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Boris Johnson at a Covid vaccine centre

Boris Johnson at a Covid vaccine centre. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The government’s jingoism has no bearing on reality, argues Terina Hine

The government’s vaccine messaging displays the endemic jingoism in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and the Tory party at large.

Today is both “V-Day” and the day the PM’s Brexitshowdown in Brussels” was announced. The two events - the coronavirus vaccine rollout and the failing Brexit negotiations - are unrelated except for revealing the government’s entrenched jingoism heralded by much of the media.

The misplaced nationalism - from Gavin Williamson’s offensive drivel in which claimed the UK’s regulators were “much better” than those in France, Belgium or America because “we're a much better country than every single one of them”, to Matt Hancocks tearful Im proud to be British” disclosure today - is frankly an embarrassment.

It’s embarrassing not least because the vaccine is not British - it was produced by a German company founded by two Turkish immigrants, working in partnership with a US distributor, manufactured in Belgium. The level of international cooperation in this scientific breakthrough has been wilfully forgotten in order to promote British exceptionalism, just at the moment the Brexit talks are disintegrating. 

Manipulating this good news story with bogus nationalism to promote and/or excuse a no-deal Brexit is beyond contempt. Science, and medical advances in particular, have for many decades been one of the great success stories of international cooperation in an increasingly integrated world. To debase the achievements of internationalism with Little Englander rhetoric is a national disgrace.

Many pioneering advances in medicine have stemmed from large multinational research teams covering areas such as cancer treatment, lung screening, coronary-artery bypasses and studies into DNA, along with groundbreaking work into infectious diseases including HIV, SARs and Ebola.  Collaborative networks enable teams to harness specialists, materials and infrastructure as well as allowing for large scale medical trials. We all benefit; the value of collaboration in medical research is unmistakable. Medical progress should not be seen as a national competition - medical science is not a football match.

But if the government wants an international competition for covid then maybe they should go for it. They need look no further than the tables produced regularly in The Financial Times.

The latest international tables focus on death rates. Excess deaths - largely viewed as the most accurate way of measuring mortality rates, especially for international comparisons where different countries use different measures for compiling statistics - place the UK in the top billing globally. Adjusting for population size Peru and Ecuador have the worst mortality rates, Italy comes next with an increase of 38% in excess deaths, and the UK is right behind with +37%. Apparently we are not only better regulators but also better at dying than our vaccine producing neighbours - in Germany excess deaths increased by only 6%.

According to the Financial Times’ figures “the UK has one of the highest excess deaths rates among countries producing comparable data” in the world, with over 1,000 excess deaths per million people.

The same FT report holds another international comparison table the Cabinet  may wish to peruse: Oxford Universitys Blavatnik School of Government’s stringency index, which provides a colour-coded chart showing different levels of restrictions implemented across the world during the pandemic. The data clearly indicates the UK was late in its initial lockdown, and that the lockdown was shorter-lived and weaker in nature by comparison to almost all similar countries. Perhaps there’s a message there even this Cabinet could grasp.

The speedy rollout of the vaccine is of course good news. But to use this to promote the small minded nationalism endemic within the Tory party is neither good politics nor good sense. Instead it should be used to show how international cooperation can triumph over adversity.

The UK has had one of the world’s worst responses to the pandemic, both in terms of the health of the population and the economy. This is something we must not let Boris Johnson nor his cabinet of fools ever forget.

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