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Matt Hancock says ‘massive thank you’ to UK vaccine taskforce head – despite ‘£670,000 bill for PR consultants’

Health secretary adds he ‘didn’t know’ about public relations contract

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 10 November 2020 12:38 GMT
Matt Hancock says massive thank you to UK vaccine taskforce head despite bill for PR consultants

Matt Hancock has insisted the country should say a “massive thank you” to the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce – despite reports Kate Bingham hired eight public relations consultants at a cost to the taxpayer of £670,000.

Defending Ms Bingham, who is expected to leave her role at the end of 2020, the health secretary said the “service she has given this country” means it is one of the best placed around the world for access to vaccines.

The cabinet minister’s comments come after The Sunday Times reported the vaccine tzar “insisted” on hiring PR consultants to oversee her media strategy since June – costing hundreds of thousands in public money.

On Monday, No 10 insisted Boris Johnson had full confidence in Ms Bingham, a venture capitalist whois married to Conservative minister Jesse Norman, but Sir Keir Starmer said the taxpayer bill for consultants “can’t be justified”.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson told reporters the decision to hire PR advisers was signed off by officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – despite the Whitehall department having existing communications staff.

“Specialist communications support was contracted by the vaccine Taskforce for a time-limited period in line with existing public sector recruitment practices and frameworks,” they added.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he was “comfortable” with public money being used to hire eight full-time consultants, Mr Hancock said: “Well that was signed off by an official in the business department.

“Of course. What I’d say the vaccine taskforce has procured for this country, for the whole UK, 340 million doses of six different leading vaccines, including spotting this one, the Pfizer one, which has become the frontrunner, alongside the AstraZeneca one. We’ve needed throughout this pandemic enormous talent from outside.”

Quizzed again on whether Ms Bingham needed a separate media strategy, he replied: “Obviously I didn’t know about that contract.

“Frankly, what matters is the substance of what the vaccine taskforce has done and I would go out of my way to thank Kate Bingham for the service she has given this country and the whole of the vaccines Taskforce because it means we are one of the best placed countries around the world for access to vaccines. “

The health secretary added: “I’m comfortable with the fact we’ve secured this unbelievable array of vaccines and we are delivering it as fast as we possibly can.

“Let’s look at the substance of what a group of people have achieved and when they’ve given up six months of their life to come into government, and do something, bringing enormous commercial capability, which the government needs and for years people have said the government needs more commercial capability, we should say a massive thank you to the people who are prepared to step up in this national effort.”

In a separate interview with Times Radio, Mr Hancock also insisted no-one had asked Ms Bingham to stand down from her duties because of the reports, insisting: “It was always a six month job and she was always clear that she couldn’t do it for longer than that.”

“He talks about this spending, what I would say to him is that the senior responsible officer in line with his delegated authority approved this resourcing in accordance with public sector practices and frameworks."

At the time of her appointment, the government claimed Ms Bingham was "uniquely qualified for the role having worked in the biotech sector in the UK and internationally for 26 years".

Last week she told MPs that it was likely that nationwide deployment of a vaccine could begin in December and that she was more than 50 per cent confident that all vulnerable people will have been vaccinated against coronavirus by Easter or early summer.

Darren Jones, a Labour MP who chairs Westminster’s Business Select Committee, also raised the issue over taxpayers’ money being used on PR consultants in the Commons on Tuesday, as he called for Ms Bingham to be sacked from her role.

“If she's not sacked, who will be held to account for this gross conflict of interest and misuse of public funds? Will it be (Mr Sharma) or the prime minister?"

However, Alok Sharma, the business secretary, reiterated Mr Hancock’s previous praise of the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, adding: “I would just point out that the vaccines taskforce, which does of course sit in my department and is led by Kate Bingham, has done an absolutely brilliant job over the last few months. We have managed to secure 350 million doses across six of the most promising vaccine candidates.

“He talks about this spending, what I would say to him is that the senior responsible officer in line with his delegated authority approved this resourcing in accordance with public sector practices and frameworks."

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