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 www.thetimes.co.uk

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.”

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