Nye Bevan's Finest Hour: 

By Lord Andrew Adonis

On the principle that ‘an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man’ – or woman – this may be Nye Bevan’s finest hour. For it is his National Health Service, with its comprehensive population coverage by general practitioners and its passion for selfless care, which has enabled the millions of COVID19 jabs to be administered so quickly and efficiently.

War stories are legion. Mine is of a GP friend who late into every night, including weekends, sits up planning the next day’s tour of elderly patients, because the Astra Zeneca vaccine comes in vials of eleven doses which have to be administered within a short time of each other. She has even lined up volunteer drivers, with her student son masterminding a huge map and database of those ‘done’ and ‘to be done’.  

Even the halls of God are in service. Salisbury cathedral is a mass vaccination centre while the organ plays Bach toccatas – my favourite image of 2021.  

So well done Nye. The NHS is about to ascend even higher as the closest thing the English have to a religion. As for the Adonis principle that without leadership in politics and government, nothing happens – well, the leader doesn’t necessarily need to be alive still, provided they set up institutions and processes that continue to work, especially when they appeal to the altruism of public servants and volunteers as successfully as the NHS.  

But without supplies of the vaccine, there would have been no jabs to deliver. The credit there appears to lie in a brilliant procurement exercise in the Treasury led by Kate Bingham, with her substantial biotech venture capital experience. Nor am I going to decline to give credit to ministers, without whose initiative and authorisation she would not have been able to do her procuring. 

Bingham understood that this is not peacetime; it is wartime or its equivalent, so you don’t quibble about price or liability, just do the deals and spread the risk with a group of different vaccine types. 

By contrast, Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission was late to the game, quibbled on price and liability and did not treat it as the equivalent of a wartime operation. They do not appear to have made the calculation for speed, given the prospective death toll and the cost of delayed economic reopening. 

Corralling 27 governments also made it more difficult, and the Commission have problems in some states with high levels of anti-vax support. This appears to be one of those areas where the EU subtracted value, at least in the short term which matters now. It doesn’t make Brexit any better, since we could have opted out of the procurement even within the EU; it just makes the case which many of us have always believed, that you need to decide case by case which tier is best to undertake a task in government. Trade negotiations and regulation are obviously best done Europe-wide, but not the immediate production and procuring of new vaccines in this emergency. 

Who knows, we may soon have to help out the EU. If so, let’s start with Ireland, a fitting target for post-Brexit British altruism.   

OK let me say it. This may be Boris’s finest hour too.