Sun 5 December 2021

Byline Times’ Chief Medical Officer, John Ashton, warns of national hubris over vaccinations and celebrates the success of the common health worker

With the daily number of COVID-19 vaccinations claimed to be exceeding 500,000 for the first time and the Government seemingly within reach of achieving its goal of vaccinating the four most vulnerable groups, it might seem mealy-mouthed to raise questions about a world-beating feat.

However, the claim that ministers are on track to offer the vaccine to all the over 70s, the clinically extremely vulnerable and frontline healthcare workers by mid-February is a step too far.

In the 12 months since the Coronavirus turned up to wreak havoc with every aspect of our lives, constantly interrogating our assumptions about how we co-exist on planet earth and the fitness of national leaders to govern, Boris Johnson, his Cabinet and advisers have carved out a special place for themselves. 

There has been a litany of disastrous indecision, delay, incompetence, under- and over-reaction on matters concerning testing, tracing and isolation, personal protective equipment, the adoption of tried and tested local public health interventions, and the unwillingness to emulate the successful practices from other countries, including school closures, banning public events, travel restrictions and mask-wearing. 

Even the apparent success of the pre-emptive strike on vaccine procurement doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; rather it reveals a greedy infatuation with chauvinist nationalism. Monopolising world supplies of vaccines like a child in a chocolate shop, the UK now has a pipeline of jabs that could vaccinate each of us many times over.

It lends support to the belief that in spending so much time and effort on procurement last year, to the detriment of a focus on the basics of public health, the Government was pursuing herd immunity by stealth, with mass vaccination seen as the only solution.

Ironically, by depriving other – especially poorer – countries of their fair share of vaccines, this may prolong and deepen the pandemic. High levels of virus circulating in these countries could lead to many further mutations which come back to bite us.

Nor can the UK can hold its head high in that respect. By allowing high levels of virus to circulate rather than attempting to stamp out the disease, the UK has already contributed the virulent ‘Kent’ strain to the world.

The People Step Up

To avoid any misunderstanding, the COVID-19 vaccines, like so many before them, are a likely boon to humanity, but they must be kept in perspective. Without a balanced approach based on robust traditional non-pharmacological and largely local public health measures and interventions, we will be running to keep up with virus mutations for years to come.

In the meanwhile, let us give credit where credit is due. As was the case last Spring, when the pandemic first struck, thousands of ordinary citizens have come forward to help with the vaccination programme. This has happened despite the breakdown of trust that has followed the bad faith of national figures and their self-indulgent behaviour.

All over the country, it has been a partnership of volunteers and the NHS, rather than the catastrophic private companies that have benefited from billions of pounds of COVID-19 bungs, that has enabled us, at last, to get something right. 

From the outset there has been a battle for control of the narrative surrounding the management of the pandemic, with fortunes being spent on political PR.

When the dust settles, it is essential that the citizen and health worker narrative should take pride of place.

A Health Worker Reads History

          Young Alexander conquered India.
          He alone?
          Caesar beat the Gauls.
          Was there not even a cook in his army?
         Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
         was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
         Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
         Who triumphed with him?
         Each page a victory
         At whose expense the victory ball?
         Every ten years a great man,
         Who paid the piper?
        So many particulars.
        So many questions.
        – Bertholt Brecht ( 1935)

Dr John Ashton is a former director of public health and the author of ‘Blinded By Corona


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