Omicron or no Omicron, high-income nations should have promoted a more equitable distribution of vaccines

29 Nov

After a fairly “relaxed” few months in the Coronavirus wars, many of us were dispirited last week to learn of the emergence of a highly transmissible new variant, Omicron, which was first identified by scientists in South Africa

In a joint press conference on Friday with Patrick Vallance, England’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, Boris Johnson levelled with the nation about its seriousness – and what measures the UK would take to combat it, from the re-introduction of compulsory mask wearing and a new PCR test requirement for people arriving at airports. Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, has today expanded on the threat it poses.

Whether the Government’s steps are enough will be the subject of many questions over the next few weeks. But perhaps the most important is what Omicron symbolises for the international community; specifically around whether the distribution of vaccines has been as equitable as it could have been.

From the early stages of the crisis, prominent experts and the World Health Organization have warned of the importance of equitable vaccine distribution, first for moral reasons, but also because an imbalance could leave a vacuum for new variants to develop, and evade vaccines/ treatment. The emergence of Omicron has only added to that concern – due to the fact that it emerged in a part of the world with low inoculation rates (only 24 per cent of the population in South Africa has been inoculated).

That the variant was discovered in South Africa does not mean it is where it originated (rather, its scientists have some of the best detection tools); indeed, there are cases in Hong Kong, Canada and the UK. But it has nonetheless opened up the debate on whether more even vaccination rates around the globe could have made a difference, and how many new variants will take off elsewhere without better-protected communities. 

There are still shocking statistics on inoculation rates worldwide; only 2.5 per cent of the population in low income countries, for example, have received full protection, with 3.5 billion people across the globe waiting for their first dose of the vaccine. At the same time, 66 per cent of high-income countries have been vaccinated, with many onto their booster jabs and plans to inoculate children.

Could high-income countries do more? It’s worth saying that many have gone to extraordinary efforts to get vaccines out. In July this year, for instance, the UK began donating millions of vaccinations as part of the international Covax scheme, and has pledged to donate 100 million overseas by June 2022. 

As of September, the United States had donated approximately 140 million doses to around 83 countries, making it the highest donor, followed by China, Japan, India, the UK, France, Canada, Spain, Sweden and Poland

But even these staggering figures – Covax’s initial goal is to provide two billion doses of vaccines worldwide in 2021 and 1.8 billion doses to 92 poorer countries by early 2022 – may need to be improved upon. There will also be pressure on countries to be more flexible about vaccine patents; the European Union is being asked to share more information with others.

Furthermore, some countries may need help overcoming logistical challenges to rolling out their vaccines, from having difficulties with storage, to experiencing shortages in health workers who can administer inoculations. It is not a simple case of more jabs, job done; governments have to consider these additional barriers.

Either way, it’s clear that equitable distribution will become much more of a talking point with the new variant; it is a reminder that the world is in it “together” when it comes to beating the virus. This often seems to be forgotten in all the talk about booster jabs – and it’s a shame that it only gets brought up when growing variants hit home. Even before Omicron, developed nations had a duty to do more here.

The race for booster jabs

3 Sep

With recess and the summer holidays, it seems that we have reached a relative moment of calm in the battle against the Coronavirus. The vaccine roll out has gone out well, and the Government will be pleased to see cases have dropped in England. It gives more weight to Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid’s hawkishness in lifting restrictions in July, of which the latter said: “there’s no going back”.

However, an announcement by the Health Secretary also shows that ministers have been quietly concerned about one issue: how long vaccine immunity lasts. He tweeted that “people with severely weakened immune systems” will now be offered a third Covid-19 vaccine, following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). 

In some regards, this announcement is not a major surprise; Javid has previously said that a vaccine booster scheme is likely to take place in September, with the NHS asked to make preparations. 

But it’s also a reminder that we are not out of the woods yet, and gives an indication of the type of challenges the Government will face over the next few months, particularly as it tries to protect the NHS from a “Twindemic” (of flu and Covid).

The reason why booster jabs have become of huge importance is because of what’s happening in Israel. While it was the world leader in getting out jabs – and a huge cause for celebration – it has since seen infections rise rapidly, which has led to hospitalisations going up (the metric that UK ministers are most concerned about, lest the NHS becomes overwhelmed). 

Already there is growing pressure on the Government to get a booster programme sorted. Data from the ZOE COVID study supports the findings in Israel; it showed that “initial protection against infection a month after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine was 88 per cent, while after five to six months this fell to 74 per cent.” 

For AstraZeneca “there was around 77 per cent protection a month after the second dose, falling to 67 per cent after four to five months.”

And the authors highlight that “We urgently need to make plans for vaccine boosters, and based on vaccine resources, decide if a strategy to vaccinate children is sensible”. 

With Javid confirming initial boosters, the question moves onto who else will get them. The JCVI has still not provided advice here (other than recommending the clinically vulnerable), as it’s no easy task to work out the categories and timings.

But Dr Raghib Ali, Clinical Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, tells me that: “I’d be surprised if they don’t do boosters and flu vaccines at the same time for all over 50s; that’s my expectation.”

Jeremy Hunt has gone one step further and said that the UK should offer its additional jabs “not just to the clinically vulnerable, but to everyone”. In Israel, all over-30s are being encouraged to get booster doses, and it seems to be having an impact in bringing down cases.

Clearly there will be many debates, regardless of JCVI’s decisions, as to who should be eligible. Tony Blair, for instance, once called for teachers to be bumped up the vaccine queue – so will there be demands they get prioritised for boosters?

And there will also be ethical discussions about whether more developed nations should be having third vaccines – when others are completely uncovered. The World Health Organisation has warned against this. 

So while Javid said “there’s no going back”, we will see the same arguments come up again that featured in the first vaccine roll out – only with “Get the Booster> Save Lives” as the Government’s new mindset.

Christopher Snowdon: The WHO’s war on e-cigarettes proves it has no interest in an evidence-based approach to tobacco harm reduction

18 Jun

Christopher Snowdon is Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is the author of A safer bet: Gambling and the risks of over-regulation, published this week.

The World Health Organisation’s decision last month to give a special award to India for banning the sale of e-cigarettes was proof that the agency has no intention of taking an ethical and evidence-based approach to tobacco harm reduction. This puts it squarely at odds with countries such as the UK and New Zealand which have successfully embraced vaping as part of their tobacco control strategy.

In November, the WHO will hold its ninth Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties (COP9). The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the first and, to date, only international treaty of the World Health Organisation. Adopted in 2003 and signed by 168 countries, it explicitly defines tobacco control as “a range of supply, demand and harm reduction strategies”. Unfortunately, harm reduction is unlikely to feature much at the conference, except as an object of derision and contempt.

The WHO has never pursued harm reduction policies in relation to smoking and in recent years has increasingly worked to stamp out e-cigarettes and other reduced risk nicotine products. It does not discourage member states from banning them outright and it encourages those who had not banned their sale to prohibit or restrict e-cigarette advertising, tax e-cigarettes “at a level that makes the devices and e-liquids unaffordable to minors”, ban or restrict flavours “that appeal to minors”, and ban vaping indoors wherever smoking was banned.

There is no doubt that e-cigarettes are much, much safer than combustible cigarettes. Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians have both stated that the risks of vaping are likely to be at least 95 per cent lower than the risks of smoking. The US National Academies of Science Engineering and Mathematics concluded, after a thorough review of the evidence, that “e-cigarettes are likely to be far less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes”. After more than a decade on the market, with millions of regular users, no deaths have been associated with regulated e-cigarettes.

Despite an ever-expanding body of evidence confirming that e-cigarettes are much less hazardous than combustible tobacco and are more effective than nicotine replacement therapy in helping smokers quit, the WHO has doubled down on its hostility even as real world evidence continues to show smoking rates declining as vaping rates increase.

In January 2020, as Covid-19 spread around the globe, the WHO put out a series of bizarre Tweets about vaping, falsely claiming that e-cigarette liquid burns skin and that secondhand vapour harms bystanders. One Tweet even suggested that e-cigarettes could be “more dangerous than regular cigarettes”. In December 2020, WHO Europe described e-cigarettes and other reduced-risk products as “the next frontier in the global tobacco epidemic” and said that “with rigorous implementation of the WHO FCTC, a path can be built towards a tobacco and nicotine-free future.” A nicotine-free future clearly leaves no room for e-cigarettes.

The WHO’s handling of COVID-19 has tarnished its reputation in the last 18 months, but it is still respected by many people who associate it with the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 20th century. If the WHO says that e-cigarettes are a dangerous product that threaten to derail decades of progress in the fight against smoking, many people will take it on trust. Many countries do not have the resources to carry out the kind of evidence reviews conducted in the UK and the USA. Instead, they rely on agencies such as the WHO and the FCTC, little knowing that they have been captured by a small group of abstinence-only prohibitionists.

As I argue in a new report, the FCTC Secretariat and the COP meetings are not fit for purpose. In their relentless opposition to vaping and other reduced risk nicotine products, they have become a threat to global health. How should vapers and enlightened public health advocates respond? COP meetings are notoriously secretive. Journalists and the public are technically allowed in as observers under strict conditions (e.g. they must have no conceivable connection to the tobacco industry), but are invariably thrown out on the first day (without a vote being held). In 2014, Drew Johnson of The Washington Times was forcibly ejected from the venue in Moscow after being told that “the media is banned”. In 2018, the internet livestream was cut off early in proceedings. This lack of transparency is unacceptable for a UN conference funded by taxpayers.

But there is a phrase in medical ethics that is relevant to this debate: “Nothing about me without me”. Vapers have little chance of being even being allowed to view COP9 online, let alone being permitted to speak at it. Their only hope is to contact their elected representatives and demand that pressure be put on the FCTC to take a more open and evidence-based approach. COP meetings fly under the media’s radar and that is how the FCTC Secretariat likes it. It thrives in darkness.

Journalists should ask more questions about what goes on in these meetings. Governments which recognise vaping’s potential to lower smoking rates and save lives should make that case strongly at COP9. They should pick strong, articulate advocates as their delegates, not bureaucrats. If the WHO continues to spread misinformation about e-cigarettes and if COP9 is held in secret again, these governments should withdraw their funding of the FCTC Secretariat. The FCTC Secretariat should be put on notice. COP9 is the last chance for the WHO FCTC to mend its ways and operate as a transparent and evidence-based organisation. If it cannot be reformed, it should be disbanded.

Philip Davies: If a measure’s compulsory, there should be proof it’s necessary. Where’s the evidence for state-enforced mask-wearing?

8 Jun

Philip Davies is MP for Shipley.

From the outset, the Governments Covid-19 restrictions have infringed on our freedoms. The majority of these rules, such as the rule of six and the 10pm curfew, have been entirely arbitrary, escaping the usual parliamentary scrutiny, and without any scientific basis at all. One of the worst examples of the suffocation of our basic freedoms – without any good reason – is the mandatory wearing of masks.

For the Government to make something compulsory – enforceable by law – there must be an overwhelming case for doing so.  Even by the Governments own admission, they havent come close to meeting that test.

It is now clear that masks are probably one of the most under-researched strands of the Governments Coronavirus response. If we begin to accept this kind of guesswork as law, who knows what sort of arbitrary authoritarian policymaking may be acceptable in the future?

Matt Hancock has said that masks increase [the] confidence in people to shop”, and that those who did not wear a face covering will be fined. However, the minutes of a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies meeting, before the introduction of this policy, record that:

The evidence on effectiveness of masks for source control.is weak. Evidence for protecting the mask wearer from becoming infected is also weak.

Public Health Englands conclusion in June 2020 was that:

There is weak evidence from observational and modelling studies that community-wide mask wearing may contribute to reducing the spread of Covid-19…”

In response to one of the Parliamentary Questions I subsequently tabled, the Government explained that Public Health England had undertaken an initial rapid review. It then conducted a further rapid review of facemasks after people were mandated, by law, to wear them. The reviews considered various studies many of which, it seems, provided limited evidence of the effectiveness of masks outside clinical settings where all other factors can be controlled.

Various reservations have been expressed about the usefulness of masks, including by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Cochrane Review on face coverings. Professor Robert Dingwall, one of the UKs leading sociologists and  adviser to British governments on pandemic policy since 2005, and Professor Carl Heneghan, a general practitioner and clinical epidemiologist,  have warned that the existing evidence is insufficient, and higher quality studies need to be conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of face coverings in the community.

As the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has also said, it is difficult to assess which interventions are effective at controlling the spread of the virus, given many are in place at the same time.

Since their introduction, face coverings have become associated with people doing their part to stop the spread of the virus and to protect others. However, the scaremongering that has led to this attitude may actually have an adverse effect, because facemasks also come with risks and potential harms.

Masks accumulate viral particles and become a hazard in their own right. Professor Tom Jefferson, the lead author on the Cochrane Review on face coverings, who has been studying respiratory viruses for 30 years, has pointed to the risks from handling them.  Putting on, adjusting or taking off a mask means we have to touch our faces. Virus particles are quickly transferred from hands to face and then ingested or inhaled. Masks are stuffed into pockets and handbags ready for constant reuse.  Some are discarded in public toilets or on pavements, where they also become an environmental hazard.

Professor Jefferson also argues that the sense of protection afforded by mask wearing makes some people less vigilant about touching. This is backed up by the World Health Organisations concerns about the potential harms of masks  which include giving a false sense of security to wearers. Some medical opinion even goes as far as to say that masks are actually a possible risk factor for infection and a higher incidence of Covid-19.

We have repeatedly been told that the Government is being led by the science during the pandemic as if all scientists share one perspective. Professor Heneghan says that without solid evidence, science is simply a spectrum of opinions. Professor  Dingwall adds that a common theme within the Governmentled-by-the-science approach is that, even if the evidence is weak, there is an insistence that we should follow these policies anyway. In a supposedly free country this is simply not good enough.

I believe that if people want to wear a mask – given the uncertainty about their likely benefits and risks  then they should be free to do so. However, if people dont want to wear a mask, they should be free to decide that for themselves too.

In the early days of Covid-19, all interventions, from social distancing to isolation and mask-wearing, went unchallenged by most because these measures were perceived to be temporary.  People probably thought there was more evidence, for example, to support wearing facemasks than turns out to be the case.

The Government cannot be allowed to introduce, and continue, a policy – enforceable by law – that forces almost the entire country to cover their face on the off chance it is beneficial. Yet as coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifting across the UK, those advocating face coverings are digging their heels in.

I have found it chilling how easily the public have been frightened (deliberately) into giving up their freedoms.  We cannot allow ourselves to sleepwalk into the kind of authoritarianism we would usually associate with Communist China.  It is time to get back to normal – and not the new normal that some have in mind for us.

Ben Roback: The Wuhan lab-leak theory. Does the world owe Trump an apology?

2 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

After courting President Xi over golf and dessert, Donald Trump made being a China hawk an accepted norm of his presidency. You can watch three minutes of Trump saying “China” in idiosyncratically Trumpian fashion on YouTube, with clips that long pre-date his time in the White House. For Trump the businessman, China was an opportunity. As a politician it became more of a threat.

It was therefore no surprise when Trump identified China as a scapegoat and began to blame the source of the Covid-19 outbreak on the Chinese state.

The theory goes that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China. It deserves investigation and should not be dismissed out of hand. A previously undisclosed US intelligence report revealed that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.

The next month, cases of pneumonia were detected in Wuhan and first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In January, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced the first death caused by the “novel coronavirus”. One of the final acts of the Trump administration in January was to release a State Department fact sheet on “Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology“. It was ultimately inconclusive in its recommendation:

The US government does not know exactly where, when, or how the Covid-19 virus – known as SARS-CoV-2 – was transmitted initially to humans. We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Instead, it called heavily on the need for a true and thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak – something the Chinese state continues to block with full force, proving the desperate lack of power held within the WHO.

A Trump theory goes mainstream

Most things Trump said during his presidency became intensely politicised and an immediate anathema to Democrats and never-Trump Republicans. If the president said it, it was unconscionable for a Sen. Mitt Romney or Sen. Chuck Schumer. Could that change?

“In recent months, our nation and the world has been hit by the once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe,” Trump said at his speech accepting the GOP nomination in August 2020.

The Wuhan lab theory was seized on by Trump allies and acolytes on political talk shows. The “China virus” effectively became a Republican talking point (and with it, anti-Asian discrimination rose in the United States). That took the non-political, science-led impetus away from the theory.

Democrats and the functions of the US Government are coming round to the idea. Closer to home, in an interview with Canadian news, even Boris Johnson said he had an “open mind” about the origin of the virus.

Joe Biden would do well to differentiate between Trump’s – plausible but hitherto unproven – claim that Covid-19 was an intentional weapon distributed by the Chinese government.

One step back from that position, there is a clear and pressing need for a thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak to take place. The Chinese government, for all its smoke and mirrors, should not be allowed to eternally defy the United Nations and World Health Organization. It makes a mockery of global institutions like the UN and WHO if they cannot dilute disagreements in international relations and investigate matters of global significance like this.

The signs are beginning to emerge that the Biden presidency is taking the Wuhan theory seriously. Last week, President Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19.

A report is expected on the president’s desk within 90 days. We will know in the autumn whether Trump will have been proven right, although his credibility when it comes to intelligence reports was diminished owing to several acts of self-sabotage having chosen to politicise reports and go against the US intelligence community.

This all proves that the Wuhan theory has now moved significantly in US political discourse. It was once a talking point for Republicans and Trump sycophants on Fox News, at CPAC and in the gilded halls of Mar-a-Lago. No Republican ever lost friends or votes blaming the pandemic on China.

A favoured stump speech topic of the likes of Trump, Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton has now found its way firmly into the mainstream. In less than 90 days’ time, Trump could be vindicated. The “full investigation” sought by the US government seems inevitably impossible. Chinese state obstructionism will continue unchallenged. It will place an ongoing strain on US-China relations for years to come.

David Jones: Vaping – a quick win for Brexit

23 Mar

David Jones is a former Welsh Secretary and is MP for Clwyd West.

It isn’t just the headline-grabbing freedoms that make our departure from the European Union the best outcome for this country; it’s about the small print, too. Now Brexit is complete, we can reassess our current legislation that originates from transposed EU Directives.

The Department of Health and Social Care is currently reviewing the regulations that imposed the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive into UK law and is, we are told, producing a new Tobacco Control Plan this summer.

I am using my Westminster Hall debate today to urge the Public Health Minister to take back control of our tobacco harm reduction policies. When the health of the nation has never been a more important issue, we must use this opportunity Brexit has provided. We must make sure these policies are grounded in science and give the seven million smokers in the UK the best possible chance at moving away from cigarettes for good.

While smoking rates have fallen in recent years, the problem is still real, and we must remember the inequalities behind these numbers. Harm from smoking falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable in society. So now is the time to act, and I am asking three things of the Minister today. And to reassure colleagues and readers, these actions have zero cost to the taxpayer.

First, it goes without saying that smoking kills. But we must accept that the fundamental problem with smoking is the smoke – the combustion. This needs to be at the forefront of our evidence-based policy making and should remain the core principle through which we regulate.

While we should maintain strong barriers to combustible tobacco – whether through the role of proportionate taxation or maintaining secure borders to prevent supply from smugglers – we should also embrace the role of non-combustible alternatives for those smokers who can’t quit.

So, secondly, I am calling on the Minister to introduce a new reduced-risk smoking products category to provide a robust regulatory framework that can cover – in a consistent manner – all the products we have on the market now, and indeed could have now we have left the EU.

E-cigarettes have made a great impact in the UK; however, many smokers have tried them but have stopped using them, so we should look at whether the nicotine level set by the EU is one that is enough to ensure that smokers stay switched.

Nicotine pouches have had a promising start in the UK, but we must make sure they are sensibly regulated to avoid purchase by minors and non smokers.

Snus has been banned by the EU, but has had a great impact on smoking levels in Sweden, where they managed an exception, so we should also legalise it now we can. And heated tobacco, which has high success rates at getting smokers off cigarettes, is sadly held back because, under transposed EU law, smokers aren’t allowed to hear about it.

Indeed, all these alternatives won’t be effective unless smokers know about them, and the misinformation around them is addressed.

So, thirdly, I am asking the Minister to introduce measures to get accurate information about alternatives directly to smokers – whether that’s inside cigarette packets, targeted at them online, or by allowing shopkeepers to speak to them about all of the options available.

And when we have such bold and innovative policies at home, why not be proud to defend them robustly abroad?

An important and beneficial consequence of leaving the EU is that we no longer have to align to the views of the EU group when it comes to multilateral gatherings. It is no surprise the weight of the Government machine has been activated for our hosting of COP26 – the climate change conference – later this year.

But the Government should also have a clear strategy on the role our newly independent voice can have at other Conference of Parties meetings that the World Health Organisation organises.

For the little-known COP9 concerning tobacco control – also in November this year – I am urging the Minister to challenge the WHO, because it is a body that has taken positions that run completely counter to UK policy. It wants to ban e-cigarettes – and seems simply not to understand the concept of tobacco harm reduction.

There is much the world can learn from our approach. Put simply: policy divergence from the EU on vaping and smokefree products is a quick win for Brexit that will improve public health, level up the nation and firmly establish the UK as the world leader in tobacco harm reduction.

Iain Dale: People will die as a result of the EU’s Covid games. But don’t expect the media to criticise Saint Macron.

19 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Another day, another attack from the EU on Britain and/or AstraZeneca (AZ).

It’s becoming a very unfortunate pattern. Once you can forgive, twice you can put down to coincidence. Three times and you start to wonder if there’s an agenda. And so on.

This started many weeks ago, when it became clear that the UK had forged ahead in its vaccine rollout, unlike the EU, whose bureaucracy and incompetence led to it being two to three months behind.

As this reality dawned, it seemed the only way it could cover its back was to accuse the UK of vaccine nationalism. President Macron of France even went so far as to cast doubt on the safety of the AZ vaccine with absolutely no proof whatsoever. The German newspaper Handelsblatt followed suit.

We should remember that Macron is president of a country where vaccine scepticism is already rife. It was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever heard come out of a so-called statesman’s mouth. If Trump had said it, Europe’s media would have been up in arms. Not so much with the sainted Macron.

A few weeks later Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, erroneously, and totally without any foundation, claimed that Britain had imposed an export ban on vaccines or vaccine contents. No such ban had been imposed and the European Commission was forced to admit it.

Ursula von der Leyen then proceeded to threaten an export ban to the UK, which again, had to be withdrawn. She did though approve a decision by the Italian government to ban the export of 250,000 vaccine jabs from AZ to Australia, on the basis that they were needed in the EU. Yet all we hear is that there are hundreds of thousands of AZ vaccines sitting in fridges and there is no shortage whatsoever.

And then 17 European countries – not all of them EU members – decided to suspend AZ vaccines on the basis that there were reports of people suffering blood clots after having had the vaccine. Almost immediately we found out that there had been 28 cases per million after 17 million doses had been administered.

Strangely, however, there was no ban on the Pfizer vaccine, given that it has had 22 cases. I wonder why that would be…

While it’s always right to be cautious and to analyse the “yellow cards” which all vaccines experience, the effect of this suspension of rollout has yet again undermined public confidence in the AZ vaccine. So why have these countries done it, given they must have known the consequence?

The head of the Italian medicines regulator has been highly critical of the decision and says it was done for “political reasons”. Scandalous.

There is another explanation. Big pharma companies have incredibly powerful lobbying operations, both in Brussels and in national capitals. The AZ vaccine is sold at cost, whereas all the other companies’ vaccines are far more expensive and are produced with varying, but large, profit margins. It’s in their interests to trash the AZ vaccine. It costs between £1 and £2 per dose, compared to the £13-£20 for the Pfizer offering. Others are a bit cheaper but way more than AZ. Follow the money.

As I write, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have both confirmed the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the damage is done. Even in this country there are reports of people with pre-booked appointments not showing up for their turn. It’s a stark thing to say, but the constant running down of the AZ vaccine by European leaders is having an effect here. People will die as a result.

And on Wednesday the hapless von der Leyen returned to the fray and went back on her promise of a few weeks ago and directly threatened the UK with an export ban. Again, scandalous. She appears not to understand Contract Law. Originally she accused AZ of going back on its contractual obligations. She raided their offices in Belgium. The truth was that the contract was watertight. If it hadn’t been, no doubt there would have been an immediate law suit emanating from the Berlaymont.

This sabre rattling is all about arse covering and skin saving. It’s a lame attempt to portray Britain as the bad cop. European people can see through this. They look at the successful rollout of the vaccine in Britain and compare it to the lamentable efforts of the EU, and they can see quite easily how it has happened.

The reaction of the British government to these outrageous threats from Brussels has been commendably muted. It’s more with sorrow rather than anger. But these are hostile acts, and it is a sign that we can expect more of the same. Britain totally holds the moral high ground here, and it will be interesting to see how this can be turned to our diplomatic advantage.

One thing is for sure: I have lost count of the number of people on social media who were devout Remainers, who now say they regret their Remain votes. I imagine there are plenty of people all over Europe who are now saying that the Brits knew what they were doing and their faith in the EU has been diminished as a result. Who knows what the long-term consequences of this will be for the EU.

– – – – – – – – –

Yesterday my book The Prime Ministers won the Parliamentary Book of the Year by a No Parliamentarian. I think anyone who has ever won an award can imagine how I felt when I heard the news. There’s no panel who chooses this ward in the usual Buggins Turn way, the awards are voted on by MPs and Peers themselves, which makes it even more special.

The book contains 55 essays on each of our 55 PMs, and it’s being announced today that my next book will be in a similar format and look at the 46 US Presidents. That will be followed up in 2023 by one on our Kings and Queens.

Ruwayda Mustafah: Britain’s global vaccination role – an economic and moral position

10 Mar

Ruwayda Mustafah is a British-Kurdish writer with an interest in political communications and governance.

The recent news that at least 22 million UK citizens have now received their first Coronavirus vaccination jab is, in the words of the Prime Minister, an “extraordinary feat”. As first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine, and as the seventh fastest vaccinators in the world, we should rightly take pride in the speed of our response and programme rollout.

For dozens of lower income and developing countries however, the situation looks considerably more alarming. Many of these countries are still months away from their very first jab. Across the world’s poorest counties, it is predicted that at least 90 per cent of people in 67 low-income countries won’t get vaccinated this year.

Developed countries meanwhile have purchased enough vaccines to vaccinate their populations nearly three times over. This is what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, called the “me-first approach”’and means that wealthy nations have monopolised almost the entire vaccine supply.

Where does this leave Britain? In a post-Brexit period, when we are looking to increase our own independent standing in the world, we have a moral duty to ensure we are doing everything we can to support these developing nations with their vaccination programmes.

One of the simplest ways in which the UK can help economically disadvantaged counties is by donating excess stock. The UK is set to have a considerable surplus of stock, having ordered 367 million doses of vaccine from seven different developers. Other counties, such as Norway and India, have already committed to donating part of their regular stock to poorer nations – so the least we can do is ensure surplus stock is made available to those most in need.

Another way in which we can demonstrate this support is by further financing the distribution of the vaccine in developing countries. This week, Professor Sarah Gilbert, the co-creator of the Oxford vaccine, has called on those receiving the vaccine in the UK to contribute to the WHO Covid-19 relief fund.

It shouldn’t however be the responsibility of citizens, themselves going through challenging and anxious times, to be funding disadvantaged counties’ efforts to fight the pandemic; government should be looking to at least match every donation made my private citizens in the UK towards the WHO Covid-19 relief fund.

Third, we must be doing everything we can to help countries with their implementation of the vaccine programme. As we have seen in the UK, despite our advanced infrastructure, world-leading public health systems and available frontline workers, there are still fundamental challenges in vaccinating as fast and as efficiently as possible.

For the poorest countries, this magnitude of problems is only exacerbated by having a barely functioning healthcare system, crippling debt and limited resources. The challenge therefore becomes much bigger, and needs greater western support – including from the UK – to address.

Calling on the Government to do more to help disadvantaged countries isn’t to discredit or belittle our efforts to date. Britain has played a leading role in the Coronavirus COVAX initiative, contributing £584 million to the programme’s £5.7 billion goal of making access to the Covid-19 vaccines a more level playing field (making Britain the most generous funder).

Our scientists and academics have also led the way, from the development of the Oxford vaccine to response teams advising health services and governments worldwide. But we can be doing even more to demonstrate leadership and cooperation on the delivery of the vaccine worldwide.

Furthermore, the argument for the UK to be better helping these struggling nations is not just an ethical one, but an economic one too.

New research suggests that 49 per cent of the global economic costs for the Coronavirus pandemic will be shouldered by advanced economies, such as that of the UK. Even if the UK was to vaccinate its entire population, the disruptions to trade networks and international production resulting from poorer counties being unvaccinated will result in a huge financial knock-on effect for the UK.

Pandemics are indiscriminate and don’t pay attention to borders or nationality, and if poorer countries aren’t vaccinated, affluent counties such as the UK will be affected too. Helping developing counties that supply us with so many of our goods to get vaccinated will therefore be in as much our economic interest, and the wider world’s interest, as theirs.

Facilitating the purchase of vaccination for developing countries is not therefore just about charity, it’s an investment in their future and ours. If the UK wants to stream ahead as an exporting superpower globally, it must take into account the hardships developing countries are facing as a result of Coronavirus, and extend a helping hand to friendly allies.

Garvan Walshe: Democracies need to pull together to stop Chinese subversion of the open global economy

3 Dec

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

Chinese aggression hit the headlines after Beijing imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine. But resisting Beijing’s exploitation of the international economy to build up its own power needs democracies to do far more than buy the odd bottle (or case) of Cab-Sauv.

On Tuesday, the China Research Group, led by Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, released a hard hitting report, Defending Democracy in a New World, describing a toolkit of things democracies can do to limit China’s abuse of the international system (I was involved in drafting the report).

Quite rightly, the report emphasises the importance of engaging with China, and welcomes Chinese economic progress, which, since Deng Xiaoping began to open the Chinese economy in 1979, has brought huge gains in the standard of living of billions of Chinese people, and indirectly, to the rest of the world.

Yet that international economic system is based on fundamental principles that China has been systematically violating. Human rights abuses have intensified since Xi Jinping consolidated power, from the concentration camps into which Uighurs have been crammed, to the destruction of civil liberties and democratic rights in Hong Kong, and the totalitarian oppression to which all Chinese citizens are subjected. China is bullying its neighbours, even to the point of preventing Taiwan helping fight the Covid–19 pandemic through the World Health Organisation, and has been rearming to back that intimidation with force.

Defending Democracy’s most important contribution however, is that it identifies the core source of Chinese Communist Party power and presents a set of practical measures democracies can take to blunt this expansionism. Today’s China is capable of reaching into the open economies of the West and pressing the undoubted economic achievements of Chinese industry and technology into the service of the Chinese state.

When globalisation brought barriers between states down, it did so on the implicit assumption that in market economies, the purpose of business was to make money – not serve the home states of the companies’ owners.

This created a world where it’s possible for all of us who can afford it, no matter where we are from, to own parts of foreign companies by buying shares in them, and have that ownership protected by the foreign country’s legal system. Instead of competing politically-like nineteenth century powers, we invest in each others’ economies and reap the benefits of companies competing with each other across a massive international market.

This ideal, however, is based on governments’ understanding that their job isn’t to promote “our own” companies at the expense of “theirs”, but to create an economic environment where a market economy could meet people’s needs and create jobs. Notwithstanding occasional outbursts of protectionism like France’s declaring dairy producer Danone a “strategic” industry, or outright state capture in some of the smaller ex-Communist European states, this ideal has mostly been upheld in the advanced economies of the world.

Xi Jinping’s China has seen that it is possible to apply the subversion of open Western economies, pioneered by the KGB, at industrial scale. When Western countries began to open up to each other after World War II, we did so on the condition that foreign trade and investment would not be used as a crude tool of political influence.

Perhaps seduced by the size of the Chinese market, and deceiving ourselves into thinking that as the Chinese grew richer, their political system would automatically grow democratic, we neglected to apply the same condition to Beijing. China is now going further, and using its power not only to enrich itself at the expense of a naive international economic and political system, but to start shaping the system’s rules in its own favour, and against liberal democracy.

This report is the start of a line of thinking that democracies, including of course the incoming Biden administration, need to join forces to impose costs on China for as long as its abuse of the international system continues. It contains some powerful measures that we can take to limit proposes some powerful measures that can be used to limit the extent of Beijing’s exploitation of our openness to further entrench its totalitarian rule.

As well as innovative specific measures to support the people of Hong Kong, and British National Overseas passport holders, to which the UK has a special responsibility, the report develops policies that can be applied by other democracies.

These include the systematic extension of Magnitsky Act-style sanctions to individuals responsible for human rights violations in China, including those in leadership positions.

Another key proposal is a “know your supplier” obligation to hold companies responsible for goods they sell that have been produced in supply chains where slave labour has been used.  Companies that fail to adequately investigate their own supply chains could be fined, and their directors be subject to personal liability and asset forfeiture if it is found that their wealth resulted from forced labour.

Chinese state-owned enterprises could be excluded from national-security sensitive infrastructure projects. Indeed, given the control the Chinese government exerts over even non-state owned enterprises such as Huawei, through its own national security legislation, the report could perhaps have gone further here, though considerable work is needed to make such restrictions compatible with WTO rules.

China’s participation in the open global economy has been good for China, and good for the rest of us,  but it has become clear that China is actively undermining the separation of politics and business upon which economic openness depends. Until Beijing changes its behaviour, democracies need to work together to ensure that China can no longer use its economic power to to bend the international system out of shape.