Matt Hancock 'breached legal obligation' over Covid contracts

Health secretary Matt Hancock has written to public health directors across England Picture: PA

The judge ruled against West Suffolk MP and health secretary Matt Hancock - Credit: PA

West Suffolk MP and health secretary Matt Hancock "breached his legal obligation" by failing to publish details of Covid contracts signed during the pandemic, London's High Court has ruled.

A "contract award notice" must be published within 30 days of any contracts for public goods or services worth more than £120,000 being agreed.

The Good Law Project accused the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) of a "wholesale failure" to disclose details of contracts agreed during the coronavirus pandemic, taking legal action.

In a ruling on Friday, Mr Justice Chamberlain said: "There is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the secretary of state breached his legal obligation to publish contract award notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.

"There is also no dispute that the secretary of state failed to publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy."

"The secretary of state spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020.

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

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"This was important not only so that competitors of those awarded contracts could understand whether the obligations...had been breached, but also so that oversight bodies such as the National Audit Office, as well as Parliament and the public, could scrutinise and ask questions about this expenditure."

Mr Justice Chamberlain said the challenges Mr Hancock's department faced in the early stages of the pandemic were "unprecedented".

He said "large quantities of goods and services had to be procured in very short timescales" and that it was "understandable that attention was focused on procuring what was thought necessary to save lives".

But the judge added that the DHSC's "historic failure" to comply with the obligations to publish contracts because of the difficulties caused by the pandemic was "an excuse, not a justification".

A DHSC spokeswoman said: "We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic, within very short timescales and against a background of unparalleled global demand.

"This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public."

"We fully recognise the importance of transparency in the award of public contracts and continue to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible."