Nadhim Zahawi: Vaccinating a nation

In July 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 vaccine deployment, Nadhim Zahawi MP (UCL Chemical Engineering 1985) shared his experience of controlling a pandemic

A collage of lots of Covid-19 vaccine bottles, sitting against a striking blue background

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

Photograph of Nadhim Zahawi MP in his office, wearing a smart shirt and tie, with the Houses of Parliament in the background

When the pandemic began, I was Minister for Business and Industry in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). I remember phoning my wife while walking through the hubbub of Westminster and saying, “It looks like we’re going to have to shut down the economy.” Nobody goes into politics to take away people’s freedoms, not in a country like ours. My parents fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, so we appreciate the freedoms we have in the UK. It was hard explaining to businesses why we had to close them down, although we rapidly set up a large package of support.

When the pandemic began, I was Minister for Business and Industry in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). I remember phoning my wife while walking through the hubbub of Westminster and saying, “It looks like we’re going to have to shut down the economy.” Nobody goes into politics to take away people’s freedoms, not in a country like ours. My parents fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, so we appreciate the freedoms we have in the UK. It was hard explaining to businesses why we had to close them down, although we rapidly set up a large package of support.

When the pandemic began, I was Minister for Business and Industry in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). I remember phoning my wife while walking through the hubbub of Westminster and saying, “It looks like we’re going to have to shut down the economy.” Nobody goes into politics to take away people’s freedoms, not in a country like ours. My parents fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, so we appreciate the freedoms we have in the UK. It was hard explaining to businesses why we had to close them down, although we rapidly set up a large package of support.

Before taking on the vaccination deployment, I was responsible for the ventilator challenge at BEIS, calling on 60 UK engineering businesses to find a way to make many more ventilators for the NHS. Taking approved ventilator designs, they scaled them up using the manufacturing muscle of the likes of Ford and Airbus. The UK Vaccine Taskforce was also set up within BEIS, led by Kate Bingham. Vaccine manufacturing had gone abroad decades ago, but many of its leaders were Brits, including Clive Dix, Ian McCubbin and Steve Bagshaw, who all got involved.

Developing vaccines requires multiple trials and, typically, at every stage you must raise more money, which takes time. In the pandemic, government support meant that we could parallel those stages with each vaccine. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was critical in ensuring that no corners were cut, and sharing their data at press conferences really helped with vaccine confidence. According to the Office for National Statistics, as of July 2021, 94% of all UK adults said that they’d either had the vaccine, will have the vaccine, or are very likely to have the vaccine.

On 2 December 2020, the MHRA was the first regulator to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Six days later, we started deploying it, with Oxford-AstraZeneca coming soon after. The MHRA allowed us to be agile, pragmatic and incredibly safe in producing vaccines that we had invested in ‘at risk’. We had no idea whether any of them would work, but we invested hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ monies because we believed that great science is worth backing.

Before taking on the vaccination deployment, I was responsible for the ventilator challenge at BEIS, calling on 60 UK engineering businesses to find a way to make many more ventilators for the NHS. Taking approved ventilator designs, they scaled them up using the manufacturing muscle of the likes of Ford and Airbus. The UK Vaccine Taskforce was also set up within BEIS, led by Kate Bingham. Vaccine manufacturing had gone abroad decades ago, but many of its leaders were Brits, including Clive Dix, Ian McCubbin and Steve Bagshaw, who all got involved.

Developing vaccines requires multiple trials and, typically, at every stage you must raise more money, which takes time. In the pandemic, government support meant that we could parallel those stages with each vaccine. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was critical in ensuring that no corners were cut, and sharing their data at press conferences really helped with vaccine confidence. According to the Office for National Statistics, as of July 2021, 94% of all UK adults said that they’d either had the vaccine, will have the vaccine, or are very likely to have the vaccine.

On 2 December 2020, the MHRA was the first regulator to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Six days later, we started deploying it, with Oxford-AstraZeneca coming soon after. The MHRA allowed us to be agile, pragmatic and incredibly safe in producing vaccines that we had invested in ‘at risk’. We had no idea whether any of them would work, but we invested hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ monies because we believed that great science is worth backing.

Before taking on the vaccination deployment, I was responsible for the ventilator challenge at BEIS, calling on 60 UK engineering businesses to find a way to make many more ventilators for the NHS. Taking approved ventilator designs, they scaled them up using the manufacturing muscle of the likes of Ford and Airbus. The UK Vaccine Taskforce was also set up within BEIS, led by Kate Bingham. Vaccine manufacturing had gone abroad decades ago, but many of its leaders were Brits, including Clive Dix, Ian McCubbin and Steve Bagshaw, who all got involved.

Developing vaccines requires multiple trials and, typically, at every stage you must raise more money, which takes time. In the pandemic, government support meant that we could parallel those stages with each vaccine. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was critical in ensuring that no corners were cut, and sharing their data at press conferences really helped with vaccine confidence. According to the Office for National Statistics, as of July 2021, 94% of all UK adults said that they’d either had the vaccine, will have the vaccine, or are very likely to have the vaccine.

On 2 December 2020, the MHRA was the first regulator to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Six days later, we started deploying it, with Oxford-AstraZeneca coming soon after. The MHRA allowed us to be agile, pragmatic and incredibly safe in producing vaccines that we had invested in ‘at risk’. We had no idea whether any of them would work, but we invested hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ monies because we believed that great science is worth backing.

“Our record stands at 27 jabs per second, thanks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things”
“Our record stands at 27 jabs per second, thanks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things”
“Our record stands at 27 jabs per second, thanks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things”

As part of the Vaccine Taskforce, I had visibility of the vaccine supply, but for my new role in deployment I needed to look at infrastructure. The NHS was the anchor as it is familiar with vaccine deployments, but we brought in local government and the armed forces too. Brigadier Phil Prosser said to me, “We’re going to stand up the equivalent of a national supermarket chain in about a month and then we’re going to grow at 20% every week.” And that’s what we did. NHS primary care networks handled 60% of deployment, alongside hospital hubs, national vaccination centres and more than 500 pharmacies. Our record stands at 27 jabs per second, thanks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things, not least our 80,000 volunteer vaccinators and a further 200,000 centre volunteers.

Challenges remain. Around 28% of the adult population is still at risk and, despite high vaccine positivity, this number skews heavily towards ethnic-minority groups, which is why I am working hard with those communities. We are also planning the autumn booster campaign. We’re working to help the rest of the world get vaccinated too, leading the creation of CoVax and putting more than £500 million towards producing a billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for low and middle-income countries. We’re also preparing for any virus variant that resists the current vaccines by working on being able to deliver a new vaccine for it within 100 days of discovery.

Studying Chemical Engineering at UCL gave me the ability to look at lots of data and quickly establish what is noise and what is material for the job in hand. In particular, process engineering has been important for both manufacturing and deployment of the vaccine programme, allowing me to look at where we can improve yield and delivery experience.

Nadhim Zahawi is Secretary of State for Education. At the time of this interview, he was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment).

Photography Craig Hibbert, Stocksy

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

As part of the Vaccine Taskforce, I had visibility of the vaccine supply, but for my new role in deployment I needed to look at infrastructure. The NHS was the anchor as it is familiar with vaccine deployments, but we brought in local government and the armed forces too. Brigadier Phil Prosser said to me, “We’re going to stand up the equivalent of a national supermarket chain in about a month and then we’re going to grow at 20% every week.” And that’s what we did. NHS primary care networks handled 60% of deployment, alongside hospital hubs, national vaccination centres and more than 500 pharmacies. Our record stands at 27 jabs per second, thanks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things, not least our 80,000 volunteer vaccinators and a further 200,000 centre volunteers.

Challenges remain. Around 28% of the adult population is still at risk and, despite high vaccine positivity, this number skews heavily towards ethnic-minority groups, which is why I am working hard with those communities. We are also planning the autumn booster campaign. We’re working to help the rest of the world get vaccinated too, leading the creation of CoVax and putting more than £500 million towards producing a billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for low and middle-income countries. We’re also preparing for any virus variant that resists the current vaccines by working on being able to deliver a new vaccine for it within 100 days of discovery.

Studying Chemical Engineering at UCL gave me the ability to look at lots of data and quickly establish what is noise and what is material for the job in hand. In particular, process engineering has been important for both manufacturing and deployment of the vaccine programme, allowing me to look at where we can improve yield and delivery experience.

Nadhim Zahawi is Secretary of State for Education. At the time of this interview, he was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment).

Photography Craig Hibbert, Stocksy

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

As part of the Vaccine Taskforce, I had visibility of the vaccine supply, but for my new role in deployment I needed to look at infrastructure. The NHS was the anchor as it is familiar with vaccine deployments, but we brought in local government and the armed forces too. Brigadier Phil Prosser said to me, “We’re going to stand up the equivalent of a national supermarket chain in about a month and then we’re going to grow at 20% every week.” And that’s what we did. NHS primary care networks handled 60% of deployment, alongside hospital hubs, national vaccination centres and more than 500 pharmacies. Our record stands at 27 jabs per second, thanks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things, not least our 80,000 volunteer vaccinators and a further 200,000 centre volunteers.

Challenges remain. Around 28% of the adult population is still at risk and, despite high vaccine positivity, this number skews heavily towards ethnic-minority groups, which is why I am working hard with those communities. We are also planning the autumn booster campaign. We’re working to help the rest of the world get vaccinated too, leading the creation of CoVax and putting more than £500 million towards producing a billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for low and middle-income countries. We’re also preparing for any virus variant that resists the current vaccines by working on being able to deliver a new vaccine for it within 100 days of discovery.

Studying Chemical Engineering at UCL gave me the ability to look at lots of data and quickly establish what is noise and what is material for the job in hand. In particular, process engineering has been important for both manufacturing and deployment of the vaccine programme, allowing me to look at where we can improve yield and delivery experience.

Nadhim Zahawi is Secretary of State for Education. At the time of this interview, he was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment).

Photography Craig Hibbert, Stocksy

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.