Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, says there is a ‘70 to 80 per cent chance’ of vaccinating all vulnerable groups by Easter, ‘provided they don’t screw up the distribution of the vaccine’.
By ‘they’ I presume Sir John principally means Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who between them have presided over a series of debacles, including PPE shortages and our less than ‘world beating’ test-and-trace system.
Will the Government get it right this time? Will it roll out the new Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine — and other viable ones that should soon be available — in an orderly, speedy and efficient way?
Or will there be endless cock-ups as the vaccine goes to the wrong places in the wrong quantities, while thousands of people are made to wait hours for the jab in doctors’ surgeries or makeshift vaccinating centres, infecting one another with Covid-19 as they kick their heels?
Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University (pictured), says there is a ‘70 to 80 per cent chance’ of vaccinating all vulnerable groups by Easter, ‘provided they don’t screw up the distribution of the vaccine’
An optimist would say that of course Messrs Johnson and Hancock will get it right because if they don’t they will be political dead meat and the chances of the Tories being re-elected any time in the next century will drop close to zero.
The optimist would also assume that the Government must have learned from its mistakes. For example, having appointed ill-qualified Tory chum Dido Harding to mishandle testing, No 10 surely won’t dig up another old mate to make a hash of vaccination.
And the optimist would also draw comfort for the future from the Government’s foresight in pre-ordering 40 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer (enabling 20 million jabs, as each recipient will need two), plus 100 million from Oxford/AstraZeneca and 60 million from the French company Valneva.
But a pessimist would wonder why we should expect the team that brought us rampaging Covid in care homes, and a testing system that at one stage sent people in search of a test from Nottingham to Dundee, to display sudden sparkling competence.
By ‘they’ I presume Sir John principally means Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who between them have presided over a series of debacles, including PPE shortages and our less than ‘world beating’ test-and-trace system
And the pessimist might also point out that vaccinating millions of people in a short time is considerably more demanding than any of the other Covid challenges with which the Government has grappled with less than total success.
The Pfizer vaccine, which will have to be transported to the UK from Belgium and Germany, must be kept at minus 70c. This is much colder than a domestic freezer, which hobbles along at minus 20c.
True, the vaccine can survive in a refrigerator once it has been thawed, but only for a very few days. Do any GP surgeries have machines which can produce temperatures colder than the top of Mount Everest? This is one of several daunting problems.
So, which should we be — optimists or pessimists? On the whole, I’m in the first camp, not least because I am sure Boris Johnson is well aware that it will be curtains for him if he messes up mass vaccination. But there are two important provisos.
The first is that the NHS and its unloved younger sister Public Health England are unlikely to be able to deliver an outstanding vaccination system without expert help, as the fiascos of the past few months attest.
They are slow and bureaucratic, and unaccustomed to dealing nimbly with unforeseen obstacles. One caught a whiff of this institutional cautiousness during an interview with Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College Of General Practitioners, on Radio 4’s Today Programme yesterday morning.
Although conceding that GP surgeries were used to ‘large-scale vaccination programmes like flu’, he dwelt on the need for more ‘resources’ (i.e. money) and fretted about ‘a lot of unanswered questions’. A bit more ‘can do’ spirit would have been welcome.
An optimist would say that of course Messrs Johnson and Hancock will get it right because if they don’t they will be political dead meat and the chances of the Tories being re-elected any time in the next century will drop close to zero
By contrast, at Monday afternoon’s No 10 Press conference, Brigadier Joe Fossey of the 8th Engineer Brigade exuded quiet resolve. Some 2,000 troops are helping the NHS and the local council in Liverpool organise mass testing for Covid — by all reports, with great success.
It was the Army that helped build the huge Nightingale hospitals in record time during the spring. It’s a pity those haven’t been put to better use, but that is not the fault of the military.
Unlike the NHS, the Army is not run by pen-pushing managers who spend half their time looking defensively over their shoulders. With their expertise in logistics and ability to achieve quick results, clear-thinking soldiers are ideally placed to set up an excellent vaccination system.
Will Matt Hancock resist the Army’s involvement? He would be stupid to do so, since over the past few months he has repeatedly been let down by the NHS and Public Health England. Some of the errors ascribed to him have been largely the fault of these cumbersome and slow-witted organisations.
At times he has resembled the harassed captain of an enormous, disabled ship, desperately cranking levers that don’t respond as his doomed vessel drifts ineluctably towards the rocks.
That brings me to my second proviso if the vaccination programme is to succeed.
A senior politician should be put in charge of it, much as Lord Beaverbrook was made Minister of Aircraft Production by Churchill in May 1940 to build as many aircraft as possible in the shortest time. Which he did.
Matt Hancock isn’t the man for this job. He has too many other calls on his time, and clings to a belief that defies experience in the capacity of the NHS to act adroitly. Besides, he has hardly covered himself in glory in recent months.
That brings me to my second proviso if the vaccination programme is to succeed. A senior politician should be put in charge of it, much as Lord Beaverbrook was made Minister of Aircraft Production by Churchill in May 1940 to build as many aircraft as possible in the shortest time. Which he did
Obviously, we don’t need another Dido Harding, or anyone from that particular production line. God forbid. No, what is needed is someone who knows how government operates and has the authority to be taken seriously.
What about Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson’s defeated rival for the Tory leadership? Or would the PM be too frightened to entrust such great responsibilities to a man who, if successful, would emerge with his reputation enhanced? This really is no time for petty considerations.
The country’s recovery depends on getting as many people as possible vaccinated as soon as is feasible — and Boris Johnson’s political survival rests on ensuring that this is done.
Needless to say, the vaccination programme will only succeed if people are convinced that the Pfizer jab, and those that come later, are entirely safe. Four out of ten respondents in a Mail poll yesterday said they thought the Prime Minister and fellow politicians should go first to show that this is the case.
No one will complain on this occasion if those in power barge their way to the front of the queue. Indeed, it may well be imperative that they do so, since the mere assurance that the vaccine is safe — vouchsafed yesterday by deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam — is unlikely to convince everyone.
If Mr Johnson pulls this off, and ensures that tens of millions of people are vaccinated in a short period of time without undue difficulty, his failures over Covid will be forgiven and forgotten, and he will be redeemed.
But if he ‘screws up’ in Sir John Bell’s words — if another, bigger disaster crowns all those that have gone before — then I’m afraid Boris Johnson’s moment of power will come to a sudden, unseemly end.