Imagine if the Pfizer vaccine announcement had been made on the eve of the US presidential election. Do you think Donald Trump (whose supporters are deeply suspicious about its timing) would have (a) claimed victory against Covid and put America on notice to get back to normal life or (b) mumbled almost apologetically about how this is not a done deal and we had all better be a lot less enthusiastic because there’s “a very, very long way to go”?
The outgoing Blowhard-in-Chief once called Boris Johnson “Britain [sic] Trump”, but what we saw at Downing Street on Monday was a Prime Minister preaching caution and trying to put the imminent prospect of a vaccine into some perspective.
Such a down-in-the-mouth reality check must have come as a shock to his detractors. Where was the famed Boris boosterism that led us to believe a Brexit deal was “oven- ready” and the negotiations would be a doddle? Then again, which would you rather have: misplaced Trumpian confidence or a sober analysis of the hurdles that lie ahead?
Boris looked like a man who has had the stuffing knocked out of him, partly because he has had so many disappointments since March and understandably fears another one. The vaunted test-and-trace regime has proved to be anything but world-beating. He wanted to stick with a tiered system of restrictions but was beaten back by a combination of questionable data and insistent experts. He is instinctively someone who would be on the side of the Conservative rebels demanding an early return to normality, but is now facing down his natural allies. That is never a good position for a party leader.
But worst of all is that he knows the vaccine that had scientists beaming from ear-to-ear the world over and dreaming of Nobel prizes is not a panacea and is potentially another political trap. We saw it being sprung at the No 10 press conference by Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer.
In between extended metaphors about trains and platforms, JVT said it would be “a colossal mistake on the part of any one of us” to relax restrictions in anticipation of the vaccine. Perhaps he was aiming at people tempted to head for the pub to celebrate, except that they are all shut.
The real target was the Prime Minister, who has felt obliged on several occasions, with no prompting, to reaffirm that the December 2 date to end the lockdown in England was inviolable. Yet as the clock ticks down and the infection rate remains high, you can hear the wariness of his Sage advisers: “Why ease controls now, Prime Minister, when there is a vaccine around the corner?”
His dilemma is that since the Government’s stated policy is to “suppress the virus until a vaccine comes along”, he cannot take his foot off the brake when it is so close. Except, it may not be close. While the NHS has been told to gear up for the first doses before Christmas, this seems unlikely given the uncertainties that remain.
Among the things we don’t yet know are whether the vaccine prevents severe cases, which result in hospitalisation and death, or whether it can be safely used on older people, who are most at risk. There are also no details on whether it stops transmission or simply prevents infection.
These are pretty crucial things to ascertain. We are invited to be grateful for the prospect of things returning to “normal” by the end of next spring, which is half a year away. But the immediate danger is that the prospect of a vaccine will be used to justify more lockdowns when these should be based on unambiguous data about the trajectory of the contagion.
Moreover, we are not talking here about something that offers so-called herd immunity, as with measles, but rather a vaccine that protects the vulnerable, as with influenza.
I recently elected to have a flu jab for the first time in my life and I suspect many people under 60 will choose not to be vaccinated against Covid, not because they are “anti-vaxxers” but because they are capable of judging the relative risks for themselves.
In any case, there will not be anywhere near enough of the Pfizer vaccine to inoculate more than key health workers and the vulnerable elderly. Yet the latter may find it hard to obtain the vaccine because it has to be stored at -70C. The likelihood is that people will have to go to vaccine centres, not their local GP surgery, unless another jab comes along with fewer logistical obstacles.
Even with a vaccine, many thousands of people will continue to contract Covid and a proportion will die, though far fewer than now. Normal seasonal flu kills around 5,000 people in the UK, although in a bad winter like 1999-2000 there were 19,000 deaths and in the 1968 pandemic some 80,000 succumbed.
Mr Johnson said on Monday that one in 90 has the coronavirus, a figure confirmed by an ONS survey published yesterday, and that this was “a lot of people, alas”. Yet most of these will be students and young people, who will continue to get it even when a vaccine is available because they won’t be given the jab. The priority list drawn up by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation puts those aged under 50 last in the queue.
ONS population figures show there are 12 million people over 65, so as two doses are needed they would take up at least half the batch ordered by the Government before carers and health workers are included.
This suggests that even next spring there will be pressure to keep the country under some sort of mask-wearing restrictions, which is hardly a return to normality. The prospect of a vaccine cannot be allowed to take the place of common sense decisions to ease controls and remove lockdowns in areas such as London, where the infection levels are low and hospitals are nowhere near being overwhelmed.
Even the tiered restrictions, with their destructive impact on businesses and other collateral damage, need to be based on evidence. Friends of the Prime Minister say he was “bounced” into the latest national lockdown by excessively pessimistic modelling. He must not let the vaccine’s siren song tempt him into keeping us under lock and key for another six months.