The discovery of a vaccine raises questions over our priorities
So, who’s going first? The oldest, or the richest? Key workers? NHS staff? Or should those on the “economic frontline” get priority access to the vaccine, as Tory MP Tobias Ellwood has suggested?
Maybe it’s better just to enjoy some positive news for once, rather than getting dragged into questions of resources and distribution. It’s been a very tough year, and after 11 months of 2020 it’s hard to stop looking for a catch in all of this. Maybe we should just be happy for once.
And the announcement – of a new potential coronavirus vaccine, with a 90 per cent success rate – is certainly great news. With a population of just over 66 million people, the UK should get 10 million doses by the end of the year, with a further 30 million already ordered. At some point soon, it is hoped, the vaccine, alongside further breakthroughs in treatments, will allow a return to some sort of normality.
As Oxford University Professor Sir John Bell – a member of the UK Vaccine Taskforce – put it, when asked how confident he was that the elderly could be vaccinated by Easter: “I think we’ve got a 70 per cent to 80 per cent chance of doing that. That’s provided they don’t screw up the distribution of the vaccine.”
So the good news is that there is a way out of the current chaos. The bad news is that it’s contingent on the UK Government successfully delivering on a complex logistical exercise. And given their previous – the decision to award a ferry contract to a company with no ferries springs to mind – you could have reasons for retaining a little scepticism.
And, even leaving aside the practicalities of distributing a vaccine that must be kept under -80C, the politics of this pandemic could just be getting started.
So who should be prioritised? Care home residents, presumably, would be top of the list, alongside those with underlying health conditions and people working in areas such as the NHS, which put them at greater risk.
Meanwhile, evidence clearly shows that those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethic backgrounds have been disproportionately impacted by COVID.
Yet this is a privately produced vaccine, and anyone could buy it, if they can afford to. Shares in Pfizer, which produced the first potential solution, soared in the wake of the news. Governments too will only be distributing doses after buying them from the company.
In that case, money will talk, and a lot of people will probably get very rich out of this. Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam compared the process, from the discovery of a potential vaccine to its roll-out, to waiting for a train in the wind and rain. “I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats,” he said.
Well, regardless of whether the most vulnerable get priority boarding, the process probably won’t be as painful to watch in the UK as elsewhere, given the resources available to the state. But clearly the vaccine will be useless for those who cannot afford it, and while the UK, EU and US have made huge orders, it remains questionable how quickly poorer countries around the world will be given the same lifeline.
Or maybe that’s just 2020 talking again. Maybe we can just celebrate something good for a while – it just might take a while to relearn the habit.