We should give credit where it’s due: throughout its Covid debacle, the Government’s done one thing very well indeed. Its concerted, well-managed and innovative programme of vaccine research has vastly outpaced our erstwhile European partners, holding out the prospect that, if we get this right, we can be one of the first Western economies to forge a path out of the crisis.
But there’s a flaw, and it’s a major one: as the EU’s threats to confiscate our vaccine consignments from Astra-Zeneca’s continental warehouses show, by being dependent on the open market for vital supplies, the nation’s security is placed at risk. Outbidding competitors and signing contracts early may work in a normal situation, but in a period of major crisis even the largest transnational corporation can be brought to heel by a government exercising its sovereign power.
Looked at this way, the UK is worse off than most countries. No other advanced economy has sold off so much of its vital national infrastructure, and no other political system has dared to leave its people so at the mercy of events beyond its control. By doing so, successive British governments have, over the past 40-year car boot sale of our industrial patrimony, placed the entire nation’s survival at risk. And it could be even worse. As Nick Timothy noted on Twitter, in 2015 the then-chancellor George Osborne refused to get involved when Pfizer tried to buy Astra-Zeneca, waving away concerns about Britain’s vital strategic needs.
That has to change, now. As we enter a period of international turbulence greater than anything experienced in any of our lifetimes, the age of the unfettered free market is over. Britain needs an industrial policy geared towards the nation’s survival, where the nation retains control of essential strategic industries and assets. Moreover, the state must retain the capability to direct and boost production in a time of crisis.
One underreported project, the UK Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (or VMIC) is an excellent start. It promises to provide Britain with a genuinely innovative and strategic capacity to research and produce vaccines for the waves of pandemics heading our way thanks to an age of global travel. But it’s not enough. As Declamare (a must-follow Twitter analyst) observes, the £141m granted to VMIC by the Treasury to speed up its launch is a pitiful amount compared to the vast sums spent on dealing with the virus’s baneful effects. It is an absurd case of penny-pinching in the middle of our greatest crisis since the war.
Declamare notes, the Treasury funding to VMIC is:
The government needs to shake itself free of its self-defeating “Treasury Brain” worldview and start funding vital Biotech infrastructure like VMIC properly, getting it up and running sooner and getting the nation out of this crisis faster. VMIC should be the start of the urgent re-shoring of vital strategic infrastructure under state control: too many of our fellow Britons are already dead because our state sold off all its capacity to keep us safe, and that number’s rising every day. We must never let a government put us in this position again.