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A faint echo of June 1942

There was something vaguely Churchillian about Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on 12 March last year:

“We have all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu. Alas, that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous.

“It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

These words – no doubt intentionally – echoed Johnson’s hero’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” address to parliament during the unfolding storm of war on 13 May 1940.  Following this speech – just two days after Churchill had replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, and with German panzers and Messerschmitts running riot across Belgium and France – German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels complained that having promised such hardship, Churchill’s opponents would be unable to hold him to account for any mismanagement of the war.  Indeed, the promise of hardship to come contributed to the Dunkirk defeat being portrayed as a miracle just a few days later.

Johnson may have wanted the British nation to see in him a similar stoicism to the Churchill of 1940; the Churchill who stood up to the Nazis while his opponents sought peace; the Churchill who provided the people with the will to fight on against overwhelming odds:

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

The Churchill of early 1942 was an altogether different character.  Hong Kong had fallen within days of the Japanese entering the war.  Singapore fell a few weeks later.  By the end of May, British Empire troops had been pushed out of Burma and had fallen back to the Indian frontier.  By then things had taken a turn for the worse closer to home.  The Germans had ejected the British from Greece by the end of April, and within a month had forced the evacuation of Crete.  Elsewhere, the transfer of troops to Greece had brought British operations in North Africa to a standstill and had handed the initiative to Rommel.

By this stage in the war, Churchill had delegated domestic affairs and logistics to the war cabinet; concerning himself instead with foreign affairs and grand strategy.  To this end, Churchill had set off across the Atlantic for the Second Washington Conference (19 to 25 June 1942).  At this point in the war, the USA had yet to fully mobilise.  And although Britain was increasingly dependent upon American industry for weapons, munitions, food and fuel, Churchill could still be considered an equal by dint of the number of troops being fielded by the British. 

British inferiority though, was brought home during a private meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt on 21 June, when an aide burst in to announce the German capture of the strategic North African port of Tobruk.  Without this crucial port to bring up supplies, British frontline units were dependent upon road transport from Egypt – road transport which, the further it travelled from its base, had to consume a larger part of the supplies it was moving.  The inevitable consequence was that the British were driven out of Libya and forced to retreat to a line dangerously close to Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal.

Understanding the gravity of the situation, Roosevelt ordered tanks, trucks and guns which had been intended to equip the USA’s first motorised divisions, to be loaded onto ships and despatched to the British Army in North Africa immediately.  But no amount of American lend-lease could reverse Churchill’s unpopularity at home.

Even before the fall of Tobruk, there had been growing discontent with Churchill’s leadership.  Many favoured Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, the austere Sir Stafford Cripps, as an alternative war leader less inclined to squander British personnel and equipment on Gallipoli-like adventures such as the doomed despatch of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales to their watery grave off the coast of Malaya.

The display of rank incompetence over everything from PPE and ventilators to the botched track and trace system together with the ambivalent approach to the various lockdowns, which have left us in an even worse position than when the entire country was shut down last spring, have left Johnson facing increasingly loud calls for his removal too.  Only the vaccines offer an official route out of this dark winter of lockdowns.  And yet once again the seeds of failure are germinating.  As Nick Triggle at the BBC reports on the day Britain begins its third national lockdown:

“With the country in lockdown and a new faster-spreading variant of coronavirus rampant, it’s clear the UK is in a race to vaccinate.

“Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants all the over-70s, the most clinically vulnerable and front-line health and care workers to be offered a jab by mid-February, to allow the restrictions to be eased.

“That requires about 13 million people to be given the opportunity to be vaccinated – but so far only one million have been.  And ensuring a quick rollout to the rest is fraught with difficulties…

“[T]he complex nature of the supply chain coupled with the complexity of delivering vaccines to large numbers of people means it will take just one thing to go wrong to cause serious problems getting the UK out of this lockdown in the timeframe hoped…

“There is enough vaccine in the country, BBC News has learned, but getting it into people’s arms could be hampered by:

  • a global shortage of glass vials to package up the vaccines
  • long waits for safety checks
  • the process of ensuring there are enough vaccinators.”

The glass vials shortage is no more than a repeat of the PPE, ventilator and test kit fiascos; where it turns out nobody had stopped to examine global supply chains or to think ahead and repurpose non-essential production processes to expand the manufacture of these essentials.  Of course, it is likely that having decimated UK manufacturing over the past four decades, Britain lacks a sufficient manufacturing base to do this.  Nevertheless, with a degree of forethought, a ministry of procurement might have encouraged international manufacturers to increase their production in time to supply us with sufficient vials to get the vaccines out of the fridge and into the arms of those who need them most.

Safety checks are what they are – after all, the vaccines are being injected into people:

“The MHRA said each batch had to be biologically tested for quality, while the manufacturer’s documentation describing its production and quality-control testing process was reviewed.

“Those close to the process say it does take a couple of weeks – and with more vaccine being produced, there is increased demand on the labs that do the work.”

Nevertheless, a separate ministry for vaccination might have foreseen this bottleneck ahead of time and might, for example, have switched laboratories from the failed test and trace system in order to speed the rollout of the vaccines.

Finding the personnel to vaccinate 13 million people – presumably while maintaining broader NHS services – was always going to be a bottleneck.  And so it is alarming that the problem is only coming to the forefront now. Given that there are insufficient doctors and nurses to provide a full NHS service in winter at the best of times, it is hard to understand why government had not begun to train lay people as vaccinators the moment the pandemic began.  After all, you don’t need a degree in nursing to administer an injection (for example, just ask people with type-1 diabetes).

If this failure was not bad enough, NHS managers appear to be throwing rocks in the road too.  As Triggle explains:

“Currently, GPs, nurses, healthcare assistants and pharmacists are giving the vaccines.  But as the vaccination campaign ramps up, these will need to be supplemented by additional vaccinators.

Provision has been made to train other health professionals, from physiotherapists and dentists to dieticians.  But there are reports an ‘overload of bureaucracy’ – including mandatory courses in fire safety and preventing radicalisation – is slowing down this training.”

If we are going to get 13 million people vaccinated by the end of February, we will need to be jabbing at a rate of more than 300 people per minute, twelve hours a day, seven days a week.  Knowing this, a dedicated vaccine minister would have left the bureaucracy until the crisis is over.  Instead we see all of the hallmarks of past debacles where lavish promises were made and failure inevitably followed.

In 1942, the reorganisation of Britain’s North African forces by Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, together with American lend-lease and the later allied invasion of French North Africa saved Churchill’s political career.  A newly invigorated Eighth Army under Montgomery and Alexander first halted Rommel in the battle of Alam el Halfa Ridge in early September, and then defeated the Afrika Korp at the battle of El Alamein at the beginning of November.  Churchill would later reflect that: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

If Johnson hopes to revive his fortunes in the same way, then successful vaccination has to be his El Alamein.  It might flatter Johnson’s ego to be surrounded by nonentities like Handcock and Willamson, but it will do nothing to alter his fortunes.  Ideally we should have had a dedicated minister for vaccines last spring.  But even a reorganisation at this late stage may at least allow a hopefully competent minister to dispense with the unnecessary bureaucracy and to commandeer at least some of the supplies and personnel needed for success.

In November 1942, Churchill described Alamein as “the end of the beginning.”  We should regard a successful vaccination programme in the same way.  Certainly, herd immunity will have seen off the virus and with it the threat to the NHS.  But the task of repairing the damage to the economy caused by the response to the pandemic will be with us for years to come.  It is highly unlikely that Johnson’s government – if it continues the process of self-inflicted failure witnessed so far – will be able to command the respect and unity which is essential to facing the worst economic downturn in modern history. 

If he is not careful, Johnson will go down in history as the proxy for what would have happened to his hero had the Battle of El Alamein been lost.

As you made it to the end…

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