Rishi Sunak says his daughters’ role model is Oxford vaccine scientist Sarah Gilbert.


As Margaret Thatcher famously said: ‘If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.’

Away from the politics, the infighting and the competitive glory, women have been the quietly effective heroines of the pandemic.

Prime among them is Dr Sarah Gilbert, who first cracked the Oxford vaccine. Typically, she seems totally uninterested in a lap of honour. Instead, she is now concentrating on adapting the vaccine to outwit mutant variants.

Oxford’s Professor of Vaccinology picks up the phone to me and says briskly that she can spare only a few minutes. I am not going to argue. No wonder Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said that Gilbert is the ‘kick-butt’ role model for his daughters.

Women have been the quietly effective heroines of the pandemic – prime among them is Dr Sarah Gilbert, who first cracked the Oxford vaccine

While so-called social-media ‘influencers’ of young women have made fools of themselves by showing off in Dubai and Barbados, those who have true power to influence for the good of society are the country’s scientists. Indeed, the knock-on effect could happily recalibrate cultural role models a little.

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, says we have made ‘monumental progress’ in understanding, treating and protecting people against the virus – ‘much of which would not have been possible without all the women involved in pandemic research’. 

She hopes the ‘visibility of our female scientists will inspire a future generation of women and girls to consider and follow exciting careers’ in science, technology engineering and mathematics.

In 2019, women represented only 26 per cent of those working in such areas.

Dr Gilbert, 58, is pleased by this surge of enthusiasm. ‘One of the best things is hearing from schoolchildren that science is cool. The kids are really interested – girls and boys.’ 

She sounds frustrated that in the 21st Century it should still be necessary for young girls to have scientific female role models, but adds: ‘It is great if I can be an inspiration.’ 

As the mother of triplets, she offers very wise advice that she says women with small babies may find resonant: ‘Keep on going. It is about persistence.’

Whenever she’s asked about the moment of breakthrough with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, she always answers dryly that it had been about 25 years in the making. 

Other heroine of the vaccine is Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at Public Health England.

Other heroine of the vaccine is Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at Public Health England.

UK Vaccines Taskforce Chair Kate Bingham, who oversaw the stunningly successful procurement of vaccines

UK Vaccines Taskforce Chair Kate Bingham, who oversaw the stunningly successful procurement of vaccines

The result of experience and judgment. And, above all, patience, a quality that is sadly rare in contemporary culture but which women tend to possess more often than men. And Dr Gilbert – whose hobby is knitting – is the personification.

Her team’s revolutionary vaccine was based on scientific know-know and then developed through sheer toil. Progress is incremental and best achieved without hoopla.

‘Usually science is a confirmation of a hypothesis. There were no eureka moments,’ Dr Gilbert explains.

Other heroines of the vaccine are Dr Nikki Kanani, Medical Director of Primary Care for NHS England, and Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at Public Health England. Dr Ramsay agrees there is something unshowy about this branch of medicine which seems to suit female characteristics.

In essence, public health is all about protection – another primeval female attribute.

Forget flashy technical wizardry that’s associated with men. As soon as the first vaccine was given to people in December, the start of the greatest inoculation programme in this country’s history, the image that captured these life-saving moments was, in the main, of a female nurse – a profound and symbolic visual expression of caring for the vulnerable.

Dr Nikki Kanani, Medical Director of Primary Care for NHS England

Dr Nikki Kanani, Medical Director of Primary Care for NHS England

Dr Ramsay says: ‘Much of the vaccination programme is mundane. It is sticking injections into people.’ Significantly, she adds: ‘Some male professors consider immunology beneath them but I find it very satisfying because it is about protecting people. 

It is all quite low-tech: checking the temperature of fridges and supplies. You are rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it.’

Although Dr Ramsay is a professor, she does not use the title in her work. This is much less about status than job satisfaction.

It is odd that although every survey of the public shows that nurses are the most trusted professionals, politicians (male) have seemingly never thought it a good idea to invite them to share the daily ministerial and scientific adviser pandemic briefings.

The truth is that heroines of the pandemic are both pastoral and modest. When Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, saw her first Covid patient last spring, her response was a fleeting doubt that she would be a good enough doctor to manage the severity of the situation. She was struck by impostor syndrome – another peculiarly female trait. Then she scolded herself: ‘For Christ sake, just get on with it!’

Momentary self-doubt was also experienced by UK Vaccines Taskforce Chair Kate Bingham, who oversaw the stunningly successful procurement of vaccines. 

When the Prime Minister invited her to take on the role, she hesitated for 24 hours. She, too, suffered impostor syndrome, wondering if she was capable of doing the job.

It was her daughter who gave her a pep talk about the stupidity of talking herself down. 

Kate’s ability to anticipate which vaccines would get approved first and then place bulk orders for Britain was a total triumph. It means this country is so far ahead of every other European nation.

What links these women is clarity of focus. At a time of global crisis, when it came to the crunch and the nation needed protecting, you could say that it was men who pontificated and women who delivered.

Moreover, as well as delivering the goods, women have a heroism of common sense and kindness.

Rachel Clarke is married to a former RAF pilot, but this has been her battle. She says that for too long, caring has been seen as a feminine virtue and associated with ‘fluffiness’ and weakness.

In fact, it has required steel to comfort the afflicted.

A cruel effect of the virus is that so many people have died alone.

Rachel has written movingly in her book, Breathtaking: Inside The NHS In A Time Of Pandemic, about the appalling inhumanity of Covid patients dying without seeing their families for a last time. From the moment they entered hospital, they never saw a human, unmasked face again.

This was a typically empathetic observation of a woman on the front line. 

She remembers how she needed to be ‘as hard as nails’ to face a child whose parent was dying. ‘To crouch down and tell a child that their parent isn’t well, or to support a spouse seeing their partner for the last time is the hardest thing. You cannot give any thought to your own distress. You just have to put that other human being first and do whatever you can to give them comfort.’

Rachel says that while she may be seen as representing female values – comforting the sick – she could do so only if her family life operated on a reverse of traditional stereotypes.

Her husband kept the family together. She says: ‘I am so grateful to him because I didn’t have the emotional strength to support the children. He had to be the 1950s housewife during the pandemic.’

Dr Gilbert’s husband, too, sacrificed his own career as a scientist to look after their children. She has said that, during the pandemic, ‘he has taken on all the shopping and cooking responsibilities. I just go home and sit down and there’s food there. I wouldn’t have the energy to cook anything myself’.

In our war against Covid-19, bluster and bellicosity have not worked. 

Only patience, realistic determination and community kindness is managing to stop its trail of devastation. When I put this to Rachel, she hesitates before she answers (another female trait).

‘I don’t know if this is a female quality, but in times of crisis some people have a clarity of focus. They just put one foot in front of the other and do the right thing.

‘Action is of the essence, you can’t just wring your hands.’

A female adviser in Downing Street has told me that she has noticed women naturally assuming pastoral roles during the pandemic. Women have tended to be those who check in on colleagues and notice who needs a sympathetic word.

In sum, it is women who show the human touch. This happened despite the fact that the crisis began with politics and logistics at the core. It was a sign of things to come when the first batches of PPE arrived that they were designed for men and did not fit female health workers.

Above all, the heroines of the pandemic share a common trait of being uninterested in political glory. Bingham was irritated by claims that she got the job of head of the UK Vaccine Taskforce only because her husband is a Government Minister. In fact, she has a First in biochemistry from Oxford, worked with a US biotech firm while studying for an MBA at Harvard Business School and then built from scratch a venture capital group that managed funds worth £730 million. In her vaccine job, she worked flat out for the year with no financial reward.

Furthermore, Bingham, Gilbert and Clarke all cavil at the idea of being seen as heroines.

Clarke says she would be mortified at being described as one because she is simply doing the same as all her NHS colleagues. Bingham said it was the combined strengths of the whole vaccine-deployment team that made it so successful. Gilbert said there would be no vaccine without collaboration. In the manner of heroines of the Second World War, there is something noble about the self-effacement of these women. This has been a time for usefulness rather than showboating.

Discreetly, too, the work of two other women has stood out.

Her mother having been a visible symbol of constancy during the Blitz, the Queen has read the national mood. The other trouper royal has been the Duchess of Cambridge. No showy Hollywood gestures from her about how much she cared. She has calmly shared experiences with the public on Zoom and home-schooled her children.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, Director of Health Protection for Public Health England, describes what she sees as the key qualities of those tackling the pandemic: resilience and compassion.

She says in her soft Dublin accent: ‘We have had to keep going in the face of uncertainty. Sometimes women think they can’t be the ones to lead – for this is, indeed, like a war – but they can. It requires a deep self-belief and compassion.”

The worst of times; the best of women.

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