26th July 2020
Boris Johnson – still “guided by the science”?
The scramble to find a COVID-19 vaccine is now the major priority of Big Pharma in the West, with the potential long term profits being as much a lure as that of addressing the public health issues concerned. The much vaunted Oxford vaccine, developed at Oxford University with Swedish company AstraZeneca, of which the government has allegedly bought 100 million doses, is relatively untried and untested. It has certainly not undergone the rigorous testing regime required before drugs usually reach the market. There is also no evidence yet that any immunity generated will last and if so, for how long.
So far the tests in Oxford have involved 1,077 people and have been described as “extremely promising initial results” but much more work is to be done, testing at higher doses with a greater sample population in Brazil and South Africa, where COVID-19 outbreaks remain high.
As Max Nisen, writing in the online journal Bloomberg has pointed out however,
“Immune responses measured in the lab don’t always correlate to real-world protection, a risk that’s especially acute for rapidly developed vaccines against a novel virus.”
Professor Sarah Gilbert, of the University of Oxford, said: “There is still much work to be done before we can confirm if our vaccine will help manage the COVID-19 pandemic, but these early results hold promise.”
The reported pace of the vaccine development however has the advantage of fitting in with Boris Johnson’s political narrative that it will all be over by Christmas. As someone who prides himself on his historical knowledge you would expect him to be cautious about reaching for such claims. The right wing press, including Johnson’s house journal the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express are all backing Johnson’s “Plan for the worst, hope for the best” strategy outlined last week.
At the Downing Street press conference to announce new measures, Johnson outlined plans for local authorities to have new powers to close specific premises, shut outdoor spaces and cancel events. In addition, regulations set out in draft in parliament this week will allow central government to intervene in local areas by issuing “stay-at-home” orders, limit the numbers at gatherings beyond national rules and restrict transport.
Johnson went on to say that,
“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas.”
Johnson has also outlined plans to allow people to return to work from 1st August, with the permission of their employer. This goes against the previous advice to work from home unless absolutely impossible not to and passes responsibility from the state to enforce a clear position addressing public safety, to employers concerned about their profit margins. The history of the private sector delivering in the service of the public, as the NHS and local government have found to their cost over the years, is not good.
In spite of Johnson’s ongoing claim to be “guided by the science”, the new advice flies in the face of the view of the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who told the science and technology committee,
“I think my view on this, and I think this is a view shared by Sage, is that we’re still at a time when distancing measures are important. And, of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do.”
As ever, Johnson’s bluster and desire to promote the optimistic soundbite, outweighs the real concerns for public health and safety which should be driving the government’s approach. There is little dispute that, in the early days of the pandemic, the UK made massive errors of judgment. These include sending people with coronavirus into care homes, not locking down early enough, and not having any real kind of test and trace capability whatsoever.
Those errors undoubtedly cost thousands of lives. There is every danger that too rapid an easing of lockdown measures could cost thousands more lives. Government strategy continues to be driven by private wealth ahead of public health. Johnson may still be good for the occasional soundbite for a sycophantic press but a reckoning is yet to come. The public may not go as easy on the Tories as their mates in the media.