3 February 2021

Who should Britain gives its spare vaccines?


Hubris is a terrible thing. Even contemplating what we might do with any supplies of surplus vaccines we might have once we in the UK have all had our jabs seem like tempting fate. We certainly don’t know when that point will arrive. 

Those of us who impatiently wait for 4pm for the “daily update” on the Government’s website for coronavirus data can see the tally go up and down. Nadhim Zahawi, the Vaccines Minister, cautions that the delivery will be “lumpy” and so the figures will fluctuate. Matt Hancock says we should book a cottage in Cornwall for our summer holidays, Liz Truss says it’s “dangerous” to make predictions.

It hasn’t yet been entirely decided exactly how many of us need the vaccination. We are to work down the age range until we get to 50 – plus those with particular clinical conditions. Then we get to ‘Priority Phase 10’, followed by the ‘rest of the population (to be determined)’. The plan is not to include children (though in the United States they are being included.) What about 18-25-year-olds? Some vaccines need a second dose, some don’t.

However, all those variables notwithstanding, the probability remains that not long from now our leaders will have the happy problem of what to do with what may be rather a lot of spare vaccines. Our population is 67 million – the adult population is 53 million. We already have an order book of 407 million doses, but even that already high figure seems to keep going up as different manufacturers secure a breakthrough.

It is important to recognise that these advance orders were not simply a matter of us hogging a big share of a fixed supply. We risked more than £900 million, paid upfront, on a portfolio of vaccines. We didn’t know which, if any, would work. That bold early decision-making paid off and increased the total supply, which will be to the benefit not just of us, but also the rest of the world. 

So who might we give (or sell) our spare jabs too? Our nearest neighbours? Our most loyal allies? The poorest nations in greatest need? It is diplomatically sensitive. Those included on the list will notice, but so will those who note their country has been missed off. I suppose the Government could just share it out, let an algorithm decide. That would strike me as a dereliction of duty.

We have already taken the decision to put our own people first. On the same logic we should give preference to those who regard us as the ‘mother country’. The Queen is the Head of State of Antigua, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Does that not count for something? I say it does (though admittedly Barbados is now removing Her Majesty from the role, which would make their A-list status more problematic.)

New Zealand might be the country furthest away from us geographically, but in other ways, they are the country closest to us. When the Second World War began New Zealand did not hesitate. Michael Savage, its then Prime Minister, said of Britain: “Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand.” 

Canada has advance orders of vaccines but no production capacity. It is vulnerable to delays in production in European factories and the risk to supplies by EU export controls. Australia does have some domestic production but has been due to import 3.8 million doses from Europe.

However, that order could also be disrupted thanks to the quite extraordinary manoeuvres we’re seeing from Brussels. The principles of property rates, free trade and international cooperation have been cast aside by the EU.

It would be wrong for us to shrug off such conduct, just as it would be proper to give preference to those the EU has unfairly penalised. To instead give preference to the EU after the way its leadership has behaved would seem perverse.

But there is also a case for looking out for our neighbours. Ireland is a special case in this respect. To say that Britain and Ireland have always been allies would not, to put it mildly, be true. But the Irish government did speak out very clearly against the EU’s proposal to close the Irish border last week. More importantly, given there is that open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic we have our own interests in defeating the pandemic on the island of Ireland. Offering supplies to Ireland would be reasonable – whether the EU would allow them to accept them is another matter.

It would also make sense for us to offer the vaccine to those who come to our country to trade. Lorry drivers from overseas who bring in the supplies we need should be offered jabs. So should others who wish to come and do business with us. Delay in providing international investment to our country should be minimised. 

Aside from politics and economics there are, of course, moral considerations. What about countries without the means to buy up vaccine supplies on spec, especially those such as Bosnia, Peru and Mexico whose Covid death rates are among the highest? In Africa very little vaccination has yet taken place and the recorded data in many countries surely understates the pandemic death toll.

There is a strong case that we should use our supplies to save the maximum number of lives. To take the Commonwealth countries of whom the Queen is head of state: could we justify providing jabs for 55-year-olds in Jamaica before doing so for 85-year-olds in Trinidad and Tobago? The latter may have decided to remove The Queen as head of state in 1976, but does that mean they should get no help? Is that what The Queen, herself a devout Christian, would wish?

Ultimately, as with all foreign policy there is a balance to strike. Global Britain should balance our old loyalties, our modern economic interests and our humanitarian obligations. But that should not mean just giving every country a standard percentage. The choices may be tough. That does not mean they should be dodged.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.