Ex-vaccine head accuses Hancock of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ behaviour in meeting

Dame Kate Bingham says former health secretary aggressively questioned her competence in front of cabinet

The leader of Britain’s successful Covid vaccination programme has accused Matt Hancock of aggressive political grandstanding during the pandemic that left her “stuck to the ceiling with fury”.

Dame Kate Bingham, the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, said the former health secretary conducted an “extraordinary ambush” in a meeting in June 2020 and questioned her competence in front of cabinet colleagues and civil servants, despite having a “friendly” conversation beforehand.

The former vaccines tsar claimed Hancock had swapped “Dr Jekyll for Mr Hyde” because he was aggrieved that responsibility for vaccines had been taken from him and given to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (Beis).

Hancock, who resigned as health secretary last year after breaching Covid restrictions by kissing and embracing his then aide Gina Coladangelo, is expected to challenge Bingham’s criticisms in a book to be released later this year.

The claims have been made by Bingham in an extract from her new book, The Long Shot, published in the Mail on Sunday and revolve around a virtual meeting held in June 2020, which was chaired by Michael Gove, who was then a cabinet minister.

She was leading a team of experts who would find Covid vaccines that worked, ensure they could be manufactured at scale and then delivered into people’s arms by the end of the year.

“Before the meeting, I’d asked Matt Hancock for advice about the questions likely to arise, and about how I should conduct myself. The tone of our conversation was friendly.

“But when it came to the committee discussion itself, the health secretary had traded in Dr Jekyll for Mr Hyde.

“He started by suddenly saying he couldn’t understand why I thought people his age – namely mid-40s – wouldn’t want, or indeed demand, a Covid vaccine for themselves,” she wrote.

Hancock launched “a second tirade” in the meeting, Bingham said, this time saying he “could not believe” that she had ordered only 30m doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for delivery in September 2020.

“When I observed that it would be a miracle if we received 30m AstraZeneca doses by Christmas, Matt simply snapped. He kept being told by experts that things were impossible, he said, only to find out later that they were perfectly possible if enough effort was made.

“I could barely believe my ears. The health secretary was openly accusing me of a lack of ambition, questioning my competence, and doing so in front of his cabinet colleagues and key officials,” Bingham said, who told him he was wrong.

She said other cabinet members who attended the meeting approached her after the meeting. “Gove could not have looked more embarrassed. The business secretary, Alok Sharma, called me immediately afterwards to apologise. Others sent messages of support,” she said.

Hancock appeared to have intervened because the taskforce was overseen by Beis, whose secretary of state, Sharma, was “insufficiently devious” to take him on, Bingham wrote.

“I thought that perhaps he [Hancock] was determined to refight that battle and, if that involved throwing rocks at me, then so be it.

“He also knew that he’d always win in a verbal punch-up with the mild-mannered Alok Sharma, who was nowhere near as aggressive – and certainly insufficiently devious to take on the health secretary,” she wrote.

As a result of Hancock’s criticisms, Bingham said she invited Sir Richard Sykes, the former chair of GlaxoSmithKline, to oversee the taskforce’s work.

“I knew if he [Sykes] didn’t think much about any aspect of our operation, then he’d say so – loudly. Conversely, a seal of approval from him would be as close as I could get to acquiring body armour,” she wrote. Sykes’s review approved of the taskforce’s work in July 2020.

A managing partner at venture capital firm SV Health Investors, Bingham was hailed for her work in making sure that the UK was speedily supplied with ample doses of Covid vaccines in the middle of the pandemic. Her book, The Long Shot, is out next week with proceeds going to charity.

A spokesperson for Hancock said he would publish his version of events in a book to be published later this year, the royalties of which will be given to NHS charities.

“The vaccine effort was a massive success and a huge team effort from the NHS to the vaccine taskforce, Oxford University to AstraZeneca. Matt is proud that he insisted that everyone across the UK had access to a vaccine, and is delighted the vaccine programme got the UK out of the pandemic ahead of almost everywhere else in the world.

‘You’ll have to read Matt’s book to find out what really happened,” the spokesperson said.


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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