Britain prioritised Covid-19 fight over transparency, says Health Secretary Hancock

Healthcare personnel working at a mobile Covid-19 test centre in Walsall, Britain, on Feb 2, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The British government failed to meet some deadlines over publishing coronavirus-related contracts because it was acting "incredibly quickly" to secure equipment at the height of the pandemic, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

Mr Hancock was responding to a court ruling on Friday (Feb 19) that found he failed to comply with government transparency policies. The group that filed the lawsuit said that if the government "continues to fail to publish contract award notices within 30 days, it is doing so in full knowledge it is breaching the law".

In an interview on Sunday with Sky TV, Mr Hancock said that at the height of the pandemic, the government did miss some deadlines but managed to publish the contracts "in the heat of the crisis" on average 47 days after they were signed. He did not respond to a question about whether he would resign over the ruling.

"We acted incredibly quickly, some of the paperwork got a little bit delayed," he said. He defended ministry staff that was focused on securing personal protective equipment and saving lives.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced multiple lawsuits over his administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic, from the availability of medical equipment to student exam results. Critics in Friday's case asked the court to review contracts that were awarded to companies during the early days of the outbreak.

Mr Hancock "spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020", Judge Martin Chamberlain said in the ruling.

"The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded."

"We publish all the details we are required to publish and that's happened all the way through," he told Sky.

In a separate interview with the BBC, Mr Hancock said that the court "did not find there was a problem with any of the contracts".

After the ruling, The Good Law Project urged Mr Hancock to publish outstanding contracts and names of companies that went through a "VIP lane" to be awarded buying decisions on Covid-19 supplies.

Mr Hancock told the BBC that the National Audit Office had found that all the contracts "were awarded in an appropriate way".

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