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12 August 2020

First Thoughts: Vaccine refuseniks, Britain’s trade deal with Japan and a crisis at the Evening Standard

 Only 30 per cent of Britons are certain they’d have a coronavirus vaccine, if one was discovered. 

By Peter Wilby

According to a survey from King’s College London, 16 per cent of Britons – including 22 per cent of under-35s – would probably refuse a vaccine against coronavirus. Only 30 per cent are certain they’d get vaccinated. Similar US findings prompted the leading American medic Anthony Fauci to blame a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling”.

Such surveys remind me of the pollsters’ staple “if there were a general election tomorrow…” question – to which the proper answer is “there isn’t one tomorrow”. Likewise, there isn’t a vaccine just now. My sympathies are with the 11 per cent who said “don’t know”.

The refuseniks may be making a rational, if rather selfish, calculation. Vaccines normally go through years of trials, ensuring they have no serious side-effects even in the long term. Coronavirus vaccines, however, are being rushed through at what the US officially calls “warp speed”. Given the political pressures, can we be confident corners won’t be cut? And will a vaccine give lifelong protection or, like the flu jab, last only for a season and guarantee significantly less than 100 per cent immunity?

Suppose you’re 30, with no underlying medical conditions. You work from home and don’t often go to pubs or clubs. You know the virus will most likely give you a mild illness, if any. You are surely entitled to hedge your bets about a hypothetical vaccine without being branded a loony anti-vaxxer.

Growing deficits

Britain’s trade deal with Japan, expected to be completed this month, will be similar to Japan’s with the EU, though, for us, not quite as good. The UK has a £1bn trade deficit (excess of imports over exports) with Japan which, I suppose, is better than the £72bn deficit with the EU, often quoted as an argument for Brexit. Unfortunately, according to the UK trade department’s estimates, the deficit with Japan will grow after the deal – to more than £10bn.

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Follow the money

I do not have an opinion to hand about whether Boris Johnson’s proposals for transforming the planning system are a good or bad thing. I shall derive one from advice given to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they pursued the Watergate scandal: “Follow the money.” Last year property developers donated £11m to the Conservative Party. And I have not heard any property developer criticise the proposals. So they must be a good thing. For the developers.

Another crisis

London’s Evening Standard once conducted itself in the grand manner of old Fleet Street. In the mid-1990s, it paid me a £5,000 annual retainer just for staying at home until nine each morning lest I was required to contribute to the “West End final”. If I wrote anything, further lavish payments followed.

Now, after losing more than £10m in each of the past three years, and suffering a crash in advertising revenues – on which, being a free newspaper, it is almost wholly dependent – it announces drastic job cuts. Of 167 journalists, 69 will be sacked. The victims, however, do not seem to include the former chancellor George Osborne, who stepped down as editor in June but remains as editor-in-chief with undisclosed duties and undisclosed remuneration.

The proprietor, the Russian-born businessman Evgeny Lebedev, promised “adequate funding” until June next year, though, as the paper’s auditors note, “there is no formal funding arrangement in place”. Job cuts at the Standard were announced shortly after Lebedev secured a peerage.

World-beaters

News from the “test and trace” front line. A friend reports that his two daughters – one a “journeymaker” who chivvies rail travellers to wear masks, the other a teacher – posted tests from Cromer in Norfolk and Barnsley respectively in mid-July. Neither has received a result. Perhaps our world-beating privatised mail service delivered the world-beating tests too late to be of any use. But since both women are key workers, shouldn’t someone have sent them new testing kits?