EU vaccine failures obvious before pandemic, says former Boris Johnson aide

LONDON — The U.K.’s Department of Health was an “absolute total disaster” in terms of procurement when the pandemic hit Britain last year, because of rules Britain had to adopt during its membership of the EU, Boris Johnson’s former top adviser said.

Dominic Cummings, who was fired and left Downing Street in December, told MPs Wednesday that No 10 had to take vaccine procurement away from the health department in order to ensure the success of the program.

Cummings revealed that he and the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance had pushed for a dedicated vaccine task force in order to prevent the type of mistakes the health department made in the first months of the pandemic when its officials struggled to procure personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It’s not coincidental that we had to take it out of the Department of Health,” he told the House of Commons science and technology committee. “In spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that. You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics. We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed program to fail — a debacle.”

Cummings argued the failures of the U.K.’s procurement system were “created by the European Union and goldplated by Whitehall.”

“I and another said repeatedly before 2020 the system is an expensive disaster zone and when it hits a crisis it will completely fall over,” he top MPs.

The former No 10 aide said the pandemic had proven that global science co-operation could continue “without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines.”

And, seizing on European decisions to pause use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, he added: “Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels married with its appalling bureaucracy in its insane decisions and warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine. I think we are extremely well out of that system.”

The next phase of the pandemic requires heavy investment in a combination of mass-distributed testing at home, mass-distributed genetic sequencing, RNA vaccines and scaling up supply chains, Cummings added.

The former mastermind of the pro-Brexit campaign Vote Leave was giving evidence on the design of a new blue-skies funding agency, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which will have an initial budget of £800 million over five years. According to Cummings, that funding could skyrocket to between £3 billion and £5 billion in the longer term if the agency is tasked with solving big societal challenges.

Creating ARIA was one of four conditions Cummings set to Johnson in order to become his special adviser in 2019, together with not holding a second Brexit referendum, doubling the science budget and supporting him in shaking up the way the U.K.’s civil service works, he told the committee.

Cummings, who faced accusations of cronyism during his time at the center of government, defended his model of “extreme freedom” for funding research and development, arguing the British science system sets too many barriers to scientists’ ability to innovate and tends to prioritize those who write papers as opposed to people developing software or other type of scientific outputs.

He blamed excess red-tape for creating corruption in public bodies and said ARIA must operate differently. “You need to strip out all of the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy around procurement, state aid, human resources, civil service pay scales… all of these sorts of things,” Cummings said. “It’s crucial to remember that the basic principle of extreme freedom is completely hostile, is completely the opposite of how all normal science funding works and how all normal Whitehall works.”

Delays in the creation of ARIA were partly the fault of the Treasury, Cummings said. The finance ministry led by Chancellor Rishi Sunak opposed Cummings’ rationale for few if any controls and for creating the agency through primary legislation. A bill setting up the funding body is making its way through parliament.

“The whole episode shows just how hard it is for Whitehall to deal with the concept of creating something with low friction and removing things like the Treasury’s business case,” he said.

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