Reports of mutating virus matched by even more claims of mutating government cronyism

A pile of £50 notes
Tom Coburg

An article in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) has identified alleged conflict of interests between government advisers and pharmaceutical companies. Elsewhere, the New York Times (NYT) has identified more companies that are beneficiaries of what appear to be over-funded pandemic-related contracts.

These claims come at a time when the UK population is not only facing a potentially more infectious strain of coronavirus (Covid-19), but also some form of lockdown.

“Conflicts of interest”

An article by Paul Thacker in the BMJ examines possible conflicts of interest by senior figures who advise or work for the UK government with regard to the pandemic. They include chief scientific adviser and Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) member Patrick Vallance, John Bell of Oxford University, and vaccine task force head Kate Bingham.

Specifically, Thacker observed that:

In April, the government announced that it was placing Vallance in charge of a new Vaccine Taskforce to expedite research to produce a coronavirus vaccine. Among the named members were AstraZeneca, the Wellcome Trust, and John Bell of Oxford University. The following month, the government announced that Kate Bingham would chair the taskforce, while taking temporary leave from her job as managing partner at SV Health Investors, a life sciences venture capital firm. Bingham is married to the Conservative minister Jesse Norman.

By July the UK government had signed a coronavirus vaccine deal for an undisclosed sum with GlaxoSmithKline, securing 60 million doses of an untested treatment that was still being developed. In September, media outlets reported that Vallance had £600 000 (€661 000; $800 000) worth of shares in [GlaxoSmithKline].

However, a government spokesperson reportedly stated that Vallance:

has no input into contractual and commercial decisions on vaccine procurement, which are taken by ministers following a robust cross government approvals regime.

Thacker explained that Bell has financial interests, worth £773k in shares, in pharmaceutical giant Roche which was awarded £13.5m for its antibody tests. Thacker added that Bell told the Daily Mail:

he had no role in the deal and that he had disclosed to the government “a long list of my interests.” According to the Mail, “He said that he did not sit on the advisory body involved in the decision to purchase the Roche antibody tests, adding: ‘I did not know about the Roche contract until it was signed. I advised on diagnostic home testing kits, not these ones.’”,

As for Bingham, she allegedly revealed “official sensitive” government documents to a conference in the US. Jim Armitage (Standard and the Independent) commented:

But the government defended her attendance at the women’s conference:

The fact of her appearance and the content of her presentation received approval from officials at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy in line with the process governing such engagements.

More conflicts of interest?

In September The Canary reported many examples of cronyism in regard to pandemic-related contracts. Now the New York Times (NYT) has unearthed further examples of what might be described as conflicts of interest. The NYT claims there are at least 1,200 pandemic-related government contracts worth nearly $22bn. Half of that sum went to companies headed by ‘friends or associates of Conservative Party politicians’ or which have no experience of, say, PPE manufacturing or procurement.

Tory peer and former investment banker Paul Deighton is the driving force behind the PPE awards and is an AstraZeneca shareholder. He also holds shares in the consulting firm Accenture, which was awarded a $5.6m contract to develop England’s contact tracing app. His other declared interests in medical related businesses include Abbott Laboratories and Novo Nordisk AS. Deighton also chairs (see ‘Directors’) the corporate intelligence firm Hakluyt, which has been described as a “retirement home” for ex-MI6 officers. Hakluyt’s advisory board includes Bell.

The main test and trace contract is with Serco and Sitel, and according to openDemocracy:

Serco was initially contracted for £108 million for fourteen weeks up from the contract start date up to the 23rd August, with the option to extend for a longer period up to a value of £410 million in total. Sitel had a similar arrangement, with £84.2 million for the initial fourteen week period and £310 million in total if it were extended.

Serco’s CEO is Rupert Soames, the brother of former Tory MP Nicholas Soames.

More Tory links

The NYT further reports that the cabinet office minister responsible for supporting coronavirus procurement, Lord Agnew, had shares worth around $120k in Faculty Science, though now transferred into a ‘blind trust’. Faculty has been awarded at least 13 contracts, worth around £3m. This is the same company that was previously called Advanced Skills Initiative (ASI) and under that name produced advertising for Vote Leave, with Dominic Cummings as its communications director.

Then there’s Topham Guerin Ltd (TG), which was awarded a coronavirus-related contract worth £3m. New Zealanders Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, who run TG, were contracted to manage the Conservative Party’s digital campaign during the 2019 general election. TG was also responsible for the rebranding of a Conservative Party Twitter account as a so-called fact checking service in the midst of that general election. It’s further reported that TG set up a website presented, falsely, as the Labour Party’s manifesto.

Moreover, Public First, headed by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf (who helped write the 2019 Tory manifesto), was given £956k for “advice on Covid-19 and reorganising the health and care system”. It was previously awarded £840k to conduct research on public opinion regarding government policies and £116k to examine how the government can better learn from the coronavirus pandemic. Frayne worked with Cummings at the Department for Education.

Legal challenges

The Good Law Project (GLP) has announced that it has:

been granted permission to bring our challenge against the lucrative public affairs contract given to long-time associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings at Public First.

The Canary had also previously reported that the GLP had commenced a legal case specifically questioning PPE-related contracts awarded to Pestfix, Ayanda, and Clandeboye.

The GLP is currently examining Operation Moonshot, the government’s mass testing scheme associated with Cummings.

And as also reported by The Canary, the GLP and the Runnymede Trust have launched a legal challenge against prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock. This is regarding the appointments of Bingham, NHS Test and Trace director Mike Coupe, and test and trace boss and Tory peer Dido Harding. Incidentally, Harding happens to be married to Tory MP John Penrose, who backs the abolition of the NHS.

In short, the overall picture we’re presented with is one of blatant cronyism, but on a massive scale. And a government, like the virus, that’s totally out of control.

Featured image via Flickr / Images Money

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