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Sixty seconds on . . . the pub landlord

BMJ 2021; 375 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n3017 (Published 06 December 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;375:n3017
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Time gentlemen, please

Former health secretary Matt Hancock had a not-so-happy-hour this week after he was accused of misleading parliament over the awarding of £40m worth of contracts when he was in post to a company with links to the former proprietor of his local pub.

Generous tipper?

The row has been brewing since November 2020, when the Guardian1 revealed that Alex Bourne, who formerly ran a pub near Hancock’s constituency home in Suffolk, had been handed a deal to supply the government with millions of vials for covid-19 tests despite having no experience of producing medical supplies.

Can ministers be barred for this?

They could be reprimanded in certain circumstances. But because Bourne’s company Hinpack did not have a direct contract with the Department of Health and Social Care or the NHS—and was subcontracted for the work to a supplier already approved by the NHS called Alpha Laboratories—Hancock insists there was no impropriety.

So, he’s not inn trouble then?

Not yet, but some are calling for last orders for Hancock. This week, the Good Law Project, which has frequently challenged the government over its awarding of contracts during the pandemic, published2 details of the contract involving Bourne on Twitter, arguing that it undermined the description Hancock gave about the deal to parliament.

The Bourne Ultimatum?

Armed with this fresh information, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds3 urged Hancock to return to the house “to set the record straight” and tackle accusations of “cronyism.”

Was he drowning his sorrows?

Not noticeably. Both Hancock and Bourne insist no favours were asked for or given at any stage during the process, and the former health secretary continued to come out swinging in this political barroom brawl. “No matter how hard opposition members look or how deep they dig, all that will be discovered is a lot of people working hard to save lives,” Hancock told the Commons. But the Good Law Project’s Jo Maugham insists “the government gave the contract to their pal via Alpha Laboratories in such a way that you were supposed never to find out.”

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