Boris Johnson’s Coronavirus-Vaccine Miracle | The New Yorker


By the end of this week, more than half of the adult population of the United Kingdom will have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Since the mass-vaccination program, the world’s first, began, in December, it has come to embody a national success story. The rollout has been fast, ample, and fair. About eleven million doses, of the twenty-four million administered so far, have been of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was designed by scientists at Oxford University, has yet to be approved in the U.S., and has a strong “Made in Britain” feel. The logistics of the operation have been handled by the beloved and creaking National Health Service, which has withstood a heartbreaking year. Across the country, the population has been summoned by text message and phone call, in strict order of age and vulnerability, to hospitals, clinics, and sports grounds. And they have come, for the most part, eagerly. Last weekend, a little over five hundred and twelve thousand people—one in a hundred adult Britons—were injected in a single day.

Earlier this week, I dropped by an N.H.S. vaccination center near where I live, in East London. The clinic occupies a former IKEA order-and-collection point in a shopping mall. The rest of the mall was like a mausoleum of Before. Christmassy, digitized snow was falling on the TV screens of a luxury-car dealership. A darkened Armani Exchange outlet was trapped in a permanent sale. Outside the clinic, a line of some thirty masked, middle-aged people waited while a spring rain shower blew in sideways under the mall’s high atrium roof.

Debbie Skinner, a teacher from Redbridge, a nearby suburb, had just been given her first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Skinner’s family lives on the Isle of Man. She hadn’t seen them for more than a year. The vaccine was going to allow her to return to work. “It’s absolutely momentous to me.” Skinner, who had short brown hair and was wearing a black rain jacket, was on her way to meet a friend for the first time since December, when Britain’s second wave of infections broke in earnest. She shifted her weight joyfully from one foot to the other as she spoke. “I feel light,” she said. “I feel almost heady with it.”

The joy of the vaccines makes for a strange accounting of Britain’s terrible plague year, during which more than a hundred and forty-six thousand people have died. A combination of official incompetence and bad luck, in the form of the U.K.’s highly infectious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, discovered last fall, has caused the country to suffer one of the world’s highest mortality rates and the worst economic damage among G-7 nations. Before Skinner floated away, I asked her if she was able to square the success of Britain’s vaccination drive with its over-all response to the pandemic, which she had described as shocking. “I’m not sure you can, really,” Skinner said. “I think most people have been absolutely flabbergasted as to how well this has gone.” Since the turn of the year, when Britain’s second wave peaked, the vaccine program, alongside a third lockdown, has helped to sharply curtail infections and deaths, particularly among older patients. In the past six weeks, the number of people hospitalised with COVID-19 in the U.K. has fallen by seventy-three per cent. Positive tests are down to less than six thousand a day, a tenth of the level in January.

Boris Johnson, a political opportunist of the first rank, is reaping the gains. The Prime Minister’s approval rating is at its highest since last May, soon after he was treated in intensive care for the virus, and his Conservative Party is six points ahead of Labour in the polls. “There is undoubtedly a vaccine bounce going on,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s stolid, relatively new leader, conceded in a recent interview with the BBC. “You can feel it, you go into the vaccine center with anxiety written over your face and then you see people coming out with a smile. It’s an incredible feeling.” Johnson flaunts what he calls the Oxford vaccine as an example of the gifts that post-Brexit Britain is about to bestow upon the world. “As the vaccine programme begins to inspire a new global hope, we want to use this moment to heal, both literally and figuratively,” he wrote in the Times of London this week. Johnson, who has never met a metaphor he wouldn’t manhandle, praised the vaccine as part of “the vast dispersal of British ideas, and British values, puffed around the world like the seeds of some giant pollinating tree.”

For the time being, Johnson’s detractors are flummoxed. “A lot of us can see the chancer in him. But, actually, people want to believe it,” Meg Hillier, a Labour member of Parliament, told me. Hillier is the chair of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, which investigates government spending. Since last spring, Hillier’s committee has documented many of the worst aspects of Britain’s handling of the disaster. During March and April last year, around twenty-five thousand N.H.S. patients, most of them elderly, were transferred out of hospitals into care homes without being tested for the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, outbreaks were reported in almost forty per cent of England’s care homes. Tens of thousands of people died. After a hesitant initial response, Johnson’s government moved into boondoggle mode, betting big in some areas (such as vaccine development), which have paid off, and others (such as personal protective equipment, where it set out to purchase four months’ supply but accidentally bought five years’ worth), which have not. Amazing sums have been, in another Johnsonism, spaffed up the wall. On March 10th, Hillier’s committee reported on Britain’s inordinately expensive test-and-trace system, which has been allocated thirty-seven billion pounds and has yet to show a meaningful effect on the transmission of the virus. None of these failures matter, though, when the end appears to be in sight. And it doesn’t make much political sense for Johnson’s opponents to harp on about them, either. “People don’t vote for the doom-and-gloom party,” Hillier said. “People will want to vote for what the Prime Minister might call the sunny uplands.”

Britain’s vaccine success has also obscured the impacts of Johnson’s signature policy, which was taking the country out of the European Union. Although Brexit formally took place in January, 2020 (on the same day that Britain recorded its first coronavirus case), it was only at the start of this year that new trading rules took effect. So far, the consequences of Johnson’s hard-line deal with the E.U. have been as dispiriting as they were predictable. Last week, official figures showed a fall of £5.6 billion, or forty per cent, in British exports to the bloc in January, compared to the month before. Some sectors were especially hard hit: dairy exports to the E.U. were cut in half; fish and shellfish exports fell by eighty-three per cent. A survey of industrial firms found that three-quarters are currently experiencing delays and problems because of new customs checks. Lord Frost, the government’s former Brexit negotiator, insisted that the fall in trade was owing to a “unique combination of factors,” including the pandemic, but it was also exactly what economists were expecting. Exports to the rest of the world rose slightly in the same period. “That exports to the E.U. collapsed so badly, much worse than to everyone else, shows that, you know, quelle surprise, if you have some checks on the French side of the border, you’re going to have a lot less trade,” John Springford, the deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank, told me. “I don’t think it’s going to be as bad in February and March, but it’s still going to be bad. And I think, then, we are looking at sizable job losses.”

For now, a rotten Brexit doesn’t seem to matter. And that’s largely because the E.U.’s own gigantic vaccine program is in such a mess. For most of last year, British people looked anxiously at statistics and news reports about the pandemic in Europe and wondered why they seemed to be suffering so much worse. (Germany’s death rate from COVID-19, which has risen recently, remains about a half of the U.K.’s.) With the vaccine rollout, the same is happening in reverse. The E.U. was slow in ordering doses. Distribution has been hampered by production problems and mixed messaging about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular. Vaccination rates in Germany and France are currently at around eleven doses per hundred residents, compared to the thirty-two in the U.S. and thirty-nine in the U.K. “Liebe Britain, We Beneiden You,” (Dear Britain, We Envy You), ran a headline in Bild, a German tabloid, last month.

“I think the E.U. vaccine procurement, but also the E.U. rollout strategy, is one of the most, if not the most dangerous, moments for the E.U. for quite some time,” Guntram Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a European economic think tank, told me earlier this week. “Every citizen sees this and has a view on this. And every citizen has come already across the chart which shows the difference between the U.K. and the E.U. and is asking big questions. Big questions.” Wolff pointed out that Britain’s vaccine program was not a by-product of Brexit. It could have gone its own way as a member of the E.U., as well. But it’s not not about Brexit, either. Arguments about the terms of AstraZeneca’s contract with the British government and exports of vaccine doses across the English Channel have disfigured relations between the two sides since the start of the year. Last week, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, accused Britain of refusing to export vaccines to Europe, which is the kind of scrap with Brussels that Johnson has been enjoying for the past thirty years. “The atmosphere is very adversarial,” Wolff said. “I think both sides are very nervous still.” While we were speaking on Zoom, Germany, France, and Italy joined a dozen other European countries in suspending the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, because of fears of blood clotting. On Wednesday, Johnson told the House of Commons that he was looking forward to his own jab in the coming days. “It will certainly be Oxford-AstraZeneca that I will be having,” he said.

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