Civil service ‘reverting back to bureaucratic norms’ after COVID innovation, says ex-UK vaccine chief

By on 25/11/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2022

The head of the UK government taskforce that led the procurement of coronavirus vaccines has warned that the government is reverting to a “suspicion of industry” that could hinder the response to any future pandemics.

Kate Bingham was the head of the UK government’s vaccine taskforce, which was tasked with supporting the development of vaccines against COVID-19 and securing supply for the UK. The taskforce supported the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and signed a contract for 100 million doses, as well as a contract for 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The UK was the first country in the world to approve a vaccine for COVID-19 (Pfizer-BioNTech) in December 2020.

In a series of articles and interviews this week, Bingham has said that the taskforce was able to support the development of vaccines because the taskforce “largely operated outside Whitehall” and was reporting to the prime minister.

She said this meant that the taskforce was able to bring in experts from outside government with expertise to both identify which vaccines were likely to be successful and then to shape the relationship with the companies.

“The problem that we faced [inside government] was this lack of scientific expertise and a culture that focuses on process, not outcome, which just slows things down,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, following a speech at Oxford University and an article in the Times.

She said that the success of the UK’s vaccine procurement was an opportunity to better embed scientific thinking in policymaking, but that government “seems to be reverting back to this very bureaucratic approach [and] suspicion of industry which is not going to set us up well for any future pandemics”.

Science needed in policymaking

Bingham, who is the managing partner at the venture capital firm SV Health Investors and took a sabbatical to head up the taskforce, last year, said the UK does “not have science in any way included in policymaking” on a systematic level.

“When we wrote business cases to support the procurement of vaccines, or to develop manufacturing capability, we would look at strategic cases, investment cases, management cases, financial cases, endless different kinds of very often repetitive [business] cases,” she said.

“But there is no science case. We did that [case], that is what we brought, but it is not embedded in official practice. We need to include science and scientific thinking in all policymaking, just like economics.”

Although she said that “there was no lack of willingness of commitment to support our work” from UK civil servants, a lack of science skills in government had hindered the work of the taskforce.

There are very low numbers of “scientists and people with operational analytical problem solving expertise” among both UK civil servants and politicians, she said.

“If you don’t have the skills, it is very difficult to be effective,” she said. “External consultants were brought in in large numbers, and that is not a long term sustainable way of working.”

Bingham suggested the development of a more outcomes-focused structure for policy development should be implemented in government, as the current system “rewards box checking”.

She added: “I am not suggesting that process is not followed. I am suggesting that very long, bureaucratic, formal processes that are often highly repetitive and slow could be focused much more intelligently on delivering outcomes, and that incentives should be placed to reward those people who deliver outcomes and to reward accountability, rather than to reward box-checking.

“I’m not suggesting that the boxes shouldn’t be checked, because they clearly should be – and there is no place for non-transparent, non-arm’s-length decision making – but it could be done a lot better.”

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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