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And now for the hard part

By SEC Newgate team
02 December 2020

By Simon Gentry

Hardly a person in Britain will have been unmoved by this morning’s news that the UK healthcare regulator, the MHRA, had approved the Pfizer vaccine and that immunisation of NHS workers and the most vulnerable will begin almost immediately.  The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was visibly thrilled as he toured the TV studios this morning. The government gambled and spent and spent early to ensure that we both had early access and enough doses to make a difference.

But, as Dan Hodges, the political commentator pointed out on Twitter this morning, rolling out a new vaccination programme is tricky, as shown by events in the USA a generation ago.  Hodges recalls a 1976 swine flu outbreak at Fort Dix in New Jersey.  It was feared that it would be a major outbreak, akin to Spanish Flu. The then US President Gerald Ford decided on a national vaccination programme.  45 million people were vaccinated but as the programme was rolled out, so problems inevitably occurred. The scale of the programme meant that normal deaths were sometimes ascribed – by some, but not medical experts - to the use of the vaccine.  These deaths would have occurred anyway, they had nothing whatsoever to do with the vaccine, but those who wanted, for whatever reason, to throw doubt on the vaccine and its safety took their opportunity.

1976 was a simpler time, without social media and without an organised and vocal anti-vax movement.  Amongst the very first recipients of the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK will be people in their 80s and older, many with important underlying health conditions. Some will, unfortunately, die shortly after being inoculated.  It must also be said that in recent months this government has not shown itself to be particularly good at communicating complex public health messages. This combination may provide the perfect environment in which headline seeking panic-peddlers can create mayhem, frightening millions into refusing to vaccinate and extending the impact of the pandemic not only here, but across the world.

The communication challenge is serious and we at Newgate don’t offer trite advice.  The government knows the scale of the challenge and has plans in place to address concerns as far as they are able.  One government insider told me they are keen to explain the science when the questions are reasonable, but they will ignore the most dangerous and outlandish claims made on social media.  This particular vaccine was tested over the same period of time and with the same number of people as all other vaccine trials.  It was not “rushed through” to approval as some reports have claimed.   What was truncated, gratifyingly, was the extraordinarily slow medicine approval bureaucracy, a problem which has been growing and delaying new medicines for over 30 years.

For the pandemic to be halted, over 60% of the UK population need to be vaccinated or have natural antibodies after exposure to the virus.  Ministers will be hoping and praying that the media can control itself and that the public are able to keep faith with the NHS and the medical advice.

In the meantime the rest of us can get back to dreaming and planning for a life where we can hug our loved ones, spend evenings with friends in pubs, watch a game in a full stadium, go to a concert and shop without masks. Roll on Spring!