Bingham fires broadside at civil service ‘foot dragging’

Former Vaccine Taskforce boss bemoans lack of science skills in government and says obstacles to decision-making must be overcome
Kate Bingham, chair of the Government's Vaccine Taskforce, with a plaster on her arm after receiving a trial vaccine. Source: Alamy

By Jim Dunton

23 Nov 2021

Controversial former UK Vaccine Taskforce chair Dame Kate Bingham has accused the civil service of having a “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing” and a culture of groupthink that “stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging”.

Bingham, whose taskforce is credited with the UK’s successful early rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, said the “normal obstacles of decision-making” were firmly embedded in government and needed to be overcome as a matter of urgency to build capacity for dealing with major health threats.

In an opinion piece published in the Times today, Bingham says government lacked the very skills needed to rapidly develop a vaccine for Covid-19 when the pandemic struck early last year and that her taskforce had been created to fill the void.

At times echoing sentiments expressed by prime minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, Bingham called for a rapid influx of science skills into government and the creation of new post of “pandemic security adviser”.

“Currently there are very few with science or operating backgrounds at all levels of government,” Bingham said. She added that there are also very few ministers with a scientific background.

“This would not matter if we had senior civil servants with scientific and technical understanding needed to be operationally effective. But we don’t. Some measures are being taken to recruit more scientists as civil servants, but not nearly enough.”

Bingham said boosting government’s collective science acumen was crucial for making the right decisions about science and medicine.

The machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia,” she said.

“There is an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism, a culture of groupthink and risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging.

“Government must be braver. It needs to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset in which people are rewarded for flair and results.”

Bingham suggested her proposed pandemic security adviser could help to build and maintain a pandemic preparedness capability in the UK as part of wider efforts to “embed science into policymaking at every level of government”. She pointed to the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority as an example of successful work.

Spending call

Bingham, who is married to former financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman, has a 30-year career as a venture capitalist specialising in biotech innovation.

She said the government treated the UK’s £80bn a year life sciences industry “with suspicion and hostility”, causing companies to move to countries with more science-friendly environments.

“The government lacks the knowledge, and interest, to detect the differences between money-grabbing opportunism and valuable corporate behaviour,”  she said.

“This leads to some damaging decisions, such as the recent cancellation of its contract with the pioneering vaccine company Valneva before its Covid-19 vaccine had completed final clinical testing.

“As a result, 100 new jobs planned for Scotland are now moving to Germany and critical new UK infrastructure is at risk.”

A government spokesperson said cabinet secretary Simon Case acknowledged that the civil service had work to do in order to ensure officials have the right skill set to meet the nation’s needs in both a recent speech at Newcastle University and in June’s Declaration on Government Reform.

But they said government’s successful response to the coronavirus pandemic was evidence of the civil service’s dedication and effort.

“The Civil Service has worked hard to deliver critical services for the public throughout the pandemic. The rapid rollout of vaccines and the furlough scheme are clear examples of that,” the spokesperson said.

“As the cabinet secretary has said, it is right that we work to address any gaps we have in areas such as decision-making, data collection and policy delivery, either by equipping our own people with those skills or bringing them in from the outside.”

Bingham is due to give the 2021 Romanes Lecture at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre tonight. It is titled From wartime to peacetime: lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce.

This story was updated at 13:15 on 23 November 2021 to include a government response

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