Under-fire vaccines tsar Kate Bingham should be sacked, ministers have been told, amid claims of public funds being misused.
But Business Secretary Alok Sharma defended Ms Bingham after she was criticised by Labour’s Darren Jones, who chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.
Ms Bingham has come under pressure over a reported £670,000 contract for public relations support and has been forced to deny claims she shared commercially-sensitive information with investors.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Jones said: “Vaccine manufacturing for Covid is being led by Ms Kate Bingham from the vaccine taskforce.
“She has not only disclosed official sensitive documents to hedge fund managers in the United States, but has spent £670,000 of taxpayers’ money on private PR advisers, instead of using civil servants, and is set to benefit financially from investments by the state.
“Ms Bingham should be sacked.
“If she’s not sacked, who will be held to account for this gross conflict of interest and misuse of public funds?
“Will it be (Mr Sharma) or the Prime Minister?”
Mr Sharma responded: “I would just point out that the vaccines taskforce, which does of course sit in my department and is led by Kate Bingham, has done an absolutely brilliant job over the last few months.
“We have managed to secure 350 million doses across six of the most promising vaccine candidates.
“(Mr Jones) will have seen the statement that came through from Pfizer/BioNTech yesterday and, again, we were the first country in the world to secure access to that particular vaccine candidate.
“He talks about this spending, what I would say to him is that the senior responsible officer in line with his delegated authority approved this resourcing in accordance with public sector practices and frameworks.”
Later, Health Secretary Matt Hancock congratulated Ms Bingham for her work following a Commons statement.
Responding to Conservative MP Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme), Mr Hancock said: “If I can I also take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the vaccines taskforce and to Kate Bingham personally for the leadership that they have shown in being able to procure the 340 million doses that they’ve achieved which I know that the whole country is grateful for (and) the 40 million in particular of the Pfizer vaccine.”
Ministers later insisted they are pushing to ensure that non-essential retail and hospitality businesses “can reopen safely” when the lockdown in England ends on December 2.
Tory Julian Sturdy (York Outer) said: “The Government’s new support measures for businesses provide a genuine lifeline, however support to stay closed is not the long-term answer and many will only remain viable if they can be opened as normal pre-Christmas season.
“So, can I ask what the minister is doing to urgently lobby Government and the Prime Minister on the necessity of keeping businesses and getting them to reopen from December 2 – including hospitality, which is so important to a city like York?”
Business minister Nadhim Zahawi replied: “(Mr Sturdy) makes a very powerful point.
“I absolutely agree with him, it is not the long-term answer and I fully appreciate that retailers across England will be desperate to reopen in time for the important Christmas trading period.
“The regulations, as the Prime Minister said, will expire on December 2 and we will return to the local restrictions thereafter, the tiered system, and of course ministers and officials are regularly engaging across Government, including my colleagues in BEIS, to ensure the sector can reopen safely on December 2.”