As the head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, the last thing I ever expected was an extraordinary ambush by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.
It happened in June 2020, quite soon after I’d pulled together an exceptional team of outside experts who would help find Covid vaccines that worked, then ensure they could be manufactured at scale and delivered into people’s arms.
The timescale was brutal: the Government was asking for effective vaccines by the end of 2020. Not surprisingly, we were all highly motivated and working 24/7.
So far so good. Then, in June 2020, Matt Hancock, a few members of the Cabinet and I attended a video meeting of a Covid committee chaired by Michael Gove. Back then, I was still new to the workings of government, having spent the past 30 years as a venture capitalist, working with companies to produce new drugs. And this was my first time before Michael Gove’s committee.
As the head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, the last thing I ever expected was an extraordinary ambush by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock
It happened in June 2020, quite soon after I’d pulled together an exceptional team of outside experts who would help find Covid vaccines that worked, then ensure they could be manufactured at scale and delivered into people’s arms
So before the meeting, I’d asked Matt Hancock for advice about the questions likely to arise, and about how I should conduct myself. The tone of our conversation was friendly.
But when it came to the committee discussion itself, the Health Secretary had traded in Dr Jekyll for Mr Hyde.
He started by suddenly saying he couldn’t understand why I thought people his age – namely mid-40s – wouldn’t want, or indeed demand, a Covid vaccine for themselves.
It was a puzzling intervention.
I reminded him that the Vaccine Taskforce wasn’t responsible for determining who’d be offered the first vaccines. That was a job for a different government body, as he well knew, since they had a statutory duty to advise the Health Secretary.
Matt Hancock hadn’t finished. In a second tirade, he said he ‘could not believe’ that I’d ordered only 30 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for delivery in September 2020.
But when it came to the committee discussion itself, the Health Secretary had traded in Dr Jekyll for Mr Hyde. He started by suddenly saying he couldn’t understand why I thought people his age – namely mid-40s – wouldn’t want, or indeed demand, a Covid vaccine for themselves
In fact, that deal had been largely agreed with Oxford and AstraZeneca in April, just before I landed at the Taskforce, so I’d inherited this contract. In any case, I knew that they were months behind schedule.
But when I observed that it would be a miracle if we received 30 million AstraZeneca doses by Christmas, Matt simply snapped. He kept being told by experts that things were impossible, he said, only to find out later that they were perfectly possible if enough effort was made.
I could barely believe my ears. The Health Secretary was openly accusing me of a lack of ambition, questioning my competence, and doing so in front of his Cabinet colleagues and key officials.
‘You can’t just tell me I’m wrong,’ said Matt. Well, it turned out that I could, and he was. The meeting didn’t end well.
Michael Gove could not have looked more embarrassed. The Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, called me immediately afterwards to apologise. Others sent messages of support.
Almost stuck to the ceiling with fury, I exchanged angry WhatsApp messages with Matt. It took all of my husband’s considerable charm and love to calm me down. Afterwards, I spoke to Ian McCubbin, the manufacturing guru in the Vaccine Taskforce team. As we both knew, vaccines have to be grown in living cells, and that takes time. Even so, I asked him if there was anything else we could do to accelerate delivery of the vaccines. Ian paused. Then he said: ‘You could try singing to the cells and ask them to grow faster.’
Matt’s confrontation with me, I realised, had been pure politics.
Back in early 2020, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, had realised the UK needed a taskforce dedicated to securing, developing and manufacturing life-saving vaccines.
Michael Gove could not have looked more embarrassed. The Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, called me immediately afterwards to apologise. Others sent messages of support
But he’d soon become convinced that it needed to be liberated from the Department of Health, which was massively overstretched on issues ranging from PPE shortages to insufficient testing.
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s controversial adviser, would later condemn Health as a ‘smoking ruin’. Although a figure prone to dramatic description, he was not necessarily mistaken in this case.
Where could the vaccines effort be embedded instead? Nothing would happen without a department to act as host.
Fate intervened. For historical reasons, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser is actually paid for by the Department for Business. The upshot was that Business, not Health, became the Taskforce’s base. That didn’t mean I had nothing to do with Matt Hancock, of course. But it seemed to me he was still aggrieved that responsibility for vaccines had been taken from him and his department and moved over to Business.
I thought that perhaps he was determined to refight that battle and, if that involved throwing rocks at me, then so be it.
He also knew that he’d always win in a verbal punch-up with the mild-mannered Alok Sharma, who was nowhere near as aggressive – and certainly insufficiently devious to take on the Health Secretary.
Would I have to endure constant sniping at my leadership of the Taskforce, even though the majority of those with whom I worked had confidence in my abilities?
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s controversial adviser, would later condemn Health as a ‘smoking ruin’. Although a figure prone to dramatic description, he was not necessarily mistaken in this case
My first instinct was to brush off Matt Hancock’s attack as political theatre. But then I reasoned that, were I to allow myself to become a punching bag, we ran a real risk that political obduracy, an army of procedural investigations and, potentially, criticism in Parliament, would undermine everything we were doing.
So I made a decision. To protect the Taskforce, we’d hire an outside expert of unimpeachable authority and expertise to review our strategy, our team and our actions.
Which is how I came to call Sir Richard Sykes – formerly chairman of GlaxoSmithKline and rector of Imperial College, London – to ask him to mark our homework.
He was known to be fiercely independent. So I knew if he didn’t think much about any aspect of our operation, then he’d say so – loudly. Conversely, a seal of approval from him would be as close as I could get to acquiring body armour.
When the Business Department found out I’d commissioned him, they were plainly appalled. Matt Hancock was incensed. The Cabinet Office had a seizure. Things were just not done in this way!
Sir Richard’s review was released in July 2020. ‘The team leading the Vaccine Taskforce is of extremely high quality and… highlights the depth of talent and expertise we have in the UK,’ it said.
‘They are in my opinion perfectly suited for the complex task ahead… If anyone can do it, they can.’
I would not be challenged by Matt Hancock – or anyone else in Government – again
I would not be challenged by Matt Hancock – or anyone else in Government – again.
IF I’D ever been asked the question ‘What is the biggest threat to the success of the Vaccine Taskforce?’ the honest answer would have been: ‘Large parts of the rest of Whitehall.’
Sometimes I would find myself in an Alice in Wonderland situation, with more than a hint of Monty Python to it.
In the summer of 2020, I attended a meeting with Boris Johnson and some Ministers in the big green Cabinet room in Downing Street.
I pointed out to them that the Taskforce urgently needed ring-fenced funds to help develop vaccines – yet our budget hadn’t yet been approved. Boris turned to Rishi Sunak, who was on video, and challenged him about what was going on. Rishi had no idea.
Vaccines had clearly not been high on the list of priorities for the Chancellor’s office.
This was my first inkling of the power of officials, who get to decide what they show to their Ministers for approval and decisions. Yet by then we’d already been forced to waste acres of valuable time in making a business case for our existence to – yes – the Treasury.
Now, I’m well acquainted with private sector business plans – I have spent my life assessing them – but it soon became clear that a Government business case was very different.
We were compelled to cram the requisite document with, for instance, the commercial and economic case for a Covid vaccine – in fact almost every case under the sun except for the one that mattered: the scientific case.
Making the scientific case for vaccines was critical. It summarised our evaluation of all available data, future development and manufacturing plans, and it anticipated risks. All, one might have thought, of some value.
There was also a slightly surreal requirement for detailed proofs of ‘value for money’… while we were in the midst of a pandemic, with thousands being hospitalised every week and the NHS under unprecedented strain.
One might have thought that the ‘value for money’ of an effective vaccine campaign was pretty obvious. Apparently not. Yet no one in Whitehall seemed willing to accept that standard calculations were not appropriate while so many people were dying from Covid.
Government press teams? I would fire half of them
When I took up my post as chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, I had no idea that working with Government communications teams would be the hardest part of my job. Yet so it proved.
I hadn’t appreciated just how unfocused the many different Government comms teams would prove to be – despite there reportedly being more than 120 people in Business Department comms alone.
On my appointment, I requested a press cuttings service so that I could be briefed on vaccine developments around the world. I was told that the Business press office could not provide this. So, instead we had to rely on a science association, with a total of two comms people, for press cuttings.
It turned out there were no fewer than seven comms teams focused on vaccines across Government. But there appeared to be no coherent communications strategy.
Only those working directly with me actually knew the up-to-date facts about vaccines and what we were doing – yet I’m not aware that any of the comms teams ever engaged with us. Goodness knows where they got their information from.
Later, when untrue allegations were made against me in the media, press officers and special advisers (spads) failed to contradict many of them. This meant that false claims were allowed to build up into a fireball. It seemed to me that the spads had done their level best to make me a target. As a non-Whitehall outsider, I was exposed, mute and dispensable.
If I had my way, I’d fire half the people dealing with public affairs communications across Government. In the Business Department alone, I cannot see what the 120 comms people achieve. I’d redeploy this talent to more productive ends. This would send a clear signal that the focus is on the delivery of outcomes, rather than spin.
At that point, no vaccine had been shown to work, let alone costed. Yet we also had to estimate how many vaccines we needed to buy, at what price per dose, how many doses and when they would be delivered, the numbers of people to be vaccinated and any additional costs.
All of which were impossible to predict in June 2020. It was like being asked to write instructions without knowing the product.
Ludicrously, we needed to predict the outcome if the UK decided not to take up vaccines but instead let the virus rip through the population. Well, lots of deaths obviously.
But how much is a life worth? The Department for Transport apparently estimates the cost of one life at £2 million. But the Health Department prices a life at much lower.
In a morbid twist, it turned out that there wasn’t a single accepted measurement across Whitehall for the benefit of not dying.
As part of this nonsensical and irrelevant work for the Treasury, we had to include a risk analysis by the Business Department – which deemed the Taskforce’s risk level of failure to be ‘very high’.
Any scientist could have told them the odds were vastly against finding an effective Covid vaccine, let alone by the end of the year. So what on earth was the purpose of the quantified risk analysis?
We soon found that Civil Service micro-management and distracting demands for data and forecasts were growing all too common. Not only were we building the plane as we were flying it, we were flying in the dark, simultaneously writing the instruction manual and fielding endless petty questions from air traffic control asking about the strength of the orange juice we were serving to passengers.
Having spent my working life in the private sector, I’d entered a world where process apparently mattered more than outcomes.
Fending all this off was a serious waste of time when we should have been concentrating on the day job of finding effective vaccines.
The Cabinet Office quickly became the bane of our existence. They demanded Excel spreadsheets with status updates twice a week, populated with data that seemed irrelevant at best.
And before our team had even decided which vaccines to prioritise, officials in the Cabinet Office kept attempting to rope us into meetings about how a vaccine roll-out might be organised.
This was by no means the worst example of sheer short-sightedness. No, the biggest waste of time and money came in the form of the National Audit Office.
Now, I completely understand the importance of scrutiny, accountability and transparency. That’s how we work in venture capital. Like any citizen, I do not want the Government spraying my taxes around willy-nilly. But this was different.
Gareth Davies, the civil servant who headed up the National Audit Office, had decided to launch an investigation into how we were performing, apparently to demonstrate that public money was being spent wisely. In a letter to me, he said he hoped that the work of his team would ‘help sharpen your thinking’ and bring my attention to ‘any risks that could significantly impact on the programme.’
Amazing. This was July. We’d launched the Taskforce in May.
The idea of doing an audit before there was anything to audit, let alone the suggestion that the Audit Office’s youthful generalists would be able to ‘sharpen our thinking’ when we were working absolutely flat out to find and develop vaccines in the face of a national emergency was – and remains – a foolish and expensive joke.
I attended a meeting with Boris Johnson and some Ministers in the big green Cabinet room in Downing Street. I pointed out to them that the Taskforce urgently needed ring-fenced funds to help develop vaccines – yet our budget hadn’t yet been approved. Boris turned to Rishi Sunak, who was on video, and challenged him about what was going on. Rishi had no idea
This absurd proposition forced me as chair to throw my toys out of the pram, otherwise the audit would have ground our team to a halt.
But the audit was postponed only until August, a point at which we hadn’t yet signed any vaccine procurement contracts.
In the event, the NAO sent a team who knew nothing about vaccines, manufacturing, clinical trials or pandemic preparedness. Meanwhile, the audit took up scarce resources and diverted our team from the real work. Afterwards, I had to wonder exactly how the Audit Office thought they might ‘sharpen our thinking’.
And that wasn’t the end of it. From August to December, the NAO sent numerous requests which took a lot of time to respond to.
Several of these demands were so ridiculous and inane that I sent a six-page letter to the Auditor General, describing what an unnecessary and wasteful exercise it had been.
My letter was virtually radioactive, listing multiple shortcomings of the audit – including a profound lack of understanding of what the Vaccine Taskforce was doing, and the extraordinary environment in which we were operating.
I did not get an adequate response, though I’m told my letter did the rounds of senior civil servants. However much they may have relished the contents, I hope they realised the seriousness of the points being made.
I have no political ambitions and my style is to be candid and straightforward. It was easy for me to call out the auditors since I wasn’t jeopardising a political or Civil Service career. But frankly I don’t know who audits the auditors. Civil servants certainly won’t rock the boat. So who will?
FOR months, various people were queueing up to conduct investigations into us. Besides the watchdogs within Whitehall, I was called as a witness to five different House of Commons select committees.
Let me stress once again that I had absolutely no issue with being held accountable in an intelligent fashion. Nor was this impossible.
By far the best inspection was done by a team from the IPA, or Infrastructure Projects Authority, the expert body that manages and audits infrastructure projects.
This inquiry was held at the end of November 2020, logical since most of the main decisions on vaccines had been made. It was a relatively short exercise.
Importantly, the individuals conducting the review clearly had expertise relevant to what we were doing – in contrast to the Audit Office, which made a host of elementary mistakes in its report.
It would be easy – but perhaps not inaccurate – for me to suggest that this was because the IPA review team were all women. In my day job, I’m fanatical about having senior women leading my companies and on boards since I find diversity helps make better decisions.
Furthermore, the objective of the review team was to look for positive aspects of what we’d done, as well as constructively looking for places where we could improve – rather than to approach us in the spirit of a professional hitman. It awarded us a clean bill of health.
IN my seven months as chair, I was disappointed by the absence in the Business Department of scientific, industrial, commercial and manufacturing skills.
And if these skills are not in the Business Department, which also funds academic research, then where are they?
Conversations with officials were frustrating. Even Sir Patrick Vallance found himself wasting a lot of time educating Whitehall on science basics. Very few permanent secretaries – the senior civil servants ultimately responsible for the commissioning of work – have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) degrees. Less than ten per cent of graduates entering the Fast Track Civil Service scheme have STEM backgrounds. Instead, Whitehall is dominated by historians and economists, few of whom have ever worked outside the official and political worlds. Politicians are no better.
In general, MPs lack relevant skills and industrial, commercial or practical non-political experience. Ministers are not appointed based on skills and expertise and are rotated on average every 18 months or so. Yet without any scientific expertise it’s difficult even to frame the right questions when considering policy options.
There were, of course, exceptions. Nadhim Zahawi had a genuine interest in science and business. He’d trained as an engineer and had a strong understanding of the operational and commercial aspects of what we were doing.
The consequence of being surrounded by humanities and economics graduates meant there were few people in Government with the experience to challenge our work, other than to object to the process we followed. Civil servants, I discovered, lack interest in finding innovative solutions to complex challenges. Instead, they’re rewarded for adhering to the correct procedures. I saw an almost obsessive desire to follow the proper process and, in particular, to avoid any suggestion of error or possible criticism.
Yet there’s no doubt that their hesitancy over risk held back the pace of what the Vaccine Taskforce was trying to do.
Far better, from the Civil Service viewpoint, to do that rather than risk career suicide by pushing ahead with an even vaguely controversial task.
© Kate Bingham and Tim Hames, 2022
- The Long Shot, by Kate Bingham and Tim Hames, is published by Oneworld on October 20 at £18.99. To pre-order a copy for £17.09, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before October 22. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.