openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Exclusive: Controversy over key coronavirus role for Boris ‘cycling pal’ Andrew Gilligan

Ministers claim COVID-19 response is led by science and experts – so why is Gilligan calling up labs to negotiate critical virus testing? Labour demands clarity.

James Cusick
James Cusick
14 April 2020, 6.09pm
Olympic gold medalist Jessica Ennis-Hill and London's Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan
Lauren Hurley/PA Archive/PA Images

openDemocracy has learned that Andrew Gilligan, the controversial journalist and Boris Johnsons’ former ‘cycling tsar’, has been negotiating with private sector pathology laboratories on behalf of the government.

His key role appears to directly contradict ministerial claims that the UK’s response to coronavirus is being guided – at all times – by science and expert medical advice. Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, is now calling on the government to “urgently update us on what their actual testing strategy is, and who is and who is not involved”.

With a chequered career as journalist, Gilligan’s appointment as Johnson’s ‘cycling tsar’ back in 2013 prompted accusations of cronyism. He is now a transport policy adviser to Johnson’s Downing street team.

Despite having no science or medical background, and holding a policy brief that has nothing to do with health, Gilligan has been holding discussions with leading commercial pathology laboratories as part of health secretary Matt Hancock’s promise to carry out 100,000 tests for coronavirus every day.

One lab executive, a scientist with a highly respected career in pathology, said he was shocked when he learned it was Gilligan who was calling him. He told openDemocracy: “I thought to myself at the time, what the f*** is Andrew Gilligan doing making this request on behalf on Number 10?”

Gilligan did not fully understand exactly what laboratories did, and appeared confused over the role they already had in carrying out coronavirus testing

Another laboratory also confirmed they too had been contacted by Gilligan.

Both offered similar opinions to openDemocracy that Gilligan did not fully understand exactly what they did, and that he appeared confused over the role they already had in carrying out coronavirus testing.

One lab director said: “He was attempting to negotiate how we might donate key machines to the NHS testing regime and did not know we were already using our resources to carry out COVID-19 screening for NHS staff.”

Another testing centre boss said he was “surprised” that Gilligan appeared to have an official and prominent role but essentially knew “very little about what exactly he was asking for”.

Labour Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, told openDemocracy: “The government and Matt Hancock have promised us 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. As things stand we are making slow progress towards that target. Ministers must now urgently update us on what their actual testing strategy is, and who is and who is not involved, and what their latest projections are for the number of daily tests that will be carried out by the end of the month.”

Testing delays, and controversy

The promise of 100,000 tests a day by Hancock was made on April 2 following criticism that the UK was far behind on testing. Daily coronavirus tests had barely passed 10,000 a day when Hancock announced the UK will increase that number tenfold inside four weeks.

Germany, with far lower Covid-19 deaths per capita than the UK, is already conducting 500,000 tests per week.

The health secretary said the increased tests would be delivered as part of a five-pillar plan which involved government, industry, academia, the NHS and others to “dramatically increase the number of tests being carried out each day.”

Hancock promised to co-ordinate a “national effort” with global manufacturers, aiming to encourage them to expand their manufacturing capacity in the UK. He said the “strongest, home-grown businesses in life sciences and other industries would be encouraged to turn their resources to creating and rolling out mass testing at scale.”

The five-pillar plan aims to engage the private sector in testing. This strategy had long been advised by the wider science community, which has been largely critical of the centralised approach favoured by the NHS and Public Health England.

For Boris’s cycling pal to be calling scientists whose businesses may be critical to achieving this important testing target is beyond belief. It suggests a panic of all and any hands-on-deck

Former Department of Health official

The involvement of labs operated by the private sector and other commercial institutions is seen as a critical piece of the jigsaw if the 100,000 per day target is going to be met.

Gilligan’s involvement appears to be focused on bringing in the additional resources of the commercial sector, although one former Department of Health official told openDemocracy: “What Andrew Gilligan is doing here is head-scratching. For Boris’s cycling pal to be calling scientists whose businesses may be critical to achieving this important testing target is beyond belief. It suggests a panic of all and any hands-on-deck.”

The improved testing regime promised by Hancock is aimed at both confirming the presence of the virus (an antigen test) and another to establish if people have already had the virus (an antibody test). As yet there is no reliable antibody test that has been purchased by the UK government, so the 100,000 target is largely expected to come from antigen tests.

The government has yet to announce the precise requirements that will need to be in place before the lockdown is lifted. But without a vastly expanded testing regime rolled out, the lockdown is expected to remain.

openDemocracy asked Downing Street to explain Andrew Gilligan’s involvement and what his scientific credentials were to carry out negotiations with pathology laboratories. At time of publication no reply had been received.

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