Today
Fri 4 December 2020

The Boris Johnson administration’s ideological decision-making is putting lives at risk, argues Mike Buckley

News that viable vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed provides light at the end of the tunnel. Both Pfizer and Moderna have announced successful vaccine trials, with Moderna’s showing 94.5% effectiveness

Not only is the Moderna vaccine more effective than Pfizer, it is easier to distribute. It lasts 30 days in household fridges, at room temperature for 12 hours. It remains stable at -20C – equal to household or medical freezers – for up to six months.

Where governments around the world – including the UK – had been scrambling to deal with the logistical challenge of deploying the Pfizer vaccine, which is required to be stored at -70C, many can now prioritise Moderna. 

The problem for the UK is that the Government chose not to order any of the Moderna vaccine. Instead it ordered 350 million doses of six competing vaccines, including 40 million of Pfizer’s. 

With more than 30 potential vaccines in development it made sense for the Government to make choices, but that does not explain why the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock lied to journalist Robert Peston when asked why he had not ordered Moderna’s vaccine in August. Hancock claimed that Moderna had refused to “do a deal with anyone outside the US”, yet by then the EU had ordered 160 million doses, while Qatar also later bought doses.

Thus far Hancock and the Vaccine Taskforce’s Kate Bingham have failed to explain why they did not buy Moderna’s vaccine and whether it was a mistake. This weekend the Government belatedly opened negotiations with Moderna, securing five million doses, although these won’t be delivered until spring 2021. The UK will receive none of the 20 million doses produced this year and only a fraction of the billion produced in 2021. When they arrive we will be months behind the EU and US. 

Things could have been different. The Government was offered the chance to access Moderna’s vaccine when the EU offered it entry to its procurement scheme in the Summer. Hancock refused, his excuse being that the EU would not allow the UK to simultaneously negotiate its own vaccine procurement, claiming “we will go faster this way“. But the US will vaccinate 20 million people with Moderna’s vaccine in December, and 25 million a month from January onwards, with the EU to follow. 

Critics suggest that Hancock’s refusal to take part in the EU procurement scheme resulted from the Government’s anti-European bias; that joining the EU procurement scheme could have been seen as an admission that collective action is better for all concerned. 

It is not just with vaccines that the Government have chosen to go it alone. In the Spring, it refused to take part in joint European procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), while UK medics and frontline staff were struggling without it. Government excuses at the time bordered on the ridiculous, blaming lost emails, when ministers had been present at meetings where the scheme was discussed. 

While UK doctors and nurses put their lives at risk without safety equipment it was reported that the “EU’s swift work has led to offers of medical equipment, including masks, overalls and goggles, in excess of the number requested”. 

It is not as if the Government have excelled by acting alone. Its purchases of PPE, outsourcing of ‘test and trace’ and the ‘moonshot’ mass testing programme are costing billions but in many cases failing to produce results. 

Test and trace regularly records its ‘worst weekly performance’ since launch. Data from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) shows that there is a stark contrast between cases handled by local public health protection teams – which reached 97.7% of contacts and asked them to self-isolate in the week to 7 October – and cases handled either online or by call centres, which reached only 57.6%. 

But the private contractors who run test and trace are seeing their profits soar. Just one of Serco’s Department of Health contracts is worth £410 million, with other outsourcing giants such as Deloitte, Sitel and G4S receiving similar sums. 

The mass testing programme, Johnson’s ‘moonshot’, is described by the BMJ as an “unevaluated, under-designed and costly mess”. The test itself is unsuitable for mass use, its instructions state that it should not be used on asymptomatic people. An Oxford University evaluation shows that it misses between one in two and one in four cases, the false positive rate of 0.6% – meaning that for every person found truly positive at least one other is wrongly required to self-isolate. 

The projected cost, if rolled out across England, is £100 billion – 77% of the NHS’ annual revenue budget. Spending this sum on “an unevaluated national programme leading to a regressive, insufficiently supported intervention – in many cases for the wrong people – cannot be defended,” says the BMJ

Private procurement has taken place under emergency COVID-19 measures, meaning most deals were agreed without a competitive tender process. Some contracts have raised serious questions, such as a £170 million deal given to PestFix, a pest control company in Sussex. PestFix has assets of just £47,000 and does not publish details on its revenues or profits on Companies House. Two of the three types of mask supplied by it turned out to be faulty.

The Government’s defenders argue that it has responded at speed in a crisis – but that does not explain all of its decisions. Refusing to join EU vaccine and PPE schemes looks like an anti-EU, Brexit-fuelled choice, which put UK medics needlessly in danger and will delay the Moderna vaccine’s arrival in the UK and severely restrict the number of doses available when it is here.

The misuse of public funds to pay ill-equipped companies to supply PPE and run test and trace ought to be a national scandal. Millions have been wasted either through incompetence or an active choice to funnel money to party donors – a future enquiry will work out which.

As things stand, refusing to scale-up proven local health teams to run test and trace and instead persisting with a failed outsourced system, is costing both money and lives. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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