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Vacs To The Future: The Nadhim Zahawi Interview

9 min read

With 15 million vulnerable people vaccinated against Covid-19 in just under ten weeks, and enough jabs on order to cover every person in the country, the vaccine programme could be a rare unmitigated success for the government. Now vital questions about how vaccines fit into unlocking the economy are being raised and tricky decisions are on the horizon. Kate Proctor speaks to vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi.

With so much expectation on how the Covid-19 vaccine will bring the world back to a semblance of normality, tech companies have gone into overdrive, dreaming up ways to provide ‘vaccine passports’. Whether they are to gain access to corporate offices, or provide entry to a gig or sporting event, biometric specialists are developing ideas that might give companies and customers much-needed peace of mind that they are safe from a deadly virus.

For vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, however, domestic passports for accessing elements of everyday life are not on the table. He even goes so far as to warn that technology firms working on domestic Covid-19 vaccine certificates should not get people’s hopes up by creating a “false sense of security”.

Zahawi, who is just three months into his role as vaccine deployment minister, says: “My message to them is: one, the vaccines’ impact on transmission is not known yet, so be careful, because what you don’t want is to establish a false sense of security; and two, the best way of dealing with this is rapid testing [and] as the Prime Minister has outlined, with the national vaccine programme.”

Asked if these eager tech firms need to apply the brakes to their apps, he says he doesn’t want to curb their creativity and adds there is a place for vaccine certificates for international travel, but he is clear that much more data needs to be gathered on the vaccine and how it may reduce the spread of the illness.

Ministers should be getting more data on this over the next few weeks with initial findings feeding into the prime minister’s roadmap for unlocking the economy, due to be delivered on 22 February.

“Obviously, innovation carries on and I know that people will look at different technologies. I would just say, that’s what they do in their own business. This is a dynamic, innovative economy.

“We have no plans of introducing a domestic vaccine passport,” he says.

It emerged earlier this month that the government had given a £75,000 innovation grant to tech companies iProov and Mvine, who have since created a form of certification scheme now in the trial phase with local public health directors.

Onfido is a London-based firm, and another company that has the expertise in facial recognition and verification ID. Last spring it submitted proposals to the government for immunity passports for those who had negative coronavirus tests.

The International Air Transport Association is also working on a ‘travel pass’ and the World Health Organisation is looking at giving guidance on global standards for vaccine passports.

“We have no plans [to introduce] a domestic vaccine passport”

But domestically at least, Zahawi unsurprisingly agrees with Boris Johnson, who has said rapid testing is more likely to be pivotal to getting the entertainment and leisure sectors back up and running. They could be a “route forward” for nightclubs and theatres to resume welcoming patrons through the doors.

Zahawi, 53, has had one of the better jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, publicly fronting an enormous effort from the Vaccine Taskforce and its former chair Kate Bingham that went into developing, procuring and administering the vaccine. So far, he’s delivered good news – targets have been met and Britain looks, for once, strong internationally.

Against headlines of the UK’s death rate from coronavirus pushing beyond 100,000 people, the initial problems with test and trace, and the chaos around exams and school closures, the vaccine programme since his appointment on 28 November 2020 has been a beacon of success.

But it’s not to say there aren’t difficult questions to answer: whether or not care staff should be vaccinated in order to work is another hot topic, with an ongoing debate on whether carers might be asked to show a form of vaccine certificate by their employers. While Zahawi wants care staff to take the vaccine of their own accord, he suggests no one should be in a position where they will lose their job if they refuse.

Mass vaccination programmes are not mandatory, he explains, spelling out his view on the matter in regard to employers.

Asked if a care worker who decides not to get the jab would face the sack or find that it’s a prerequisite of a job application, he simply says: “I’d like them to get the vaccine. I think it’s really important they get the vaccine. It’s good for them. It protects them. It protects the people they look after.

“They obviously wear PPE and have to be tested as well because ultimately we all want the same thing and that is to protect those who are most vulnerable.”

Yet he can’t escape the fact that despite enormous efforts to get people vaccinated in the first four priority groups by 15 February – including care workers in category one – figures reveal significant hesitancy within this particular workforce.

 “The important thing is that we make decisions on the back of the data rather than a date – an arbitrary date”

Only two-thirds of care staff have been vaccinated so far, which, with 1.5 million people working in adult social care, leaves almost 500,000 care staff who may not have had the jab.

He says accessibility has been a problem, despite vaccinators going into care homes to give shots to residents and staff at the same time. Overall they will visit an individual home four times to administer the jabs. Staff can also now make an appointment via the national booking system, with 91,000 care staff doing so in a single day on Saturday 13 February.

“The reason I say to you … accessibility [is the issue], is because people work different shifts, and someone may not have been in the care home when the team’s nurses went in to vaccinate, which is why we’ve opened up the national booking system, and [are] saying to social care: book your appointment on the national booking system, go to a vaccination centre or pharmacy and get your appointment.”

But he says there’s more to do. “The doctors of BAME communities, or nurses or other practitioners, or social care workers themselves are great advocates for the vaccination programme. So I think it’s a communication of vaccine positivity and why vaccines are important to you, and of course the duty of care, as well as access.”

He wants to see 80% or more of care workers taking the vaccine, which would chime with studies that show 80 to 90% of the public would take the vaccine if offered, plus NHS modelling bases its vaccine programme on a 75% uptake.

The father-of-three was previously a business and children’s minister for the government and is the MP for Stratford-on-Avon. He was born in Baghdad and came to the UK when he was nine years old.

In theory, he is in vulnerable group nine in terms of the timetable for getting his own vaccine, although he has been taking part in the Novavax vaccine trial. He doesn’t know at this stage if he’s had the placebo or the real injection, but he can find out in April and decide whether he needs to be vaccinated at all.

Of all the promotional work done on the vaccine, perhaps the most unlikely micro-trend has been that of male politicians being photographed with their shirts off as they get their injections. Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was the first to go viral with his effort. Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, French health minister Olivier Véran and ex-army captain and veterans minister Johnny Mercer have also shown their enthusiasm for being vaccinated in various states of undress.

Laughing at the suggestion that his colleagues have been rather partial to putting their chests on display, he says: “Johnny Mercer’s torso is one to be shared with the nation!”

The next few weeks will be pivotal in determining exactly how much freedom the public can regain, as the results of the vaccine programme start to emerge. The key bit of data is whether the vaccine in and of itself slows transmission of the disease, or if the lockdown measures have been mostly responsible for the declining number of cases and hospitalisations.

There are two major Public Health England studies – one of care home residents called the Vivaldi study, and the other of frontline healthcare staff, the SIREN study.

Israel’s results from its mass roll out of the Pfizer vaccine have so far shown a sharp reduction in symptomatic coronavirus cases. Oxford University also has its own data on the AstraZeneca vaccine, though this needs to be peer reviewed.

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said he expected to see data that is effectively visible to the naked eye, and not on the margins.

The Covid Recovery Group (CRG) – a group of about 60 Tory backbench MPs led by former chief whip Mark Harper – believes the data justifies the end of lockdown once the nine priority groups have been vaccinated.

Although Zahawi says he respects and gets on well with many in the group, including former Brexit minister Steve Baker, he maintains it is not possible to unlock by fixed dates.

He says: “I share their emotion – we want to see our economy back open again and on its feet. We want to see our schools reopen. But the cautionary note I would strike is it has to be data driven, and I know many of them [in the CRG] are focused on data.

“The important thing is that we make decisions on the back of the data rather than a date – an arbitrary date. I think it’s important to see the impact of the vaccination programme.”

The CRG bases its views on scientific modelling that shows around 99% of people who died from Covid-19 were from the top nine priority groups.

Some of its MPs have also asked the Prime Minister to make sure pubs are reopened for outdoor service in time for Easter, on 4 April, almost a month before everyone in the first phase is due to be vaccinated.

Zahawi says: “I respect them for constantly wanting to make sure we are addressing what I think is a vital issue – the other impact of this severe lockdown, including on mental health and the economic health of the nation. So I think it’s right that colleagues challenge, that’s the healthy role of parliamentary democracy.”

But despite the expected success of the vaccine on the virus’s spread and mortality, he reminds them politely: “There is no silver bullet you can just deploy.”

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