Robert Peston Robert Peston

Why didn’t Boris act sooner against coronavirus?

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It is too easy to become obsessive in whole or partial lockdown. And my obsession for weeks now is why ministers and Whitehall failed to learn the big lesson of the 2007/8 banking crisis – namely that high impact, low probability risks wreak maximum damage, and if they have the potential to destroy your way of life, money and resource should be no object in warding them off.

To start on a more positive note, Boris Johnson seems belatedly to have found the appropriate gauge of risk versus reward. Because although the PM on Sunday conceded that a vaccine may never come to ‘fruition’, he has nonetheless committed £93 million of our money to helping AstraZeneca create a vaccine manufacturing plant that could make 30 million doses as soon as this September.

In normal circumstances, it would be the height of public-spending folly to commit £93 million on a venture knowing that there is a high probability it will be a white elephant.

But if you compare the £93 million with the hundreds of billions of income and tax revenues being wiped out by the epidemic, or the £150 billion-odd being spent by government on supporting jobs and livelihoods, £93 million looks almost like a conservative investment.

One of those involved in the vaccine project put it like this to me: ‘We will have a first sense [of whether the vaccine works] by the end of our Phase I/II early June, especially as it relates to safety. But efficacy will only be proven (or not) by the end of August. We are manufacturing ‘at risk’, i.e. assuming the vaccine will be successful. This is the only way to be ready to supply by the end of September if the efficacy is confirmed at the end of August. We are completely changing the traditional development process where you wait to see efficacy and safety before manufacturing.

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Robert Peston
Written by
Robert Peston
Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. His articles originally appeared on his ITV News blog.

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