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The vaccine must be distributed equally, at home and abroad.
Britain currently has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world. For 10 days in a row, we have tragically lost over 1,000 people a day to the disease, with this figure hitting 1,820 last week.
Britain has recorded the fifth-highest number of deaths behind the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, and each of these countries have at least double the population of the UK. Indeed, in one day Britain has recorded more deaths than the total Covid-19 fatalities in Taiwan, New Zealand, Thailand and Australia put together, despite these countries having a combined population nearly twice the UK’s.
This was not inevitable, but a devastating political and ideological choice. At every stage of this crisis, the government has dithered and delayed before taking common-sense actions far too late. Tragically, this will have cost an unimaginable number of lives over the last year.
As the vaccine is mercifully rolled out, we cannot afford any more life-and-death errors. Progress on the vaccine will give hope to millions that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yet at a local, national and global level — it is vital that we collectively push for the vaccine to be distributed based on need, not the ability to pay.
One of the most concerning aspects of Britain’s vaccine approach is that the government is allowing up to 12 weeks between the doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine — which is three times the length recommended by the vaccine’s producers and the World Health Organisation. The British Medical Association has called on the government to urgently review this strategy.
Indeed, the latest available data demonstrates that whilst 5,529,101 UK residents have received their first dose of the vaccine, just 441,074 have received the crucial second dose. With a more dangerous strain of the virus rampaging through the country, the 12-week rule must urgently be changed.
There is also a worrying lack of information regarding how housebound over-80s will receive the vaccine. This is likely to disproportionately impact older people who live in areas with high levels of poverty, including my constituency of Leicester East. Some local authorities, such as Nottingham, have begun to roll out a home vaccination service, and the government must make funding available to ensure that this is possible in every community across the country so that no-one is left behind.
The disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on African, Asian and minority ethnic communities also remains a major concern. Research by the University of Leicester found that people of Black ethnicity are twice as likely and that Asian people were 1.5 times more likely to be infected with Covid-19, compared to white individuals.
When a Public Health England review published in the summer of 2020 found that people from African, Asian and minority ethnic communities were more likely to contract and die from Covid-19, government ministers promised to reduce these disparities. Yet this promise has been broken. Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch MP recently dismissed the role of structural racism in medical outcomes. If the government does not believe in institutional racism, how can we expect them to protect communities who are clearly vulnerable to the virus?
A recent poll by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London found little more than a third of African, Asian and minority ethnic Londoners (39 per cent) said they were likely to take the jab compared with 70 per cent of white people in the capital. That is despite African, Asian and minority ethnic communities continuing to be disproportionately hospitalised and killed by Covid-19.
Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists, recently accused the government of not doing enough to make specific efforts to reassure these communities about the safety of the vaccine and not addressing the disproportionate risk of infection. The government’s unclear, confused and contradictory messaging has contributed to this lack of confidence in the vaccine.
I welcome the fact that the Labour Party is now urging the government to publish daily data showing the progress of the vaccine roll-out across people from different ethnic backgrounds; an analysis of the impact that pre-existing health inequalities are having on lower uptake among some communities; and a vaccine communications strategy that reaches all communities and tackles disinformation. This crisis has disproportionately impacted working-class and African, Asian and minority ethnic communities — and it is vital that we ensure these groups are not marginalised when it comes to receiving a vaccine.
It is also vital that we ensure that those with No Recourse to Public Funds and undocumented migrants are not excluded from this necessary protection. For instance, it was deeply worrying to see reports that so-called “foreign-born” NHS workers — who have been on the front line of this pandemic — are at risk of being denied vaccinations because of internal NHS guidelines requiring that vaccine recipients display an NHS number.
Not only are such exclusionary practices morally abhorrent, but they also undermine the whole purpose of a vaccine. Whilst people and institutions discriminate, the virus does not. The only way for the vaccine to be effective is to ensure that everyone is protected from this virus.
There is also concern that the wealthy and large corporations are attempting to use their power to skip the vaccine cue. For instance, The Hacking Trust, a property investment company, offered GP surgeries £5,000 for coronavirus vaccine doses. A £25,000-a-year UK-based private concierge service is flying its members to the UAE and India to receive vaccinations.
Tragically, this greed is evident at a global scale. Richer countries, including Britain, have secured over three times more vaccines than they need to treat their entire populations, while 67 of the poorest countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 of their population over the next year.
Much of Africa, for instance, is not expected to have vaccines widely available until 2023. The WHO’s Covax scheme has so far secured 700 million doses to be distributed among 92 countries — but with 3.6 billion people in these nations requiring two shots, it is clear that much more is required to prevent a future of vaccine nationalism that will further entrench global inequality.
Across the globe, we must ensure that the vaccine is distributed fairly and not along discriminatory lines. It has therefore been alarming to see Israel receive widespread international acclaim for its vaccine roll-out, despite the fact that the country has been criticised by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations for systematically denying vaccinations to Palestinians living under its occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Such inequalities in vaccine distribution must be strongly condemned by the international community, wherever it appears in the world.
I believe that, as a former empire, Britain has a unique responsibility to ensure that we honour our commitments across the world. Indeed, countries including India and South Africa have called for vaccine patents to be suspended to radically reduce the cost of production and distribution. This is a proposal that the UK must take seriously.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the government have proved that their priority is not to keep people safe but rather to protect the interests of the few. When it comes to the vaccine, they must abandon this unequal approach. Instead, they must finally act to ensure that everyone — in Britain and across the world — receives the best defence against Covid-19.
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