Last year, British prime minister Boris Johnson passed up an offer to participate in the European Union’s joint Covid-19 vaccination scheme. The response in pro-European corners of the British press was hostile. Johnson and company were accused of playing politics with people’s lives, with the implication being that British grannies and grandpas were being sacrificed on the altar of Brexit.
Six months later, even Johnson’s fiercest critics have acknowledged, sometimes through gritted teeth, that the wisdom of the government’s decision to go it alone on vaccines. The difference in outcomes between the British and European vaccination programs is stark. On a per-capita basis, Britain has outperformed every major country except Israel when it comes to the speed of the vaccine rollout. The U.K. has administered 18.5 vaccine doses per 100 people, while the EU figure is a paltry 3.8 per 100. On the current pace, that gap will only grow wider.
Frustration in Brussels over the difference between the bloc and its newly independent neighbor (one line on the chart surging upward, the other skidding along the bottom) bubbled over recently. French president Emmanuel Macron churlishly referred to the U.K.’s vaccine rollout as “not serious” and claimed, incorrectly, that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was “almost ineffective” against Covid-19 in people over 65. That same day, the EU regulator approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use, including for people in that age group.
Then, in an extraordinary move, Brussels announced its intention to impose a hard border on Ireland—its biggest non-negotiable of the last four years of Brexit negotiations—in order to block vaccine exports to the U.K. By suggesting this step, the EU managed to unite almost everyone in the U.K. and Ireland in opposition (no easy feat), before being forced to make a humiliating U-turn.
The row is a reminder that vaccine distribution is almost the only thing that political leaders are being judged on right now. And in the U.K., Johnson’s government looks to be transforming an initially lackluster pandemic response into a more impressive record.
With 1,632 deaths per million, the U.K. has been harder hit by Covid-19, per capita, than almost anywhere else. Last month, the country passed a grim milestone: 100,000 lives lost to the pandemic. Government interventions have frequently been sluggish and contradictory. Early on, the U.K. locked down too late and botched deliveries of personal protective equipment. And yet, Britain’s vaccination program has proved the most effective part of its pandemic response. What explains the turnaround?
Throughout the vaccine development and distribution process, the U.K. has moved swiftly and decisively, seemingly more aware than other governments that overcautiousness could cost lives. When negotiating purchase agreements, Johnson’s government appeared to appreciate that being at the front of the queue mattered more than getting value for its money. While the EU bartered over price, the U.K. focused on guaranteeing vaccine delivery. Britain was also first to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It then adopted a “first doses first” strategy that, judging by a study published last week, appears to have been the right move.
The mastermind behind the vaccine rollout is Kate Bingham, a biotech venture capitalist who volunteered her services to the government last year. The gap in performance between her Vaccine Task Force, set up directly by 10 Downing Street, and public bodies like Public Health England and SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) surely contains lessons for a government keen to reinvigorate a civil service that many think no longer lives up to its reputation as a “Rolls Royce” operation. According to the Spectator, the apparent success of the vaccine rollout is forcing government officials to ask themselves: “Is it possible to get things done at this speed and with this competence outside of a pandemic?”
The competence of the British vaccine scheme will also be a huge confidence boost for Brexit Britain. The contrasting fortunes of the British and European programs confirm many of the Brexiteers’ charges about the shortcomings of the EU: you could hardly dream up a better example of the cost of leaving important tasks to sluggish, risk-averse bureaucracies. The vaccine rollout also shows what stands to be gained by Britain’s making the most of its newfound freedom.
Externally, the vaccine rollout could become a source of “soft” power, as “Global Britain” reimagines its place on the world stage. If things continue at their current pace, the question will soon become where Britain should send its spare vaccines. Some say Ireland, in part to help repair relations after a bruising four years. Others want to stick to the original plan and donate doses to the developing world.
Whether one looks at it as a case study in good governance or a PR win for Brexit Britain, the lesson is the same: a Britain that capitalizes on its innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and newfound agility can thrive outside of the EU—and after the pandemic.
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