Leaked emails revealed Lord Bethell had met with Abingdon Health to discuss their lateral flow test technology – a meeting which was undeclared in official records. The Government blamed an “admin error”
The Government quietly updated official records to include an undeclared meeting between Health minister Lord Bethell and a firm that obtained an £85m Covid contract.
Leaked emails published by the Sunday Times revealed Lord Bethell had failed to declare a phone call on 1 April with Abingdon Health to discuss their lateral flow test technology.
The firm later secured two contracts worth £85m – which were awarded without competition under emergency Covid contract rules.
A transparency release from the Department of Health and Social Care dating back to last October was quietly updated on Tuesday, to “include meetings left off the original publication due to an admin error.”
Lord Bethell held two further meetings with Abingdon Health, which were properly declared on the department’s transparency releases.
Boris Johnson faces calls to sack Lord Bethell, a Tory donor, after he admitted he had used a personal email account for government business.
On Monday, Downing Street claimed Lord Bethell – along with Matt Hancock – “only ever conducted Government business through their departmental email addresses.”
But former aide Dominic Cummings branded the claim “nonsense, and accused the PM’s spokesman of “openly lying”.
Number 10 on Tuesday rowed back on the claim, after evidence emerged that it was not true.
Emails obtained by the Good Law Project show former Tory chairman Lord Feldman wrote with details of a possible Covid contract to a string of government officials – and Lord Bethell.
Asked if he recognised that the e-mails showed Lord Bethell was using a private e-mail account, the spokesman said on Monday: “Yes, we’ve been clear that ministers are able to communicate through a variety of different ways as long as they adhere to the guidance as set out.”
Leaked minutes, published by the Sunday Times, also claimed Lord Bethell “routinely uses his personal inbox” and “the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox.”
Fellow health ministers Matt Hancock and Helen Whately are also reported to have used private e-mail addresses when conducting government business.
Private e-mail accounts can be used to get round freedom of information and archiving rules – making it more difficult for vital information to reach the public.
Minister Michael Gove – aided by Dominic Cummings – lost a legal battle almost a decade ago over his use of a private account.
Cabinet Office advice was produced after the scandal which says clearly: “It is expected that Government business should be recorded on government record systems.”
However, it stops short of saying private e-mail addresses cannot be used for government business at all.
Instead it says anyone using a private account should “take steps to ensure the relevant information is accessible (e.g. by copying it to a government email address)”.
Asked whether he used a personal email address in a Lords debate on Tuesday, Lord Bethell said: “I have read the ministerial code, I signed the ministerial code and I seek to uphold it in everything I do.”