The one good thing that may come out of the current row about vaccines export controls

1st February 2021

Since 2016 one unfortunate feature of the Brexit policy (or lack of policy) of the United Kingdom has been the disregard for process.

The European Union brought along the tool of process to its negotiations, while the United Kingdom brought bluster and bravado.

The European Union did better in those negotiations than the United Kingdom. 


Process is not the property of the European Union.

Process can be used for the advantage of other parties, depending on the situation.

Or process can protect a weaker party against a misuse of power.

And the United Kingdom was, before Brexit, quite good at using process in its dealings with its then fellow European Union member states and European Union institutions.

The current row over the invocation of Article 16 by the European Union without it properly having followed the correct (or indeed any) process shows how important it is to hold the European Union to following an agreed process.

Process can matter, a lot.

And process can work to the advantage of the United Kingdom too.

As the United Kingdom develops its post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, through the joint institutions and agreed procedures of the trade and cooperation agreement, the good and thoughtful use of process could become an advantage in respect of the European Union.

The United Kingdom does not have to persist with the loud crashes, bangs and wallops of the Brexit era.

Playing the European Union at its own game, and winning, is also possible.

(Even if the wins are cloaked under the cover of ‘jointly beneficial outcomes’ and other such comforting language.)


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18 thoughts on “The one good thing that may come out of the current row about vaccines export controls”

  1. But.
    Process is all too often used as a weapon to alter the balance of justice, as those in the world of litigation know all too well.

  2. This is – as usual – very sensible advice. The shocking aspect of the fiasco was the Commission of all people, failing in process. But will its be possible for the UK to break a generation long habit of trumpeting its successes as victories instead of quietly chalking them up? Somehow I think a government that claims to inherit Mrs Thatcher’s mantle (but not her taste for detail) will not go that way.

  3. I agree that more emphasis on process would be a good idea, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. This government appears to be rather contemptuous of process. It seemingly believes that process inhibits its freedom to act.

    You see examples of this all over, from appointments to the Lords, overriding the Ministerial Code, Covid contracts and the demonisation of lawyers representing asylum seekers.

    This contempt for process appears deeply ingrained in all aspects of government, and I don’t expect that the experience of the Brexit negotiations will change that.

  4. Process is fine when it’s the servant and not the master. In the face of a crisis, blind obedience to such can be the obstacle. I know I’m going to sound like I’m using a cliche, but it was just this that so slowed the EU Commission’s processes in securing vaccine supplies. It was legalistic, ponderous, risk averse and fixated on things like cost. The EU Commission approach to production problems with AstraZeneca was to make loud noises over contracts, not to try and resolve the problems. It turned a crisis into a high-decibel shoting match.

    The Runnymede Trust has contested the appointment of Kate Bingham on the basis that process was not followed, including an application for judicial review. However, if process had been followed, the post advertised and gone through the normal round of advertising, application submissions, short lists, interviews and evaluation, then how much time would have been lost? Similarly with the selection of vaccine suppliers and the contracts agreed; follow normal process and you end up losing months too. No doubt public money has been wasted, but is that the priority?

    I know the argument that any country in the EU could have done what the UK did, but that’s to disregard the massive amount of political pressure to fall in line, and it was never an option for the smaller countries. However, if Germany had signed that deal with AstraZeneca back in June when it was ready to do so, would that plant in Belgium now be two months ahead of where it is now? Would Germany have been seen as a leader rather than, as it is now, contemplating an entirely counter-productive legal action against AstraZeneca on what is a not-for-profit contract?

    The Brexit negotiation was all about relative political and economic power, never about process. It was only at points where time essentially forced a compromise that decisions were made, and what was agreed rubber-stamped by the 27 countries that might have contested it.

    Processes work well for the routine. They are good for the regular machinery of government, of manufacturing, of logistics and a million other things. In a crisis, such as in 2008, or the EU’s lamentable reaction to the Yugoslavian civil war, they can fail disastrously.

    1. The government may have got lucky with the appointment of Kate Bingham without proper process. But that needs to be looked at in the context of all the other contracts (think Test & Trace and PPE) and the incredible sums spent for what appear to be (at best) highly equivocal results.

      It also needs to be remembered that the vaccine programme is the result of throwing money at scientists who have learned by necessity the importance of process in catching errors. Their entire business is being able to answer the question “how can you tell that you really know what you think you know?” That’s impossible without established and rigorously-followed processes. The money has allowed those processes to be done faster and sometimes in parallel because of the greater resources available.

      Then there was the lack of preparedness, a shortcoming known to government as a result of the Cygnus exercise but ignored, which led to all these emergency contracts getting drawn up without proper process.

      So, all in all, might we not have been better served (and have had fewer deaths) had the government engaged in process all along – dating to before the pandemic hit?

      The one thing that is most predictable about politics is that unexpected crises happen. So if the government doesn’t learn this lesson (and I see no sign that it will), then it’s reasonable to expect that the next crisis will also catch it flat-footed and scrambling expensively to catch up.

      1. “It also needs to be remembered that the vaccine programme is the result of throwing money at scientists who have learned by necessity the importance of process in catching errors.”

        I have been involved in science and technology all my life, both at university and in business. Whilst money is, of course, essential just throwing it at scientists is not going to build a vaccine industry from scratch. It has to be remembered that at the start of 2020 there was absolutely no ability to manufacture vaccines on a mass scale in the UK. It could be made in laboratories (and the Jenner Institute has a very small scale manufacturing plant).

        To produce a vaccine production industry requires many things. It need factories of course, but they need to be manned with trained technicians. It requires knowledge of logistics, of supply chains, of order handling, production control, transport, packaging, IT and a hundred other things. It means bringing together all these things. For creating a whole industry from scratch, then a venture capitalist is ideal. They know how to bring these things together, and get all the various units working together. They know how cut through obstacles and how to talk to leaders of business.

        The UK now has two vaccine manufacturing plants and a filling and finishing plant. Two more manufacturing plants are on their way (for two different types of vaccine). We will shortly have approved five different vaccines, four of which were part of the six chosen by Kate Bingham’s teams as promising candidates and for which we have early orders (the one missed was Moderna). The Sanofi vaccine has fallen by the wayside, and I don’t think it will play a part – but the EU bet on that one too.

        So I think it was a bit more than luck with picking Kate Bingham. The right person with the right skills at the right time. This is to take absolutely nothing away from the scientists. They have worked miracles, but that alone is not enough and they recognised it. That’s why AstraZeneca were bought in (not that they’d ever made vaccines before, but they were strategically a better pick that Merck).

        If you want an example of why throwing money at a problem is not a guarantee, then just look at Dido Harding (who I was unimpressed with when she was in industry). She had ample money, yet Track and Trace was a huge disappointment. Money is a necessity, it’s not a guarantee. I should add, however, that due to the size of the epidemic in the UK I don’t think any track and trace process would have coped. We also have a cultural aversion to the sort of access to personal data, such as access to credit, messaging, WiFi access and phone records that are acceptable in countries like South Korea.

        I get a little tired of people thinking that these things are easy. They are not, and I’m speaking as somebody who has pretty well the opposite set of skills required in this case.

  5. Ah, but the trouble with our “eurosceptic” government is that it percieves any involvement with the EU as a battle to be won. This juvenille attitude will harm our interests, but the current stripe of HMG, egged on by the usual suspects in the media, can’t see any value in compromise or pragmatism.

  6. The crash, bangs and wallops won’t cease until Johnson, Gove and Rees-Mogg are long gone, taking the Cabinet of the talentless with them. I am quite sure that the Tory party still does contain people who want to negotiate and know how to do so, but at the moment they appear to be biding their time.

  7. I am afraid that the appointment of Lord David Frost as the UK’s Representative for Brexit and International Policy would seem to suggest that Boris Johnson is more than happy to persist with the loud crashes, bangs and wallops of the Brexit era.

    Brace, brace, brace?

  8. Process is fine just so long as it isn’t the only option. The appointment of Kate Bingham worked but Dido Harding not so good.

    1. Kate Bingham, chair of Boris Johnson’s vaccine taskforce, had charged taxpayers £670,000 for her own team of boutique PR consultants by 7th November 2020. Their role to advise on getting the vaccination programme over to hard to reach groups.

      According to documents leaked to the Sunday Times, eight full-time consultants from London firm Admiral Associates were on the equivalent of £165K annual salaries.

      And yet the vaccination programme is still, today, being poorly taken up by some BAME groups.

      I could have advised her, as an ex civil servant, for a lot, lot less on how to outreach.

      I have friends and colleagues in DWP who would be able to advise her at no cost at all, because they are already paid a salary by the taxpayer.

      And Bingham used her position, effectively insider knowledge, to advise venture capitalists in the US about the Government’s vaccine procurement plans.

      Bingham is a qualified success, to say the least.

      1. The concentration on the perceived waste of money in some areas of Kate Bingham’s responsibility area is surely not where we ought to be concentrating. It is not what matters in a crisis. Kate Bingham was brought in to save lives by procuring effective vaccines as quickly as possible. Cost was always a secondary issue; there is a time for that, and it’s not now. What matters is delivery.

        What has happened is that, under Kate Bingham’s leadership, a UK mass production vaccination industry has been created where previously their was none. Her background as a venture capitalist is the perfect training for this. Yes, you need scientist and engineers, but you need industrialist, and logistics experts and a whole bunch of other capabilities to make it work.

        As far as the reported suspicion among some elements of the some BAME communities (the should never be treated as one entity), then that is a longstanding issue, not of Kate Bingham’s making and is reflected in things like the reluctance to trust medical authorities. There have been tragic instances of deaths that could have been avoided because of reluctance to call emergency services util it’s too late. The suspicion of vaccines by some parts of some BAME communities is an extension of that.

        I don’t think that we can blame her for that historic suspicion, and there are plenty of activities which are seeking to overcome that, and it’s surely more the responsibility of PHE and its equivalent, who are working with those communities.

        We may have struck lucky with Kate Bingham, but whilst throwing buckets of cash at the problem is necessary condition, it’s no guarantee. I would be much less generous with Dido Harding, who presided over lamentable failures whilst in charge of TalkTalk, and especially in the area of dealing with the public. Waste without delivery is a different matter to the vaccine deliver programme.

  9. Det. Gregory: Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
    Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
    Det. Gregory: The dog did nothing in the night-time.
    Holmes: That was the curious incident.

    What could have been a shining example of European ingenuity and solidarity has been reduced to undignified mud-wrestling between pundits over a short term limit on the supply of a global necessity.

    The twitter chain of Sandy Douglas @sandyddouglas and his colleague Adam Ritchie @adamjohnritchie, over the weekend, provided some interesting information that shed light on the production issues that have occurred in manufacture of the Oxford Vaccine.

    As @sandyddouglas reports, there was a decision by the AZOX team (no date specified but likely sometime after April 2020) to change production processes. The new process was recently invented by the OX team and improved production in what was called Stream 2 by a factor of five. He reports that the decision was taken to manufacture to the scale required to meet *EU and World* demand.

    It is implicit in his report that the original production Stream 1 would be sufficient to meet the demand of the UK.

    He explains :- “What’s more, the original ‘Stream 1’ plan involved the @GovUK funding a Dutch contractor to supply UK. It turns out that wouldn’t have been hugely popular. By switching to ‘Stream 2’, we enabled the EU sites to focus on supplying the EU.”

    This is a curious decision.

    The process to create Stream 2 was, by this account, only recently invented and, as @adamjohnritchie has explained, every manufacturing unit deployed to supply this new Stream would need to tool up and implement such a novel process afresh – maximum production could only be achieved by the teams in each unit by trial and error.

    However as @adamjohnritchie also acknowledged, production improvements are anticipated and shared so that eventually each unit will learn from the experience of others.

    @sandyddouglas reports that this decision to move to Stream 2 for all units, prevented production for the UK (which had been planned to be drawn from Stream 1).

    The consequence this decision to widen the availability of the Oxford Vaccine from the UK to the Globe, was an increased risk of later unavailability – all production now depended on a newly invented process which as reported by @sandyddouglas is still at this moment closer to 25% of full production than the 80% expected with fully tried and bedded production process.

    It is inherently unlikely that these decisions would have been taken without the UK government having been fully informed that their production lines were being shut down to allow a global participation in the vaccine. It is equally unlikely that the UK government would have accepted the adjustment to the plan without some assurance that their contract was secure.

    In a noteworthy change from its previous approach to dealing with the EU and the commission the UK government has fallen silent on any aspect of how it is presently enjoying access to Stream 2 of the vaccine produced in this successful Moonshot by AZOX.

    As Holmes said, that was the curious incident.

  10. I am sorry, but someone bringing in their own staff to duplicate the work of existing civil servants to the tune of £600,000 is a matter for public concern.

    It is, also, of a piece with the other dubious procurement decisions of this government.

    A venture capitalist is not, necessarily, the sort of person you describe. Right from the outset, the Government had the option to appoint a Minister for Covid, along the lines of the Minister for Munitions in World War One.

    That position, first held by David Lloyd George, a consummate diplomat, unlike Kate Bingham, saw him bring in men of push and go from the private sector to work with, not against, the public sector to get things done. A template this Government has chosen to mostly ignore.

    The Government’s response to Covid has been so poor, in part, because no one has been given the task of dealing with it as their sole responsibility.

    I see you sidestep Bingham’s use of insider knowledge for personal benefit. Such behaviour by a civil servant would, more often than not, result in dismissal and it would likely be career ending for an elected politician.

    Bingham is just one more beneficiary of the croneyism rife within the current Government. Bingham appears to have been given free rein without the usual demands surrounding potential conflicts of interest, because she was a Johnson appointee, and because her husband is Jesse Norman MP, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

    As for BAME, I am restraining my response. I need no instruction in not treating BAME as a bloc as I did not do so, above.

    You have ignored that the £600,000 was supposed to be being, at least in part, spent on consultants to address concerns about poor take up amongst BAME communities.

    One looks forward to the National Audit Office report on all of Bingham’s activities and spending, particularly the money she spent on hiring staff from her own company to engage with communities, a task seemingly beyond their competence.

    And that report or another, will I am hopeful, consider the process by which Bingham was appointed to the post of head of the vaccine taskforce and whether or not she was, in fact, the most suitable candidate for the position, taking into account the job description for the post. I am sure the notes appertaining to filling the post and on the various candidates considered for it will be on file.

    Those who work in the public sector must expect as a matter of course to have their work and expenditure scrutinised in a way uncommon in much of the private sector. One is, after all, dealing with taxpayers’ money and not one’s own as many a Tory MP will tell you.

    As it happens, my mother booked her flu jab online last Friday. The letter had enclosed within it an A4 sheet containing brief amounts of information in sixteen languages and English.

    The website to which the letter and A4 sheet referred one has no language option. A very rookie mistake.

    The letter offered the option to ring for an appointment, but did not mention that there were language options when you had got through.

    I will not go on, but if these failings are not to be put at the door of the head of the UK vaccine taskforce, as you claim, but at those of others, why has Bingham spent £600,000 on addressing an issue you say is not within her remit?

    It would appear that Ms Bingham is entitled only to praise?

    The jury is still out on that one.

    And best business practice, as I’m sure Bingham would aver, involves planning, doing, assessing, acting and then repeating whilst you are producing your service or product.

    It has been rather amusing to hear Johnson thinking an inquiry, along the lines of an inspection method that would not have been out of place on the track at British Leyland in 1979 is somehow fit for purpose in 2021. But then we are hearing Bennite language about Brexit from the likes of John Redwood.

    Toyota builds assessment into its production processes so as not to end up with 100s of 1,000s of cars that do not meet their high quality standards.

    Johnson has so far presided over the equivalent of six first day of the Somme fatalities, but the time is not yet for a thorough review of how those deaths have come to pass and how more might be avoided through, say, the greater take up of vaccinations by disadvantaged or hard to reach groups?

    1. We’re in lockdown. There’s suggestions that it will take young people a decade to recover. And you’re complaining about £600,000? When nobody even knows what the BAME uptake would have been – how much lower it would have been – if the consultants weren’t bought in.

      That lack of seriousness – of wanting to squeeze the pennies, and refusal to pay for the best – is why the EU is so behind.

      Is a Bingham worth a Harding is a reasonable question. Is the vaccine worth overspending £600,000 on BAME outreach (even assuming it was an overspend) is a silly question.

  11. I have the impression (open to correction) that no country where the virus is widely prevalent has had much success with test and trace. So dear Dido’s incompetence may not matter much. In fact in general, vaccines excepted, there seems to be little evidence to support the uninspected assumption that government action or inaction has much altered the course of the epidemics that different countries have been subjected to.

    Bingham’s competence mattered greatly. We didn’t have the market power of the EU or the market/military power of the USA and yet we’ve ended up with a generous and timely supply of vaccines. Give that woman a gong, preferably a super gong, something far beyond the reach of a retiring bog standard mandarin.

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