Why the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine is crucial for the UK

The government has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, compared with 40 million of the Pfizer vaccine and five million of the Moderna product.

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Another Tuesday, another piece of good news: a second coronavirus vaccine, the Moderna candidate, has been found to be nearly 95 per cent effective, and the UK government has purchased five million doses of the jab, expected to be ready for distribution next April. 

These vaccine announcements have heralded a new wave in discussions about Britain’s coronavirus strategy: there are still immediate questions to be answered about the winter months, but every decision about our longer-term approach now reflects both the benefits and challenges of distributing a vaccine.

The fundamental question that still needs to be answered by the UK government is the pace at which restrictions should be lifted while the jab is rolled out. We may well see the “doves and hawks” return for a reunion tour, as a fresh government row over the issue emerges in the coming months. We can expect the Treasury – and many Conservative MPs – to encourage a swift reopening in the spring to promote economic growth, while the Department of Health and many of the government’s scientific advisers will encourage caution to avoid the painful scenario of unnecessary deaths in the final phases of our Covid-19 response, like casualties in the last days of war before a ceasefire.  

[see also: The race for a Covid-19 vaccine]

The debate over the rollout itself, meanwhile, has already begun. Since the good news of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, coverage has focused on the huge logistical challenge of distributing a vaccine that needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees, while Labour called yesterday for the publication of a comprehensive national vaccine action plan.  

The truth, however, is that the news we are waiting for isn’t about the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine: they simply augur well for the main star, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. This is the horse the government has been backing since the beginning of the crisis: the UK has a diverse portfolio of seven vaccines, but it ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, compared with 40 million of the Pfizer vaccine, and five million of the Moderna candidate, which it only confirmed yesterday when the trial results were announced. The Oxford vaccine’s trial results are expected imminently. Unlike the Moderna vaccine, the Oxford jab is expected to be ready for distribution this winter, and unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it could be stored at between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, rather than the logistically problematic minus 70.   

It’s all eyes on Oxford now. Once its results are released, then discussions about the rollout of the vaccine can truly begin.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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