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Covid-19: Vaccine Taskforce

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the appointment process of the chair of the United Kingdom’s Vaccine Taskforce, (2) the code of conduct setting out the framework within which this postholder works, and (3) the budget for the Vaccine Taskforce.

The UK has worked at unprecedented pace and scale to ensure public access to a safe, effective vaccine as soon as one becomes available. Kate Bingham was appointed by the Prime Minister and is subject to all the usual principles and codes of conduct for board members of public bodies. She is very well qualified for the role of chair, having worked in the biotech and life sciences sector for 30 years.

Indeed, Boris Johnson has just showered praise on Kate Bingham, but I am surprised the Minister says she had to sign a code of conduct regarding confidentiality, since she seems to have given certain things away to a private seminar, or conflict of interests, since we read in the Times that she may benefit financially from a vaccine development. She has also charged more than £500,000 for eight press officers. Who is the accounting officer who signed off this expenditure?

There are a number of questions there, but the presentation she did focused on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not have deduced for themselves. Her attendance at that conference was approved and sanctioned by officials. The presentation was put together by officials. The noble Baroness should be aware she is unpaid for her role, and the recruitment process for the consultants she referred to was contracted by the Vaccine Taskforce for a time-limited period in line with existing public sector recruitment practices and frameworks. The details of all that will be published in due course.

My Lords, where in the code that covers the appointment of the vaccine tsar it is made acceptable to brief companies that stand to profit from information before ensuring Parliament is told?

I think I just answered that point in my previous answer, but the presentation focused on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not have deduced for themselves. Her attendance at this seminar was approved by officials, and the presentation was signed off by officials.

My Lords, Kate Bingham asked for Admiral Associates to be brought in. Angus Collingwood- Cameron, the director of Admiral Associates, is also a director of Dominic Cummings’ in-laws’ country estate and runs a caviar company which he says he is

“happy to advise on indulgence.”

If this is not gross indulgence, to give a single source tender of £650,000 for PR work, when his own department has more than 100 people working in communications, what specific tasks and messaging has been provided by Admiral Associates that his own team of communication professionals does not have the skills or knowledge to deliver?

The noble Lord is making baseless accusations there. The first thing to point out is that Dominic Cummings had no role whatever in any of these procurement processes or appointments. The specialist communications support was contracted by the Vaccine Taskforce. Details of all arrangements and all firms and contract labour used by the task force will be published in due course with the usual transparency arrangements.

My Lords, the whole world is delighted with the news of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine announced yesterday. Does the Minister agree that credit needs to go to Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce for operating at such speed to procure, at scale, a range of vaccines in development around the world, including the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine? Does he also agree that business should have a prominent and critical role in rolling out and distributing the vaccines across the UK in the months to come?

I agree with the noble Lord; I think the Vaccine Taskforce has done a great job, and I think the announcement this morning is testament to that. Let me reiterate that she has taken on this role of chair in an unpaid capacity in the true spirit of public service. It has invested in something like six vaccines— 350 million doses have been secured—to try to pick one of the vaccines that will be effective. The task force is doing a great job, and we will see that in due course.

My Lords, we are not being told the full story. The bottom line is quite simple: what was the real reason Kate Bingham was picked to do this job when she clearly had a conflict of interests, as has already been stated by my noble friend Lady Armstrong? Why did she give the contract to Admiral Associates? There is something we are not being told. Are there undisclosed relationships at play here, which are subsequently going to be revealed when the Minister makes the Statement he has twice promised us during this Question Time?

She has declared all her relevant conflicts of interest in line with normal public sector appointments, and they have all been managed and agreed with officials in my department. She was not responsible for appointing Admiral PR; it was done under normal civil service procurement procedures by officials.

My Lords, the Minister has mentioned the task force several times. Who is on the task force? Why do we not know their names? Who appointed the task force? I have seen a reference to a vice-chair, but I understand that, when someone asked about this under freedom of information, all they got was a list of redacted sheets of paper. It is quite important to know who is on the task force to see their expertise, how they were appointed, why they were chosen and what interests they have. The Minister said more than once that Kate Bingham is unpaid; she can afford to be unpaid because, as he made quite clear, she is still working in the sector that she is currently governing. That is quite a serious issue. Is the Minister not somewhat uneasy that not a single Conservative Peer has come forward today to ask a question that supports the Government? I have never known such a case in my experience. He can answer what he chooses, or choose not to answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, was supportive, and he is not a Conservative Peer but an independent Cross-Bencher. The task force consists of a number of specialists in their fields from the Civil Service, the military and private sector organisations, all attempting to get the UK a vaccine that will solve the Covid problem. I would have thought the noble Lord would welcome that.