Vaccine tsar Kate Bingham runs up £670,000 PR bill

“It is unclear how Boris Johnson came to appoint Kate Bingham to chair Britain’s vaccine taskforce, because there was no formal process. The 55-year-old venture capitalist’s establishment connections are unlikely to have hurt, however.

Her father, Lord Bingham, who served as lord chief justice, was hailed as the greatest English judge since the Second World War. Her husband, Jesse Norman, is a Conservative minister who went to Eton at the same time as Boris Johnson.

Bingham went to school with Johnson’s sister, Rachel, and studied at Oxford at the same time as the prime minister.”

All clear?-Owl

Gabriel Pogrund, Whitehall Correspondent

The head of the government’s vaccine taskforce has charged the taxpayer £670,000 for a team of boutique relations consultants.

Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist married to Jesse Norman, a Conservative minister, was appointed to the role by Boris Johnson.

Since June she has used eight full-time consultants from Admiral Associates, a London PR agency, to oversee her media strategy.

According to leaked documents, she has already spent £500,000 on the team, which is contracted until the end of the year. It means each consultant is on the equivalent of £167,000 a year — more than the prime minister’s salary.

Bingham, 55, is said to have “insisted” on hiring them despite concerns they would duplicate the work of about 100 communications staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in which her taskforce sits.

The decision was signed off by civil servants, not Alok Sharma, the business secretary.

It has also emerged that Bingham will address a virtual conference of “executives, bankers [and] venture capitalists” held by a California biotech company next year, with tickets priced at $2,460 (£1,870).

A brochure refers to Bingham in her government role and not as managing director of SV Health Investors, a venture capital firm.

It says she will discuss her efforts to “find and manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine”. The disclosures will add to pressure for Bingham to resign.

Last night BEIS declined to give detail of the consultants’ work. They are understood to help Bingham prepare for media appearances, draft statements and to oversee a vaccines podcast on Spotify.

One Whitehall source said: “I don’t know what they do.” Another said: “They’re bossing around civil servants but no one knows who they are, what their experience is or what authority they have.”

A third Whitehall source said the team of consultants helped Bingham with day-to-day “comms works”, such as appearing in interviews and preparing press statements, and had set up a podcast co-presented by Bingham called Covid-19: The Search for a Vaccine.

Yet despite average earnings equivalent to £167,000 a year the consultants have not helped Bingham answer a number of questions stemming from last week’s revelations.

On Wednesday, Bingham told a joint select committee that our report last week was “nonsense”, “inaccurate” and “irresponsible”. Asked if she had disclosed information not in the public domain to the financiers, she told MPs: “No.”

We then sent BEIS a list of statements made by Bingham during the talk, asking for evidence that the information was already public. None was supplied.

It is unclear how Boris Johnson came to appoint Kate Bingham to chair Britain’s vaccine taskforce, because there was no formal process. The 55-year-old venture capitalist’s establishment connections are unlikely to have hurt, however.

Her father, Lord Bingham, who served as lord chief justice, was hailed as the greatest English judge since the Second World War. Her husband, Jesse Norman, is a Conservative minister who went to Eton at the same time as Boris Johnson.

Bingham went to school with Johnson’s sister, Rachel, and studied at Oxford at the same time as the prime minister.

In May, Johnson called Bingham and asked her to take the role, prompting her to say: “I’m not a vaccine expert, why should I be the right person?” Johnson reassured her the skills she had gained working in private equity would help.

On saying yes, Bingham became a more influential public servant than most ministers. She is responsible for investing billions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds in Covid-19 vaccines that could offer a route out of repeated lockdowns as soon as next spring.

The questions about her suitability do not concern her record on delivering vaccines — though last week she was forced to admit Britain will have just four million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine by the end of the year, not the 30 million promised by September — but her wider conduct.

Like others parachuted into Whitehall during the pandemic, Bingham has spent her career in the private sector. But she has chosen not to step down from her role as managing director of SV Health Investors, a private equity firm operating in Boston, Massachusetts, and London.

According to Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, such situations create a conflict of interest: “Whose interests does she serve?”

Is it possible to separate her public and private responsibilities?

Last week Bingham offered an answer to that question, when she appeared before MPs after we reported she had shared “official sensitive” information about Britain’s vaccine efforts at the $200-a-head event for US venture capitalists.

During an hour-long talk to the financiers, she had given some of the most detailed insight to date about the UK’s immunisation programme, including confidential data about the government’s investment priorities.

She then used an appearance at the science and health joint select committee on Wednesday to attack our reporting.

Asked whether she had disclosed anything that was not in the public domain, she said: “No. And there have been a lot of nonsense reports, and inaccurate, and I’m afraid to say irresponsible, reports suggesting that I did,” she told Greg Clark, the Tunbridge Wells MP. Her account is understood to have been met with scepticism in Downing Street.

Today, new evidence makes the questions more urgent still. In February, Bingham is due to appear at another elite function: a conference hosted by Biocom, a Californian biotech firm, charging $2,460 (£1,870) a ticket to bring together “executives, bankers [and] venture capitalists”. It promises networking that will “be fruitful for your business ventures this year and for many years to come”.

In brochures, Bingham is advertised solely as head of the UK vaccine taskforce and the literature says she will discuss her work “to find and manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine”.

During her talk to venture capitalists last month, Bingham showed guests a confidential list of 51 vaccines in development. Of these, Bingham told guests, officials had marked 14 as priority one, meaning they expect to place orders worth hundreds of millions of pounds. “We haven’t necessarily signed contracts with all of them so far, but they’re all in our sights,” she said, pointing to a slide in which the relevant treatments were split into blue, representing priority one, or purple, priority two.

For those present this was sensitive information they could use to make investments of their own. Bingham even showed the estimated price of vaccines per dose, based on an analysis prepared by Rx Securities, an investment bank.

She went on to predict that everyone over 50 will have a vaccine available to them by Easter, but produced documents showing that government scientists believe up to 40% of people may reject it.

Parliament, and the general public, would usually expect to be briefed by the vaccines chief before a paying American audience. The business department that hosts Bingham’s team did not quite back her assertion that nothing new appeared in her talk, simply saying there was “little that expert delegates at the conference could not deduce themselves”.

There is also confusion about whether Bingham received approval to give the talk. BEIS said “the fact of her appearance and the content of her presentation received approval”, but officials have since cast doubt on that narrative.

On Thursday we provided Bingham and the department with a list of statements she had made during the talk, which, we contended, had not appeared in public.

The department was invited to provide evidence that such information was already public and, failing that, to retract the claim. It did neither.

A BEIS spokesman said: “As we have already made clear, Kate Bingham’s role as chair of the vaccines taskforce includes appearing at conferences, speaking to media and liaising closely with wider stakeholders.”

The department did not provide details of the process by which she received approval for the talk, or say whether her next appearance at the California conference was appropriate.

Biocom did, though, edit its online description of her upcoming talk to say she would discuss only the “public effort” driving the vaccine programme.

The revelations come amid questions about the role of the private sector in the government’s pandemic response.

Lord Agnew of the Cabinet Office is working to create an in-house consultancy — dubbed “Crown Consultancy” — to cut the government’s dependence on high-charging private sector firms.

Critics of the government have focused on what looks to them like a network of personal appointments. Baroness Harding, the head of the NHS test-and-trace service, is married to John Penrose, another Conservative MP, and landed the role after presiding over a cyber-security scandal at TalkTalk.

Others have focused on value for money as well as transparency: Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, was recently forced to defend leaked documents showing test-and-trace was spending £7,000 a day on consultants.

Research by Tussell, the data provider, shows that the government takes an average of 2½ months to publish Covid-related contracts, exceeding the legal limit of 30 days.

Bingham encompasses all these concerns, but initially attracted only passing interest. That may be due to the ambiguity of her role: she officially reports directly to the prime minister, but sits in BEIS. She is thought to interact with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, as well as Alok Sharma, the business secretary, but is supervised by neither on a daily basis.

Even the membership of the vaccines taskforce is unknown. When a member of the public sought to find out recently, using powers under the Freedom of Information Act, they received three pages of redacted names. An official said: “Please note that some information has been redacted under section 40 [personal information] of the act.”

Some sources are trying to illuminate Whitehall’s dark corridors. One said: “There’s so much money sloshing around, but people just don’t know what’s happening over here.”

Asked to describe the role of the PR consultants, BEIS would not comment.

Last night, Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “At a time of national crisis, people don’t want to see huge sums of taxpayers’ money needlessly sprayed on spin doctors or management consultants.

“There needs to be a breakdown of this expenditure and proper justification as to how it actually helps the national effort in tackling this pandemic.”

Marcus Rashford forces Boris Johnson into second U-turn on child food poverty

The PM called the footballer on Saturday night to confirm latest about-face for the government

Haroon Siddique 

On the day his political soulmate was being urged to belatedly show some humility after defeat in the US election, Boris Johnson once again bowed to the better judgment of a 23-year-old footballer, in the latest of a series of high-profile U-turns.

After weeks of digging in his heels and refusing to cede to calls to extend free school meals to children from low-income families during school holidays in England, Johnson phoned the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford on Saturday night to inform him of his change of heart.

The package includes a £170m Covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in England and an extension of the holiday activities and food programme to the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks next year.

The reversal came after a crescendo of criticism, led by Rashford, but also from charities, the opposition, media on both sides of the political divide and even some Conservative MPs, who realised how out of tune their party was with the public mood.

It was the second time the Manchester United star had forced the government to change course this year. On the previous occasion, which last month earned Rashford an MBE, No 10 had initially rejected his plea for it to keep paying for £15-a-week food vouchers for some of England’s poorest families over the summer, only to cave in amid a public outcry.

Just under five months later, the Old Etonian prime minister picked up the phone and again called Rashford, who has spoken of his experience of food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe, breaking the news in what the striker described as a “good conversation”.

Showing diplomatic skills to match his footballing prowess, Rashford said: “There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough. But the intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive, and they should be recognised for that.”

Among those who hailed Rashford’s role were Save the Children UK, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the archbishop of Canterbury. The tennis coach, Judy Murray simply tweeted: “Rashford 2 Johnston [sic] 0.”

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said: “I welcome these steps towards providing more free meals and healthy diets for children who need them and holiday activities. Families are facing hard times financially and this will help.”

Longfield had previously likened the debate over the issue to something out of the pages of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century novel Oliver Twist. Tory MPs had suggested that extending free school meals would increase dependency or destroy the currency because of the cost.

One Conservative MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, called for “less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty”. After the Conservatives’ defeat of a Labour motion to extend free school meals prompted councils, local businesses, charities and community groups to step in to fill the void over half-term, opposition and accusations of virtue-signalling appeared ever further removed from reality. Nevertheless, Downing Street repeatedly declined to praise the organisations, saying only that it did not believe free school meals were necessary outside term.

In a year that has also seen U-turns on the second national lockdown, extending the furlough scheme and A-level and GCSE results, Rashford’s warning that “there is still so much more to do” may be liable to bring Johnson out in a cold sweat.

Of the three demands in Rashford’s petition to end child food poverty, which has attracted more than 1m signatures, the one that remains unfulfilled is: “Expand free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit or equivalent benefit.” The government is also poised for a battle over the £20-a-week pandemic supplement to universal credit, which is due to end in April.

Longfield and the Trussell Trust were among those who tempered their appreciation for the latest policy about-face by calling for the £20 universal credit increase to be retained. Becca Lyon, head of child poverty at Save the Children UK, said: “Families need to know that they’re not going to be £1,000 down next year, when the increase ends in April.”

Nightingale hospitals grounded by staff shortage

Each patient so far admitted to the Nightingale hospitals has cost £1m to treat, an analysis reveals.

Caroline Wheeler and Tom Calver

Seven Nightingale hospitals were built, at a total cost of £220m, to ease pressure on the health service during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, but some may never fully open because of a staff shortage. The aim was to provide critical care in the event that NHS hospitals became overwhelmed.

Only two, in London and Manchester, looked after anyone, caring for about 200 patients in total during the first wave.

Despite England being plunged into a second national lockdown amid fears the NHS was reaching breaking point, only the Nightingale in Manchester is currently taking patients. Harrogate’s and Exeter’s are reportedly being used for non-Covid diagnostic care, such as cancer screening.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said there are “not the hundreds or thousands of NHS staff waiting to be deployed into those hospitals”.

He added: “In effect, you would have to take them from existing hospitals. Clearly what you want to do is to carry on treating patients in existing hospitals for as long as you possibly can until all of the existing capacity is used and then you flip to your insurance policy of using the Nightingales.

“But as soon as you start doing that, you will start drawing staff from existing hospitals, so the patient-to-members-of-staff ratio will start dropping, which will mean more pressure on quality of care.”

He claims the makeshift hospitals were only supposed to be deployed as a “last resort insurance policy” if the capacity in existing hospitals was reached.

However, Hopson said that the NHS Nightingale hospitals, inspired by the example of Italy’s Covid response, remain on standby to be used for when the last bit of capacity in the health service has been squeezed, adding: “The idea that you don’t need a lockdown because you are not using your Nightingale capacity is not true.”

The revelation comes just days after Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, revealed that about 30,000 NHS staff are self-isolating or off work because of the coronavirus. The NHS employs 1.3m people in England.

Last week a senior intensive care specialist warned that reopening Nightingale field hospitals during the second peak of the coronavirus risks poaching staff from already overburdened hospitals.

Speaking at a Royal Society of Medicine webinar on Thursday, Dr Gary Masterson, a consultant at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said Nightingale hospitals had been a good idea in principle, but added: “I think perhaps the thinking was done before we had any understanding of this disease process.”

He said they were likely to be of little value because it is already hard to find the numbers of multi-disciplinary staff needed for our standard hospitals.

“There was an impression that if you stick a ventilator by a bed you get an intensive care bed space — that’s simply not true,” Masterson said.

“Once you ventilate a patient, these patients are often very, very sick and require advanced therapies.

“We are struggling to staff our normal NHS hospitals with self-isolation, with staff sickness and so forth — how are we going to staff Nightingale hospitals? I really don’t understand that.”

The Birmingham Nightingale, based at the National Exhibition Centre, cost £66.4m and was the most expensive to set up. Despite a capacity of 4,000 beds, it has yet to treat a single patient.

The cost of the Exeter Nightingale, at £23m, included £113,000 in management consultant fees. It opened on July 3 — well after the worst of the first wave — and never admitted a single Covid patient. Along with Harrogate, it has been used for CT scans since the summer.

Manchester Nightingale is finally being used for patients, but not Covid ones. It reopened at the end of last month, but if trusts want to use the £23.4m facility they have to supply their own nurses.

In the first wave the hospital cared for just over 100 patients in total. However, it is not an intensive care hospital, instead it is used for those who “no longer need to be in a critical care environment”.

ExCeL London and the NEC, which had already been earmarked to be decommissioned as hospitals, were set to reopen for events from October 1 until the government delayed the restart date.

Between them the seven Nightingales had a maximum stated capacity of 10,126 beds, around half of which were intensive care. However, because patient numbers were so small or non-existent, the actual number of beds was just 1,700.

Yesterday, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned that nursing shortages across the NHS could lead to staff burnout and risk patient safety this winter.

The nursing union said that a combination of staff absence due to the pandemic, and around 40,000 registered nursing vacancies in England, was putting too much strain on the remaining workforce.

Mike Adams, RCN’s England director, said: “The NHS is now at its highest level of preparedness as it faces the prospect of an extremely challenging winter.

“We already know that frontline nurses — in hospitals, communities and care homes — are under huge strain.

“Anecdotally we’re hearing that in some hospitals they [nurses] are becoming increasingly thinly spread on the ground, as staff become unwell or have to isolate, at the same time as demand on services continues to increase.”

Second wave past its peak?

Owl has always regarded the Covid-19 symptom tracker app as being the best tool available to give early indications of change in the pandemic. Over 3 million individuals across the country are sampled on a daily basis and in a consistent way. The only caveat is that these individuals are self-selecting.

The current chart of the evolution of infections on a daily basis is very interesting. It shows that the infection rate began to reduce around 31 October. The infection then appears to have peaked around 4 or 5 November and is now falling. 

With an incubation period of up to two weeks (though there is now some suggestion that it might be only one) there will always be a lag of at least this time between imposing any lockdown control and observing any effect. For the government, there are then additional delays before the testing regime produces results, especially at week-ends.

The changes in the chart, therefore, relate to what has been happening as a result of the imposition of the tier system, before lockdown 2. We can reasonably assume that lockdown 2 will have an additional effect to that of the tier system. We will have to wait to see just how large an effect that is.

Meanwhile the omens are encouraging.