As he put it to me when I rang to wish him a happy New Year: “I don’t know how many more I’ve got, and I can’t afford to waste any more time on being shut away.”
It’s a sentiment that everybody with elderly relatives or friends will be familiar – with their frustration at being robbed of independence and enjoyment of life.
Vaccination is freeing my old pal from imprisonment by an invisible jailer, as it will other elderly people I know who are counting the days until they receive the call from their GP’s surgery to have the jab.
That will hopefully happen all the quicker with yesterday’s start on administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The importance of giving the elderly and everybody else their lives back makes it imperative that the Government spells out far more precisely when people can expect to receive the jab.
There is still too much vagueness, and optimistic dates plucked out of the air in pronouncements about mass vaccination, especially from the Prime Minister.
We’ve got tens of millions of doses coming, he says. Yes, but when? Sometimes, it’s all going to be done by Easter. At others, it’s going to be completed by the summer. Listen to some experts, and they question these estimates, suggesting that the vaccination programme may not be completed by the end of the year, given current rates of inoculations.
After the year we’ve all just gone through, Britain deserves to be given a firm timetable, so that people can start planning their lives again and the companies which employ them can plot a path to recovery from the economic battering they have taken.
That isn’t an unreasonable expectation. For the first time since the pandemic took hold, this is the one aspect of it that the Government can, and should, be managing with military precision.
The mismanagement of issues including a lack of personal protective equipment, or exposing care homes to greater risk of coronavirus than they should have been, are at least partially understandable, if not forgivable, given the unprecedented nature of the challenge.
There isn’t a government anywhere in Europe that didn’t make mistakes. Nor can the Government be blamed for failing to foresee a mutant variation in the virus that is spreading so worryingly fast and putting hospitals all over the country under such appalling pressure.
But it should have the firmest of grips on the vaccination programme to get us out of this nightmare. The problem is, it doesn’t appear to. In both his BBC interview on Sunday, and at his press conference last week, Boris Johnson was disturbingly vague about it, preferring to fall back on hopeful generalities.
Sorry, Prime Minister, but this just won’t do. Britain has grown tired of woolly assurances that a return to something like normality is just around the corner, because all have turned out to be hopelessly wide of the mark.
There was the assertion last March that mass testing would see the worst of the pandemic over in 12 weeks, and then in July the promise of “a significant return to normality” by Christmas. Then in November, it was all going to be over “by the spring”, according to Mr Johnson. He hasn’t yet been correct. Raising people’s hopes with these sorts of statements, only for them to be dashed by the collision with reality, is completely counter-productive.
It saps public morale and risks undermining mass observance of restrictions imposed in an attempt control Covid because it weakens trust in what the Government is saying.
Far better to be honest with the public and tell them exactly what to expect, so that they can manage their lives and adapt as well as possible to restrictions. Mr Johnson ought to be treating us all like adults and setting out exactly when everybody who is due to be vaccinated can expect to receive it. If that is going to take longer than anticipated because of the sheer logistical challenge of vaccinating tens of millions of people, then level with us. We need to know.
All that being vague achieves is to reinforce an image of a government that is keeping its fingers crossed and hoping for the best instead of doing what is expected of it, and taking control of events. There has been enough of that. Let’s see a plan of action and a timetable for its implementation. Throughout, the Government has over-promised on measures to control the pandemic, only then to under-deliver. This must not happen on vaccinations.
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