Profile: Kate Bingham, leader of the scientific cavalry who came to the rescue in the pandemic

17 Feb

The scientific cavalry, as Boris Johnson dubbed them, galloped to the rescue at the end of 2020, with Kate Bingham in the vanguard.

In May 2020 the Prime Minister had asked her to lead a taskforce in order to identify, procure and roll out as yet non-existent vaccines in order to combat the pandemic.

From December 2020, the first vaccinations were administered, Britons taking part with pride and joy in a programme developed at such astonishing speed that this country found itself ahead of almost all others.

Even Dominic Cummings could not forbear to cheer. In May 2021, while denouncing the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the greater part of Whitehall for limitless incompetence and mendacity, Cummings said of Bingham:

“She built a team of people that actually understood what they were doing, and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around.”

Bingham herself has since said that when asked by Johnson to head the Vaccine Taskforce, “I absolutely fell off the chair.” She told the Prime Minister, “I’m not a vaccines expert.”

She knew about therapeutics, ways of treating diseases rather than averting them, and “started off with a classic imposter syndrome as a woman – my first reaction was that I’m not qualified to do the job.”

Bingham “got told off by my daughter”, recipient in the past of maternal pep talks on the theme of “don’t do yourself down”, and consulted a number of experts in order to satisfy herself that she would in fact be able to do the job well; and then accepted, without pay, a role in which she would find herself working harder than she ever had in her life.

She is by training a biochemist, has 30 years’ experience working for SV Health Investors, a venture capital firm which turns new science into new treatments, and proceeded to put together a taskforce which was capable of commissioning all the different stages of developing a new vaccine simultaneously.

The six most promising out of hundreds of possible vaccines were selected, many millions of doses were ordered before it was known whether these six would work, hundreds of thousands of volunteers were recruited on whom the new vaccines would be tested, and manufacturing capacity in Britain was built.

Throughout the pandemic, the media searched for things the Government was getting wrong: an attitude which helps keep Britain relatively free of corruption.

But was the Vaccine Taskforce getting things wrong? Nobody could at first be sure. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Cummings were confident this was the way to go about things, bypassing the bureaucratic delays which were bound to arise if vaccine procurement were run from within the Department of Health.

Sir Patrick already knew Bingham: in his previous job he had been head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, and she was acquainted with everyone of any significance in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as herself sitting on a couple of Government scientific bodies.

He had urged her recruitment to this vital vaccines role because he knew of her high abilities and phenomenal energy. She had been appointed on merit.

Journalists in the Westminster lobby knew nothing about all that. They did, however, know that Bingham was married to Jesse Norman MP, a Treasury minister, Etonian and friend of the Prime Minister.

Bingham herself had been at St Paul’s Girls’ School with the PM’s sister, Rachel Johnson, and at Oxford with both the Johnsons.

She is the daughter of the late Tom Bingham, who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord and was widely regarded as the greatest lawyer of his generation.

So she could accurately be described as a member of the Establishment, which is not, in journalistic terms, a fashionable thing to be.

In every generation, the Establishment faces the question of how to guard against the danger that its sons and daughters will become decadent; will enjoy the privileges without accepting the obligations of their position; will lead lives of selfish and arrogant hedonism, and shun public service.

One traditional way of trying to avoid this was to consign children to boarding schools run on deliberately spartan lines, with cold baths, early morning runs, bad food and barbaric punishments all helping to instil a cheerful disregard for luxury; a sense that life was not about personal comfort, but entailed striving for higher ideals.

This programme has in recent years been pretty much abandoned, but elements of it survived into the 1990s at the Bingham family’s holiday cottage in Wales:

“There was no internal plumbing, no heating, no hot or cold water and no sanitation. Instead of a lavatory, both family and guests made do with the El-San, a chemical loo in a stone privy surrounded by lilacs in the back garden, and for any lesser call of nature the ha-ha, which Tom had dug himself many years before. A Council inspection had concluded that the house was in fact unfit for human habitation on every count. It was still so when Tom was made Master of the Rolls in 1992.”

This is from an account written after his death in 2013 by his son-in-law, Jesse Norman.

Kate, born in 1965, was from her earliest years exceptionally energetic. “She could always bicycle a bit faster than the rest of us,” Rachel Kelly, a childhood friend, recalled during a Radio 4 Profile broadcast last year.

To this day, Bingham engages in vigorous sports including running, riding, mountain biking and bog snorkelling. Rachel Johnson, another friend since school, yesterday told ConHome:

“My children refuse to go on holiday with her. It means carrying your mountain bike up a sheer rock face before cycling down a crevasse. And early-morning music practice from 6.00 a.m.”

Academic life was not neglected. Bingham took a first in biochemistry from Oxford. Terence Kealey, one of her tutors, described her as “startlingly intelligent”, “exuberant”, “full of the joy of living”, and added:

“She was quite extraordinarily frank. If she wanted to react to something you were saying, she just said it.”

This is an unusual characteristic. With many members of the professional classes, one has to guess what they think, because their reactions are hidden, perhaps even from themselves, behind a veil of good manners.

Bingham is in various respects a natural leader. Towards the end of dinner she can get everyone to start singing Guys and Dolls, even if nobody but her feels like doing so; and can so enthuse everyone that even those who have no idea of the words end up enjoying themselves.

Kealey regretted that Bingham did not go on to do pure research. She instead took an MBA at Harvard and set out to turn scientific discoveries into therapeutic drugs, which entails, as she told Nick Robinson, assessing new data “very quickly”, doing “very detailed due diligence”, being “very careful how we spend money”, and refusing to reinforce failure:

“If something’s not going to work we kill it off quickly.”

These were among the skills needed to run the Vaccine Taskforce.

Within a properly functioning Establishment, it is generally known, in any walk of life, who is highly competent and reliable, and who is hopelessly incompetent and unreliable.

It is then pretty obvious who ought to get some important job which really must be done well, and who must at all costs be kept away from such a post.

But unfortunately, it is only obvious to insiders, who are open to the charge that they favour their chums, the people with whom they were at school and university.

Cumbersome selection processes have therefore been devised in order to show that the whole thing is not a stitch-up, and to give candidates from non-traditional backgrounds a fair chance.

Quite often, at the end of these processes, which take up a great deal of time, the people are appointed who were known at the start to be the outstanding candidates.

In the case of the Vaccines Taskforce, there was no time for an appointments process, and Bingham was persuaded to take the job, having satisfied herself that she could in fact do it.

In November, the Sunday Times published a series of stories which suggested that her appointment was a stitch-up, and that she was behaving in various disgraceful ways, including the appointment of some PR advisers at a cost of £670,000.

There was no truth in these allegations of disgraceful conduct, but she could not respond directly: any response had to be approved by No10 and the Business department, and it became evident that there had been briefing against her from within the Government machine.

“I was incredibly cross, I was incredibly frustrated, I was hurt,” she said later. She was doorstepped by camera crews, and Sir Keir Starmer joined in and said the £670,000 “cannot be justified”.

It proved extremely difficult to get across an accurate account of what had happened. Bingham had never approved any expenditure – that was done by ministers and officials – and the so-called PR advisers were in fact promoting the NHS Registry, which by the end of 2020 had recruited 360,000 volunteers who were willing to take part in vaccine and other studies, an immensely valuable short and long-term resource, and one where Britain, thanks to the NHS and our tradition of volunteering, has a decisive advantage.

In December 2020, the vaccine rollout began, and Bingham began to be acclaimed as one of the heroes who had made it all happen. In the summer of 2021 she was awarded a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

In her various public appearances she has taken care to pay tribute to the many other people who played key roles, and who in some cases saw what needed to be done, and started doing it, well before she came on board.

She has also said that with hindsight, she could see “we should have done cross-party briefings”. She has refused to be drawn into any kind of political point-scoring.

Oxford asked her to deliver the 2021 Romanes Lecture, an annual event in the Sheldonian Theatre since Gladstone delivered the inaugural address in 1892, and quite often given by distinguished scientists.

ConHome this week published Bingham’s lecture, which is entitled From wartime to peacetime: Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce.

Paul Goodman will tomorrow examine some of the themes from that lecture. At the beginning, Bingham has to pause for a moment, overcome by tears, as she says that 19 years earlier her father was honoured to give the Romanes Lecture, and had discussed the vulnerability of personal freedom in times of crisis.

Profile: COP26’s Alok Sharma – who put himself on the map by inadvertently shedding tears in Glasgow

17 Nov

Politics, Alan Watkins used to observe, is a rough old trade. But occasionally, amid the ritual insults and casual cruelties, we see a politician give way to more generous feelings.

Such a moment occurred in Glasgow at the end of COP26, when Alok Sharma fell silent, unable to speak for emotion as he said sorry for a last-minute diminution in what had been agreed.

Delegates could see he was on the brink of tears, and began to applaud. The wider world applauded too, touched by the sight of a politician who had entered with a full heart into the task of bringing the climate conference to a successful conclusion.

Here was proof of the old dictum that an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts. At the age of 54, Sharma had at last emerged as a political figure in his own right. Ed Miliband, for Labour, had “nothing but praise” for him.

“He really does deserve an honour,” agreed a floating voter who in her time has backed everyone from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg.

Sharma until this moment had appeared to be yet another minister who was no more than a dull, laborious apparatchik, a careerist who had long since sacrificed his capacity for human feeling.

This was not actually the case. In July 2017 Sharma wept in the Commons while delivering, as Minister of State for Housing, a statement about the Grenfell Tower fire.

And those who knew him well esteemed him. Oliver Letwin, whom Sharma served as Parliamentary Private Secretary from June 2015, yesterday said of him to ConHome:

“Absolutely splendid person. Clever, conscientious, high-minded, kindly, easy-going, delightful company. The tops.”

A year later, Theresa May sent Sharma as a junior minister to the Foreign Office, where he enjoyed the distinction, almost certainly unique among Alan Duncan’s colleagues, of not once arousing the wrath of that acerbic diarist.

The Foreign Secretary, a certain Boris Johnson, received a mixture of praise and blame from Duncan.

Johnson formed a high opinion of Sharma, who in 2016 had been a staunch Remainer, but who now thought it was essential to respect the result, because “anything else would not be good news for democracy”.

He went on to explain, in an interview with ConHome in February 2019, that after the referendum

“I was disheartened for a period of time. But actually straight after that, when Theresa May became Prime Minister, I became Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and I spent literally every other week getting on a plane to Asia on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday.

“The interesting thing was that absolutely every single government and every single foreign investor that I met thought that us leaving the European Union would present significantly more opportunities for bilateral trade and investment.”

In 2016 Sharma had endorsed May’s candidacy for the leadership. In 2019, he wrote a piece for ConHome explaining why he was backing Johnson:

“I have worked closely with him in Government, during my time as a Foreign Office Minister. I saw just how deeply he cares about Britain’s place in the world and our ability to project a global footprint, which will be increasingly important post-Brexit. I have also seen first-hand his ability in meetings with foreign dignitaries to strike up good and productive relationships and engender real warmth and positivity.”

So the “global Britain” project, which seems to its critics like so much hot air, is one that Sharma has been working on for several years.

He was born in Agra, on the Yamuna River south of Delhi, but at the age of five moved with his parents to Reading, on the River Thames west of London. They set up a business, and his father, Dr Prem Sharma, became a respected figure in the Conservative Party, for which Alok first volunteered to deliver leaflets when he was 11.

He was educated at the Blue Coat School at Sonning, on the Thames, and at the University of Salford, where he read Applied Physics with Electronics, after which he qualified as a chartered accountant and became a banker, working in London, Stockholm and Frankfurt.

But he hankered after politics, and his wife, who is Swedish, encouraged him to put in for the seat of Reading West, which he won for the Conservatives in 2010, after the previous, Labour MP, Martin Salter, had retired.

In his maiden speech Sharma remarked:

“The comedian and actor Mr Ricky Gervais grew up in Whitley, not far from where my parents lived when they first moved to Reading. I do not know Mr Gervais personally, but it is entirely possible that we loitered in the same shopping precinct when we were youngsters. Of course, one of us has now gone on to great things – and the other has become a Member of Parliament.”

One notes a talent for self-deprecation which might have been the prelude to a lifetime of obscurity. But as Sharma has repeatedly demonstrated, modesty is not incompatible with strong emotion.

In 2013, he paid tribute in the Commons to a Conservative leader who had just died:

“My father often remarked that Margaret Thatcher was not just the first British female prime minister, but the first British Asian prime minister. He was not joking – he does do jokes, but never about Baroness Thatcher. He always said that she might not look like us, but she absolutely thought like us. What he meant was that she shared and empathised with our values, experiences and ethos. For immigrant families such as mine, she was aspiration personified…

“My parents started their own business in the late ’70s. As anyone who has run a business or tried to run one knows, it is pretty hard work when it first gets started. My parents certainly went through some pretty tricky times, but the one thing of which they are absolutely certain and I am absolutely certain is that if it were not for the economic policies that Margaret Thatcher and her Governments followed, they would not have prospered—and without them, I would certainly not be here today.”

One trusts that some brilliant young scholar is already studying the affinities between Thatcher and a number of ministers who came to prominence after 2019 (cf Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak).

This is work that could most fittingly be performed at Oxford University, in penance for denying Thatcher, its alumna, an honorary degree.

For although some of the finest young minds in that home of lost causes are Roman Catholics, one trusts that light will also be shone on the affinities between Methodism, Hinduism and Thatcherism. Religion plays a larger role in British politics than our generally secular press is capable of noticing.

Sharma said after Glasgow, at the Sunday afternoon press conference in Downing Street, “I’d had about six hours’ sleep in three days.”

His tears were the result of tiredness: no doubt that is part of the truth. And no doubt another part of the truth is that, as he told Nick Robinson,

“I just get on with things with the minimum of fuss and do the best I can.”

But success brings its penalties, one of which is that people cease to be so charitable.

“People like him, but he is incurably lightweight,” a senior Tory close to the COP26 negotiations told ConHome. “Yes, he was nice to people. He has a fawningly oleaginous manner.

“But he was not even in the room when the deal was done between John Kerry and the Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua. The UK team didn’t even know the deal was coming. Sharma was crying out of frustration and fury that he’d been humiliated.”

That is certainly not how it looked to the delegates in the hall in Glasgow, or to the wider audience. But is is perhaps a measure of Sharma’s arrival as a major player that he now attracts criticism.

Liam Fox: The free market is not the problem in climate change, but it can be the solution

10 Nov

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and is MP for North Somerset.

In a rational world, facts matter. Evidence matters. Clarity matters. So, let me be clear where my own starting point is in terms of the climate debate.

In his excellent book, Paleoclimate, Michael Bender points out that in the history of our planet there have been huge swings in our climate. We have had multiple periods where the earth was glaciated to the equator, lasting millions of years, and others when it was so warm dinosaurs lived on Antarctica.

He set out the four factors that have caused these climate modifications: changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, changes in the amount of sun’s radiation reflected directly back to space, changes in the position of the continents that guide winds and ocean currents, and changes in the brightness of the sun itself.

I think it is very difficult to come to any other conclusion than that global warming and climate change, with all their unpredictable consequences, are real and that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations are by far the most likely reason.

The question then becomes how we should best respond to this most vital challenge?

I believe that we need to look to our own experiences from the past to determine our direction and to look to our own technological capabilities to provide a roadmap for the way forward.

In the pandemic, it was not the socialist or totalitarian states that produced the vaccines, and recently the medicines, that offer the best way out of this global tragedy. Rather than being the enemy of government strategies, the Oxford/AstraZenecas, the Pfizers and the Johnson & Johnsons utilised their private sector experience, flexibility and financial independence to help governments achieve their public policy aims.

Our choice will be between the de-growth agenda of the left, constantly telling us what must be forbidden in our private and public lives or one of innovation, creativity and technological advance. Only the latter will allow the developing nations to share in the prosperity, health and freedom that we too often take for granted. De-growth of the richest economies will do nothing to help fund crucial development for some of the world’s poorest people.

The instincts of socialists will always be to tell us what we cannot do and the issue of climate change will be used ruthlessly to set a political agenda in their own image if we allow that to happen. It will be used as a war against capitalism by proxy.

Instead, we need to use the power of the free market to find ways of ensuring that progress continues, including for the world’s poorest, in a way that is consistent with the need to deal with what scientific evidence increasingly tells us is an existential threat.

One of the environmental issues that makes me most angry is the way in which we are polluting our oceans in the most disgraceful ways.

In the years from 2000 – 2010, human beings made more plastic than all the plastic created up to that point in history. Estimates suggest that there are now between 15 and 50 trillion pieces of plastic in what were once pristine waters.

The knee-jerk reaction is to ban the sale and use of plastics which, although potentially a crucial weapon in our armoury, can only ever be a partial solution.

What we need to do is to harness our scientific ingenuity, to ensure that we can develop environmentally friendly alternatives.

It can never be achieved simply by state dictat, but by the encouragement of the innovation and creativity that powers our technological progress and which can be supercharged by financial incentives in a free market.

Is there a role for government in helping to provide the encouragement, incentives and framework in such an approach? The answer has to be yes, but it must be a model where the state acts as the enabler for the private sector, not a substitute.

When it comes to the broader arguments around climate change, it is clear that we need to develop a decarbonisation agenda that is affordable, sustainable and which commands public support, at least in the Western democracies were such a thing actually matters.

There are tough policy questions that we must answer that go well beyond well -meaning aspirations and end dates for the process.

What is our actual starting point on the journey towards decarbonisation, what is our current energy pattern and how much change will be needed?

How realistic is our timescale to achieve net zero?

How much capital will the decarbonisation agenda require, where will it come from and when?

What will be the role of new technologies in this process?

How do we avoid creating the risk of energy poverty amongst our people?

What is the wider international geopolitical context of the debate?

How do we avoid becoming dependent on potentially hostile states for our energy supplies during our transition to this brave new world?

These questions, and more, need urgent and detailed answers.

Simply wishing to arrive at a particular destination is no substitute for a detailed roadmap of how to get there.

Those who advocate a “de-growth” alternative fundamentally fail to understand human nature.

It should come as no surprise that more organic foods are bought by those with higher incomes or that the political salience of environmental and climate issues diminishes in times of economic hardship or with higher levels of unemployment.

It is only natural, and commendable, to want to put food on the family’s table and provide basic necessities such as clothing and heating.

It is not only irritating, but politically naive at best, to hear an often Metropolitan middle-class telling those less wealthy than themselves what they ought to be giving up.

Our best way forward is to invest in proven technologies, encourage those in their infancy and continue to innovate to produce those capabilities that will, in the future, enable us to ensure that development, prosperity and sound environmental stewardship can safely coexist.

In the nuclear arena, the twin pressures of carbon mitigation and long-term rising global energy demand necessitate broad and significant deployments of nuclear energy worldwide.

The advances in SMR (Small Modular Reactor) technology should be a green light for governments, regulators and investors worldwide to rapidly expand the sector.

Emerging technologies which can dramatically cut emissions, even from the cleanest fossil fuels, should be given every help and encouragement. They will enable us to transition to a decarbonised world while minimising social or political dislocation. Many of these tech advances are being pioneered here in the UK.

Finally, the promising trends in areas such as hydrogen power need to forge ahead at full speed, alongside the supporting capabilities in transport and safe storage where, again, in the UK, research is already well advanced.

All these pathways to a secure decarbonised future will need to come from the incubator of the world’s most developed nations. They have the skills, the innovation and the financial capability to produce these results – and this is no accident.

The free market incentives, the lack of state interference and the innovative culture that all of these help nurture is the best hope that we have of reaching our climate change goals without reducing living standards in the developed world or holding back the fully justified hope of development in some of the world’s poorer nations.

Going backwards or slowing down our economic advance and technological prowess is not the answer to the challenge of climate change. In fact, it will be a huge impediment.

The leaders of the free, democratic and capitalist world must recommit themselves to the principles that produced the innovation and scientific advance that has been our hallmark – an agenda based on creativity empowered by the free market.

It is time to have the courage to ensure that these same values drive the progress of tomorrow – for all the people of the world. And for the world itself.

Emily Carver: This September, unions cannot be allowed to sabotage and obstruct children’s education again

1 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The beginning of a new academic year is always an exciting time. Even more so this September, following months of stay-at-home mandates, Zoom lessons and cancelled sports, music and social events. It will come as a relief to many parents and pupils that a full reopening of schools is just around the corner.

Despite the progress of the vaccination roll-out, however, a significant – and vocal – minority of people still harbour anxieties over the imminent return. The potential for cases to rise among unvaccinated children, for the virus to spread to teachers, and the perceived threat of long Covid are among the oft-repeated arguments for schools to keep social distancing measures in place.

The point is less whether these concerns are justified (and my reading of the data is that they are unfounded), but rather the possibility that coordinated pushback from teaching unions or headteachers alone will be enough to scupper the Education Secretary’s plans to get schools back to normal.

The Government appears to be taking that threat seriously, and has launched a “back to school and college” campaign to reassure teachers, parents and pupils that schools are indeed safe environments. The PR drive, which began last week, includes social and digital advertising as well as wider engagement with the teaching profession.

The message from the Department for Education and the Department for Health is not to throw all caution to the wind. While the policy of bubbles – which saw entire classes of pupils sent home as a result of one positive case – has been scrapped.

Regular testing will continue, and children as young as 12 years old will actively be encouraged to get vaccinated (there has even been talk of vaccinations going ahead without parental consent). The door has been left wide open for a return to mask wearing for pupils in the event of “an increase in cases” – which seems inevitable.

The vast majority of parents want children back in a routine. In July, the Office for National Statistics found that almost nine in 10 adults (89 per cent) with children of school age said they were likely to send their children back to school this September. They’ve seen the destruction wreaked by months of disruption, are aware of the risks, and have come down on the side of schooling and social activities.

Perhaps the remaining 11 per cent are still excessively terrified of Coronavirus. Or perhaps they’ve been influenced by the obstructive, fear-mongering usual suspects for whom the importance of education comes far below the opportunity to contradict this government.

This week alone Nick Brook of the National Association of Head Teachers has accused the Government of being “naïve” and claimed that further disruption will be “inevitable”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who back in May was overheard referring to children as “mucky germ spreaders”, has suggested the Government should follow Scotland’s lead in maintaining restrictions. Bousted declared that the alternative was “hundreds of schools” being forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures, including bubbles, “within weeks”.

This was no great surprise from those who trade in the language of fear and thinly-veiled threats. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe these groups have children’s best interests in mind. Pupils in England lost 58 per cent of their classroom time – the equivalent of 110 days of learning – between March last year and this April alone.

Researchers at Oxford University found that the policy of bubbles, which saw more than one million pupils in England out of lessons in just one week in July, were no more effective in preventing transmission of the virus than regular testing. Record numbers of children are being prescribed antidepressants after studies suggested that missed schooling may be behind higher rates of mental distress.

Though children are, thankfully, less likely to experience severe symptoms from Covid-19, they have been collateral damage in the Government’s battle to limit its spread. While it may be in the interests of union bosses and some teachers to maintain a safety-at-all-costs strategy, it certainly isn’t for the millions of pupils who will discover their education sits pretty far down the priority list – and the most deprived will continue to be hit the hardest. The very same children the unions claim to care about most.

This last point is important. We know that the pandemic has already hit reverse to the Government’s levelling up agenda when it comes to educational disparities. As a government-commissioned report found earlier this year, pupils in some parts of northern England were losing twice as much learning over the same periods as those in London.

While the unions may respond to this simply with calls for more investment in catch-up efforts (the Government has already announced over £3 billion) or claims that Tory cuts are to blame, they continue to push for the very restrictions that have led us to this situation – with little to no real scientific justification or sense of proportionality to the threat that children and teachers do or do not face.

On the media round yesterday morning, Robert Halfon, Chair of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, said that schools need to go back, that children need to be kept in school and that government needs to enforce this across the board. Refreshing rhetoric – but how confident can we be that schools will stick to government guidance after it seemingly allowed the unions to sabotage and obstruct education throughout the pandemic?

All may not be lost. It has been reported that “tiger headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the high-achieving Michaela Community School in North London, is in the running to become the new boss of the social mobility commission, the Government body in charge of helping improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Seeking advice from experts like Birbalsingh, who have shown their ability to raise standards in deprived catchment areas, is certainly a step in the right direction if we are to catch up students who have lost out over the last year and a half.

Let’s hope the Government can capture some of her no-nonsense, common-sense spirit when it comes to the unions, stop pandering to their excessive demands, and finally allow school children the education they deserve.

Calvin Robinson: The Left and Right are both wrong on pronouns – and it’s distracting us from the important issues

28 Jul

Pronouns are such a non-issue. They’re the perfect example of the culture wars being exacerbated by the imagination of both sides of the debate. On the liberal-progressive Left, activists think they’re showing their virtue of inclusivity by announcing their pronouns in their bios, and on the conservative Right, we often feel like we’re being attacked or having woke nonsense shoved down our throats by social justice warriors, but is this an area where we’re both wrong?

Has any research been conducted into pronouns and how they affect the tiny minority they’re supposed to “include”? How often are people truly offended by someone using an incorrect pronoun for a person who identifies as transgender or non-binary? I imagine the number is infinitesimal, but I can’t find any hard evidence outside of ideological activist groups to back this up, either way. Could it be that we’re inventing an issue that doesn’t exist in order for the Left to virtual signal and the Right to campaign against?

Pronoun declarations have shifted from social media bios to professional email signatures. A quick search of my inbox for “he/him” and “she/her” shows a high number of results for civil servants, BBC employees, and academics at universities from Oxford University to Oxford Brookes.

When writing emails to someone, when do we ever refer to that person as he/him or she/her, anyway? Third-person pronouns rarely come up in conversation around a person in real life unless one is being rude. My grandmother would always say, “Who is she, the cat’s mother?” if I referred to someone by their pronoun instead of their name – but using the third person pronoun in an email is even rarer. The absence of body language to point out who you might be referring to makes it difficult. The whole pronoun situation is such a non-issue; it’s surprising to see how rapidly it has been taken up by the metropolitan elite: civil servants, academics and the mainstream media.

The Scottish government is now jumping on the bandwagon, pushing a “pronoun pledge” to encourage civil servants to include their pronouns in their email signatures. However, a consultation poll resulted in a vast majority (60 per cent) of respondents expressing their discomfort with the idea of having to declare their pronouns.

Could it be that an approach to appear inclusive to the minority is exclusive to the majority? Less than one per cent of the UK population identifies as trans, and while it’s important to ensure minority groups feel welcome, that should not come at the expense of the majority. Coercing people to display their pronouns could be tantamount to gender discrimination – a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010.

Then there’s the issue of made-up pronouns such as zie/zirself, ze/zem, xe/xem, which nobody outside of the exclusive trans-community knows what they mean. Is that the purpose? To design a community that is so exclusive that by default, everyone else is written off as bigoted and backward in their views?

Activist groups like Mermaids and Stonewall appear to have an agenda that you either subscribe to unquestioning or you’re cancelled for being transphobic; this approach is antagonistic and unhelpful to the small community they purport to support.

The debate around trans rights is a genuine and important one; who gets to identify as which gender is a prevalent debate in schools, sport and the criminal justice system, for example. But this is not that debate. We must not fall into the trap of conflating trans issues with pronouns in bios.

This attempt to compel people to use trans-lobby language in one’s email signatures is often portrayed by my colleagues on the Right as authoritarian – I wouldn’t go that far, it’s quite common for companies to have an email signature policy, that’s just good etiquette (or “Netiquette”), but this is just a distraction from the real battle that’s going on; the erasure of women from our culture.

The question isn’t should we include he/him or she/her in our email signatures; the important question to be asking is why are we allowing boys in our girls’ changing rooms, why are we allowing men in women’s prisons, and why are we called ‘phobics for raising these questions and wanting to protect the rights of woman and girls?

Daniel Hannan: Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus?

23 Jun

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus? It’s a serious question. Consider, to pluck an example more or less at random, the decision this month by the Middle Common Room at Magdalen College, Oxford to remove a portrait of the Queen for the sake of “making people feel welcome”.

The monarchy is meant to be a unifying symbol, not only for British people of all ethnic backgrounds, but for 2.5 billion Commonwealth citizens. If we must allow the possibility that someone somewhere might none the less feel uncomfortable as they pass a portrait of Elizabeth II, should we not also consider the rather greater possibility that Right-of-Centre students might feel uncomfortable in a college that routinely makes decisions of this kind?

Conservatives tend not to crave victim status. When we walk past, say, a poster of Che Guevara, we might grumble at the moral emptiness of the numbskull who put it up; but we don’t, as a rule, go to the authorities and claim to have been wounded by the experience.

Still, the fact that we don’t whinge doesn’t mean that there is no issue. There is real concern among some Centre-Right students that their opinions will result in their being penalised academically.

Left-wing lecturers are not a new phenomenon; but their increasing intolerance is. A growing number of undergraduates feel obliged to spout woke pieties in their coursework for fear of being marked down. A brilliant young Cambridge historian told me recently that his first application had been rejected because he failed to mention slavery at his interview. “It was my fault, really, for not researching the politics of the don before I met her,” he added, apologetically. “The trouble is, I’m mainly a mediaevalist.”

That sort of thing didn’t really happen in my day. I had some spectacularly Left-wing dons, but they were, in the fullest sense of the word, liberals – broad-minded, interested in other points of view, comfortable with debate. That, though, was before the Great Awokening – the defining characteristic of which is not that it made universities more Left-wing, but that it made them readier to punish dissidents and heretics. Academics, in this sense at least, are behaving more like student radicals.

Consider, to pluck another recent example, the boycott of Oriel College, Oxford by 150 dons in protest at its refusal to bow to the mob and pull down the statuette of Cecil Rhodes which stands in a niche in the building his bequest paid for.

L’affaire Rhodes merits a column on its own. The diamond magnate who stalks the imaginations of BLM protesters is a cartoon baddy, a one-dimensional colonialist. The real human being was more complicated. For example, the flesh-and-blood Rhodes opposed the disfranchisement of black men in Cape Colony, funded the newspaper of what became the ANC and, when establishing his famous scholarships, laid down that “no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of his race” (a fifth of Rhodes scholars currently come from Africa).

He is not the most obvious candidate for cancellation – perhaps not even the most obvious candidate on his building, which also features a statue of a mediaeval clergyman who enthusiastically burned Lollards and of another who was on Spain’s side during the Armada.

Oriel listened politely to its critics, then established a commission to consider the future of the Rhodes statue. Although most of the members were committed decolonisers, their recommendations were surprisingly muted.

Essentially, they concluded that, yes, it might be nice to remove the statue but that, given the planning difficulties, there were other ways for Oriel to demonstrate its commitment to racial justice. The college duly announced that it would not waste a great deal of money on a lengthy application that would almost certainly be turned down; and so, appropriately enough, an imported American row was ended by British planning regulations.

It was this decision that sparked the “statement of a boycott of Oriel College” by various academics, determined to broadcast their purity by telling the world that they would not teach Oriel undergraduates. Most commentators fulminated against their lack of professionalism. One MP talked of “blackmail”. Almost everyone agreed that they were wrong to take out their politics on students.

But, thinking about it, I come to a different conclusion. School leavers who are not on the hard Left can now apply confidently to at least one college where they are unlikely to be harassed by the kind of don who sees conservatism as a mental illness.

Look at it from the point of view of a bright and unwoke sixth-former. Not necessarily a Scrutonian Rightist, just someone who feels that we have taken identity politics too far, and who worries that that view might provoke a negative reaction from tutors. The 150 silliest dons, those likeliest to resent divergent opinions, have conveniently given notice that at least one college will be spared their grievance-mongering.

Why not lean into the row? Why not advertise Oriel as an unwoke oasis? Why not appeal, on niche marketing grounds if nothing else, to students who don’t take the BLM line – not least the many conservative-leaning non-white students who are invisible to the broadcast media, but whom we all know in real life?

Full disclosure: Oriel was my old college as well as Rhodes’s. It used to have a certain reputation for social conservatism, heartiness and (not to put too fine a point on it) philistinism. Back then, different colleges had different personalities. Wadham, for example, was always a far-Left outlier.

But whereas Wadham remains as cheerfully extreme as ever, it has become almost unthinkable for any college to distinguish itself in the other direction. Why? Isn’t this a straightforward case of consumer choice? Or, to put it in terms that critics might prefer, of diversity and inclusion? Is one non-Leftist college out of 39 really too much to ask?

Connor Tomlinson: Why conservative students need strong students’ unions to protect their free speech

21 Jun

Connor Tomlinson is the policy director for the British Conservation Alliance and a Young Voices associate contributor. His work can be found at The Federalist, Reaction, and Daily Express.

Universities have been incapable of keeping themselves out of headlines this year. Oxford treated us to two controversies: with Magdalen College removing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for representing Britain’s “recent colonial history”, and Oriel College academics refusing to teach students till Cecil Rhodes’ statue is torn down. King’s College London apologised for circulating a photo of Prince Phillip following his death, in case the Duke of Edinburgh offended anybody; despite him serving as governor for over fifty years. Abertay University hauled a law student before a misconduct tribunal for saying “Women have vaginas”. These controversies iced the cake of a record of security threats and violent protests at contentious events on campus, and caused the Education Secretary to intervene with anti-deplatforming legislation.

However, ministers have been candidly dismissive of these civil liberties matters as “student union politics”, which puts UK campus culture as being a low priority problem. In a year where students have taken millions in debt for fees for tuition and accommodation, only to be told post-hoc that all learning would remain remote, strong student unions are needed now more than ever to defend the consumer rights which governments and universities have trampled on.

While student union membership is compulsory to participate in campus activities – costing each student £225 over the course of an undergraduate degree – some have contested that student unions fail to represent all students. Almost half of students believe their respective unions don’t reflect their personal interests. While this issue should be worked out at the annual ballot box, only 10 per cent of students take part in the democratic process.

Not all students are conscientious: you’re unlikely to make loyal voters of the cohort who write their assignments an hour before the deadline. But should student unions choose to dedicate more publicity to their efforts fighting for tuition fee fairness than they do to issues like banning clapping, cancelling Rudyard Kipling, and defacing war memorials, this would doubtless reduce voter apathy in some capacity. And it would be right in line with their mission, too. There’s nothing more inclusive than a wholesale alleviation of the undue financial burden for all students, irrespective of identity.

Covid hasn’t been the only issue impacting timetables. Since 2017, universities have seen regular rounds of industrial action by UCU members. The largest in history happened in 2020, with 74 universities taking a fortnight of industrial action just prior to the pandemic. Tenured members’ concerns over unpaid overtime were met with restrictions placed on the number PhD students able to teach alongside their degree; putting the next generation of lecturers at odds with their future colleagues. Further industrial action is expected at Leicester, Goldsmiths, Kent, and Chester this year.

Government and university administration are playing a dangerous game by increasing a burden on a thinning academic staff with increasing student intakes. To paraphrase Jordan Peterson, the ideas in a university will play out in society a half-decade later. If academics feel betrayed by the structures they’re reliant on for income, one shouldn’t be surprised when a power-keg of cultural deconstruction staffs our institutions in coming decades.

In which case, we should be wary of what C. Wright Mills once warned: don’t underpay your academics if you want a stable society. Student unions must walk the tightrope of accommodating lecturer concerns, while ensuring concessions are made for students missing more of crucial term time they’re paying thousands for, to avoid producing students as resentful of their society as the academics presently teaching them.

Most of this bad budgeting is the fault of universities’ irresponsible spending habits. With the taxpayer footing the bill for fees, and successive Tory governments set on driving university attendance up to decrease unemployment statistics, university administrators have seen fit to deficit spend to a dangerous degree.

Standards set by the Office for Students also appear to contradict its claim that nobody would be bailed out; setting higher education up to be another “too big to fail” bubble waiting to burst. In addition to pushing for fee rebates, student unions should be holding universities to account for excessive spending, and the steep raises to the disproportionate salaries of their chancellors.

Universities have doubtless used lockdown as a measure to lower operations costs, while charging the same for tuition and accommodation, to patch up their deficit. Students have been treated like cash-cows. They’ve literally been fenced in, had their fire-doors locked, their Christmases commandeered, and fifteen months of social and professional opportunities stolen. After 350,000 students signed a petition for a parliamentary debate on fee refunds, they were given only a partisan row which produced no results. Both government and universities are unwilling to admit fault. Now it’s up to students and their representatives to fight for fee fairness.

With student unions set to remain a staple part of campus life, they should be more proactive in defending the financial interests of their members. Elected officers and staff should take care not to succumb to the bureaucratisation which has already bloated their administrative counterparts in the university. The worst thing at this tough time for students would be for their last line of defence to become a carousel for CV clout.

Radical: FOI requests have exposed how much gender ideology has captured our institutions

9 Jun

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they founded Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

Stonewall keeps hitting the headlines. When we wrote a fortnight ago about the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s decision not to renew its membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Scheme, we said that a similar decision couldn’t come soon enough from the scheme’s other members, particularly the vast number of public organisations that’ve been blindly following the charity’s guide. These organisations have faced huge costs in money, time, and resources, only to be misled on important matters of law, and fed an ideology that leads to serious physical risks to women and children, and ironically, an implicit homophobia.

Since then, Stonewall’s chief executive has made a vile equivalence between people who are ‘gender critical’ (ie who believe that human beings can’t change sex) and antisemites. And, as predicted, many public and private bodies have quickly followed in the EHRC’s footsteps, withdrawing from the Champions scheme. Channel 4, universities including UCL, and police forces have all quit, as has the Ministry of Justice with the comment that the charity has “totally lost its way”. Liz Truss is reportedly “pushing for all government departments to withdraw”.

Growing recognition of Stonewall’s sad moral downfall is welcome, but clearly overdue. We thought it worthwhile, therefore, to highlight the process by which politicians, journalists, and wider society have become aware of Stonewall’s transgressions.

This is not by way of MPs holding ministers to account, or by journalistic investigation, but rather is thanks to the determined action of individuals, mainly women, who realised what was happening, and used tools such as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to bring the truth into the open. These individuals are too many to name, but particular recognition must go to Nicola Williams and Fair Play for Women, Maya Forstater and Sex Matters, Naomi Cunningham and the Legal Feminist lawyer collective, and members of the policy-analysis group MurrayBlackburnMackenzie.

In honour of this important work, here’s a list of five of the most shocking and revealing disclosures concerning gender ideology that’ve been made following FOI requests. Such requests represent a formal way in which members of the public can obtain information held by public authorities, under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

  1. Top place among the latest revelations must go to the University of Oxford, whose submission to Stonewall’s WorkPlace Equality Index was revealed last week: 135 pages of substantial check-lists and supporting evidence, including screenshots of prescribed “social media activity”. It’s hard to imagine how much all this must’ve cost the university to put together — on top of the membership fees they paid Stonewall. Attached to the submission are two further documents, however: Oxford’s substantial 2018 Transgender Guidance document, and the slides of a powerpoint presentation entitled “LGBT+ 101”. These documents also reflect the classic hallmarks of Stonewall wording — e.g. references to sex “assigned at birth” — and its classic misrepresentations of the law. Some of the UK’s equality law is complex and contested, but it’s really not difficult to get the Equality Act’s “protected characteristics” right, as Oxford fails to do here. Moreover, it’s mind-boggling to conceive of one of the most respected universities in the world, long revered as a home of the acquisition of knowledge and commitment to searching out truth, putting together a document about its practices that includes the diagram above. Close behind Oxford comes the University of Bedfordshire, however. On being asked to provide information about its relationship with Stonewall, Bedfordshire’s FOI team confidently responded that “we do not have dealings” with the charity — on a letter featuring the Stonewall logo.
  2. Less amusingly, Fair Play for Women recently used the FOI process to obtain the Equality Impact Assessment carried out by the Prison Service in connection with the establishment of accommodation for transwomen prisoners, including dangerous sex offenders, in a women’s prison. This document revealed that the service disregarded the single-sex exceptions legally available, and prioritised the claimed need of transwomen (ie male) prisoners to “associate” with women and have access to “female services”, over the safety of women prisoners. The fundamental right of these endangered women prisoners to be treated as equal members of society has been violated, leaving them instrumentalised, by the state, in order to meet the interests of a certain set of male prisoners. The seriousness of what this FOI has revealed is hard to overstate.
  3. We’ve written several times over the past year about how gender-identity ideologists’ attempts to hijack the census have dangerously risked the accuracy of essential national data. In March, the ONS was obliged to correct the guidance it had issued for the 2021 census, following a successful legal challenge by Fair Play for Women. However, as we emphasised back then, many questions remain, not least about the determination process of the wording of crucial census questions. This is also the case regarding the upcoming 2022 Scottish census, which is being run by the National Records of Scotland (NRS), and about which MurrayBlackburnMackenzie has revealed the following: “[d]uring the question development phase for the sex question in the [2022] census, NRS met only with LGBT advocacy bodies. There is no evidence of consultation with independent statisticians or census data users in this period (see FOI correspondence)”. 
  4. The tireless work of the Safe Schools Alliance has uncovered and challenged many instances of the capture of schools by gender ideology. This includes recently obtained confirmation, through an FOI request, that Stonewall had urged the schools inspectorate Ofsted to mark primary schools as “requires improvement” or “inadequate” — the lowest grades in Ofsted inspections — if children as young as five had not been made “specifically” aware of “sexual orientation and gender reassignment”.
  5. The last document to make our top five is not an FOI request, but rather a recent insight into why public bodies are so reluctant to make this kind of material available to the public. The NHS had published its “glossary” of equality and diversity terminology. But when social-media users reacted with serious concern at the document’s embrace of contested terms such as “gender identity” and “white fragility” — alongside its failure to discuss legally-protected equality characteristics such as sex and religion — the NHS quickly moved to “password protect” it. Nonetheless, further inquiry can be expected into the document, not least from the MPs who’ve signalled their discontent.

This NHS incident reflects the way in which much of the information discussed above has had to be prised from public authorities, who — supported by Stonewall — sought to withhold material on the grounds it could cause reputational damage.

Now, fear of reputational damage is not a good enough reason to withhold disclosure under the FOI Act, but these organisations were surely correct in their presumption that information acquired could damage their reputations. So why was awareness of this reputational risk not a signal to the officials concerned that they should have thought harder about what they were doing?

And, as we asked in our last column, in that many of these organisations have their own legal and HR departments, how did they find themselves publishing formal policy documents including such basic, dangerous errors?

The biggest pressing questions, however, focus on why such crucial information about our public organisations was not openly available until formally requested by resourceful citizens. And what it is that our elected representatives — including the Women and Equalities Committee, whose persistent failings we’ve catalogued in these columns — are going to do about all this, now the extent of the capture of the UK’s institutions is finally being fully revealed?

Jonathan Clark: We cannot assume education will go back to normal after Covid

24 Mar

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

In 1990 nobody set out to abolish typewriters. By 2000 they were gone: not because of some pressure group, some campaign, some commission of inquiry, some Act of Parliament. They vanished naturally, as we discovered a better, faster, cheaper way of doing the same thing.

The problem with the current controversy over the impact of Covid on examinations and on schools is that it assumes that after the present crisis, education will return to “normal”. Even when we are pitted against Nature, we assume that all we need do is apply the ideal of sustainability and we will buy security. Sustainability is a marvellous ideal, but it has just one problem: nothing is sustainable. Everything changes. Everything is temporary.

The reality is that both the main exam options – teacher assessment and the public, anonymised examination – are not eternal truths but historical formations, devised at particular times and places for particular reasons, and destined to change as society changes. Students in US universities are given marks by their professors; dons at Oxford and Cambridge are horrified to learn this, and expect their students to sit in rows in exam halls, their scripts identified only by a number and even then double-marked, ideally by dons who had not taught them.

Each examination system has strengths and weaknesses, and the debate is a matter of choosing the least bad option. The problem with teacher assessment is that the teachers award marks for a whole range of reasons, some discreditable, some idealistic; but whatever their stance towards their pupils the teachers are also assessing the effectiveness of their own teaching. They are, in part but inevitably, marking their own homework.

Every system can be gamed, and teacher assessment results in grade inflation just as democratically-elected politicians result in monetary inflation. Teachers seek the credit, and the rewards, for their steadily improving performance. Pupils and parents are delighted with the higher grades, unaware that the jobs market will silently reward inflated grades differently from gold-standard ones. If you were to be operated on for a major ailment, would you choose a surgeon who had done really well in genuine exams? Or one who might have done really well, had the world been a better place than it is?

Meanwhile, whatever the parochial controversies, the world changes, and Covid has accelerated developments that were afoot anyway. University graduate seminars are now almost all held as Zoom conferences: once Covid is vanquished by vaccines, will they revert to face-to face meetings? Some will; most won’t. Schools have been compelled to go over to online teaching, just as many office workers now work from home. Will either go back to the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday routine? Some will; others won’t.

Many university courses are now available free on the internet, and provide education, of a sort, to vast numbers around the world. I still favour the model of the Cambridge supervision, one don teaching one student at a time, who had written an essay. But in this I am antediluvian: even I know that the world has changed, and will change further.

What about exams? These, too, are an historical formation. In the seventeenth century Cambridge students were examined orally (naturally, in Latin) by a don seated on a three-legged stool, who was nicknamed Mr Tripos (the name survived the thing). Jobs (mostly in the Church) were awarded by personal patronage.

In the nineteenth century growing state bureaucracies demanded more impersonal measures of performance, and written exams came to prominence. Into the twentieth century the bureaucracies grew ever larger, and the tyranny of the written exam was imposed on ever larger percentages of the population in the name of “meritocracy” (in reality, a system that was gamed like all the others).

Today the pendulum is swinging back, and the world of work has become the world of woke: students are rewarded more and more on the basis of their values.

Meanwhile, what is being examined? Early seventeenth-century students might be asked whether the Pope was Antichrist, or whether the sun orbited the earth. In the late eighteenth century they might be asked to compose Latin hexameters. In the nineteenth, to write prose essays about the religions of the Indian empire. In the twentieth, they needed to use a slide rule. Finally the demand for an exam system that could be claimed not to discriminate against minorities led to the dominance of right answers and even to multiple-choice questions, objective but largely worthless.

Meanwhile, for teenagers, life has moved on: learning has been replaced by Wikipedia accessed from cellphones, the slide rule by the pocket calculator.

State-owned schools, too, are historical formations and are now close to being a producer monopoly, their teachers an estate of the realm. It is becoming ever harder to defend an exam system which increasingly squeezes out originality, just as it is becoming harder to defend school and university teachers who have become politically monochrome. Something has to give. Covid may be the catalyst.

All this changes again with the rise of AI, the revolution that we saw coming but still ignored. More and more teaching will be done not by inadequate schoolteachers struggling to control justifiably bored classes but by perfectly patient, consistently courteous, infinitely well-informed computer programmes accessed by students sitting alone and meeting their peers in the evenings. Individual choice is already everywhere in the ascendant. Students will visit physical schools sometimes, on some occasions, for some purposes; but daily attendance will be a thing of the past.

Superbly powerful computers will provide detailed and seemingly infallible judgments on student performance; and the nature of the exams will adapt to this new reality. Both old systems – teacher assessment and public, anonymised examinations – will fade away, like typewriters and steam locomotives. In this change there will be loss and gain. As to the former good functions of schools – inculcating politeness, mutual respect, co-operation, decency, loyalty, honour and all the rest – they have done this less and less well for years. Perhaps AI could do a better job. It will have to try.

But these changes will happen; and we would do better to anticipate the future than to defend in the last ditch the producer monopolies of the mid twentieth century. It would be interesting to see a government, of any political complexion, that would identify and row with the current instead of against it. In education as in healthcare, there is one reform which would have just that effect, automatically, and which is in itself neither of the Right nor of the Left. It can be summed up in one word: vouchers.

This article first appeared on the blog of the think tank Politeia.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.