The BMJ asked the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which announced the Vaccine Taskforce, to confirm that Bell had reported his “long list” of financial interests. We also asked to see any forms Bell had filled in as evidence. Contradicting its own press release which listed Bell as a taskforce member, a BEIS spokesperson told The BMJ, “Sir John Bell is a member of the expert advisory group to the Vaccine Taskforce, rather than a member of the taskforce itself.”
The spokesperson added that the expert advisory group is not involved in commercial decision making, and that those involved must declare their conflicts of interest. The spokesperson did not respond to The BMJ's request for copies of Bell's declarations.
The BMJ also approached Oxford University, Bell's employer, to ask for documents that confirm he had disclosed his “long list” of financial interests. Stephen Rouse, Oxford University's head of communications, responded, “Professor Sir John Bell has always declared his financial interests and board membership at Roche, in accordance with the university's conflict of interest policy for all staff.” Oxford did not respond to The BMJ's repeated request to see evidence of this disclosure. The BMJ is now seeking the financial disclosure form of John Bell through a freedom of information request to Oxford.
Lagging behind the US?
Much of the transparency The BMJ and others have sought around advisory committees in the UK is automatically provided in the US. “We have strong rules that require transparency, openness of proceedings, and rules in place to deal with conflicts of interest that are automatic,” says Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen, an American non-profit organisation focusing on government transparency.
Not that these rules are impenetrable: Weissman points out that the US vaccine taskforce, called Operation Warp Speed, is being directed by Moncef Slaoui, a former GlaxoSmithKline executive who has been criticised by senators for his pharma investments. The Trump administration bypassed normal government hiring procedures by bringing in Slaoui as an unpaid special adviser, who is therefore not required to disclose his interests. “The arrangement was improper and he should be dismissed immediately because of this conflict,” Weissman says. Even if a person is well intentioned, he says, direct financial investments create bias that is impossible for anyone to remove.
Covid cronyism: transparency is “even more important” in a crisis
In these exceptional times when, for example, contracts are being awarded outside usual procurement rules, it is essential that government decisions are properly documented and made transparent to maintain public trust. So said the National Audit Office10 (NAO) earlier this month in its report into government procurement during the covid-19 crisis.
It highlighted “a lack of transparency and adequate documentation” on some key decisions, including how the government identified and managed conflicts of interest. The report said it was “even more important to have a clear approach to managing conflicts of interest when contracts are awarded directly to suppliers without any competition.”
Because so many covid-19 contracts have been awarded to companies with ties to the Conservative Party, the government has faced charges of cronyism.
“You want these things to work,” says Peter Geoghegan, a journalist who has been covering the UK's failed covid-19 contracts for Open Democracy, the Guardian, and the London Review of Books. “It's taken a long time for the penny to drop about how this isn't working.” Digging up untendered covid-19 contracts involved diligent spade work. Contracts can be published on different websites, which are not easily searchable. Furthermore, the government has been ignoring requirements to publish contracts within 30 days, meaning that it took many months after the pandemic started before the untendered contracts became public.
In awarding contracts, a cross government process called the “high priority lane” assessed commercial leads brought in by officials, ministers, MPs, and lords through a special mailbox and which were treated as more credible than leads going through ordinary channels, the NAO reported.
Critics of UK contracting tell The BMJ it is impossible to trace the influence of lobbyists in the decisions to award contracts because little lobbying information is published or even collected in the first place. “Considering the gravity of decisions under ministers' consideration, there should be much greater transparency over who's trying to influence them, how, and over what decisions, than is currently the case,” says Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency. “We know more about lobbying activity in rural Ireland than we do in Whitehall.”
Passed in 2014, Britain's lobbying law requires only rudimentary information to be reported, most importantly, the name of the lobbyist, their company, and address, and the names of clients. In the US, lobbyists must disclose much more information and forms are disclosed quarterly. For each client, lobby companies must disclose the names of their lobbyists; list the matters or specific bills that were lobbied on; who was lobbied, such as a specific congressional committees, government agencies, or White House offices; and how much was spent lobbying, meaning lobbyist salaries and expenses.
“It tells you more than nothing, but not much more,” says Weissman of the UK lobby disclosure forms. He says that the US system requires such extensive information, because any one company has broad interests before the government. Pharma companies are considered the most powerful lobby in Washington and they lobby on everything from drug safety to labour laws to healthcare policy, tax matters, contracting law, defence spending, and government subsidies. “You've got no way to assess what they're actually up to,” Weissman says of the UK lobbying law.