The team responsible for driving efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine across government has agreed to pay £670,000 for a group of PR consultants, it has emerged.
Kate Bingham, chair of the UK vaccines task force, “insisted” on hiring external help for the task force, despite concerns that they duplicate the work of other officials, according to the Sunday Times. Bingham is not a civil servant and reports directly to the prime minister in the role, and a freedom of information request by the paper revealed the task force was made up of both civil servants and non-government officials.
The consultants are from London-based Admiral Associates, which describes itself as “the world’s local PR agency”, and are being paid the equivalent of £165,000 a year apiece.
An anonymous source told the Sunday Times that officials were concerned the consultants played a role already filled by press officers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – the task force’s parent ministry. The source added: "I don't know what they do."
The consultants are understood to perform daily communications functions, as well as producing a podcast about the search for a Covid-19 vaccine.
The revelation comes amid an overhaul of the government communications function, which is being driven by No.10.
Under the plans, confirmed by the prime minister’s spokesperson in July, departments’ comms teams will be cut down to a maximum of 30 staff each and managed by the Cabinet Office under a new “single employer model”.
The spokesperson said the reforms were “about making government communication more efficient and effective”.
The report is the latest in a series of revelations about Bingham – who is married to Treasury financial secretary Jesse Norman – that have attracted attention.
The Times revealed on Saturday that Bingham had failed to publicly declare that SV Health Investors, for which she is a managing partner, manages investments in two companies that are working to develop coronavirus drugs, Adimab and Alchemab.
BEIS has said Bingham has “stepped back” from her job as SV Health Investors to take on her unpaid role as the vaccine task force chair.
However, Bingham was quoted in a press release in July – two months after taking up her public-sector role – saying that it was the “perfect time” for SV Health Investors to launch a private fund, which invests in one of the drug companies, Alchemab.
A BEIS spokesperson said the company does not invest in the arm of Adimab that is working on antibody cocktails for coronavirus. It also said she resigned from Alchemab and “stepped away from her role at SV Health Investors” before becoming task force chair.
“She therefore no longer has knowledge of or influence on the operations of Alchemab or Adimab,” they said.
The reports come a week after the Sunday Times revealed Bingham had given out a list at a conference of vaccines and companies the government was monitoring and considering investing in at a $200-a-head event in October.
The paper reported that Bingham had shared “official sensitive” documents in a presentation to the conference for women in private equity.
BEIS has since said it signed off on Bingham’s presentation, which revealed the names of some drugs being considered by government that had not previously been made public.
Appearing before the Science and Technology Committee of MPs last week, Bingham said the story about her webinar appearance was "nonsense" and "irresponsible". She also denied giving out information that was not previously in the public domain.
“All communications that I do on behalf of the vaccine taskforce I seek approval for, both to do the event itself and on the materials that are shared at whatever the event is,” she said.
Bingham is also to give a presentation on the task force’s efforts to “find and manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine” at a $2,460-a-head digital conference hosted by a California-based biotechnology company next year.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “As we have already made clear, Kate Bingham’s role as chair of the vaccines taskforce includes appearing at conferences, speaking to media and liaising closely with wider stakeholders.”