Back in July, Boris Johnson turned down an invitation for Britain to join the EU’s Covid vaccine scheme, taking the view that we’d be better off sourcing our own.
Cue the most almighty stink, with Opposition politicians falling over one another to score cheap points.
Catherine West, Labour’s shadow minister for Europe, dubbed the decision ‘dumb and dumber’. Her colleague, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, accused the Government of ‘yet again putting ideology before saving lives’.
The Lib Dems’ then leadership contender Layla Moran claimed the wicked Tories were favouring ‘Brexit over vaccines’, while the party’s Health spokesperson Munira Wilson declared this ‘stubborn unwillingness to work with the EU’ was ‘unforgivable’.
David Schneider, Left-wing comedian, says ‘not joining EU vaccine scheme (proves that) Brexit is a death cult
The Guardian promptly rose to the bait, using Wilson’s remarks to justify the headline ‘UK plan to shun vaccine scheme “unforgivable”, say critics’.
Then, in the sewer of grievance that is social media, a host of highly influential ‘Remainiacs’ decided it was actually part of a sinister plan by Mr Johnson to murder his own citizens by failing to inoculate them.
David Schneider, the Left-wing comedian, to this end told his 500,000 followers we were witnessing ‘this week’s episode of Who Cares if You Die as Long as we Brexit’, adding that it showed Brexit to be a ‘death cult’.
Activist Bianca Jagger reckoned the decision was one of several that had ‘endangered people’s lives’.
Lib Dem Health spokesperson Munira Wilson says ‘Stubbon unwillingness to work with the EU is unforgiveable’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer reckons ‘You can’t justify the money being spent’
James Felton, a comedy writer for The Guardian and BBC, accused the evil PM of ‘killing your own citizens to own the EU’.
Six months on and we can all see exactly how these fanciful predictions panned out.
For in reality, the Government’s decision to forgo the EU’s hapless procurement vaccine scheme was neither stupid, nor evil. Instead, it has proven to be little short of a triumph. Britain now leads not just Europe but almost the entire developed world in inoculating its citizens.
As of today, we have administered about 8.2 million jabs, with approximately 12 per cent of the country having rolled up their collective sleeves.
Had we followed the advice of Labour and Lib Dem MPs, as well as the frothing keyboard warriors quoted above, we’d be in a similarly hopeless position to France or Germany, who’ve managed to give doses to just over three million between them, at a rate that equates to roughly a sixth of the UK’s.
Indeed, across the EU, a mere 2.5 per cent of citizens have, so far, been given a vaccine. And, in some corners (such as Madrid, Paris and Lisbon), programmes have been temporarily suspended, for lack of supplies.
Angela Rayner, Labour deputy leader, says ‘This cronyism stinks’
At this rate, it will be 2024 before our neighbours hit the 70-75 per cent figure scientists regard necessary to achieve herd immunity.
We, by contrast, are on course to get there by the summer, having met a target to vaccinate the most vulnerable within a fortnight.
By then, an extra 60 million doses with a ‘Made in Britain’ stamp will be winging their way to patients, thanks to Thursday’s news that Novavax’s vaccine has become the fourth jab to complete successful Phase III trials in the UK, clearing the way for approval in weeks.
And yesterday, it emerged a fifth vaccine, from U.S. firm Johnson & Johnson, of which we’ve ordered 30 million doses, will be rolled out this summer.
So have the blowhards who were so critical of Mr Johnson’s decision to sidestep the EU scheme issued apologies? Of course not!
Perhaps Catherine West, Munira Wilson, or the Left-wing grievance merchants who used Twitter to accuse the Prime Minister of murder think their epic misjudgment will be quietly forgotten.
If so, they are sorely mistaken. For when historians pore over the Covid pandemic, they will surely conclude this is one area where his otherwise much-maligned Government took on the cynics and naysayers and, as the old saying goes, knocked it out of the park.
Our vaccine scheme is, in fact, a historic success story that will provide not just a literal shot in the arm to millions of Britons, but a proverbial one to our post-Brexit pharmaceutical and biotech industries, as well as our standing on the international stage.
Activist Bianca Jagger says ‘It’s a decision that will endanger lives’
This was no happy accident. For it stemmed from a series of crucial decisions that were taken under immense pressure, often in the face of fierce and obstructive opposition from opportunistic political opponents.
Among the perhaps unlikely heroes of this narrative are Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
However, the most important was almost certainly Kate Bingham, the former head of Britain’s vaccine taskforce.
Although highly qualified for the job, as one of the nation’s foremost experts in life science, she faced a campaign of misogynistic criticism from Left-wing critics who claimed she’d been offered the (unpaid) role only because her husband, Jesse Norman, is a Tory MP.
The seeds of Britain’s success were sown back in March, when news reached the Government that an Oxford University team led by Professor Sir John Bell was about to sign a deal to develop a vaccine with U.S. drugs giant Merck.
On paper, it seemed like a solid idea. But when Mr Hancock began to explore the details of the proposal, a potential pitfall emerged. Namely: in the event of Merck developing a successful product, then President Donald Trump might intervene to force the firm to funnel supplies to the U.S.
The Health Secretary therefore demanded written assurance that British supplies would be guaranteed. When none was forthcoming, he vetoed the deal and instead steered Oxford towards a union with British firm AstraZeneca.
Making this decision may, with hindsight, seem straightforward. But Mr Hancock was effectively gambling huge public resources on the early research and development of a product that had at least a sporting chance of proving useless. Had AstraZeneca’s drug failed, but Merck’s succeeded, the criticism would have been absolutely remorseless.
Raising the stakes on the political front was the fact vaccine development was already a hot potato.
As early as mid-March, The Observer led with an article that carried the provocative headline ‘Brexit means coronavirus vaccine will be slower to reach UK’.
The report was based on a comment article written for the paper by what it dubbed a trio of eminent ‘academics and lawyers’ led by one Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In an analysis which would later prove wrong on almost every count, these alleged ‘experts’ sought to politicise the Covid debate by arguing that ‘Boris Johnson’s determination to go it alone, free of EU regulation after Brexit means the UK will probably have to join other non-EU countries in a queue to acquire the vaccine after EU member states have had it’.
In fact, the opposite occurred. But the provocative front-page was widely shared by Left-wing propagandists, from BBC historian Greg Jenner and tub-thumping radio host James O’Brien, to SNP MPs Paul Monaghan and Martyn Day, and Labour’s Corbynite MP Tulip Siddiq. Former Labour MEP and Remain campaigner Seb Dance declared that the newspaper’s report proved Brexit should be cancelled, or at least postponed, saying: ‘This alone should be reason enough to delay the transition.’
(Professor McKee later joined ‘Independent SAGE’, the cabal of Left-wing scientists devoted to criticising the Government’s handling of Covid, where he continues offering ‘expert’ takes, almost invariably hostile to Mr Johnson.)
The Government’s next crucial decision was appointing the aforementioned Ms Bingham to head a ‘taskforce’ to co-ordinate vaccine development and also ensure that when a viable one became available, it could be produced in vast quantities and delivered at speed.
A venture capitalist, who oversaw biotech investments and had led teams which had launched six drugs targeting autoimmune diseases and cancer, she was phoned by Mr Johnson in April and asked to ‘stop people dying’.
Within a fortnight, she had assembled a team of private sector experts and identified a shortlist of 23 potential vaccines. Britain soon had an order book for 367 million doses.
Ms Bingham ensured Britain became the first Western country to begin its mass vaccination programme in December, having overseen the process of setting up production facilities and getting drugs green-lit in record time (the EU, by contrast, approved the Oxford vaccine only yesterday).
No. 10 sources this week described her appointment as a ‘key moment’, saying: ‘Kate grabbed hold of the entire process. It was a turning point. If it hadn’t been for her, we wouldn’t be where we are now.’
For her pains, Ms Bingham was the subject of vicious attacks, not least after the Sunday Times reported that she’d authorised the spending of £670,000 by the Vaccine taskforce on a PR campaign.
Noting that her husband, Jesse Norman, is a Conservative MP, prominent opposition politicians went so far as to demand she be sacked from the unpaid role.
Among them was Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Lib Dems, who announced: ‘Kate Bingham must resign . . . Johnson’s dodgy cronyism is an absolute disgrace’; and Zara Sultana, a Corbynite Labour MP, who said: ‘She should step aside immediately. This is just another example of jobs and contracts involved in tackling the pandemic being handed out to friends of the Conservatives.’
Angela Rayner, Labour’s Deputy Leader, chuntered that ‘this cronyism stinks’; while Sir Keir Starmer said of Mrs Bingham’s PR project, ‘You cannot justify that sort of money being spent’. How wrong-headed they now look.
For what none of these noisy critics realised — seemingly because they hadn’t bothered to find out — was that you could, in fact, justify the £670,000 outlay in question.
For it was actually spent on a crucial campaign to get hard-to-reach groups not only to take part in vaccine trials, but also to agree to roll up their sleeves as and when a vaccine was available.
The project appears to have worked, too, since around 400,000 volunteers were eventually recruited for the trial, of which eight per cent came from ethnic minorities and more than 30 per cent were elderly — the two groups who are most at risk from Covid. Sir Keir seemingly first learnt of this awkward fact at Prime Minister’s questions this week, when Boris Johnson told him that he ‘cannot think of a better use of public funds’ than the £670,000.
Not for nothing does the PM like to call his opposite number ‘Captain Hindsight’.
Ms Bingham was also responsible for Britain’s strategy of early investment in a range of other potential vaccine projects, ordering vast quantities and paying sufficient sums to ensure drug firms could invest early in manufacturing facilities that could allow them to supply large quantities to the UK. By the time she stepped down this month, she could report that the UK is on course not just to meet, but exceed its vaccination targets.
A crucial example of her procurement policy paying off was in the deal the UK signed in May with AstraZeneca for 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine.
It was negotiated by the vaccine taskforce and Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, who was anxious to learn from problems the UK had suffered in procuring PPE.
The contract stipulated that the Government would invest large sums in the creation of two UK production plants for the drug. In return, a clause stated that those plants could not supply outside the UK until the initial 100 million order had been fulfilled.
Having already signed this deal, the Government then came under severe pressure from opposition parties to drop it and join the EU vaccine scheme. Although the decision to decline was ultimately a political one, it was supported by Ms Bingham’s taskforce.
‘The conditions that the EU set to allow us to participate were conditions we felt were not attractive,’ she later told Parliament.
‘We were not able to join any decision-making on which vaccines; we had to abandon the negotiations we either had underway or had concluded with AstraZeneca; and we also were not able to talk to future potential vaccine companies that they may not be talking to currently, but would do in the future. We felt the conditions were too tight, and that we would be able to act more quickly if we did it independently.’
At times, the abuse Ms Bingham faced was more than merely unpleasant.
In a particularly unhinged moment, for example, the Runnymede Trust race relations lobby group went to the High Court seeking to have her appointment declared unlawful on the grounds that giving ‘jobs for their mates’ breached the Equality Act.
The Trust’s lawsuit attacked her as a Tory MP’s wife ‘with no significant experience in public health administration and no expertise in immunology’.
Thankfully, they (like Labour and the Lib Dems) failed to have Ms Bingham kicked out of the job she was doing so brilliantly. Unsurprisingly, the Runnymede Trust has yet to apologise for its attack.
Meanwhile, the EU was making a mess of its vaccine programme. It ordered too few vaccines, and made a number of bets that backfired, including a decision to order 300 million doses of a French vaccine that has (so far) not worked.
Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy had negotiated their own contracts with AstraZeneca in June. But they were forced to wait until the end of August for a deal to be signed off, after Brussels determined that negotiations could take place only if they involved the entire block.
This fatal tardiness represents a crucial error. For as Pascal Soirot, AstraZeneca’s French CEO, explained this week, supply chains had been created to fulfil both the UK’s and the EU’s vaccine order.
Although both experienced teething issues with production, the UK had sufficient time to overcome them. The EU did not. ‘With the UK, we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches,’ was how he put it.
Someone, in other words, has indeed been making decisions that have proven to be ‘dumb and dumber.’ But it wasn’t the people Labour’s shadow minister for Europe — along with so many of her cynical allies — was so shamelessly attacking last summer.