Emmanuel Macron has become the latest world leader to test positive for Covid-19. Because this obviously doesn’t play to a Britain-is-rubbish narrative, I don’t see anyone making more of this than they have to.
However, the news did provoke the following thought from Tom Kibasi: “Unpopular opinion: heads of government and their staff should get the vaccine first”.
I can see where he’s coming from. There’s a low kind of populism out there that resents any reward or support that our leaders get for their public service. As well as being petty, this attitude is utterly self-defeating. If we insist on punishing politicians just for being politicians, then only power-mad weirdos will want to do the job.
But while our leaders should be spared the cheap shots, they shouldn’t get the vaccine either — at least, not yet.
At a time when availability is still limited, it’s vital that prioritisation is determined by medical needs alone. Like justice, this ordering of priorities must not only be done but be seen to be done. The sight of a young and healthy leader like President Macron jumping the queue, while the sick and elderly remain unprotected, would undermine public confidence at a critical juncture.
Of course, not all our politicians are quite so youthful. Yesterday, Lord Fowler — who is speaker of the House of Lords and a former Secretary State for Health — announced that he’d be popping out to get his jab. And quite right too — at 82 he qualifies by virtue of his age, not his perceived importance. It might also be a good idea to get the vaccine to Joe Biden without too much delay.
The principle that should guide us here is that of skin-in-the-game. Our leaders should be honoured for the difficult decisions that they take on our behalf, but also exposed to the consequences of those judgement calls.
This principle shouldn’t be interpreted naïvely — for instance by insisting that Ministers are paid no more than the minimum wage. However, if it is deemed necessary to have a public sector pay freeze then MPs should not be exempt. It is privilege, literally meaning ‘private law’, that needs to avoided here.
Thus politicians should be subject the same rules as everyone else as regards the roll-out of the vaccine. That not only includes waiting their turn, but very publicly rolling-up their sleeves and submitting to the needle when their number is called.
It may seem terribly old-fashioned to say so, but ministers should set an example. In this supremely tame and technocratic age, it takes a pandemic to remind us that leading from the front is as important as it ever was.