In February Matt Hancock declined to apologise after the High Court ruled the Government unlawfully failed to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of coronavirus-related contracts. Now the Government is faced with even more accusations of contracts given to people with links to the Conservative Party.
The Health Secretary has faced calls for greater accountability after a judge said he did not publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy.
However, Mr Hancock insisted legal cases about transparency returns were “second order” to saving lives and said his officials had been working long hours to procure PPE instead.
He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “People can make up their own view about whether I should have told my team to stop buying PPE and spend the time bringing forward those transparency returns by just over a fortnight.
“Or whether I was right to buy the PPE and get it to the front line. You tell me that that is wrong. You can’t. And the reason you can’t is because it was the right thing to do.
“Legal cases about timings of transparency returns are completely second order compared to saving lives.
“There is no health secretary in history who would have taken the view that they needed to take people off the project of buying PPE in order to ensure that nine months later the Health Secretary didn’t have a slightly bumpy interview on the Marr programme.
“It is not what it is about, Andrew (Marr), it is about doing the right thing.”
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves wrote to the Health Secretary asking him to commit to “publishing all outstanding contracts, winding down emergency procurement powers and reintroducing tendering”.
She said: “Matt Hancock cannot simply brush off this court ruling. He must commit to cleaning up the cronyism and waste that has marred government contracting during the pandemic.”
Now a PR firm owned by Matthew Freud, closely associated with the Tories during Cameron’s time as PM, said to part of the infamous Chipping Norton Set, was awarded a contract to provide “strategic communications”, including “reputation management”, for England’s test-and-trace system without going through a tender process, the Guardian has reported.
Jolyon Maugham Director of The Good Law Project Tweeted: “Yet another contract, backdated, and given without tender to a firm with close links to the Conservative Party.”
The contract with the PR firm was for services to be carried out between 1 November last year and 15 January this year but it has only been discovered after details were published on a government website on 19 February.
Although the start date for the £55,000 contract with Freud Communications was 1 November, the website says it was awarded on 8 February 2021.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “As part of our response to this global pandemic we have drawn on the enormous expertise and resources of a number of public and private sector partners. The government has been clear from the outset that public authorities must achieve value for taxpayers and use good commercial judgment.”
A Freuds spokesperson said: “We’re proud of our long-term association with PHE and the DHSC for whom we have worked continuously for over 15 years through a procurement process that strictly adheres to government guidelines.”