Former health secretary Matt Hancock was under pressure on Wednesday to set the record straight over £40m of government Covid-related work won by his former pub landlord after he accused Labour of “fabrication” about the deal.
The Guardian first revealed in November 2020 that a former neighbour in Hancock’s constituency had been awarded work supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests despite having had no previous experience of producing medical supplies.
Alex Bourne, who used to run a pub close to Hancock’s former constituency home in Suffolk, said he initially offered his services to the health secretary by sending him a personal WhatsApp message.
On Tuesday, Hancock had told Labour party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds that Labour’s efforts to suggest Bourne had been favoured because of his acquaintance with the health secretary were a slur: “I have heard this point about this pub landlord and I just want to tell her and the House, and put it formally on the record, and after this I hope the Labour party will also stop this slur, that the man in question never got nor applied for a contract from the government or the NHS at all. “It is a fabrication pushed by the Labour party. It’s a load of rubbish.”
Hancock was speaking after the deputy speaker, Eleanor Laing, responded to a point of order from Dodds by encouraging him to correct the record if he had misled the House of Commons. Hancock instead defended his record.
Bourne’s company Hinpack did not have a direct contract with the Department of Health and Social Care or the NHS but was subcontracted for the Covid work to a supplier already approved by the NHS, Alpha Laboratories.
Hancock told MPs: “Of course, the Department of Health and the NHS does not have a say in sub-contracting arrangements.”
However, the contract which is between Alpha and the secretary of state for health, and signed by a civil servant on his behalf in December 2020, stipulated that all the work would subcontracted to Hinpack, the Guardian revealed earlier this year.
Exchanges between the two men later emerged, after multiple contested freedom of information requests, showing the former health secretary had personally referred his old neighbour on to an official.
The Good Law Project, which has been challenging the government in court over its awarding of Covid contracts, published details of the contract involving Bourne on Twitter, which it said undermined Hancock’s account in the house. This prompted Dodds to call for Hancock to return to parliament and correct the record, reigniting the controversy.
Bourne and Hancock insist no favours were asked for or given in the award of the work. Hancock replied to Dodds: “This point of order and the point made in it demonstrates very clearly that there was no contract between the firm being discussed and the department or the NHS.
“So what this has done is demonstrated finally and for the record that there was no such contract between my constituent and the department or NHS. No matter how hard they look or how deep they dig, all that will be discovered is a lot of people working hard to save lives. That’s what was going on.”