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Who gets the vaccine is a political bombshell for the Government

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
06 October 2020

ho gets what, and who pays, is the essence of politics. It’s in every budget: shall we tax this half of the population to give more money to the other half? It’s the choice every generation faces. Shall we borrow more now and let our children foot the bill? That’s the choice that Chancellor Rishi Sunak was warning of yesterday .

These days the non-money trade-offs dominate our politics. As Thomas Jefferson might ask it if he were living in a student hall in Manchester, should we elevate the right to life of one group in our society — those vulnerable to coronavirus — over the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness of a larger group who might infect them? That’s what NHS Test and Trace is doing every day, when the Excel spreadsheet works . They are phoning anyone who might have been exposed to Covid, and forcing them — on pain of legal sanction — to be confined to their home for two whole weeks . House arrest is a draconian restriction on the liberty of potentially hundreds of thousands of people. Yet most of us are witting participants in this policy. We shop our friends when the phone call comes; we download the NHS app, whose principal purpose is to make it easier to isolate us. That’s because we’ve collectively decided that the health of a substantial minority — that includes our parents and others we love — is worth limiting the freedom of the majority.

Back in March and April there were few dissenters. The whole population was scared about this new and unknown virus. It didn’t feel like the impositions would last that long — and the Treasury would compensate anyone who lost out. Seven months later, I wonder how long this social compact is going to last. The young and the healthier people know they’re unlikely to die of this virus. People realise many of the jobs they’ve paused, or the businesses they shuttered, are not coming back — and they will not be compensated. Evidence of the damage done to education is mounting, with the least advantaged losing most.

Of course, there are powerful counter-arguments. Most of the victims might be older, or sicker, but they still have 10 or 20 years of their lives ahead of them — this isn’t Logan’s Run, that Seventies sci-fi film where only the young can live. People of all ages are suffering debilitating “long Covid”. Above all, our leaders tell us, these restrictions to our liberty and livelihoods are only temporary because, like the cavalry, a vaccine is on its way very soon. That’s why the news that only half of Britons may get the vaccine is potentially very destabilising.

Even if half the country gets the vaccine, the Government can’t let the disease rip through the other half

This dramatic revelation wasn’t made by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons or in a national TV address but by Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK vaccine task force, in a newspaper interview. She said: “people keep talking about ‘time to vaccinate the whole population’, but that is misguided”. Misguided? That begs the question who’s been doing the guiding. She went on, “it’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable”. Only 30 million of the 67 million people who live in Britain, she briefed, will get the vaccine. Why less than half? Ms Bingham reveals “we’re not fundamentally using the vaccine to create population immunity” and if younger, healthier people have it, “it could cause them freak harm”. This may be good medicine, but it’s a political bombshell for the Government — even if it hasn’t exploded yet. No wonder they’re furious with her. “She’s gone completely rogue” is what they say privately. But that doesn’t deal with the substance. How are the Government going to deal with the clamour from potentially millions of “ineligible” people who say they want the vaccine anyway, despite the side-effects, so they can resume normal life? Or the arguments on equality that will come as wealthier people pay for private vaccinations, as they’re paying for private tests now?

Even when half the country get the vaccine, which will take months, the Government can’t let the disease rip through the other half of the population, making them sick and exposing many to long-term symptoms — and so we are all going to be living with serious restrictions on our liberty for much longer than we currently believe. If that’s the case, are we prepared to put up with those restrictions now — with no end in sight?

Like all politics, it comes down to who gets the vaccine, and who pays the price in liberty. Forget the speeches from the big guns at the online Tory Conference this week, it’s Ms Bingham’s revelations that are about to take the centre-stage in British politics.