From David Maughan Brown in York: Of lights and tunnels

3rd December

“The beginning of the end,”  “the light at the end of the tunnel”, the clichés roll out towards Dover today to greet the ‘unmarked’ lorries as they emerge from the Channel tunnel bringing the UK our first batch of the newly approved Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.  ‘Unmarked’, presumably, lest anyone have the bright idea of hi-jacking the tens of thousands of vials of vaccine to do a bit of do-it-yourself vaccinating, sell them on the black market, or ransom them back to Boris.  Good luck with that: I would have thought that freezer boxes of a vaccine that needs to be kept at minus 78-80 degrees centigrade would be about as difficult to shift as the Mona Lisa. 

This is, of course, extremely good news.  Having just scraped over the 75 year-old bar, I find myself in the fortuitous position of being in priority category number 3, a poor but eager third to the medical staff, carers and retirement home inhabitants in category 1, and the over-eighties in category 2 – not that that will be much use to us, given that Susan remains languishing in the over-70 category 4.  But there does seem to be a realistic hope that we might both have been able to receive our two doses by Easter and be able to start living a rather more ‘normal’ life again.  But, inevitably, the good news had to be soured for most of us by our cringing embarrassment of a government’s having felt compelled to leap on the opportunity for some of the jingoistic competitive crowing one might expect to hear in the playground of an independent prep school.

The fact that the UK just happened to be the first country ‘in the world’ (as distinct, presumably, from on Mars, Venus or Jupiter) to approve the roll-out of the vaccine has been held to be evidence that Boris Johnson’s regular claims that the UK is ‘world-beating’ have finally been proved true.  It matters not that Pfizer just happens to be an American company and that the vaccine is manufactured in Belgium: we approved it first.  This, according to the wholly inimitable Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, lest we forget, was ‘because of Brexit’ which unshackled us from the pedestrian ‘pace of the Europeans who are moving a bit more slowly.’   

Not to be outdone in the jingoist stupidity stakes, Gavin Williamson, our overgrown schoolboy of an Education Secretary, who is even further out of his depth in his portfolio than Hancock is, if that is possible, went further in an interview with LBC this morning.   His imperishable words in response to a question as to whether Brexit could be really held responsible for this world-beating achievement deserve to be quoted in full:  “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators.  Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we.”   I’ve listened to the clip; I can vouch for the fact that that is exactly what our Secretary of State for Education really did say.  There we have it in a nutshell:  Brexit was necessary because we didn’t want to be held back from our glorious destiny by that inferior lot across the channel.  As we have always believed, even if political correctness has got in the way of saying it, Worthy Oriental Gentlemen start at Calais. 

Leaving Brexit and the question of whether our glorious destiny lies in the 21st or the 19th century aside, the immediately self-defeating stupidity of the playground boasting about being world beating lies not with the offence it will have given to the French, the Belgians and the Americans, but with the open invitation it provided for doubt to be cast on the credibility of the approval process.  If it was the fastest approval process in the world might it have been the least thoroughgoing?  After all, Boris was the fastest and first person in the world to approve of a twenty-five mile drive to Barnard Castle as a good way to test one’s eyes, but that didn’t say a whole lot for the credibility of the approval process.   Why would that matter?  Because the main obstacle to achieving the ‘herd immunity’ to Covid-19 across the population as a whole that is essential to the return to a ‘normal’ life, lies with the anti-vaxxers who are looking for reasons to persuade their social-media followers not to accept the vaccination, and appear already to have recruited a significant number of people to their cause.

Hancock’s and Williamson’s juvenile bragging invited the inevitable responses from the countries they were demeaning.  The most telling of those has probably been the one from Anthony Fauci, Donald Trump’s least favourite Director of the USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is on record as stating that the UK ‘really rushed through that aproval’.[1] Fauci compared it to running ‘around the corner of the marathon’ and joining it in the last mile, and then touched on the anti-vaxxer issue in suggesting that if the U.S. “had jumped up over the hurdle here quickly and inappropriately to gain an extra week or a week-and-a-half, I think that the credibility of our regulatory process would have been damaged.”  Fauci went on to be even more damningly specific: “… they just took the data from the Pfizer company. And instead of scrutinizing it really, really carefully, they said, ‘OK, let’s approve it. That’s it.’ And they went with it.”

So there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however hard our esteemed cabinet ministers try to extinguish it with their rancid hot air.  But I’m not waiting with bated breath for my two doses to speed through the Channel tunnel to rescue me from self-isolation.   It will have taken the lorries a few hours to get here from Belgium today; my two doses won’t be coming until after the 31st December, by which time the queues of lorries could be taking many days.  If it was seriously stupid to claim that Brexit had speeded up the approval process for the vaccine, it would be manifestly insane to imagine that Brexit won’t slow its delivery down immeasurably.


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