Former Vaccine Taskforce Chair calls for fundamental reset in Government systems and approach if the UK is to be prepared for the next pandemic

23 November 2021

In the annual Romanes Lecture at Oxford University this evening Kate Bingham will:

  • tell the inside story and approach of the Vaccine Taskforce, detailing obstacles in Government and Whitehall that were barriers to the vaccine procurement success.
  • call for scientific expertise to be embedded in government decision-making, recommend an overhaul of the civil service to focus on outcomes rather than process, suggest improvement of government and business relations and propose the appointment of a permanent pandemic security expert.
  • flag missed opportunities for future pandemic preparedness.
  • discuss the implications for the UK and low income countries of the Government’s cancellation of the Valneva vaccine deal.

Dame Catherine Elizabeth Bingham, DBE, who as Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce last year oversaw the UK’s efforts to find and manufacture Covid-19 vaccines will be delivering this year’s Romanes Lecture. Established in 1892, the Romanes Lecture is the annual public lecture of Oxford University. Previous speakers include Baroness Hale of Richmond, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gordon Brown.

In her talk titled ‘From wartime to peacetime: lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce’ Kate will discuss how the UK’s response to the pandemic has evolved since May 2020 last year when she was appointed, throughout her tenure to the end of last year and since. On 8 December 2020 the UK started COVID-19 vaccinations – the first Western country to do so.

In the speech Kate will call for a fundamental reset in how the Government uses scientific, analytical and manufacturing expertise and work with industry, for the benefit of our future health and prosperity. Kate Bingham will say;

‘The government was woefully unprepared for this pandemic. There will be more pandemics in the future, and they could be more lethal – like Ebola which kills 90% of those infected.

“Across government there is a devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry, commerce and manufacturing – the very skills needed to bring an unproven medicine from the laboratory safely and effectively into people’s arms.

“Currently there are very few with science or operating backgrounds at all levels of government. If you lack scientific knowledge, then you cannot make the right decisions about science and medicine. We need to embed science into policymaking, at every level of government.

‘The machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia. There is an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism, a culture of groupthink and risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging. Government must be braver. It needs to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset in which people are rewarded for flair and results.’

‘The government must do better. It needs to take a positive, proactive approach to the life sciences industry. The government lacks the knowledge, and interest to detect the differences between money-grabbing opportunism and valuable corporate behaviour. This leads to some damaging decisions.’

'We invest in our conventional forces, we recognise the importance of developing intelligence and we plan for a vast array of difference scenarios, yet we our neglecting the most likely threat to the nation - the next pandemic. We must act now to build our defences against a future catastrophe. Another war is coming, let’s make sure we have the right people, with the right skills to fight it.’

Kate Bingham undertook the unpaid role of Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce from May 2020 to late December 2020. Reporting directly to the Prime Minister, she led a team of world-class experts from across industry, science, academia and government with the shared purposed of finding and manufacturing COVID-19 vaccine/s.

In her lecture Kate points to the outstanding contributions made to vaccine development by Professors John Bell, Sarah Gilbert, Cath Green, Adrian Hill, Tessa Lambe, Andy Pollard and Gavin Screaton, and the work of Peter Horby and Martin Landray leading the Covid Recovery Trial.


For transcripts of the speech or other requests, please contact:
Rob Ashley, Strategic Communication, Oxford University, [email protected] 

To View the event -

About Romanes Lecture
A distinguished public figure from the arts, science or literature is invited by special invitation of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University to deliver the annual Romanes Lecture. The lecture was created in 1891, following an offer by George John Romanes of Christ Church to fund an annual lecture. The first lecture was given in 1892 by William Gladstone.

About Dame Catherine Elizabeth Bingham, DBE
Prior to joining SV Health Investors, Kate worked in business development for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company in Cambridge, MA. Kate has a first-class degree in Biochemistry from Oxford University and graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA (Baker Scholar).

Specifically, she will call for:

  • implementation of robust scientific thinking and evaluation in policy making, not as a nice-to-have option, but a critical capability for any modern government;
  • the adoption of a entrepreneurial mindset - not present in today’s Government machine - to use expert judgement, operational expertise, partnerships and risk management to build domestic resilience and security, to create long-term economic prosperity, and to protect the lives and freedoms of everyone;
  • improvement in the recruitment, development and incentives for civil servants. She argues that the civil service needs science-related competencies, operational experience, problem-solving skills and quantitative analysis as essential requirements for officials if we are to be successful in today’s data-based and innovation-driven economy.
  • A new pandemic security adviser or minister with the authority for building and maintaining a coordinated UK pandemic preparedness capability. Healthcare threats are just as serious as national security and defence and should be treated with at least the same importance

Key points from the lecture include:

  • The UK’s pandemic plans were narrowly and wrongly premised on fighting a flu virus, so the widespread belief that the UK was well prepared for a pandemic proved to be seriously mistaken.
  • The dangers have not gone away; indeed, the UN predicts that pandemics may return in a still worse form.
  • By sheer luck the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, whose own career had been in vaccine and pharmaceutical R&D, recognised that Whitehall did not have the skills to drive forward the development and procurement of unproven COVID vaccines encouraged the creation of the Vaccine Taskforce.
  • The Vaccine Taskforce’s working relationship with Government was in many ways highly effective, with the PM’s mandate, a dedicated and expert team, rapid and nimble government decision-making and a critical role played by the MHRA. But for all its many strengths, our current system of executive government suffers from serious structural weaknesses, which if not fixed, will stop the UK from responding efficiently next time.
  • There is a lack of relevant skills - scientific, industrial and manufacturing - both among civil servants and politicians.
  • A culture in the civil service of groupthink, risk aversion and paranoia about media handling that held back innovation and the pace of execution.
  • Because Whitehall lacked the strategic and scientific understanding of a remarkable new technology, the UK lost the chance to build a rapid protein production capability, losing both the resilience to manage future pandemics, as well as losing an attractive economic opportunity, in a sector which is supposed to be a key government priority.
  • A fragile relationship exists between government and industry and there is a lack of understanding of the biosciences and other specialist technology-related sunrise industries that are vital to the UK’s long-term economic growth. Government seems to have no means, and little interest, to detect the differences between negative rent-seeking and economically valuable corporate behaviour.
  • The UK government’s recent cancellation of the contract with the pioneering vaccine company Valneva before the positive Phase 3 results on the grounds the UK had enough vaccines even for boosters, sits uneasily the Prime Minister’s instruction to the Vaccine TaskForce to secure and deliver vaccines quickly to the UK and abroad. This cancellation did not consider the needs of COVAX, the international vaccine purchase agency, and that most of the world does not have access to vaccines. (Valneva’s stable vaccine could be sent to low-income countries without needing complex cold chain infrastructure.) The decision also set aside the need to build resilience in the UK’s pandemic preparedness capability through a critical flexible state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Livingston, Scotland able to manufacture vaccines to any format as might be needed, including flu vaccines. 100 new jobs planned for Scotland are now moving to East Germany.

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the sixth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation.
Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 200 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years.