Kate Andrews

Why is Boris talking down Britain’s vaccine success again?

Why is Boris talking down Britain's vaccine success again?
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A few months ago, the Prime Minister was describing the jabs as the 'scientific cavalry’ that was on its way to save us from our Covid – and lockdown – woes. But now the cavalry has arrived in the form of a vaccine rollout of unqualified success, the rhetoric has changed. The vaccine is no longer enough, according to Boris. Today we've seen another worrying shift in the PM’s words.

In an interview with the BBC, Johnson broke the link between the UK's ability to reopen and its vaccination programme success:

The reductions in these numbers, in hospitalisations and in deaths and in infections, has not been achieved by the vaccination programme...it's the lockdown that has been overwhelming important in delivering this improvement in the pandemic and in the figures we're seeing. Yes, of course, the vaccination programme has helped. But the bulk of the work in reducing the disease has been done by the lockdown.

Is Johnson right to give so much of the credit to lockdown? Keeping everyone inside for months has certainly worked to suppress the virus. But as his officials used to note, that is all lockdowns can do: suppress, not eliminate. Lockdowns help us to avoid the virus, but what about actually protecting us against it? 

The Prime Minister would have a stronger point if it weren't for the antibody data the Office for National Statistics has been supplying fortnightly. Its surveys have been showing the UK's estimated prevalence of Covid antibodies following the same, upwards trajectory of the vaccine programme, especially when you factor in the several weeks it takes to build up protection and when the UK started ramping up its rollout. 

That Covid infections were falling steadily throughout February and March suggests these rapidly increasing levels of antibody protection were formed not through infection, but through vaccination. In December, antibody prevalence in the UK was estimated around 13 per cent: it's now over 55 per cent, and counting.

If you break it down by age, the case grows stronger. In England, Wales and Scotland, prevalence in age groups 65+ ranges from 74 per cent to over 90 per cent. If we accept this data, it's near impossible to rule out that the fall in Covid deaths in this age range could be partially attributed to vaccines.

Why then is Johnson coming so dangerously close to talking down the vaccines? It certainly isn't a one off. The PM recently insisted that two fully vaccinated people mustn’t meet inside because ‘vaccines are not giving 100 per cent protection’. Earlier this month, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance made a similar point in one of his press conference slide shows, arguing that ‘vaccines are not 100 per cent protective’. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty reiterated this view, saying ‘that there will always be some people, who have either chosen not to be vaccinated, or where the vaccine has had much less effect.’

Of course, no one ever expected a fool-proof jab. But nonetheless, the vaccines being used in the UK have impressive efficacy rates, and, based on current data, working extremely well to prevent hospitalisation and death. But you won't hear it worded like this by the PM.

Is Boris being so cautious for other reasons? His language may well be designed to ensure continued compliance with the Covid rules, especially as pub gardens reopen and people start socialising again. If so, it's a short-sighted tactic, as it saps confidence in the government's strategy. Everyone can see vaccines are working wonders, so why can’t Boris say so? 

Is this about concern over new variants? A variant that could genuinely escape the vaccines would be a game-changer, of the worst kind, but so far the PM and his officials haven't presented the public with any data to suggest this has been discovered. 

The PM's latest comments also raise an important question: to what extent will his government lean towards vaccines or lockdowns as a tactic for controlling Covid in the future? The simple answer, for now, is that Boris isn't prepared to tell us.