Comment by Chris Jarvis, Green Party councillor, Oxford City Council
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve learnt a number of incredibly important lessons on public health. We’ve learnt the UK government was woefully and unnecessarily unprepared to handle a pandemic of this kind. We’ve learnt that public investment and a publicly owned health service have delivered the protection and public health response we needed. And finally, that privatisation is a word synonymous with disaster.
The Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) should – in its very design – recognise these lessons. The VMIC is based in Oxfordshire and was launched in 2018 with more than £200m of public funding. It is the UK’s first strategic vaccine development and advanced manufacturing facility and it is set to become fully operational in 2022.
Given its role in innovation, development and manufacturing of vaccines, the VMIC has the potential to be central to preparing the country for future pandemics. Presently, it exists as a not for profit company in which a consortium of public universities – University of Oxford, Imperial College and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – are shareholders.
Sadly, the aforementioned lessons appear not to have been learnt after all. The VMIC is now understood to be up for sale, with just one company in discussions with the VMIC board. According to the BBC, this sale is being supported by the government.
Selling off the VMIC in this way will mean that a vital strategic asset designed for the protection of public health in the UK and across the world will be handed over to a for-profit private company. The result of this will be the same as each and every prior privatisation of healthcare infrastructure we’ve seen in recent decades – the bottom line of private companies put above public health, drives for innovation will be replaced with drives for profits, and we will see a significant reduction in our preparedness for future pandemics.
All of this has happened largely outside of the public gaze. Indeed, mainstream media coverage of this major transfer of assets and infrastructure that are integral to the UK’s public health strategy has been limited – as has the response from political figures.
This week, however, has seen a small – but not insignificant – shift in this regard. On March 21, Oxford City Council unanimously passed a motion opposing the privatisation of the VMIC, following a local public campaign from anti-privatisation groups including We Own It, Keep Our NHS Public and the Socialist Health Association. This will see the City Council use its – admittedly limited – institutional leverage to pressure the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng and the consortium of universities to stop the sale.
Time is running short if this reckless privatisation is to be stopped, however. Reports suggest the sale could be wrapped up this month. So while public pressure is beginning to grow, it needs to accelerate, and fast. One small step people can take right now is to sign We Own It’s petition opposing the privatisation.
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