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V is for vaccine

V is for vaccine

We’re starting a campaign to make sure that the promise Boris Johnson made ahead of the G7 Summit wasn’t an empty one – and that the UK leads the drive to vaccinate the world


Did we, the media, miss the story at the G7 in Cornwall? Beyond Justin Trudeau’s flip-flops and the blustery photo opps, the Carbis Bay summit was reported as something of a return to normal: after the Trump years, it was a comeback for internationalism.

But if the world’s richest nations had one job above all others, it was vaccinating the world. It failed. It came up with 1 billion doses, when 11 billion are needed; it committed to the lower of two targets for global vaccinations by the end of next year; funding commitments were insufficient and delayed. As things stand, the overwhelming majority of people in the world’s richest countries will be vaccinated by the end of the year, if not the end of this summer. In the rest of the world, home to 7 billion people, it’ll take well into 2023, quite possibly 2024. Who knows what Covid-19 variants will have mutated and worked their way back into the global bloodstream by then?

If Donald Trump rather than Joe Biden were still president, you can be sure the world’s media would have reported it as another milestone in America’s abandonment of the world and the decline of the West. But one of the paradoxes of the pandemic is that a global crisis has made us, both in our politics and the media, more parochial. For all the talk that no-one is safe until everyone is safe, the coverage of the G7 summit in the UK last weekend was overshadowed by questions and speculation about a four-week delay to the easing of the last lockdown restrictions in England. Covid is global; politics more than ever local. 

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to dwell on what happened at Carbis Bay – and what we can possibly do next. Because one of the benefits of a slow newsroom is that you don’t have to bounce from one day’s story to the next; you can sit with the same one long enough to try and figure out what happened. 

The answer on the G7 is: I don’t know. And it’s hard to find people who do. 

On 3 June, Boris Johnson received his second dose of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. On Sunday the 6th, he said he would call on the fellow G7 leaders he was hosting in Cornwall the following weekend to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022. “The world is looking to us to rise to the greatest challenge of the post-war era: defeating Covid,” he said. “Vaccinating the world by the end of next year would be the single greatest feat in medical history. I’m calling on my fellow G7 leaders to join us to end this terrible pandemic.”

Presumably, you don’t set such a challenge for your guests if you haven’t already agreed a plan to meet it. And, it seems, there was a proposal on the table: Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and Erna Stolberg, the prime minister of Norway, who has been coordinating a global vaccination effort, wrote to the FT on the eve of the summit to say that the G7 countries needed to step in to pay just over half the additional $16 billion dollars needed to fund a shortfall in ACT-A, the global vaccination, testing and treatment programme. But the G7 touted the money it had already given to ACT-A and gave its verbal support to the global effort, but not the additional money. 

As world leaders gathered, Covax was warning of a near-term 190 million shortfall in vaccines needed this summer; the G7 didn’t plug that gap. The WHO said 11 billion doses were needed for the year ahead; the G7 outlined plans for just 1 billion further doses – and some of those were double counted. 

What went wrong? The media and the NGO world surely owns some of this. There has not been the focus on reporting of the global vaccine programme in the way there has been of every detail and deadline in the national vaccine rollout. The NGOs had a long, long shopping list and ended up getting a little of everything and not enough of anything. 

And it’s tempting, of course, to blame a failure of political will, to blast the politicians for the lofty verbiage and empty promises, to play the blame game. But in the course of this week – and, as I suppose you can hear in my voice, as I’ve got more wound up by the failure in Cornwall to do the one thing that matters – I’ve come to think about this differently. What if we take Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and the other G7 leaders at their word? What if it’s not a lack of political will, but a failure of planning and follow-through? What could we do to make sure vaccinating the world by the end of 2022 happens?

In the last few days, a small group of us at Tortoise – Katie Vanneck-Smith, Matt d’Ancona, Andrew Butler, Lara Spirit, Tess Murray – have been trying to think how could you coordinate a campaign to ensure the UK follows through on its promise to lead the vaccination of the world. 

The pitch in the UK is this. There’s a clear mission: vaccinate the world by the end of 2022. The UK is a world leader in vaccinating its own people; why not now lead the effort to vaccinate everyone in the world? Boris set the G7 this target of jabs for all by the end of next year. And, being generous, if we agree that in Cornwall they got going, but did not go nearly far enough, then treat Carbis Bay as the starting point. A mission to vaccinate the world would go a long way to living up to a vision that Britain has of itself at its best – in its history of scientific discovery, in the commitment to care in the NHS, in the spirit of the country. It has echoes: V is for Vaccine. 

It’s idealistic, but, unlike many ideals, it’s doable. This is a campaign that can be won: vaccine production is rising exponentially; the public overwhelmingly backs the global vaccine rollout; the government funding needed is affordable. From the UK’s own point of view, a global vaccine programme would reduce future health risks for the British people; it considerably would improve the prospects of a big global climate deal at COP26; it would cement the UK-US relationship and show the world the West is back. 

When I’ve run campaigns at newspapers before, you launch them with some fanfare. This time, we’re trying to do things as we always do – differently, openly and informed by our members. 

A big public campaign, let alone an international one, is not our day job. It’s complicated, but hardly our core expertise. And we’re a new news startup with no illusions that we can fix the world’s biggest problem when we’ve still got a fair few glitches on our app.

We’re open; we’ve got no interest in “owning” such a campaign. But when we started Tortoise, we said we were setting out in a spirit of radical optimism and with an interest in not just reporting the story, but what happens next. It would be odd on this story, then, to do nothing.

What can we do? Seeing how far short we fell in Cornwall, we can investigate why. We can, as we did in ‘A prick of conscience’, our Take two weeks ago, and again in today’s Take, set out practical action that delivers jabs for everyone. And we can, as I’m doing here, explore whether there’s a way of building a coalition that drives a public campaign, backed by scientists, advocated by business and approved by the health agencies, that encourages the UK and the US to deliver jabs for all by the end of 2022.

If you have ideas that can help, please say – we often say, we’d love to know what you think; this time, I’d love to know what you think we can do.

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