Conservatives could pay political price for any slowdown in vaccine rollout

London Letter: Tory expert sees link between those vaccinated and party’s rise in polls

Despite the news that people under-50 who were due to receive their first vaccine dose next month will have to wait until May, Britain remains on course to offer a first jab to every adult in the country by the end of July.

The vaccine rollout has been so successful that health secretary Matt Hancock and former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings have been battling this week over who can take the credit.

But this first setback for the vaccination programme has given Britain an insight into what the EU has faced as its rollout has been hit by supply chain problems and AstraZeneca’s failure to deliver what it promised.

There is some confusion surrounding the reason why a delivery of five million doses of the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII) has been delayed. Boris Johnson blamed "technical reasons" but the institute's chief executive Adar Poonawalla said the Indian government was behind the delay.

“It is solely dependent on India and it has nothing to do with the SII. It is to do with the Indian government allowing more doses to the UK,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“The real challenge now is rolling it out to all the countries worldwide but also balancing our commitments domestically and understanding what my government wants us to do. It’s a fine balance.”

Johnson's gentle tone towards India contrasts with foreign secretary Dominic Raab's suggestion that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's refusal to rule out controlling the export of vaccines from the EU was similar to the action of a dictatorship.

Citizens

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Sage group of scientific advisers to the government, believes vaccine nationalism is self-defeating but not surprising.

“National governments are all elected by citizens and the primary responsibility of national governments is to look after their own citizens. That’s absolutely understandable,” he told The Irish Times.

He traces the vaccine rollout problems to the lack of resilience in a system of vaccine production that was operating at full capacity even before the pandemic so that there is now no spare vaccine manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world.

“You cannot just set up vaccine manufacturing overnight, quite rightly. The quality control, the technology, the people, the infrastructure, the buildings, the regulatory pathways are not there. It takes years to set those things up.

“And of course now you’re dealing with vaccines which we’ve not traditionally made. So we can’t just turn a flu factory over to making a vaccine. It’s just not possible to do that.

"So this is just really, again, exposing how vulnerable the whole world is. Even Europe, one of the richest parts of the world, is and it just did not have the vaccine manufacturing [capacity] for its own citizens, let alone supplying the rest of the world," said Mr Farrar.

Health issue

The vaccination programme is primarily a public health issue, but it has political consequences for every government in Europe, including Johnson’s. The success of the UK vaccine rollout has helped to obscure the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic throughout 2020, leaving Britain with the worst death toll in Europe.

If the delay in the first jabs for the under-50s tarnishes the success of the vaccination or an EU export ban creates further delays, there could be a measurable political price.

Conservative peer and polling expert Robert Hayward told political journalists at Westminster this week that there was a clear link between the vaccine rollout and his party's rise in the polls ahead of May's local elections.

“It is the older generations who have moved most markedly to the Conservatives, basically the cohort from 54 upwards. Now the significant thing is, they are the people who vote in local elections,” he said.

“It is quite noticeable. It was first of all the age group from 64 upwards that moved. There’s some sign now that the 55-year-old and upwards are also moving. And interestingly enough, they are the people who have received their vaccinations. So there’s clearly an element of vaccine bounce. I think it goes hand in hand. I don’t think it’s chance.”