Matt Hancock insists vaccine tsar Kate Bingham was not fired after PR spending fiasco

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The Health Secretary said Kate Bingham had always been due to leave at the end of the year after accepting a six-month contract to lead the British coronavirus vaccine taskforce. Ms Bingham, who normally leads biotech investments, has been criticised after the Sunday Times reported that she used eight full-time consultants from London PR agency Admiral Associates to oversee her media strategy.

“It was always a six month job and she was always clear that she couldn’t do it for longer than that,” Mr Hancock told Times Radio.

Ms Bingham, who was appointed chair of the taskforce on May 16, was not immediately available for comment.

Under Ms Bingham’s leadership, the taskforce has secured supply deals for more than 350 million doses of six different COVID-19 vaccine candidates, including the Pfizer shot which is leading the race following positive trial data.

It comes as Mr Hancock said the military and NHS staff are on standby to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine across the UK from the start of December and will work “seven days a week”.

The Health Secretary said there were many hurdles to overcome before the “vast task” of vaccination could begin, including regulatory approval of the new Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and assessment of its safety data.

But he said the NHS was leading work to get a vaccine to those most in need as soon as possible, though most people will not get a jab until 2021.

Asked whether it could be available by Christmas, Mr Hancock said that was “absolutely a possibility”, adding that vaccination clinics would be open seven days a week.

He told Sky News: “I’ve asked the NHS who are supported by the armed services in this – but the NHS very much leading this effort for deploying the vaccine – I’ve asked them to be ready from the start of December.

“And, of course, there are many hurdles that still need to be gone over and we haven’t seen the full safety data and obviously that is critical and we won’t deploy a vaccine unless we can be confident in its clinical safety.

“But we also do need to be ready should a vaccine be licensed and get through all those hurdles and ready to roll it out.”

Mr Hancock said it had always been his expectation that most people will not get a jab until 2021, with priority given to those in care homes, the elderly and health and social care staff.

“We’ve always been clear that our central expectation for the rollout of a vaccine should a vaccine come good… the central expectation of the bulk of the rollout and deployment has always been in the first part of 2021,” he said.

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The Health Secretary said that once a vaccine becomes available, it will be delivered through care homes, GPs and pharmacists, as well as “go-to” vaccination centres set up in venues such as sports halls.

“We will be working across the NHS with the support of the armed forces seven days a week, over weekends, over bank holidays, to get this rolled out into people’s arms as quickly as possible,” he told BBC Breakfast.

He said the exact model would depend on which vaccine was adopted, with Oxford University and AstraZeneca expected to release results of their vaccine shortly.

“The Pfizer vaccine needs to be held at minus 70C until the last few hours before it is deployed, which obviously makes things more complicated,” Mr Hancock said.

“The AstraZeneca vaccine is a bit easier to deploy logistically.”

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