Nadhim Zahawi – the Iraqi-born Briton in charge of the UK’s Covid vaccine drive

Solid bond with government’s top brass gives son of Baghdad an early boost in new health role

H90CN3 London, UK. 10th January, 2017. Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, leaves 10 Downing Street during a Cabinet meeting. Credit: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News
Powered by automated translation

The Iraqi-born British business minister asked by Boris Johnson to oversee the Covid-19 vaccination programme is facing the trickiest task of his parliamentary career.

The responsibility of ensuring that the millions of vaccines Britain has bought are distributed in line with correct priority and without major mishap, could herald the political arrival of Nadhim Zahawi, 53.

On the other hand, given Britain’s poor track record in dealing with the pandemic, the appointment could also lead to catastrophe and embarrassment.

Mr Zahawi's ability to engage adeptly with the media, as well as his extensive marketing experience, that has led the prime minister to loan the business minister to the health department.

The pair got to know each other well after Mr Zahawi organised a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan for Mr Johnson, when he was mayor of London in 2015. The MP is a Kurd who had business interests in the region, including serving as chief strategy officer for Gulf Keystone Petroleum.

Born in Baghdad in 1967 into an Iraqi Kurd family, the father of three acquired extensive business skills in Britain as co-founder of the international market research company YouGov.

A former adviser to Jeffery Archer, the politician and novelist, Mr Zahawi is comfortable working with the media and performs well in interviews. That will be an advantage for the Covid-19 programme with public opinion vital in persuading enough people to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. A key area to address with be tackling the anti-vaccination campaigners who will do all they can to undermine government efforts.

The vaccine rollout, subject to regulatory approval, will start before Christmas in the UK, and Mr Zahawi will oversee distribution through to next summer, serving as a joint minister between the health and business departments.

He has gone from a boyhood in Baghdad to a wealthy businessman – and Britain’s second highest earning MP.

His family were forced to flee Iraq in 1976 amid escalating conflict between the government in Baghdad and the Kurds. Mr Zahawi received a good private education in England that culminated in a degree in chemical engineering from University College London.

He worked as a marketing director before advising Archer, then co-founding YouGov in 2005 before he was elected as an MP for Stratford-on-Avon in 2010.

The politician, who is married with three children, was appointed education minister in Theresa May’s Conservative government in 2018.

Mr Zahawi gained media prominence a year earlier when he drew public attention to US President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order that banned travellers from numerous Middle Eastern countries from entering the US. Despite being a British citizen, the fact he was born in Iraq meant he was banned, as was his Iraqi-born wife Lana. This also prevented him from visiting his children at university in the US.

He argued strongly that the travel ban, focused primarily at Muslim countries, led to increased support for ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere, as did Mrs May’s failure to publicly criticise the measure.

Outside politics, he is a keen horse rider and show jumper. He owns and runs a riding school with his wife.

Helpfully, Mr Zahawi has a good relationship with his new boss, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary. Nine years ago, they co-authored a book on the human behaviour behind the banking crash in 2007 called Masters of Nothing.