Wed 28 July 2021

Jonathan Lis explores how the Government has hijacked the success of the vaccine roll-out by the NHS and ideologically repackaged it to selectively suit its agenda

It is now a week since the after-dinner speaker was found out once again. At a meeting of the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee, Boris Johnson declared that “the reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends”.

He reportedly withdrew the comments almost immediately, and the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested that it might have been a joke. And yet it struck a chord for a reason.

Viewing the Coronavirus pandemic through the lens of greed not only illuminates the core tenets of Conservative ideology, but helps to explain the party’s drastic mishandling of the crisis.

The Vaccine Roll-Out

In the context the Prime Minister made the comments, the claim was untrue. The vaccine roll-out has been a triumph neither because of capitalism nor greed.

In raw factual terms, AstraZeneca has delivered the vaccines at cost. The company will not make a profit – indeed, according to the BBC, it will sacrifice £14.5 billion in revenue.

The pharmaceutical industry has won itself few friends among the left in recent years, and Astra has faced pressure in the EU and US over its data and contracts. But few have accused the vaccine manufacturers – yet – of profiteering from the crisis.

Of course, this could change – particularly if the manufacturers refuse, in the long-term, to enable the cheap supply and replication of their products (for example, by not giving up patents). Such an action would deserve shame rather than praise.

The main point, however, is that the vaccine has not been rolled-out by the private sector but by the NHS. Doctors and nurses, assisted by thousands of volunteers, have rapidly and efficiently delivered it to millions of people. This is the direct opposite of capitalism and greed: it is the emblem of a state-funded public service working, not for the interests or profit of private corporations, but for the good of all citizens. As the doctor Rachel Clarke noted: it was not greed but love.

And yet, the marked absence of something in one area serves to illuminate it elsewhere. The vaccine roll-out is the main response to the pandemic that has not been explicitly about greed – and that is precisely why it has worked.

Contrast the effective, in-house roll-out of the vaccine to the outsourced, £37 billion ‘Test and Trace’ operation. No amount of clever NHS branding can hide the fact that this was a project handed to a private company – Serco – and that it catastrophically failed.

This week, over a year into the pandemic, a study in the British Medical Journal has found continued low levels of adherence with self-isolation and low public awareness, while it took several months for the system to reach more than 60% of contacts. The NHS’s local knowledge and resources were simply ignored, while numerous contact-tracers have blown the whistle on chronic mismanagement and low morale.

Serco is not the only private firm to have been exposed. Private companies have been failing to supply adequate tests, services and personal protective equipment (PPE) for the past year – most egregiously, faulty masks provided by a pest control company and private equity firm respectively. These companies are not answerable to the public but to shareholders and management. Ministers and civil servants come a distant second – and frequently, it seems, not at all.

The key factor here is, of course, public money. Pharmaceutical companies have always benefited from Government investment, and the Government funded much of the research which produced the Oxford/Astra vaccine.

But public money has paid for everything else as well – specifically Test and Trace and PPE for medical and care settings. Not only did that repeatedly fail on its own terms (last spring doctors and nurses had to wear bin liners and care homes had to buy equipment themselves), but even successful contracts have been clouded by allegations of corruption and cronyism. This week, Byline Times published evidence that £2 billion worth of public contracts have been awarded to companies with links to the Conservative Party or its MPs.

The vaccine roll-out does not look like greed, but this surely does: the greed of the private sector taking vast profits from the public purse. It is not a triumph of private capital innovating and expanding, but of using state borrowing and taxation to enrich itself with the minimum of competition, scrutiny or accountability.

A Conservative Pandemic

Why, then, did Boris Johnson want to celebrate the “capitalism” and “greed” of the vaccine roll-out?

Much of it lies in his character. The Prime Minister finds it self-evidently absurd that some people might be motivated by altruism or public service, or be prepared to make sacrifices. If he is motivated by venality or self-interest, so must everyone else.

He repeated the trope at the weekend when he remarked that people must return to work as they have had “enough days off” over the pandemic. Because he is so absorbed in his deficiencies, he projects them onto others.

But this is also about ideology.

Gone are the days when Conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher would mock the socialist trait of ‘spending other people’s money’. Other people’s money is there to be spent on oneself and one’s friends. And yet the key driver of Thatcherism remains: money must trump everything else.

From the start of the pandemic, Johnson has privileged profit. In his now infamous Greenwich speech in February 2020 – first revealed by Byline Times – he railed against “bizarre autarkic rhetoric” and “a panic… that [goes] beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage”.

The Government, driven by the lockdown scepticism of Chancellor Rishi Sunak in particular, delayed introducing necessary restrictions, not just in March, but also in September and December. In the summer, the Government told people to return to work and bribed them to sit down and eat in restaurants.

Ministers put the economy over people’s lives and ended up sacrificing both.

The Flip Side

In one way, of course, the Government did harness greed and capitalism for the vaccine roll-out. It is not a question of the pharmaceutical industry or the NHS, but global structures of power.

There is a reason that the US, UK and Israel have inoculated a large proportion of their adult populations and some countries in sub-Saharan Africa barely a handful. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, as of 15 March, 23.6 million doses of vaccine had been distributed on the entire continent. On the same date, that was a million less than had been administered in the UK, with a population more than 18 times smaller.

The factors normally cited for such discrepancies – infrastructure, governance, resources – are profoundly linked to both capitalism and greed. Everyone who receives a vaccine in Britain is grateful, but in a truly just world we would not have vaccinated more than a half of the adult population while extremely vulnerable people in the developing world are waiting for their first dose.

Despite some success of the World Health Organisation’s COVAX scheme, the world’s richest nations have done nowhere near enough to assist a more equal vaccine distribution.

The media has focused on the row between the UK and EU, but the more pressing case is perhaps India. That country, home to the world-famous Serum Institute, has supplied much of Astra’s vaccine, while vaccinating less than 4% of its own population.

This is not simply a test case of economic export models, but the dynamics of economic power. It indeed feeds into something more political and more charged – the expectation that certain people deserve better health protection based on who they are and where they come from.

Not A Success, But a Threat

These questions are unlikely to trouble a government which denies institutional racism and the legacies of colonialism, but they might give others pause.

The pandemic did not take place in isolation and global responses are guided by ideology and history. The Conservative Party has placed greed and capitalism at the forefront of everything it has done for more than 40 years. It is entirely natural that it should claim that mantle for British socialism’s greatest achievement, the NHS.

The Coronavirus pandemic has revealed a model of capitalism in which companies do not simply exploit a workforce, but an entire nation – with the enthusiastic endorsement and assistance of the Government.

Greed and capitalism now threaten to bring populations to even greater harm due to COVID-19 – either through the promotion of profit above safety or the inability to distribute vaccines. Only Boris Johnson could see it as something to celebrate.


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