Kate Bingham, chair of the government’s vaccine taskforce, is facing questions over whether she will benefit from a $65m (£49m) UK taxpayer-backed investment into a fund run by her private equity firm.
Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com
Bingham, a venture capitalist married to Treasury minister Jesse Norman, has already come under fire over allegations she revealed sensitive information to a private investors’ conference and insisted on hiring costly PR advisers.
She is expected to leave her post at the end of the year, according to a government source who said her contract ran until January 2021 and she had always intended to leave at that point.
Bingham “stepped away” from her role at private equity firm SV Health Investors in May to take an unpaid post as chair of the vaccine taskforce, which aims to ensure the UK population has access to vaccines as soon as possible.
Two months later, SV Health Investors announced it had secured a $65m investment into its SV7 Impact Medicine Fund from British Patient Capital (BPC), which is entirely funded by the UK government.
Accounts filed with Companies House show SV Health Investors earned at least £1.9m in management fees linked to its operation of the Impact Medicine Fund in 2019, before the government invested earlier this year.
The accounts suggest Bingham, as one of the company’s two managing partners in the UK, receives an annual share of profits generated by SV Health Investors, suggesting she could stand to benefit personally from the performance of the fund.
Her appointment to the vaccine taskforce was cited in the press release announcing BPC’s investment.
“In May 2020, Kate Bingham, managing partner, SV Health Investors, was appointed chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce. In her work for SV, Kate’s biotech investments have resulted in the launch of six drugs for the treatment of patients with inflammatory and autoimmune disease and cancer making her uniquely qualified for the role,” the press release said.
The shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, said: “It is vital that the government immediately show how they have managed any real or perceived conflict of interest with this appointment. Especially when you consider how many nurses wages $65 million could have paid for.
“We need answers quick. Otherwise this appears to be another in a string of government appointments and contracts handed to friends without due process.”
Nick Dearden, director of campaign group Global Justice Now, said: “There’s absolutely a conflict of interest. It’s deeply inappropriate. If governments in less wealthy countries behaved like this, we’d be lecturing them on ‘good governance.’”
Asked whether the prime minister had full confidence in Bingham, a No 10 spokesman said: “Yes. The work of the vaccine task force is obviously of great importance and we have secured agreements for 350m doses overall of six leading vaccine candidates.”
Labour had asked cabinet secretary Simon Case to investigate claims that Bingham disclosed sensitive information about potential targets for the government’s vaccines push to a $200-a-head private conference.
According to a video of the event obtained by the Sunday Times, she showed financiers a detailed list of vaccines which the UK government was closely monitoring and could later invest in.
Bingham reportedly told the event: “We haven’t necessarily signed contracts with all of them so far. But they’re all in our sights.” Several of the vaccines are owned or funded by publicly traded companies.
Appearing before a joint select committee hearing last week, Bingham denied any wrongdoing and described the report as “nonsense”, “inaccurate” and “irresponsible”.
She insisted her presentation had relied “on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not deduce themselves”.
Bingham, who reports directly to the prime minister, has spent more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money on hiring PR consultants from a firm called Admiral Associates, rather than rely on civil service press officers, according to leaked documents also obtained by the Sunday Times.
The government has repeatedly been accused of cronyism in its management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dido Harding, who was appointed to run the £12bn NHS Test and Trace programme without an open appointments process, is married to Conservative MP John Penrose. Harding is not taking a salary for her role, and an advertisement for her permanent replacement is expected to be placed shortly.
The Department for Business, which oversees BPC and the vaccine taskforce, said: “Kate Bingham stepped back from her full-time role at SV Health Investors when appointed as chair of the vaccine taskforce. She declared her interest in BPC’s investment in a fund run by SV Health Investors, and appropriate mitigations are in place.” A BEIS spokesperson previously said: “As we have already made clear, Kate Bingham’s role as chair of the vaccine taskforce includes appearing at conferences, speaking to media and liaising closely with wider stakeholders.”