The scientific cavalry, as Boris Johnson dubbed them, galloped to the rescue at the end of 2020, with Kate Bingham in the vanguard.
In May 2020 the Prime Minister had asked her to lead a taskforce in order to identify, procure and roll out as yet non-existent vaccines in order to combat the pandemic.
From December 2020, the first vaccinations were administered, Britons taking part with pride and joy in a programme developed at such astonishing speed that this country found itself ahead of almost all others.
Even Dominic Cummings could not forbear to cheer. In May 2021, while denouncing the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the greater part of Whitehall for limitless incompetence and mendacity, Cummings said of Bingham:
“She built a team of people that actually understood what they were doing, and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around.”
Bingham herself has since said that when asked by Johnson to head the Vaccine Taskforce, “I absolutely fell off the chair.” She told the Prime Minister, “I’m not a vaccines expert.”
She knew about therapeutics, ways of treating diseases rather than averting them, and “started off with a classic imposter syndrome as a woman – my first reaction was that I’m not qualified to do the job.”
Bingham “got told off by my daughter”, recipient in the past of maternal pep talks on the theme of “don’t do yourself down”, and consulted a number of experts in order to satisfy herself that she would in fact be able to do the job well; and then accepted, without pay, a role in which she would find herself working harder than she ever had in her life.
She is by training a biochemist, has 30 years’ experience working for SV Health Investors, a venture capital firm which turns new science into new treatments, and proceeded to put together a taskforce which was capable of commissioning all the different stages of developing a new vaccine simultaneously.
The six most promising out of hundreds of possible vaccines were selected, many millions of doses were ordered before it was known whether these six would work, hundreds of thousands of volunteers were recruited on whom the new vaccines would be tested, and manufacturing capacity in Britain was built.
Throughout the pandemic, the media searched for things the Government was getting wrong: an attitude which helps keep Britain relatively free of corruption.
But was the Vaccine Taskforce getting things wrong? Nobody could at first be sure. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Cummings were confident this was the way to go about things, bypassing the bureaucratic delays which were bound to arise if vaccine procurement were run from within the Department of Health.
Sir Patrick already knew Bingham: in his previous job he had been head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, and she was acquainted with everyone of any significance in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as herself sitting on a couple of Government scientific bodies.
He had urged her recruitment to this vital vaccines role because he knew of her high abilities and phenomenal energy. She had been appointed on merit.
Journalists in the Westminster lobby knew nothing about all that. They did, however, know that Bingham was married to Jesse Norman MP, a Treasury minister, Etonian and friend of the Prime Minister.
Bingham herself had been at St Paul’s Girls’ School with the PM’s sister, Rachel Johnson, and at Oxford with both the Johnsons.
She is the daughter of the late Tom Bingham, who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord and was widely regarded as the greatest lawyer of his generation.
So she could accurately be described as a member of the Establishment, which is not, in journalistic terms, a fashionable thing to be.
In every generation, the Establishment faces the question of how to guard against the danger that its sons and daughters will become decadent; will enjoy the privileges without accepting the obligations of their position; will lead lives of selfish and arrogant hedonism, and shun public service.
One traditional way of trying to avoid this was to consign children to boarding schools run on deliberately spartan lines, with cold baths, early morning runs, bad food and barbaric punishments all helping to instil a cheerful disregard for luxury; a sense that life was not about personal comfort, but entailed striving for higher ideals.
This programme has in recent years been pretty much abandoned, but elements of it survived into the 1990s at the Bingham family’s holiday cottage in Wales:
“There was no internal plumbing, no heating, no hot or cold water and no sanitation. Instead of a lavatory, both family and guests made do with the El-San, a chemical loo in a stone privy surrounded by lilacs in the back garden, and for any lesser call of nature the ha-ha, which Tom had dug himself many years before. A Council inspection had concluded that the house was in fact unfit for human habitation on every count. It was still so when Tom was made Master of the Rolls in 1992.”
This is from an account written after his death in 2013 by his son-in-law, Jesse Norman.
Kate, born in 1965, was from her earliest years exceptionally energetic. “She could always bicycle a bit faster than the rest of us,” Rachel Kelly, a childhood friend, recalled during a Radio 4 Profile broadcast last year.
To this day, Bingham engages in vigorous sports including running, riding, mountain biking and bog snorkelling. Rachel Johnson, another friend since school, yesterday told ConHome:
“My children refuse to go on holiday with her. It means carrying your mountain bike up a sheer rock face before cycling down a crevasse. And early-morning music practice from 6.00 a.m.”
Academic life was not neglected. Bingham took a first in biochemistry from Oxford. Terence Kealey, one of her tutors, described her as “startlingly intelligent”, “exuberant”, “full of the joy of living”, and added:
“She was quite extraordinarily frank. If she wanted to react to something you were saying, she just said it.”
This is an unusual characteristic. With many members of the professional classes, one has to guess what they think, because their reactions are hidden, perhaps even from themselves, behind a veil of good manners.
Bingham is in various respects a natural leader. Towards the end of dinner she can get everyone to start singing Guys and Dolls, even if nobody but her feels like doing so; and can so enthuse everyone that even those who have no idea of the words end up enjoying themselves.
Kealey regretted that Bingham did not go on to do pure research. She instead took an MBA at Harvard and set out to turn scientific discoveries into therapeutic drugs, which entails, as she told Nick Robinson, assessing new data “very quickly”, doing “very detailed due diligence”, being “very careful how we spend money”, and refusing to reinforce failure:
“If something’s not going to work we kill it off quickly.”
These were among the skills needed to run the Vaccine Taskforce.
Within a properly functioning Establishment, it is generally known, in any walk of life, who is highly competent and reliable, and who is hopelessly incompetent and unreliable.
It is then pretty obvious who ought to get some important job which really must be done well, and who must at all costs be kept away from such a post.
But unfortunately, it is only obvious to insiders, who are open to the charge that they favour their chums, the people with whom they were at school and university.
Cumbersome selection processes have therefore been devised in order to show that the whole thing is not a stitch-up, and to give candidates from non-traditional backgrounds a fair chance.
Quite often, at the end of these processes, which take up a great deal of time, the people are appointed who were known at the start to be the outstanding candidates.
In the case of the Vaccines Taskforce, there was no time for an appointments process, and Bingham was persuaded to take the job, having satisfied herself that she could in fact do it.
In November, the Sunday Times published a series of stories which suggested that her appointment was a stitch-up, and that she was behaving in various disgraceful ways, including the appointment of some PR advisers at a cost of £670,000.
There was no truth in these allegations of disgraceful conduct, but she could not respond directly: any response had to be approved by No10 and the Business department, and it became evident that there had been briefing against her from within the Government machine.
“I was incredibly cross, I was incredibly frustrated, I was hurt,” she said later. She was doorstepped by camera crews, and Sir Keir Starmer joined in and said the £670,000 “cannot be justified”.
It proved extremely difficult to get across an accurate account of what had happened. Bingham had never approved any expenditure – that was done by ministers and officials – and the so-called PR advisers were in fact promoting the NHS Registry, which by the end of 2020 had recruited 360,000 volunteers who were willing to take part in vaccine and other studies, an immensely valuable short and long-term resource, and one where Britain, thanks to the NHS and our tradition of volunteering, has a decisive advantage.
In December 2020, the vaccine rollout began, and Bingham began to be acclaimed as one of the heroes who had made it all happen. In the summer of 2021 she was awarded a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
In her various public appearances she has taken care to pay tribute to the many other people who played key roles, and who in some cases saw what needed to be done, and started doing it, well before she came on board.
She has also said that with hindsight, she could see “we should have done cross-party briefings”. She has refused to be drawn into any kind of political point-scoring.
Oxford asked her to deliver the 2021 Romanes Lecture, an annual event in the Sheldonian Theatre since Gladstone delivered the inaugural address in 1892, and quite often given by distinguished scientists.
ConHome this week published Bingham’s lecture, which is entitled From wartime to peacetime: Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce.
Paul Goodman will tomorrow examine some of the themes from that lecture. At the beginning, Bingham has to pause for a moment, overcome by tears, as she says that 19 years earlier her father was honoured to give the Romanes Lecture, and had discussed the vulnerability of personal freedom in times of crisis.