The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has dismissed calls for the head of the head of the UK’s vaccine task force to resign, saying civil servants signed off on a presentation she gave that included details of companies the government could invest in.
Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist, was appointed to lead the task force when it was set up to drive the rapid development and production of a coronavirus vaccine in April.
But she is now facing calls to resign, after it was reported she showed confidential documents about the companies the government is investing in to attendees at a business conference in the US.
The Sunday Times reported yesterday that Bingham had shared “official sensitive” documents in a presentation to a $200-a-head conference for women in private equity.
She showed attendees a list of vaccines that the government is monitoring and could invest in, adding: “We haven’t necessarily signed contracts with all of them so far. But they’re all in our sights.”
She also noted the government’s “continued concern” over whether any coronavirus vaccine would work, and shared documents predicting that as many as 40% of adults may never take a vaccine.
It is “understood that ministers did not sign off her appearance”, the newspaper said.
But in a public statement addressing the “allegations and insinuations about Kate Bingham and her role” in the article, BEIS said Bingham had acted appropriately.
“The fact of her appearance and the content of her presentation received approval from officials at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy in line with the process governing such engagements,” the statement said.
“Kate Bingham focused on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not deduce themselves.”
While the government had previously said it was working with or monitoring the work of some of the companies mentioned in the presentation, others had not been previously disclosed.
BEIS also said the article contained unspecified “inaccuracies”, which were “being addressed with The Sunday Times”.
But shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: “There are serious questions as to why this information was shared at an international conference where attendees paid for access. This information should be shared with the public.”
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said the reports were "deeply concerning, not only because trust in a government official is in jeopardy but because the law could have been broken".
Reeves said she would write to cabinet secretary Simon Case calling for a "swift investigation", adding that there were "serious questions" to be answered about Bingham's links to the Conservative Party.
Sir Alistair Graham, a former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Bingham’s presentation was “seriously ill-advised", adding: “It must raise a question as to whether she is a suitable person to be chairing a taskforce like that.”
And he told the The Sunday Times her appointment was one of several examples of “pretty shocking” recruitment practices in government. “Members of the Conservative government are looking after their friends by putting them in big appointments without any due process,” he said.
Bingham’s appointment has drawn criticism because she has no vaccines experience and is married to a Conservative MP. The Sunday Times noted that Bingham’s husband, financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman, attended Eton at the same time as the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who appointed her.
She has also retained her role as managing partner of the Massachusetts-based private equity company SV Health Investors, which reportedly has $2bn in investments in biotech or medical ventures.
But the BEIS statement defended the appointment, saying Bingham – who is not a civil servant and is therefore not subject to the same public-appointments rules – had “stepped back” from that job to take on the unpaid role as chair of the task force.
And it said she was “uniquely qualified for the role of chair, having worked in the biotech and life sciences sectors for 30 years”. It also cited her first-class degree in biochemistry from the University of Oxford, an MBA from Harvard Business School and her board membership of the Francis Crick Institute, a highly-respected biomedical research centre.
Bingham’s presentation took place at a “premier webinar and networking event” on 21 October, hosted by the Massachusetts-based events company Falk Marques Group. She spoke at a webinar entitled “Inside the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine”.
An on-demand recording of the webinar is available for $199.