The failed Whitehall blob threatens to push Britain back into lockdown

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Days before news of the omicron variant broke, the former chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, Dame Kate Bingham, paid a tearful tribute to her liberty-loving late father at an Oxford University lecture. Nineteen years earlier, at the height of the war on terror, Tom Bingham, a law lord, had addressed the very same room, warning that while freedom from arbitrary detention is the oldest human right, dating back to Magna Carta, it is the first to be curtailed in an emergency.

It appeared to be a pointed reference as well as a personal one: Dame Kate went on to caution that, despite the successes of the taskforce she once headed – which saw the UK become the first major Western country to roll out vaccines at scale – a massive win had been converted into an “own goal”, as bureaucratic inertia set in and civil servants “revert” to old practices. She concluded with an ominous call to overhaul a broken Whitehall – not just to protect the vulnerable, but “us all”.  

Put more plainly, one might argue that the Whitehall blob is the biggest threat to freedom in Britain today. And the situation has become far more stark in the days since. For the great risk is that if the blob fails to deliver now, the omicron variant could terrify ministers into leading us back down the path of draconian restrictions – and even into further lockdowns.

While the Government is correctly pushing ahead with a plan to widen the existing booster programme, the big question is whether omicron is the first variant to emerge that will require the vaccines to be reformulated. At this point, there is much that we don’t know and there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. But the risk is there. And as big pharma races to find out whether vaccines will have to be tweaked, Whitehall should be mobilising to make sure that the UK is, once again, at the front of the queue to procure them.

Dame Kate’s taskforce pulled out all the stops to make the UK the most attractive place in the world to develop a vaccine, keenly aware that, as a small market, the country would otherwise be relegated to the back of the queue. Vaccine production capacity was expanded, up-front funding was given to pharma firms, and clinical trials were run through the NHS. She was also unembarrassed about drawing on external expertise and circumventing the red tape that usually crushes initiative in the public sector.

Today’s taskforce is a shadow of its former self. Run by former NHS London chair Sir Richard Sykes, the word in Westminster is that it has been swallowed whole by the chronically defective Health Department. The blob has also refused to learn the lessons of Dame Kate’s taskforce more widely. An equivalent outfit set up to procure antivirals has proved sluggish, apparently failing to pre-order drugs in anything like the quantities required. Nor have calls for similar taskforces to be set up to fight against other threats such as antibiotic resistant bacteria (which is set to be a bigger killer than cancer by 2050) been heeded.

Instead, it appears that, after a brief revolutionary flirtation with putting outcome before process, Whitehall has returned to its secretive, pettifogging ways. It refuses to release details of its preparedness plans against an escape variant. Clive Dix, who led the vaccine taskforce until April, claims that No 10 has for months ignored his own proposals, which include fast-tracking clinical trials and cutting red tape.

There is also worrying evidence that, far from strengthening its reputation as an ideal client, the British state is adopting the anti-business arrogance of the EU. Take the abrupt termination of a contract with the French pharma firm Valneva, and with it plans to build exactly the kind of vaccine plant that would make our market more attractive to big pharma. Senior Tories speculate that a “Bring Back Kate” campaign may kick in, but ministers will only be galvanised once things turn “urgent”.

Even it turns out that the current vaccines work adequately against omicron, we still risk a serious curtailment of basic freedoms. The blob threatens to botch the expansion of the booster rollout to over-18s. There are already fears that many in the existing groups eligible for boosters will not receive a dose before Christmas. Weekly ICU admissions among vulnerable groups have surged in the past two months, amid the logistical bungling of third jabs. NHS England has also been struggling with a booster backlog, after wasting several weeks clinging to an invitation-only booking system, which was leaving millions in the lurch.

All this is even more worrying given that the threshold for restrictions is much lower than it should be. The metric around which our freedom now revolves, ICU capacity, is stretched. It may only take a small increase in Covid hospitalisations for No 10 to panic.

Omicron has also empowered the usual suspects to demand the tightening of measures, before we know anything about the true threat it poses. It is all alarmingly familiar: while the teachers’ union calls for bubbles to be reimposed in schools, the broadcast media incredulously asks why Boris Johnson is yet to demand people work from home. It is groundhog day north of the border, too, as Nicola Sturgeon reverts to her usual populist tricks, trying to browbeat the PM into vapid gesture politics. Yesterday, true to form, she called for a pointless increase of self-isolation for arrivals to eight days.

The drift towards disproportionate restrictions is all the more disturbing given that Westminster seems to have little clue about the the criteria for getting out of them. Before now, it seemed to be quietly settling on a messy ceasefire with the virus, entailing around 10 million cases and 30,000 excess deaths per year. But discourse is shifting from hospitalisations and deaths back to cases. Without strong leadership on learning to live with the virus through world-leading vaccine rollouts, the public’s first nasty reminder that an escape variant remains a risk as long as the virus is in wide circulation could give a new lease of life to Zero Covid campaigners.

The late Lord Bingham believed that public loyalty to the tradition of liberty is the most potent safeguard against executive tyranny in times of crisis. But Covid has revealed that, at the crunch point, such devotion is in short supply. Surely then, the task of democratic states is to prevent us coming to the panicked state of reckoning in the first place. Unfortunately, on this the blob threatens to badly fail us.

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