Downing Street has U-turned and admitted that a key health minister used a private email account for government business during the Covid pandemic.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson insisted Lord Bethell’s use of a private account was in line with government guidance.
But it is a significant climbdown from Monday’s claim that Bethell and disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock “only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses”.
The row has sparked concerns that key decisions and their reasoning were not recorded or could be difficult to access for any future inquiry into the handling of coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the PM’s former top aide Dominic Cummings claimed Hancock and Johnson both used private messaging service WhatsApp to discuss Covid contracts and a “Tory donor network” with No.10 officials.
In the Lords, Lord Bethell insisted it was “not wrong” to have personal email addresses and said he was “absolutely rigorous” in ensuring government business is conducted through “correct formal channels”.
It comes after the Sunday Times obtained minutes of meetings which revealed senior officials’ concerns about the pair using personal inboxes.
The minutes said Bethell “routinely uses his personal inbox” and that the “majority” of approvals for government contracts during the Covid crisis “would have been initiated from this [inbox]”.
The minutes were from a meeting about a Good Law Project legal challenge over Hancock’s decision to award a contract worth up to £75m for tests to a firm linked to Sir John Bell, a government adviser.
Following No.10’s initial claim on Monday that Hancock and Bethell conducted government business only through official accounts, the Good Law Project then published an email from Lord Feldman to Bethell’s private address as well as other government contacts, promoting a Canadian company Bio Basic as a potential provider of Covid tests.
Asked about the emails on Tuesday and whether they now accepted that Bethell used a private email address, the PM’s spokesperson said: “Yes.
“We’ve been clear that ministers are able to communicate in a variety of different ways as long as they adhere to the government guidance as set out.”
They added: “Ministers are able to use various forms of communication as long as they take heed of the guidance that is published.
“The guidance itself says those receiving communications should consider if the information contained in it is substantive discussions, or decisions generated in the course of conducting government business and if so take steps to ensure the relevant information is acceptable, for example by copying it to a government email address.
“All ministers are aware of this guidance around personal email usage, and government business is conducted in line with that guidance.”
Asked if Bethell had copied in his government account, the spokesperson replied: “What I’m saying is that ministers are aware of the guidance and that government business is conducted in line with that guidance.”
They added: “The important point is that when there have been substantive discussions or decisions generated in the course of those communications they then ensure relevant information is passed on and is accessible.”
Later, Lord Bethell said: “I am absolutely rigorous to ensure that government business is conducted through the correct formal channels.
“Contracts are negotiated by officials, not by ministers. Submissions from officials are handled through departmental digital boxes and that is right. Official decisions are communicated through secure governmental infrastructure.”
He added: “The guidelines are clear – it is not wrong for ministers to have personal email addresses and I have corresponded with a very large number of members in this chamber from both my parliamentary address and from my personal address and that is right and I will continue to do so.”
In the Commons, Speaker Hoyle let slip his frustration as Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove again failed to turn up to answer an urgent question [UQ] about a lack of transparency over emergency contracts granted during the pandemic.
“I’m sorry the minister Gove wasn’t here to take some of the questions because most of them are named for him,” he said.
“This House won’t be taken for granted when statements are made outside here [ie by No.10 or in press conferences], continue to be made, that’s why I’m going to continue to grant UQs.
“So let’s get used to it. The government doesn’t want to come here, I’m going to make sure it is heard here.”