The speed of the UK’s vaccine roll-out contrasts starkly with the slow and hesitant roll-outs in New Zealand and Australia. Do our high-trust strategies signal a long wait until we’re open for business? 

With the arrival of effective vaccines against Covid-19 we can ask a Churchillian question. Do the vaccines signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic or merely the end of the beginning?

In Aotearoa we give much of the credit to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her close working relationship with Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Many Kiwis see a link between her distinctive brand of progressive politics and successes against Covid. In earlier pieces I’ve awarded some of the credit to Māori ideas about what we owe to each other.

But then there’s an awkward question. Australia seems to have done about as well against the virus as we did. There’s unlikely to be much Māori thinking in Scott Morrison’s Liberal government. His political rhetoric is much more socially conservative than progressive.

I think the ANZAC successes track back to something Ardern and Morrison share through their political disagreements.

Polling during the pandemic revealed that, against a backdrop of a global distrust of politicians, the pandemic had led to a surge in trust in their leaders among both New Zealanders and Australians. Trust is a two-way street. The key to ANZAC success against Covid may trace more to trust in Kiwis and Australians displayed by their governments. Both peoples were trusted to implement and sustain the tough measures – lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing – required to eradicate the virus.

The winners on the pandemic swings seem to be losers on the vaccination roundabouts.

There’s a contrast here with the lack of confidence by British leaders in Britons revealed in the recent book Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by Sunday Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson long resisted calls to send his nation into lockdown. The consequence for Britain was Europe’s highest death toll. Why the delay? The operative word appears to be been “fatigue”. Not the fatigue that is a common symptom of infection with the coronavirus. Rather it was a “behavioural fatigue” thought to affect entire nations, making them unable to sustain tough measures against the virus.

Johnson believed Britons would quickly become fatigued if sent into lockdown prematurely. According to Calvert and Arbuthnott, he resisted lockdowns when reported infections were low, hoping to save these enervating measures for times when the nation’s viral load was higher. Well over 100,000 deaths later it’s clear this was a tragic misjudgment of SARS-CoV-2. Calvert and Arbuthnott speculate about where this idea that entire populations could suffer behavioural fatigue came from. It seems to have influenced Johnson’s thinking while being entirely unsupported by evidence.

Lockdowns aren’t fun. But Aucklanders and Melbournians did not suffer behavioural fatigue sufficient to derail their lockdowns. There is no reason to believe that Britons are different in their motivational fundamentals from Aucklanders and Victorians. Johnson could presumably have trusted them to sustain long lockdowns and saved many thousands of lives if he’d acted when Britain’s pandemic was young.

Vaccines are bringing new challenges to the Antipodes.

In a review of Failures of State, Alan Johnson, former British secretary of health under Tony Blair, observes that Johnson’s misjudgments may not damage him politically. Covid vaccines may have given Johnson a “metaphorical as well as an actual shot in the arm”. Britain seems to have done an efficient job of vaccinating its people. The speed of the vaccine roll-out contrasts starkly with the slow and hesitant roll-outs in our part of the world. The winners on the pandemic swings seem to be losers on the vaccination roundabouts.

There’s a reason for this. Britain’s disastrous response to the pandemic likely explains its speedy vaccination of its citizens. A reported 0.00017 percent risk of blood clots from the AstraZenica vaccine won’t deflect many Britons acutely aware of the risk of death or serious disability from SARS-CoV-2. They’ve seen what the virus has done to their neighbours. But 0.00017% looks different to ANZACs who feel like they already dodged the Covid bullet. Politicians should prepare for awkward news stories about healthy people who die of blood clots linked to vaccines. The fact that their numbers are small compared with the number who would have died had Ardern approached the pandemic as Johnson did won’t prevent gut-wrenching and politically-damaging stories about people killed by their jabs. Kiwi leaders won’t be able to credibly respond that vaccination protected them from a higher risk of death from the virus – we’ve done such a good job of keeping it out without the need for injections.

A vaccinated Britain may be open for business much sooner than New Zealand or Australia. The challenge for both Ardern and Morrison is how to turn the high levels of trust in them into a response that will open their countries for business sooner rather than later.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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