Last week, the “age of I” finally peaked. The 45-year rise of libertarianism reached its high tide. The doctrine that gave us Brexit, Trump and a wholly inadequate response to a global pandemic has been exposed for what it always was. A viable civilisation cannot be founded on the primacy of our own islands of self-interest. We humans have to hang together and if we don’t this deadly virus punishes us with isolation, despair and death. To forget the “we” is to be lost.
Lockdowns in Britain and over Europe have exposed how much in lockstep we are and how universal is the menace of Covid-19. Success requires the abandonment of the culture of each rich country trying to capture as much as it can of whatever vaccine – indifferent to why there are shortages of global supply – and shrug at what is happening elsewhere. If we are learning anything as the virus mutates, it is that it has to be suppressed globally if the threat is to be banished.
Research just published in Science magazine showed the first wave of Covid in Britain was imported almost entirely from neighbouring France, Italy and Spain. Now, the new variant imported from South Africa reveals our same vulnerability – the more it spreads, the more it dangerously mutates and then strikes.
If Britain meets its target of vaccinating 13.5 million people by the end of February, it will have done well, but instead of triumphantly boasting that this is more than the rest of Europe put together, proof, as the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that “we are a much better country”, ministers should be worried by the EU’s slow rate of progress. Unless it too is doing well, our efforts remain fatally threatened.
Medical experts are right to argue that the defeat of Covid demands an approach as total and concerted as a war effort, but that applies not just at home but abroad.
There has been, criminally, too little thought and too little co-ordination about how the new vaccines are to be produced and distributed globally in sufficient quantity. The numbers are stark. The world needs at least 10bn doses of the two most effective vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – giving two jabs to 5 billion people to offer a critical mass of immunity. It is good news that the UK has followed the EU and US in approving the Moderna vaccine, but production is not due to start until April. Together with the Pfizer vaccine, the production of these two will only reach 2bn in 2021. AstraZeneca hopes to produce 3bn doses of the Oxford vaccine in 2021, less efficacious but cheaper and easier to distribute, but so far has only produced 4m. Other vaccines, such as those from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, will come on stream this year. But we are falling short.
I admire AstraZeneca’s willingness to produce 3bn doses at cost, showing how a purpose-driven company operates, but there are limits to what even it can do. Instead of reducing the aid budget by £4bn to be spent at home to loud cheers from the libertarian, nationalist right, the government should have spent it either on subsidising AstraZeneca to double its production capacity, even if the facilities have to be expensively mothballed in 2022 and 2023, or in building gigantic, government-owned vaccine plants. No single company can assume the cost of the investment to stop a global pandemic on the scale and immediacy needed, only to bear the cost itself afterwards. This is a classic public good on a global scale, which must be supported by governments.
There has to be an international effort, marshalled by the World Health Organization, of state-led vaccine production and distribution on a scale never seen before and done over the next 12 months. It would be a kind of Cop26, but focused on curbing Covid rather than climate change, which should have its first meeting within weeks. Inside the EU, the UK could have insisted the EU lead. As it is, we have to use the little leverage we have.
The libertarian anti-vaxers have to be taken on at the same time. In the 19th century, laissez-faire libertarians objected to the growth of local and central government, taxing and spending on clean water supply networks, sewerage systems and smallpox inoculation; it was an encroachment of the state and encouraged collectivist, liberal politics. The rejoinder was that libertarian freedom meant nothing if you were dead. Public health, an existential assertion of the “we”, had to come first.
So today. The ragbag libertarian ecosystem, ranging from our own Toby Young and fellow rightwing commentators, anti-lockdown MPs such as Sir Desmond Swayne and the consistently wrong Tory Covid Recovery Group, extending to the fulminating Covid-deniers on Murdoch’s Fox News and the darker forces of the US right, has to be called out.
For their malign influence on public policy, look no further than the consistent hesitations and missteps of Boris Johnson over lockdowns and school closures, his own libertarian prejudices inflamed by not wanting to offend this powerful libertarian right. Neither he nor his cabinet has the necessary mindset to do what is necessary. From their Britain-only approach to vaccine production and mockery of the EU to properly Covid-proofing our health, care and education systems (for example, all kids from disadvantaged backgrounds should have the right to take this school year again), their first instincts are simply wrong for this moment.
With around 100,000 Covid deaths at least now baked into the system, Johnson and his government will face a reckoning similar to that facing Trump. The tide of libertarianism is going out. The tide of “we” is coming in. Let’s hope it gets a firm purchase on public policy soon. It is a matter of life or death.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist