Britain recovers from Covid – a country feeling healthy again
ESBA Chair, Stuart Nicholson, reports on the UK’s experience since the start of the pandemic and very positive latest news.
Britain has a very long tradition of individual freedom from state control. Many people trace that back to the year 1215, when limits were placed on the power of the English King John by the charter of rights known as “Magna Carta”. These individual rights are fiercely defended in the UK and were quoted frequently by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in the early stages of the country’s fight against coronavirus.
Unfortunately, the nature of a pandemic means that individual freedom is not a good starting point when the most important process is infection control.
Britain learned this slowly. We were confident that the National Health Service (NHS), of which we are very proud, would be able to keep us safe from the virus. This was not the case, and for months the UK had some of the worst Covid statistics in the world. Very sadly, the UK finds itself 7th on the list of total deaths per 100,000 of its population – higher than Italy, Spain, and the United States, and about 2 ½ times higher than Albania.
During August and September 2020, we thought we had beaten the virus, with low infection rates and businesses and hospitality venues open. For several weeks we even had the government paying half our restaurant bills – a scheme called “Eat Out to Help Out”. I look back and realise that we were mainly helping the virus, as we suffered a much worse second wave of infections in the autumn. As a country, we have been very poor at infection control at crucial times during this pandemic.
In our boarding schools however, we created self-contained, infection-free communities, safely isolated from anyone who might introduce the virus. Even parents in some of the safest countries in the world had no hesitation in sending their children to school in Britain. Japan, for example, has a death rate 25 times lower than the UK, and yet Japanese parents were very confident in sending their children to boarding school.
A year ago, we were told in the UK that the only way that any pandemic is brought under control is by herd immunity, either because a large proportion of the population has had the infection, or because a large proportion of the population has been protected by a vaccine. Last week, I had my first injection of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, joining more than half of the adult population in the UK who have now been vaccinated.
Although we have been poor at infection control, the UK has been spectacularly successful at vaccines. The development of vaccines is uncertain, so the UK government chose to support a large number of organisations that were developing vaccines. They invested over 11 billion GBP in a wide range of potential vaccines, without any way of knowing which of these investments would be successful. As a graduate of the University of Oxford, I was particularly pleased that the British government invested heavily in supporting the Oxford vaccine, but I knew that it might not be successful, and I knew it was possible that none of the potential vaccines would work.
The British government committed very early and committed huge financial sums to vaccines. The population of the UK is about 70 million people, but the British government paid in advance for 400 million vaccines, anticipating that only a small proportion of them might work. In addition, they set up the infrastructure to test any new vaccines very quickly. The final part of our vaccine success is the system for distributing and administering the vaccines in huge numbers.
As a result of all this, the UK was able to start vaccinating early, and fast. By coincidence, I had my vaccine on the 100th day of the UK’s vaccination rollout. In 100 days, half of the adult population had been vaccinated.
What impact has this approach to vaccination had on the country and on Covid? Thankfully, death rates fell dramatically. We have also seen infection rates drop enormously – only seven countries in Europe have a lower case rate this week than the UK. At 59 per 100,000 in the UK, this compares with 285 in France, 261 in Italy and 143 in Albania.
We know that the battle with coronavirus is not over, but we are confident that we are now winning the battle. Discussions here in the UK are turning to what we can do to help other countries achieve high levels of vaccination, and how we adjust vaccines to keep us safe from any new variants. Across the country there is a real sense of confidence.
I had a small bruise on my arm after my vaccination, and a day or two with a slight headache, but my sleeve is already rolled up ready for my second injection in a few weeks’ time!