POLITICS
10/09/2021 18:22 BST

Will Boris Johnson Listen To The Oxford Vaccine Heroes To Whom He Owes So Much?

Many booster jabs would be wasted on Brits, but could save lives in the poorest nations.

Steve Parsons - PA Images via Getty Images
Dame Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford's Jenner Institute and Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine.

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Way back in March 2020, Boris Johnson was at the No.10 lectern, predicting that within 12 weeks he could “send coronavirus packing”. The PM positively exuded confidence as he declared: “I’m often accused of being unnecessarily boosterish about things. But, I genuinely think that...we will turn the tide and we will get through it.”

The tide did indeed recede later that summer, but came back in the autumn and built into a veritable tsunami in the winter, with tens of thousands of deaths. With ministers braced for another winter rise in Covid cases, the PM’s boosterism – a buoyantly optimistic sales pitch for everything he does – is again likely to be a key factor in the government’s response.

Keen to continue the success of the vaccination programme, it appears Johnson is not only going to push on with Covid passports for nightclubs but also to press ahead with the other two big calls of the autumn: vaccinating under-16s and providing third doses for over-50s. A booster PM ordering booster jabs would be no surprise.

And yet opposition to both children’s vaccination and to booster jabs is growing. Crucially, that opposition is coming from the very people the PM has hailed as heroes in the past. Oxford University’s Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, who developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, has told the Daily Telegraph only the elderly and very vulnerable need a third dose.

Dame Sarah pointed out that it was better to send any spare capacity to poorer countries where millions have not had a first dose, let alone a third one.

And fellow academic Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chair of the JCVI, was even more scathing. He said that we have a moral duty to save lives and came up with a startling fact: 800,000 lives have been lost since the G7 agreed to send more vaccines to those in need. He also said there was “a risk to trade, to economies” if the virus continued to wreak havoc around the globe.

Most important of all was the science. Pollard stuck firmly to the JCVI line that child vaccination benefits are marginal, and that third jabs were similarly unnecessary for most people in the UK, apart from the immunocompromised and the oldest and most vulnerable citizens.

But ministers, and the PM, seem set on a “charity begins at home” approach, notwithstanding the current number of vaccines set aside for export. Of the 100 million jabs the UK has pledged overseas by 2022, only nine million have been delivered so far.

Given the short-sighted damage to the UK’s international ‘soft power’ in cutting overseas aid (Afghanistan’s support was halved only to be doubled again this year amid the withdrawal fiasco), Johnson has a chance to show real world leadership when he meets Joe Biden and other leaders at the UN general assembly later this month.

If he surprised everyone and prioritised vaccine supplies for the poorest nations over medically unnecessary jabs for Britons, he really could resurrect his “global Britain” slogan for a post-Brexit UK. That would be the kind of life-saving boost of which we could all be proud.