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Get Vaccinated Against Covid. Not Against Tory Policy.
The "vaccine dividend" should be one profit the Conservative Party are not allowed cash in on.
"Jab by jab."
Words out of the mouth of the British Prime Minister encapsulating the metamorphosis of the coronavirus vaccine from viral inoculator to political instrument.
We've seen the term "vaccine nationalism" rear its head in recent weeks, describing anything from the potential overlooking of the Global South in vaccine distribution to the apoplectic spillover between the EU and Britain over supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. But the euphemism of "vaccine nationalism" is wide of the mark: there is no vaccine nationalism, there is only nationalism. How nationalism expresses itself is ultimately a symptom of an underlying cause, that of narrowly defined national self-interest. We may be watching a preview of the potential for public health commodities to become a political weapon for the 21st Century, as global issues like climate change and food insecurity further challenge the shaky international order, and give political legitimacy to nationalist protectionism.
The potential political clout to be derived from holding the keys to the public health - and in the context of an infectious disease, public freedoms - safe, is already evident. There is even a term for it, which the UK government are already cashing in: "vaccine dividend."
"Dividend": How apt a financial term for the party which took the opportunity of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis to impose the most brutal form of austerity on the country. The Prime Minister and the UK government find themselves currently in a situation of analogous distaste: profiting from the distribution of the vaccine off the back of a calamitous handling of the pandemic with hundreds of thousands of dead citizens.
Yes, despite everything, the Prime Minister has climbed back ahead in approval ratings in the polls. This resurgence entirely reflects the availability of the vaccination, and the vaccine rollout. People see light at the end of the tunnel, and in true human short-term memory fashion - as if in an abusive relationship - are seemingly willing to wipe the slate clean on the sheer incompetence of the past year because they've been brought flowers after the black eye, albeit in this case the vaccine after the lost year. In distributing inoculation against the virus, the government are inoculating themselves against the reckoning that is painfully required not only for the past year, but the past decade.
"C'mon, you must give them credit."
"Well, could you have handled the pandemic better? They've done their best."
Etc. Etc. Etc.
Don't fall prey to this thinking. The government's best in dealing with Covid-19 wasn't good enough. The government's best didn't produce the vaccine, the best of scientists in Oxford, Germany, and the US did. The government's best didn't procure the vaccine, Kate Bingham and her team did. And although she was a government contractor for the purposes of heading up this process, the credit lies with her initiative, which went far beyond the borders of the British Isle.
Let's be clear about what the UK government did do with the vaccine: they placed a bet. A bet which, this time last year, they knew as much about the chances of it coming through as I knew about the 16.50 winner at an empty-stands Cheltenham this year, which is to say it likely had four legs and a rather small human on its back. They placed a bet because they had no plan, no strategy, and no vision for implementing any plan or strategy, to manage the pandemic in the interim. They threw the job to Kate Bingham, and thankfully the historical record will show that Bingham was a competent, foresightful, team-player who backed science. Bingham backed science: the Tories still don't know what science is, despite using the term more in the past year than it has been used since an apple hit Newton's head.
Yet some of the rhetoric now about the government and the vaccine would have you think Boris Johnson concocted it himself in the bathtub of No.10 from Remainers' tears.
The reality is the government were lucky. Lucky that brilliant scientists call the UK home. And Germany home. And the US home. Lucky that work which had been ongoing in the immunology and virology fields for years preceding Covid-19 came to fruition during the currency of the virus. Lucky that their gamble paid off, and that a vaccine was available for distribution within one calendar year of the virus reaching UK shores. Maybe they were even lucky that Bingham is married to a Tory MP, although for once I'll hold my cynicism and say she was clearly up to the task, independent of the toxic cronyism that pervades The Party.
The Party are now able to frame a narrative that they backed science all the way. That is a lie. Delayed initial lockdowns. A jovial spirit of "it's happening over there but THIS IS ENGERLAND" in February and March of last year. Abandoning mass community testing. Failed contact track and tracing. The total ambiguity and recklessness in public health messaging throughout last summer, autumn, and winter. Ignoring advice for action on multiple occasions, only to be left scrambling back to national lockdowns months after the viral transmission horse had bolted from the R-number stable.
The government didn't "back science". They hoped scientists would be able to give them a ticket out of a national emergency they were incapable of handling. The latter and former differ by orders of magnitude. Boris Johnson declared that the government had done "everything we could" to deal with the virus. That is a lie.
Yet now they are seemingly able, with one swift jab in the arm, to inoculate themselves against political criticism.
"Look, last year was last year - but look what we've done now! Stop dwelling on the past. Yes we stumbled at first, mistakes were made but not by us, and now we've brought you this vaccine - and the Great British Summer! Did you hear us? Great! British! Summer! Everything that is Great about being British, and Summer, and being British in Summer, which is Great! We did it! And we did it all while defeating Europe and setting Ireland on fire - AGAIN! Two World Wars and One Pandemic!"
And through all of this, perhaps the most disturbing characteristic to any healthy, functioning democracy - yet that which has almost gone unnoticed - is the total and utter contempt for the law, civil liberties, and parliamentary opposition which defines this government. Having a 'VIP lane' for Tory friends to be awarded billion-pound contracts with no competition, contracts for critical elements of dealing with the pandemic, like contact tracing and PPE. A vermin control company worth £19,000 was awarded a contract worth £108m to provide PPE to the NHS: in a surprising turn, the equipment provided was not, in fact, fit for purpose.
Selling NHS data on private citizens to US data firm, Palantir, for £23m, with no process transparency. The government have refused, six times, to publish details of the contract procurement process. The High Court have ruled this unlawful: this has had little impact on a government with contempt for democratic norms and the independent judiciary, and Matty "Great British Summer" Hancock has refused to resign.
Michael Gove's office set up a special unit to deal with Freedom of Information requests, normally supposed to be 'applicant-blind' (i.e., it does not matter who makes the request): known as the 'Clearing House', it has processed FoI requests by reference to the source - journalists in particular - and censored what information is released to the public.
While they've been happy to break the law and stick two-fingers up to the public right to hold them to account, they've also snuck in draconian legislation with regard to powers of arrest, and are now seeking to hammer through a new bill that would effectively allow any protests to be shut down.
And for all that may be written about what could or should have been done, particularly if the government were truly "backing science", i.e., mass community testing, there is one unifying mechanism that explains why the government were incapable of handling the pandemic in the absence of a vaccine: the actions required were in direct conflict to the feral neo-Thatcherite, market fundamentalist, authoritarian populist ideology of the modern Tory party. This is the fundamental reason why advice for interventions were ignored or delayed until - ironically - the only solution was the strictest possible measures with maximum economic damage.
They are able to frame a narrative that it is people's lives that come first, the health of ordinary citizens that matter. That is a lie. Over the past decade of their governance, increases in life expectancy have not only ground to a halt in the UK population, but declined for women in socially deprived areas outside of London. Disability-adjusted life-years, i.e., the number of years spent in ill-health, increased. The gap of health inequality between the affluent and socially deprived became wider. Funding for mental health services was gutted. The NHS have been promised the sun, moon, and stars, yet still faces funding gaps in the billions.
The average life expectancy of the poorest people in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is 22yrs - 22 years - shorter than the richest. The government had to be publicly shamed - three times - into feeding schoolchildren during holidays. UNICEF had to step in to provide food for children. Think about that: the United Nations stepping in to feed children in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Homelessness has increased by over 250% since 2010.
There is no vaccine for these issues.
And the presence of a vaccine for an infectious disease that emerged at the end of 2019 does not mean that the Tory leopard has suddenly changed its spots. The most naive way to view the relationship between the government and the vaccine would be as some benevolent act of paternalistic care for the population, rather than a ticket back to the normal course of business and function for The Party.
You may think that I'm conflating issues that predate Covid with issues that have manifest during the course of the pandemic. But this is not a conflation: they are not inseparable. In law there is a principle known as "the egg-shell skull rule". It dates back to a 1939 case of Owens v Liverpool Corporation, where the Court held that:
“it is no answer to a claim for a fractured skull that the owner had an unusually fragile one”.
The fragility of the skull of the UK population pre-Covid was not, in fact, unusual at all: it was the consequence of policy decisions, decisions based on a defunct and decrepit political and economic ideology.
Are you willing to be inoculated to this?
I get it. We all get it. We want to be able to gather a group of friends on a whim, walk into a pub for a match, go to our favourite gigs and festivals, hug family, travel, just get on with living life. And you've done your part: you've stayed at home, you've followed advice, you've done everything that has been asked of you. Even when it was hard. Especially when it was hard. And it is precisely for this reason that the very idea the Conservative Party could somehow receive a "dividend" on the back of the vaccine should be anathema to anyone with any sort of idea about a better society than this.
So stop giving "credit where it is due", or something to that effect, to the government with regard to the vaccine. Because the credit isn't due: you are due. They owe you this. And you don't have to thank them for it. You should thank the scientists who developed it. Thank Kate Bingham if you want. Definitely thank the nurse putting it in your arm, because who knows how many lives they watched be taken this past year.
Getting that jab into your arm (twice) is the bare minimum the UK government can do for the UK public. It is the only benevolent act affecting the whole population after a decade of systematic societal dismantling and community devastation writ large by a band of incompetent cavalier cowboys.
The handling of the pandemic by the government simply cannot be boiled down to getting the population vaccinated. It can't be taken out of the context of everything that has happened over the past year. It can't be taken out of the context of everything that has happened over the past decade. Or everything that is yet to come. Because leopards don't change their spots.
This Britain that now goes it alone has at the helm a cavalier collection of callous plutocrats with a predilection for authoritarianism, intolerance for dissent, disdain for the poor, and a morally decrepit depiction of how society should be.
Please, get inoculated against the novel Coronavirus. But don't ignore the malignant metastatic cancer on society that is the modern Conservative Party agenda.