News that a third anti-coronavirus vaccine has proved effective is positive for the world. The Oxford-AstraZeneca inoculation is cheaper and easier to transport than those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, making it especially suitable for developing countries, to whom it will be sold at cost. But it is a particular boost for the UK government. It sends a message about the continued prowess of British science. More importantly, as Boris Johnson’s government has ordered 100m doses, it provides a route out of a pandemic that his administration has so far badly mishandled. How his government is eventually seen by history depends in no small part on whether it can do justice to the skills of the scientific community and deliver a successful vaccination programme.
Technology is, in fact, coming to the Conservative government’s aid on two fronts. Vaccines offer a chance finally to curb the virus. At least 4m doses from AstraZeneca are due to be available by the year-end, and 40m by the end of March. Together with the 40m total doses ordered from Pfizer-BioNTech, that makes Mr Johnson’s declaration that the “vast majority” of the most vulnerable people could be inoculated by Easter achievable in theory, if the logistics work.
Cheap, rapid-turnround testing, meanwhile, offers a means of living with the virus until it can be brought under control. Regions will face continued, tiered restrictions once England’s national lockdown ends next week. But there is a realistic prospect that further nationwide shutdowns can be avoided — except, if necessary, short “circuit-breakers”. Mass testing provides a means of identifying and isolating those, especially frontline medical or care staff and teachers, who do not display symptoms but may be spreading the virus. Once deployed more broadly, it can also allow people testing negative to enjoy greater freedoms and help reopen the worst-hit parts of the economy.
A two-pronged strategy — of mass testing and then vaccination — will face understandable scepticism. The NHS Test and Trace scheme has since the outset fallen far short of the “world-beating” system Mr Johnson promised. But there are lessons from its failures that can help ensure the vaccination programme has more chance of success. Among them is that the NHS succeeds in part because of its powerful local community networks.
While Test and Trace borrowed the NHS brand — to the irritation of some health service insiders — it did not use those networks or existing local public health infrastructure to build from the bottom up, but attempted to create a new structure top-down. In part, this reflected the command-and-control instincts of Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings. Mr Cummings’ departure this month opens the way for new thinking.
While the army was brought in to help with mass testing trials in Liverpool, this may not be practicable across the country. Ensuring the success of both future mass testing and inoculations will involve intensive co-operation with local authorities and communities, and with NHS networks.
The prime minister and the UK have been given an opportunity by scientific breakthroughs at home and abroad. After its chaotic antivirus efforts this year, which have left Britain sixth in the world in terms of Covid-19 deaths per capita, the government will be judged next year on the efficiency with which the vaccine can be delivered — and the speed with which the country can return to some semblance of normality. If it fumbles this opportunity to start repairing its tattered reputation, it may not get another.