The now ex-health secretary’s decision to use a private account for government business concealed information from government officials and potentially the public.
Former health secretary Matt Hancock is under investigation for using a personal email account rather than an official account to conduct government affairs during the pandemic, in a breach of ministerial guidelines, according to The Sunday Times.
The newspaper has obtained documents it said proved Hancock used his personal email for government dealings during the pandemic “routinely” since March 2020.
It comes within the same 24-hour period that Hancock resigned as health secretary following the emergence of video footage of him kissing an aide in his ministerial office in a breach of coronavirus restrictions.
Crucially, the new development means that Hancock may have concealed evidence relating to the conflicts of interest he stands accused of after he failed to declare that he’d appointed this aide, Gina Coladangelo, as his media adviser and director of his apartment, paid £15,000 a year.
It could also mean that it will be difficult for officials to obtain evidence of Hancock’s conduct in office during the upcoming independent inquiry into the UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The fresh allegations against the former health secretary were reportedly revealed in minutes from a meeting between senior officials at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in December.
David Williams, the department’s second permanent secretary, reportedly warned in the minutes that Hancock “only” deals with his private office “via Gmail account”. He also said that “the SOS [secretary of state] does not have a DHSC inbox”.
Under Cabinet Office official guidance, ministers are supposed to use official email accounts to ensure that there is evidence of important government decisions and so that they can be examined internally.
Mr Williams also warned that the government didn’t have the ability to freely access ministers’ personal email records, and that the “threshold” had to be “substantial” in order to request access.
Hancock’s alleged secret emails would mean that the government lacks a record of many of his negotiations during the coronavirus pandemic, including key decisions on multimillion-pound contracts for PPE contracts and the £37bn UK test and trace programme.
The reported communications breaches would also mean the government lacks records of Hancock’s negotiations for the government’s widely criticised care homes strategy.
In the obtained minutes, Williams reportedly added that the junior health minister Lord Bethell also “routinely used his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said in a tweet that the new allegation against Hancock was “very serious and could have broken the law.”
She added: “Private email accounts could be used to discuss sensitive information and discuss contracts, avoiding Freedom of Information and concealing information from the public inquiry. I will be pursuing this.”