It was meant to be a landmark announcement, yet another milestone on the road back to normality. But even as Matt Hancock hailed the huge achievement of 25 million people having been given a first dose of a Covid vaccine, it was clear something was awry.
Just minutes before his No.10 press conference, that leaked NHS letter (warning of a “significant reduction” in supply) managed to prematurely snuff out the candles on any celebratory cake. There was a palpable sense of unease as Hancock was asked repeatedly about the setback, and even he didn’t sound convinced by his answers.
Yes, the health secretary had always said supply would be “lumpy”, but the letter was much starker and more serious in its tone. When NHS chiefs say it is “vital” to focus only on the over-50s and demand that “no further appointments are uploaded” for April, that suggests something more significant than the natural ebb and flow of a manufacturing process.
Unless something changes, it looks like younger people will have to wait for their share of the vaccine boost. Hancock was right to build in some flexibility in his original timetable, yet it now looks like hopes inside Whitehall of a faster-than expected rollout have been misplaced. The man who had predicted “a bumper March” was all but confirming a thin April would follow. Mystery still surrounds exactly why the supply is falling.
Already suffering from whispers he could be reshuffled out of his job soon, Hancock’s mood didn’t improve when he was asked (in a skilfully constructed question from ITV News’s Romilly Weeks) about Dominic Cummings’ suggestion that the Department of Health was to blame for PPE failures and had nothing to do with the vaccine rollout. As he said “it’s been a huge team effort”, his jaw tightened with barely suppressed frustration.
In evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Cummings explicitly claimed it was Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary and himself who persuaded the PM on the key decision to free the vaccines taskforce from red tape. “It is not coincidental that we had to take it out of the Department of Health. We had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister,” he said. No mention of Hancock.
As I’ve written before, friends of Hancock were appalled last autumn when some in No.10 (believed to be Cummings) ridiculed his enthusiasm for the vaccine programme gamble, preferring the idea of mass testing as the real way out of the crisis. So, it’s no wonder he looked aggrieved at the PM’s former adviser taking the credit.
Cummings slated the Treasury, the DHSC and of course all of Whitehall for failures ranging from research to the pandemic itself. And his wider point was this: “2020 was proof that if you don’t have people with scientific backgrounds [in government], who are able to think quantitatively and rationally, then you will have disastrous outcomes.”
The big problem with that analysis is that Boris Johnson himself lacks a scientific background. The logic of Cummings’ argument is that his former boss is the one responsible for some “disastrous outcomes”, from failing to lockdown fast enough in the first wave to unlocking too quickly to trigger the second wave, and ignoring advice to crack down much harder over Christmas.
Of course, as much as Cummings protests he loves science, he proved last year with his Barnard Castle adventure that he doesn’t personally follow the science or the rules. More importantly, his love of scientists didn’t seem to extend to following their guidance on a circuit breaker last September. Neither did the PM heed Sage warnings on December 22 that a weak lockdown over Christmas would not keep R below 1.
Downing Street will be hoping that the setback on vaccine supplies doesn’t ruin its roadmap out of lockdown this spring. Although deaths and hospitalisations have fallen dramatically in recent weeks, there are some worrying signs, with Covid cases now rising in 55 different areas. It’s unclear if school reopening is a factor or whether there’s something more concerning.
If the PM had the love of scientists that Cummings professes, maybe he would have listened to Sage on the roadmap plan too. It was in their February 18 meeting that the scientists called for decisions to be “based on epidemiological data rather than based on predetermined dates”.
Just as significantly, they said they favoured an “adaptive management” approach ”for example setting levels of infection or hospitalisation that would need to be reached before making changes”. That advice was not followed. Instead, the whole country’s fate now rests on four general “tests” that lack numerical thresholds or triggers.
Will Johnson actually give his scientists the “extreme freedom” (copyright D Cummings) to publicly recommend delays to unlockdown? He has pledged to stick to data not dates, but with his Tory MPs already frustrated at his caution, will the PM really tell the public what they don’t want to hear?
It’s still likely the PM will go ahead with his stages on his exit out of lockdown. But as he prepares for the inevitable photo-op of him getting his own AstraZeneca jab later this week, it’s clear there may be problems that could be more than bumps in the road. Or creases in the roadmap.