Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been accused of breaking the ministerial code by endorsing a private healthcare company in a paid-for newspaper supplement, HuffPost UK can reveal.
Labour has written to the prime minister demanding an “urgent investigation” after an interview with Hancock appeared in the London Evening Standard’s ‘Future London Health Supplement’, which had financial backing from private firm Babylon.
In the feature, Hancock heaped praise on the company’s GP at Hand app, which allows users to have video consultations with doctors via their smartphone rather than turning up in person.
A section titled ‘Matt’s Apps’ listed the Babylon product – which can cost patients £9.99 per month to get fast-tracked treatment – among those on the minister’s personal phone.
It features a quote from Hancock that “this technology allows more resources for the people visiting GPs directly”. In the interview, he adds: “I’ve become known for using this GP at Hand app.”
The original article published on Tuesday also prominently featured the Babylon logo, stating that the firm was the newspaper’s “partner”.
Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders, whose letter to Theresa May has been passed to HuffPost UK, said that Hancock had repeatedly promoted the app and the company.
Madders said the health secretary had used the interview about artificial intelligence and digital healthcare to clearly endorse the products of a company which was receiving NHS funds for every patient it treats.
As a result, Hancock’s conduct has breached a key section of the Ministerial Code, the party claims.
The code states that ministers should not “normally accept invitations to act as patrons of, or otherwise offer support to, pressure groups, or organisations dependent in whole or in part on government funding”.
“Promoting pay-for-access health products, which Mr Hancock’s comments would appear to amount to, subverts the objective and principles of a National Health Service, free at the point of use and open to all regardless of means,” Madders said in his letter to the PM.
The Labour MP also called on May to investigate whether Hancock had received “any form of gift, hospitality or payment for being interviewed for this newspaper advertorial”, arguing that this too would be a breach of the ministerial code.
Classed as a full NHS GP practice, GP at Hand is currently available to those who live and work in London.
Two months ago, Hancock called the app “revolutionary” in an interview with The Telegraph, saying he wanted it to be available “to all”.
In the same month he spoke at Babylon’s Chelsea offices in an event hosted by Ali Parsa, the company’s CEO.
Documents released to Health Service Journal under the Freedom of Information Act in August revealed that Parsa was among 10 tech executives who met Hancock within days of his appointment at the Department of Health.
Hancock was for years the special adviser to George Osborne, the former chancellor who is now the editor of the Evening Standard.
An online version of the article states: “This article was published in the Evening Standard’s Future London Health Supplement, which has financial support from Babylon.”
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman told HuffPost UK: “As the health secretary has made clear in the past, he holds no portfolio for any particular company or brand and regularly champions the benefits of a range of technologies which can improve patient outcomes, free up clinicians’ time and make every pound go further.
“We are working to create a tech ecosystem which allows all innovations to flourish in the NHS, a number of which were highlighted in the article.”
A representative from the Evening Standard said: “It was an editorial decision to approach Matt Hancock for an interview, and he agreed. The interview was subject to the full rigour of Evening Standard editorial judgement.”
“The interview was published as part of the Evening Standard’s Future London project within a supplement focussing on health, which was sponsored by Babylon.
“The articles in the supplement were not advertorials and the Evening Standard retained full editorial control over them.”