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Tomorrow, Britain will witness an extraordinary moment in its grim struggle to limit the devastation caused by Covid-19 when the first Briton is injected with a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The fact that this inoculation is occurring within a year of the emergence of a disease that has since ravaged the globe is an astonishing achievement, a tribute to world-class British science and a highly effective pharmaceutical industry. More importantly, the vaccine has arrived just in the nick of time. The newly discovered variant of Covid-19 is threatening to spread across the country and savage our beleaguered health service. A vaccine offers escape from the mounting horrors of this pandemic.
It is therefore right to celebrate the arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine, though we should also note the pitfalls that await us. We are led by a government that has bungled so much of the Covid response – from its initial, criminally tardy response to the virus, to the shambolic distribution of PPE kit for health workers, to the pitiful rollout of test-and-trace programmes and to the bewildering U-turns on lockdown measures. We need drive and competence to undertake the speedy administration of the vaccine to millions of UK citizens. These qualities have not been displayed in abundance by the government to date.
On the other hand, early signs suggest the vaccine programme has been handled well. Shrewd choices were made in the selection of vaccines to purchase. The early rollout has been managed well and there is evidence of careful thought in the choice of early recipients. Equally, the decision to postpone the administration of second doses - to maximise numbers receiving first doses - suggests scientists and doctors advising the government are responding to the rapidly changing shape of the virus’s spread.
The decision has not been without its critics, and it will certainly have caused some alarm among older and more vulnerable citizens and their carers. They had expected to receive a second dose within days but will now have to wait for weeks. Rearranging thousands of appointments at short notice adds to the administrative burden facing already hard-pressed clinics and surgeries.
Nevertheless, chief medical officers are agreed this is the right move, both ethically and practically. Recipients of the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine still gain strong protection. Indeed, delaying a booster jab may even trigger longer-lasting immunity. This, in turn, allows millions of others to be given protection in the short term against a virus that threatens to spread rapidly across the UK. Any alternative would mean that people who could have been saved might face death.
Scientists, doctors and nurses have worked wonders. Now, politicians and administrators must seize the advantage they have been handed and bring an end to the suffering this terrible virus has inflicted on us. And they need to do so in a manner that reassures the public that salvation is at hand.
Here, the signs are less encouraging. Boris Johnson was asked last week how many vaccine doses are going to be made available over coming weeks but claimed exact answers would be unhelpful. Nothing could be further from the truth. The nation needs to know - specifically – how many doses are going to be administered week by week. Will it be a million? If so, we will have to wait a long time before lockdown ends. Or is it going to be 2m doses a week? In this case, an enjoyable summer would look a more realistic prospect. (Nor is vaccinating two million people a week that difficult. We inoculate against flu every winter on a similar scale.) A lot depends on these figures and Britain now needs to be told if we have the supply chain to match the efforts of our scientists and doctors. In blunt terms, our hopes of ending our misery rest on being given an accurate account of those numbers.