for the sake of it. I criticise it when it delivers worse outcomes than comparable systems, which it often does. But where it does as well as other systems, or better, I am happy to acknowledge that, and this is one of those occasions. So, credit where it is due. The vaccine has been the big game changer, and Britain’s vaccine rollout is an unambiguous success story. More than half of the population have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, which is almost twice as high as in the EU. And it is showing results. In early February, the UK still recorded more Covid deaths per day than the EU, relative to population size. The EU’s death rate is now much greater than the UK’s, because the latter has all but collapsed, while the former is only coming down painfully slowly.
Nonetheless, NHS cheerleaders should not get too carried away. First of all, a vaccine is a very unusual kind of good. In areas where everyone wants the same thing, and where the delivery of that thing consists of monotonous, repetitive tasks, a state bureaucracy can indeed be just as effective as a market process.
A vaccine is the perfect example of this.