Matt Hancock refuses to apologise over late publication of COVID contracts

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Matt Hancock talks to Andrew Marr about the high court ruling (BBC)
Matt Hancock talks to Andrew Marr about the High Court ruling. (BBC)

Matt Hancock has refused to apologise after a High Court judge ruled he had acted unlawfully in failing to publish billions of pounds worth of COVID-19 contracts.

Mr Justice Chamberlain said on Friday that the health secretary "failed to publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy".

The ruling has prompted accusations of government “cronyism” and calls for greater accountability.

But Hancock didn't apologise for his handling of contracts during an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning.

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Asked if he would like to take the opportunity to say sorry for breaking the law, he sidestepped the question.

Hancock said: “As was set out, it’s really clear what this court case is and isn’t about. The court case did not find that there was a problem with any of the contracts.

“What it found is that if, whilst of course, contracts like this need to be published and we published all of the details that are required, you’re supposed to do that within 30 days and, on average in the height of the pandemic, we did that within 47 days."

Hancock said his team were just over a fortnight late on publication because of how hard they were working to secure PPE.

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He said: "My team were working seven days a week, often 18 hours a day to get hold of the equipment that was saving lives.”

Marr then pressed the health secretary on the contracts themselves amid claims that companies with close government contacts were far more likely to land the deals.

But Hancock said the issue at hand and in court was merely a technical one over how late the publication of the contracts was.

“The situation was that we were very, very tight on PPE and thanks to the incredible work of my team, we didn’t have a national shortage of PPE, and that’s because they spent all their time buying equipment even if the paperwork was a little bit late,” he said.

File photo dated 20/10/2020 of health workers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). Guidance on PPE (personal protective equipment) must be updated to reflect the risks to medics and care workers from airborne transmission of Covid-19, a range of health organisations have said. Issue date: Friday February 19, 2021.
Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). (PA)

On being asked if he believed he had nothing to apologise for despite being found to have broken the law, Hancock said: "People can make up their own view 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 frontline.

"You tell me that's 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 is secondary compared to saving lives."

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised Hancock about a lack of transparency on Sunday but stopped short of calling for his resignation.

He told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday: "I don't want to call for him to resign. I do think he is wrong about the contracts – there have been problems with the contracts, on transparency, on who the contracts have gone to.

"There's been a lot of wasted money and I think that is a real cause for concern.

"But, at the moment, at this stage of the pandemic, I want all government ministers working really hard to get us through."

Watch: High Court judge ponders awarding of contract to friends of Dominic Cummings

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