The government has failed to learn that it needs to recruit people with scientific and commercial expertise, Kate Bingham has warned.
The ex-Vaccine Taskforce head also said she would not return to her former role if offered it in the future as the government “shouldn’t be scrambling for people on the outside to come in and help”.
Dame Bingham said the recruitment gap, plus a failure to build up antibody manufacturing capacity, showed the government had not learned important lessons from the coronavirus pandemic
She pointed to a recent job advert for director of the Covid-19 vaccine unit, which will be part of the UK Health Security Agency from October, as an example of the government’s recruitment failures.
The advert, which ran from 17 June to 15 July, failed to mention industry experience, science background or experience in drug discovery, development, manufacture or regulation, Bingham told the Guardian.
“It just talks about sort of ability to manage. So I think that tells me that the civil service is going back to plan A, which is they control everything again,” said Bingham.
“[That is] why the vaccine taskforce was created in the first place, because they didn’t have those skills.”
However, the UKHSA said the role had a full candidate pack outlining a range of experience needed, including working closely with scientists and industry to shape the UK's strategy for vaccine supply, using scientific input and commercial expertise.
"We undertook a fair and open recruitment process for the new director, which was open to a diverse range of applicants and designed to attract candidates with a wide range of experience and skills to secure the best possible person for the role," a UKHSA spokesperson said.
Bingham was appointed chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce in May 2020, leading a team which co-ordinated the procurement, development and rollout of vaccines to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.
Explaining why she would not go back to her former role, she said: “They should have recruited somebody in-house to deal with it.”
This is not the first time Bingham, who returned to biotech and healthcare venture capital firm SV Health Investors after she left the taskforce in December 2020, has bemoaned the lack of science skills in government.
She said in November that there was a “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing” in the civil service.
Bingham said the government has also missed opportunities to develop its own antibody-manufacturing capabilities, saying this is simply because of a “lack of government appetite”.
The Vaccine Taskforce’s 2020 Achievements and Future Strategy report said the ability to make antibodies in bulk in the UK would be a critical way to prepare for future pandemics.
To bulk-manufacture antibodies, the UK would need bio-processors with capacity up to 20,000 litres, which would also allow it to export, Bingham said.
“We’re way off that [capacity]. So all our biological therapeutics are all imported,” she added.
Bingham also responded to criticism of the role the UK played in helping to distribute vaccines globally.
The UK was the first country to roll out Covid vaccines and has since administered almost 150 million doses to more than 45 million people. While the UK’s vaccine programme has been widely hailed as a success, many countries are still struggling to get access to jabs.
“Those are political decisions,” she said. “It was obviously after my time anyway, but all we could do is make sure that if we had surpluses, we would get them shipped out.”
Bingham said the UK had tried to help other countries by offering fill and finish services and sharing contacts.
“The fact that we were obviously looking to acquire vaccines for the UK wasn’t that we were trying to do it and stop other people from doing it,” she said.
A UKHSA spokesperson said: “From October key functions of the Vaccine Taskforce move to establish a permanent function within UKHSA, ensuring the innovative approaches, skills and operating model that have been such a key part of the UK’s pandemic response and vaccine success are retained and built upon.
“Embedding the VTF’s unique approach will help us realise our future ambitions around science and innovation, and crucially strengthen our pandemic preparedness and build resilience to future health threats."