In his 1947 essay, The English People, George Orwell tried to conceive of a tourist visiting the country for the first time. “Our imaginary foreign observer would certainly be struck by our gentleness: by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling, the willingness to form queues,” he wrote.
More than 70 years later, amid the biggest loss of life in the UK since the second world war, we are still queuing. From local Co-Op supermarkets and their “one out, one in” policy to thinned-out bus stops, we wait in an orderly line.
But the most impressively patient queues are of course for The Vaccine. Outside cathedrals and football grounds that serve as makeshift vaccination centres, people stand patiently to take their turn. I joined one such queue today (yeah, I know, I’m older than I look) and I have to say it was a total pleasure. Socially distanced yet socially united, the smiles, nods and chats among strangers underlined a mood of national pride.
That pride was of course in the uniformed NHS staff and all the volunteers in their yellow tabards, ticking off names and numbers. Wonderfully efficient and well organised, the small health centre where I got the jab was a quietly humming engine of scientific progress and good sense. Yes, I had the AstraZeneca vaccine. And no, I didn’t feel a thing either. I was too busy thinking about that amazing Oxford University team led by Sarah Gilbert, and their heroic effort.
Boris Johnson had the same jab today, the day after NHS chief Simon Stevens (what a cohort to belong to eh?) and so too did another premier, France’s Jean Castex. The difference being, of course, that Castex has a lot more persuading to do to make his own population believe the AZ vaccine is safe.
France, which had paused the AZ vaccine rollout for over-65s and whose president Emmanuel Macron blithely suggested the older population “should not be encouraged” by its trials, today executed a sharp U-turn that bordered on farce. Its health regulator announced it was perfectly safe for older people, but not for younger groups. Those under-55 should not take the vaccine due to the (tiny) incidence of blood clots in younger women, it ruled.
Given such confusion, even if French populace were in the habit of queuing as much as the English, one suspects they won’t be lining up to take the jab this weekend. All this, as their country faces the ominous surge of a third wave of Covid, with Paris set to go into a month long lockdown.
Undermining the vaccine at a time when supplies are already low and death stalks the land seems criminally irresponsible. We shouldn’t forget that unlike Pfizer and others, the Oxford/AZ vaccine is a not-for-profit product and a key plank of the Covax rollout to the world’s poorest nations.
More broadly, there appears to be a grim calculus playing out. Europe is around two months behind the UK in the vaccine supply stakes but seemed it had avoided the worst of our surge in case rates. It now looks like it will be around two months behind us in that third wave too.
The good news today wasn’t just seeing the PM underline the AZ jab’s reputation with a double thumbs-up. It was the plunging hospitalisation rates (English admissions down 30% and beds below 5,000 for the first time since October), with cases down 27% and deaths a huge 36% week on week.
There are of course still some reasons for concern. The ONS stats today had a mixed picture, with some evidence of some areas slowing down the falls in cases, and the R number upper range edged up slightly. There are curiously low positive testing rates in schools, and many health experts are monitoring the impact of the drift back to offices (more than half employees travelled to work last week for the first time since last June).
But overall, cautious optimism is merited, as long as the PM can focus on the caution as much as the optimism. Thanks to a record rate of vaccinations yesterday (1% of the population in a single day), we are now on 49.9% of all adults having first doses. As we head into this weekend, the milestone of more than half of us having had a jab beckons. Even if I get a sore arm, I may not stop smiling about that queue.