Class, disease and fatality
Britain has one of the very best vaccination programmes, writes Eddie Ford, but also one of the very worst death rates
Last week the news was totally dominated by an ugly outbreak of ‘vaccine nationalism’, which for once appears to have seen the British government come out on top, when it comes to the war on Covid-19. This started after Oxford-AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company, informed the European Union that it would be able to deliver only 25% of the 100 million doses expected in the first quarter of this year. In response, the EU commission got spooked by the idea that this shortfall may have been caused by doses being diverted from plants in Belgium and the Netherlands to the UK.
The European Commission raised the prospect of legal action against AstraZeneca and in an extraordinary move which caught everyone on the hop - especially the Irish government - threatened to raise a vaccine border on the island of Ireland by invoking article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, which allows the UK or EU to act unilaterally if measures imposed are deemed to be causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. This would have seen the EU introduce an export authorisation scheme to force vaccine suppliers to seek approval for moving doses outside of the bloc, which effectively amounted to a ban on vaccines going to the UK via the backdoor of Northern Ireland - leading to headlines in the tabloid press about the EU plotting to kill British pensioners.1
Unsurprisingly, the EU’s sudden move provoked an outcry from Boris Johnson and the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin - who had been completely left out of the loop by his EU colleagues. Facing a raging torrent of criticism, a stunned and shamefaced commission had no choice but to undergo a humiliating U-turn - saying it had made a “mistake” and instead adopted a new scheme that requires the Irish government to report on the quantity of doses distributed to the Six Counties statelet. You know you have screwed up big time when Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Archbishop of Canterbury are united in their condemnation. Enraged by the EU’s “act of hostility”, the DUP has launched a campaign to get the Northern Ireland protocol scrapped from the Brexit deal, using the slogan, “Restore our place in the UK internal market”. The Tories may have won the election on the ticket of ‘getting Brexit done’, but Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is going to be a continual source of tension and acrimony.
The heart of the matter is that the EU decided to bulk-buy from various big pharma companies through the auspices of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) - presumably on the grounds that (in theory) you get a better deal if you are a bloc encompassing 400 million, as opposed to an individual country like Britain with only 66 million. But getting contracts agreed took time. Too much time. Almost inevitably, the EU is a cumbersome beast, which finds it difficult to make fast-track decisions. It is after all not a centralised state but a creaking, bickering confederation.
In a clear reference to the UK, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said the bloc would not compromise with “the safety and efficacy requirements” linked to the authorisation of a vaccine - “time had to be taken to analyse the data”, which in her view takes at least three to four weeks. Not surprisingly AstraZeneca did not test its vaccine on the elderly and vulnerable.
So the EU bureaucracy is clutching at excuses to cover for its sluggishness. No surprise there are calls for von der Leyen to go.
Of course, the British government could have joined the EMA - but Boris Johnson decided to go it alone, a move lambasted by the Labour Party and others. It was a gamble, something we know the prime minister enjoys. However, on this occasion it seems to have paid off. As of February 2, 14.41% of the UK population has received a vaccine jab, compared to a mere 2.84% in the EU - quite a contrast.
As we all know, the government has set a target of getting the first dose to 15 million people in the top priority groups, including all over-70s, by February 15. The seven-day rolling average of first doses given was 374,858 at the end of January. Based on the latest figures, an average of 401,512 first doses of vaccine will be needed each day in order to meet the target - quite a task, though certainly not impossible.
With regards to the larger procurement process, the statistics are undeniably impressive. Britain so far has ordered just over 400 million vaccines from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna - with a further four vaccines either in clinical trials or awaiting approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (Novavax, Janssen, Valneva and GSK), with perhaps more to come. This is enough to cover the British population twice over for two doses, even if immunity only lasts six months or however long (no-one knows for sure).
In fact, this raises the interesting hypothetical question - or potential political problem - of when ‘surplus’ jabs will be offered to countries having less success in their vaccination campaigns, such as the EU. What was that from the tabloids about charity beginning at home? What has been remarkable about Covid-19 is the fact that the brilliant scientists have been able to develop an effective vaccine from ground zero in the space of 10 months, when it normally takes about 10 years or more. We now have the unforeseen situation where the UK has one of the very best vaccination programmes in the world. No wonder a Conservative Party donor, talking to the Financial Times, is bullish about Boris Johnson getting a “vaccine bounce” - or, more appropriately under the circumstances, a popularity shot in the arm.
Only the United Arab Emirates and Israel have done better - the latter way ahead of the race, with one in three having received at least one shot. Israel is injecting up to 200,000 people a day and last week made the jab available to anyone over 35, with official statistics showing that only 317 out of 715,425 of people (or 0.04%) became infected a week after becoming fully vaccinated against the disease.2 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, on the other hand, have been left to their own devices.
Of course, it is an entirely different story in Britain when it comes to the death rate - where Britain is near the very top of the league table of failure, even in front of the US and Brazil. This results from total indecision when it comes to tackling the pandemic, combined with the dismal lack of medical facilities due to both Labour and Tory governments treating the national health service as if it is a car plant with ‘just in time’ production - leaving little space for emergencies. Then there is the pathetic test-trace-isolate-support system which is barely worthy of the name, and the criminal ignoring of Exercise Cygnus in 2016 - which simulated a crisis involving a pandemic coming from south-east Asia when Jeremy Hunt (now trying to act the great visionary) was the health secretary. The war-gaming exercise was closed down early, because the results were so embarrassing, or terrifying.
If anything, the UK’s record is even more monstrous when we look at death rates by occupation. Readers will not be too surprised to discover that the highest fatalities are amongst “elementary” or low-skilled occupations - such as security guards and delivery drivers. Processing plants come next; which could be food or car production. Then we have sales people; carers, admin staff; technical occupations and managers, then lastly professionals like lawyers - the least affected by the virus. The ruling class are too statistically insignificant to be included in the figures (though there is the possibility that a section of them are actually more prone to getting Covid because they are prone to jet around the world).
When Socialist Worker looks at these statistics, it chooses to focus on the black and minority ethnic death rate - saying it is because of “systematic racism”: it is this racism, “coupled with contempt for ordinary people”, that actually “drives the Tories’ policies now” (January 27). In reality it is the fact that for historical reasons Bame people are much more likely to be at the bottom, with the worst pay and housing, and are far more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation. It is no accident that the borough with the highest level of Covid deaths is Brent, whose population is 71% non-white British, and more to the point, has amongst the lowest average incomes, lowest educational levels, high levels of chronic disease and high levels of overcrowded housing. Perfect conditions for the spread of Covid.
Of course, when analysing Covid death rates, we need to take into account the racist legacy of the British empire and migration from south Asia and the Caribbean, but also the more recent migrations of EU citizens from poor eastern European counties such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the asylum seekers and illegal workers from Albania, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. But the crucial, determining, factor when it comes to Covid infection and deaths is obviously class. We do not have a British government which is trying to kill off Commonwealth migrants and their children or their children’s children. The same goes for the latest generation of migrants.
No, what we have is a government of extraordinary incompetence.