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The new ‘minister for the vaccine’ needs clear responsibilities and remits

Like so many other of the government’s Covid announcements, Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment adds to the confusing mess of responsibilities

Like so many other of the government’s Covid announcements, Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment adds to the confusing mess of responsibilities, says Tim Durrant

A few days before UK regulators approved the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine, Nadhim Zahawi was appointed as the minister responsible for its roll-out. It is hoped that other vaccines, amongst them the cheaper Oxford/AstraZeneca version, will also win approval in the coming weeks and months, and that a nationwide vaccination programme will soon be underway.

The appointment of a dedicated minister highlights the significance of the task, but there is a risk that this role – Zahawi is a junior minister at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – adds to the already confused picture of who is running what part of the government's coronavirus response. The government needs to set out Zahawi’s remit, and what he is responsible for.

Appointing a minister for a specific issue can work – if they have real clout

Previous ministers for specific priorities have had real power to get things done. In 2015, David Cameron made Richard Harrington his minister for Syrian refugees, with Harrington setting up a process across three departments – the Home Office, the Department for International Development, and the then-Department for Communities and Local Government – to ensure that refugees were settled in the UK.

Tessa Jowell, as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, was Labour’s minister for the 2012 Olympics before handing over to Jeremy Hunt when the coalition took office. London 2012 was a priority for both governments and had cross-party support, but having a dedicated, senior minister – each of whom stayed in post for a long time – meant that there was clear accountability and a point person who could resolve problems.

Unlike vaccine delivery, however, the 2012 Olympics and resettlement of Syrian refugees were both new tasks, without existing structures in government to deliver them. Zahawi will inherit established systems – and need to work with a number of ministers, government appointees and the devolved governments, already involved in vaccine roll-out. And unlike Jowell and Hunt, he does not have a seat at the cabinet table to do so. Harrington was able to make an impact as a junior minister, but he was responsible for resettling 30,000 people over a year, not vaccinating tens of millions in a few months. This is a huge job for a junior minister to take on.

This appointment adds to the mess of responsibilities

Zahawi’s appointment suggests that there was nobody in government responsible for overseeing the roll-out until now, but that is not true. The government already has a minister for the vaccine: Jo Churchill, minister for prevention, public health and primary care at DHSC. One of her core responsibilities is vaccine deployment and, having been in post since July 2019, she has been in government throughout the pandemic. Zahawi will have to get up to speed on what Churchill knows – and take responsibility for parts of her role.

And it is not only ministers who are overseeing the vaccine roll-out. One of the government’s tsars, appointed as part of the pandemic response, is Kate Bingham, chair of the vaccine taskforce. How Zahawi will interact with Bingham is unclear. But Bingham does not face any regular parliamentary scrutiny – in his new capacity, Zahawi should face regular questions in the Commons, although he may just end up explaining what Bingham has been doing. He should also become a regular face at the government’s televised press conferences – which have suffered from being led by an overly-revolving cast of ministers.

The political reality is that Johnson is responsible for vaccine delivery

The government’s response to the pandemic has been characterised by confusion over who is responsible for what, not helped by the government’s decision to restructure Public Health England in the middle of the crisis.

Clear roles and responsibilities help those inside government know what they need to focus on, and those outside government – in parliament, the media and society at large – know who to scrutinise. Zahawi’s appointment won a day of positive headlines for the government while further obscuring who is actually in charge of what. At least the government has confirmed that Zahawi will be setting aside most of his previous responsibilities as a junior business minister.

What Zahawi’s appointment doesn’t obscure, however, is the political reality. A successful vaccine roll-out is, in Boris Johnson’s words, the way to “reclaim our lives”. The prime minister is unlikely to let Zahawi take the plaudits if all goes according to plan, and the media, and opposition, will not let Johnson or health secretary Matt Hancock duck responsibility for any failure. 


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