ALEX BRUMMER: EU vaccine war spoils Soriot’s triumph at Astrazeneca

ALEX BRUMMER: The EU vaccine war has spoiled Pascal Soriot’s triumph at Astrazeneca

AstraZeneca is among the real corporate heroes of the pandemic. 

Its workforce strained every sinew to bring the Oxford-Jenner Covid vaccine to fruition and, selflessly, it as been making it available at close to cost price.

So it was shameful to hear Belgium MEP Philippe Lamberts frothing at the mouth and describing the company as ‘dishonest’.

It is also disturbing that Italian inspectors are making politically charged claims that Astra secretly stockpiled 29m doses.

Lifeline: AstraZeneca’s workforce strained every sinew to bring the Oxford-Jenner Covid vaccine to fruition and, selflessly, it as been making it available at close to cost price

What is frustrating for its Swedish chairman Leif Johansson, a former chief executive of Volvo, is the reputational damage. 

He is concerned by the high-profile rift with the EU and with Astra’s less than robust regulatory filings in the US, which have been subjected to challenge.

A problem has been the absence of French chief executive Pascal Soriot, who has been at home with his family in Sydney away from the fray. 

Some members of the board feel that they went out on a limb by awarding Soriot a £15.4million pay package for 2020, partly for rising to the Covid challenge.

This met his perennial concern about being undervalued. But it is now felt that Soriot has been less than effective in dealing with European and US regulators.

It is argued that differences with Brussels over what some insiders at Astra now regard as not a particularly well written EU contract could have been smoothed over. 

Healing the rift has not been made any easier by Soriot’s defiant rather than conciliatory interviews with the European press.

The rumbles of discontent with Soriot’s leadership and the lack of a strong enough support system around him are understood to have coalesced around non-executive Graham Chipchase, chief executive of former GKN offshoot Brambles.

There is no suggestion that anyone is calling for Soriot’s head. He has delivered not just on the vaccine but also on the growth targets and immunology drugs put in place at the time of the successful defence against a Pfizer takeover in 2015. 

Johansson and the board stood full square behind the sturdy defence put up by Soriot.

Astra’s stock has retreated from its peaks of July 2020 partly as a response to the £29billion bid for US drug maker Alexion. 

But there can be no doubt that the EU vaccine war has marred an undoubted triumph and engendered unwanted turbulence.

Rough rider

David Cumming at Aviva has taken some of the shine off the £8.8billion Deliveroo float with objections to the work status of the food service company’s riders.

The focus on working conditions in the gig economy has come under scrutiny following the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the entitlement of Uber drivers to the living wage and better employment conditions.

In a country where successive Tory-led governments have raised the national living wage, all employers, Deliveroo included, have legal obligations to make sure it is paid. There are also moral obligations about rights of access to sick pay.

But there also needs to be recognition that in the UK there are individuals in further education and young people seeking extra income who enjoy the flexibility of being a delivery rider.

It would also be fascinating to know if Aviva, in the interests of governance parity, would be willing to offload its holdings in all the other quoted firms in the retail, online and logistics sector which subscribe to the gig economy.

Flexible working arrangements suit great swathes of the workforce. Not being a PAYE employee can also be economically advantageous. 

Sure, potential employment legal liabilities are a risk factor in the float. But whether they justify UK long-funds climbing onto their high horse is a moot point.

Jackpot joy

Why is the UK services sector doing so well in lockdown, soaring to a seven-month high in March?

It is partly due to the country’s creative, tech and online skills. The gaming sector is a major contributor to the economy with an estimated contribution of £5.7billion.

The intrinsic value is underlined with the latest deal, with Britain’s Gamesys, inventor of online betting brands such as Star Spins, Sun Bingo and Virgin Games, getting into bed with US casino operator Bally’s in a £2billion deal.

The takeover enriches founder Noel Hayden by £299million. Another British enterprise goes West.