When Boris Johnson first appointed Kate Bingham to lead the vaccine taskforce in April last year, many asked “who?” – that’s if they even noticed the story at all.
But others were more critical. One commentator suggested that the venture capitalist got the job because she’s “wife to a Treasury minister and cousin by marriage to Boris Johnson’s sister”; some insinuated wrongdoings with her PR bill (which we now know was used for a vaccine information campaign), and a Whitehall source was quoted saying: “She is obviously very talented, she speaks her mind and gets straight to the point, but has frustrated a lot of people at the department.”
You get the gist – it was suspicious, sexist commentary that turned out to have nothing to do with what was actually happening. Back on Planet Reality, Bingham had been developing one of the most successful strategies so far in the Coronavirus battle, exemplified by the current rapid roll out of our vaccine programme.
The real Bingham and the real events of last year became clear to me upon listening to a recent episode of Nick Robinson’s podcast, Political Thinking, in which she gave one of her first interviews, keen to set the record straight on the media reports that left her feeling “shock and outrage”.
It is a fascinating exchange, which details many of the political decisions behind the vaccine progress and the people behind them. Bingham comes across as competent, straightforward – basically everything you would want in someone in charge of a complex project, and completely removed from the person described as “inexperienced” in the papers.
Perhaps it’s this criticism that is the most unfair, not least given Bingham has 30 years experience in biotech and life sciences, a first class degree in Biochemistry and an MBA from Harvard Business School. But crucially, newspapers overlooked her expertise in venture capital (in drug discovery), which is why she was given the role.
Here Boris Johnson deserves credit, because he spotted that her skillset – which involves evaluating and commissioning (drug) candidates for development at rapid speed – could be transferred to the world of vaccines. With very little time to play with, he gave her the call.
When Robinson asked Bingham about her response to Johnson’s offer, what’s interesting was she talked about having imposter syndrome – feeling unable to do the role – and that her daughter convinced her to get on with it.
That’s why some of the takes about her “inexperience” have been depressing, in a world where even the most qualified women undervalue their abilities. As Johnson knew, she was exactly the right person for the job.
Another big criticism of Bingham has been that she got the job because of “chumocracy”, namely because her husband Jesse Norman is Financial Secretary to the Treasury. This is another form of sexism, that overlooks her credentials (she already sits on scientific boards for the Government) and defines women by their partners.
Speaking to Robinson, she said “I think it’s an outrage that the politics of my husband should be applied to me. I’m very clearly non-political, and I’m not a member of any political party”. He pressed her on politics at other points in the interview, asking her if Brexit gave the UK an advantage next to the EU, but she avoided all the traps.
Perhaps the best bit about Bingham’s interview is it’s reassuring, giving confidence in the vaccine and the UK’s future pandemic preparedness, which the Government has clearly been working on. All in all, it undermines the stories about Bingham and reflects badly on a media which seems to now think arbitrary criticisms are “journalism”.
Given the vitriolic nature of these attacks, you have to wonder what others are out there. In the mean time, it’s nice to see increasing gratitude towards Bingham and her team (which also deserves a lot of credit). Forget vaccine tsar, “vaccine star” might be more apt.