Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
Delay is extremely costly in this pandemic. When the post-mortems are written, lethargy will rank high on the list of consequential policy mistakes. With a rapidly spreading virus, procedural bureaucracy or a failure to grease the wheels for vaccine rollouts will be found to have cost tens of thousands of lives in each advanced country, alongside incalculable damage to livelihoods.
As I explain in my forthcoming book, Economics In One Virus, governments have certainly spent big on testing, tracing, and vaccines. But the sums are piddling in comparison to the amount allocated for economic relief.
The latter is demanded by voters, but it would have been wiser to put more funds into paying over-the-odds to encourage vaccine manufacturing scale-up, to overcome bottlenecks, and to facilitate around-the-clock rollout as soon as vaccines were ready. This would have handsomely paid for itself in a more rapid economic normalisation, not to mention the lives saved. As economist Alex Tabarrok has written, this was the easiest cost-benefit analysis in the world for policymakers. When the inquiries begin, governments will lament their relative stinginess on spending where it mattered most.
As of writing this on Monday, the UK’s vaccine rollout performance is improving still, of course, with nearly 600,000 jabs registered Saturday and England’s figures for Sunday up 45 per cent on the week. It might seem a bizarre time then to lament that we didn’t go quicker still. Yet two months after the first vaccine was approved, still only around 14 per cent of the public have received at least one dose. While the manufacturers and the NHS are (understandably and heroically) pulling every lever given where we are, we will surely regret in future not having had an Israeli-style mobilisation in place.
That’s not to say the UK’s performance has not been *relatively* impressive. The dexterity of the MHRA in understanding the trade-offs associated with the approvals process puts the US to shame, as that country stalls on approving AstraZeneca’s vaccine despite tens of thousands of Americans dying per week. The UK government’s willingness to stump up more cash has exposed the false economy of the EU’s haggling over pennies in contracts too.
For the costs of delay are exacerbated by the way this virus and the vaccines operate. An infection might take three to four weeks before it manifests as a death. Vaccines themselves take a couple of weeks before they are high efficacy. So now we see the consequence of the relative lack of acquired protection for many elderly people in mid-January. It is only in the next three to five weeks that we should start seeing the big vaccine-induced falls in mortality, if indeed vaccines really do have near the 100 percent touted effectiveness in preventing deaths.
The Covid-19 Actuaries Group (CAG) believes that if the Government delivers on its eminently achievable target of vaccinating all over-70s, care home staff, frontline health and social care workers, and the clinically vulnerable, by mid-February, daily Covid-19 deaths will fall by two-thirds by the end of the month. By the tail end of March, deaths should be down 86 percent against a world without vaccines. So one can understand the angst inside the EU—their tardiness in getting vulnerable populations vaccinated will cost lives that will be all the more observable if British trends go as expected.
How many extra deaths have we avoided through our speedier rollout? Calculating the exact magnitude is extraordinarily difficult. Lockdowns and tier restrictions perversely lower the immediate “lives saved from vaccines,” because without them more people would have been exposed. Working out how many lives the UK will save compared to the EU in the coming months is also muddied by not knowing the eventual speed of each country’s vaccination program or the underlying prevalence of the disease for the nations.
But comparing the UK to France, Germany, Italy and Spain (the EU-4) gives us an idea of magnitudes. These countries have only vaccinated between two and four percent of their populations respectively, and are currently vaccinating at a rate of 0.11 to 0.12 percent of their populations per day.
The UK has vaccinated 14 percent of its population, and is currently vaccinating over 0.55 percent of its population per day. If extrapolated forwards, the UK would vaccinate its four priority groups once by mid-February. The EU-4 would achieve the same proportion of population dose numbers by mid-to-late July. Indeed, even if the EU-4 were suddenly able to up their daily vaccinations to UK rates from now, they would not hit the same number of doses as a proportion of the population as the UK’s February target until early March—three weeks behind.
My calculations based on the Covid-19 Actuaries Group report suggests that, if the vaccine is 100 percent effective in eliminating death, the UK has already seen around 1,300 fewer deaths as a result of vaccines. Given the lags discussed between infections and deaths, as well as the time it takes for vaccine efficacy, this is almost certainly close to 1,300 more lives saved than would have been saved had we been as tardy as the EU.
Projecting forwards to how many lives are being saved from the recent and current vaccinations is more difficult. We have to try to model what cases and deaths would have looked like absent a vaccine. We would also need to know how fast the EU vaccination program will become, something that I profess no knowledge of.
But, for illustrative purposes, let’s assume that, absent a vaccine, deaths would otherwise have fallen through February and March as a pure reflection of how they rose in December and January. Under this scenario, the UK has already locked in 9,000 fewer deaths through mid-April than if it had moved at the EU-4’s vaccination pace to date (saving 20,000 lives overall). And that’s assuming the EU-4 countries wake up tomorrow and suddenly match the UK’s speed.
Realistically, of course, some of the EU-4 are not planning to widely vaccinate for a month or two, while they are sticking to the regimen of two doses sooner that will leave fewer people on the Continent protected in the near-term. So, it’s very safe to say the UK will have saved tens of thousands of additional lives relative to going at the EU-4’s pace over the coming months, with the gap especially dramatic if the EU does not up its game in the very near future or if, as a result of vaccinations, the UK then relaxes its lockdown restrictions. The costs of delay in public health and economic terms are clearly enormous.