Rob Davidson

Are the Tories dishing out "vaccines for votes?"

Tory-held constituencies have received more Covid vaccination jabs than others according to the Times this week. There are a lot of factors to unpick (such as which demographics have more 'vaccine hesitancy', or which seats have elderly or high priority residents), but the Tories have been constantly embroiled in scandal and outright 'illegality' since Johnson took the helm - and at least some of that has been linked to wooing voters. Patterns may now be emerging of another scandal.

The Times reports that "86 per cent of over-80s living in Tory-held seats have been vaccinated compared with 79 per cent living in Labour areas." They also say that there is no suggestion this is politically motivated but are they just treading softly?

Labour seats are more urban and have more ethnic diversity, and we know that vaccine uptake is lower in ethnic minorities. But, Tory-held areas have higher average age and more elderly people: to have a higher percentage of vaccine rollout in a larger proportion of your local population indicates quite a skew. Older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, but they are also more likely to vote Conservative. That's a lot of correlation - but it's not 'causation' by any means.

It's widely recognised that the NHS' vaccine rollout (powered by local GPs and local pharmacies) has given a poll boost to Johnson's struggling government. It's literally a shot in the arm for a government that has screwed up at every turn and was likely to get punished at the ballot box. The Tories have not missed this.

Tory MPs are now blatantly pushing the NHS' vaccine success as their primary platform in the May elections (both devolved and local.) On Question Time this week, the first audience member gave an emotional and personal plea for support for the hospitality sector. Grant Shapps' response was to side-step the issue and roll out the clearly pre-written line "...this phenomenal rollout of the vaccine with, uh, I think 18.7 million people having had their first vaccines by today."

Tory MPs like David TC Davies are reaching out to their mailing lists (not a common thing) to tell constituents how central government finances are responsible for any good bits of local Covid response (ignoring the Covid-driven £7.4bn local government shortfall being allowed by that same central government) and these emails include several social media-style, advert-graphics and extensive descriptions of local vaccine success.

Having publicly clapped the NHS only months ago, the Tories must now steal credit for the NHS vaccine rollout with phrases like:

"We have administered over 18.9 million vaccines..."
"We have now offered a vaccine to everyone in the top four priority groups..."
"Our vaccination programme has accelerated..."

Of course, callously stealing credit from the NHS, local GPs and local pharmacies isn't the same as funnelling vaccines to areas where you need to get more votes. But when Lib Dem MP's ask the government why local vaccination centres in their non Tory-held seats are getting less than 10% of the vaccines they have capacity for and the government's response is a defensive sounding "[vaccines are] being distributed fairly"... one wonders if there might be more to this. Especially when some vaccine centres have reportedly been given enough supply to move on to priority group 7 while others are still to get through group 6.

But perhaps most especially, we should be suspicious because it's this government:

  1. It was this government that had ministers signing off money to each others constituencies when their seats didn't fit the criteria of 'poorest and most deprived towns.' They then used this money in their election platforms with Robert Jenrick saying, for example, "I helped to secure a £25m town deal"
  2. This government is intending to fund councils directly in devolved nations, bypassing the devolved parliaments. Emphasis of the role of Westminster funding has already been used in Tory election campaigning (see David TC Davies email above) and so this new funding looks like a clear approach at electioneering with central government resources while riding roughshod over devolution.
  3. It wouldn't be the first time Johnson and Gove have been involved in an election campaign that stole credit and misused the goodwill towards the NHS - the Vote Leave campaign they spearheaded did this repeatedly.
  4. And, this is the government that recently said it wouldn't delay the May elections but did ban volunteer-led leaflet delivery: something that disproportionately impacts their political opponents.

But perhaps it's the history of illegality that really makes one question this government's willingness to go to any illiberal lengths to shore up their personal power:

  1. Robert Jenrick as Housing Secretary (involved in the cash for small towns scandal above), was found to have 'acted unlawfully' when he intervened to save a party donor £40m in tax that would have gone to help the most deprived communities (in a Labour constituency.)
  2. Boris Johnson's entire government was found to have acted unlawfully when it shut down parliament to avoid democratic scrutiny.
  3. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, was recently found to have acted unlawfully in relation to Covid PPE contracts (a majority of which went to companies with close links to government ministers)
  4. And, of course, there is the ongoing investigation into the Covid-related contracts alleged to have been handed out to Dominic Cummings' 'friends.'

With vaccine supply stuttering and vaccine rollout being uneven from the very start there is high chance that future rollout up to the May elections could continue to be uneven and correlated with political divisions. It truly may have nothing to do with electioneering, it could really be just random. But with this illiberal, self-serving, law-breaking government, I don't think we'll ever be able to rule it out for sure.

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