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Lord Bethell under pressure over 33,000 private emails linked to £90million Covid deals

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An embattled Tory peer was under renewed pressure last night after it emerged he apparently used his private email accounts for thousands of messages relating to Covid contracts.

Keyword searches carried out by government lawyers suggest that Lord Bethell exchanged as many as 33,000 such emails.

The Government is resisting detailed searches of all the messages to pinpoint the exact number and examine their contents, saying the effort would not be justified. 

The revelation came as Boris Johnson’s reshuffle of ministers was expected to continue today – and as Labour called for Lord Bethell to quit his health post immediately or be sacked.

An embattled Tory peer was under renewed pressure last night after it emerged he apparently used his private email accounts for thousands of messages relating to Covid contracts. Keyword searches carried out by government lawyers suggest that Lord Bethell exchanged as many as 33,000 such emails

An embattled Tory peer was under renewed pressure last night after it emerged he apparently used his private email accounts for thousands of messages relating to Covid contracts. Keyword searches carried out by government lawyers suggest that Lord Bethell exchanged as many as 33,000 such emails

The disclosure that the former Ministry of Sound nightclub mogul appears to have conducted official business from private email addresses on such a massive scale contradicts what Downing Street claimed in June.

An official spokesman said then that both Lord Bethell and former health secretary Matt Hancock, who is also caught up in the controversy, ‘understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses’.

They used their private addresses only for matters such as ‘diary acceptances’, the spokesman said.

Lord Bethell’s widespread use of his personal phone and private emails to conduct official business has emerged as a result of a High Court judicial review brought by the Good Law Project.

It is challenging a series of deals worth £87.5million to devise, make and supply home Covid antibody tests, signed in April 2020 between the Department of Health and Social Care a consortium led by York-based firm Abingdon Health.

The latest revelations are in letters from the Government legal department to the Good Law Project ahead of the forthcoming judicial review hearing.

Abingdon, which had recorded losses of £1.5million the previous year, received at least £19million of public money. 

The disclosure that the former Ministry of Sound nightclub mogul appears to have conducted official business from private email addresses on such a massive scale contradicts what Downing Street claimed in June. An official spokesman said then that both Lord Bethell and former health secretary Matt Hancock (centre), who is also caught up in the controversy, 'understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses'

The disclosure that the former Ministry of Sound nightclub mogul appears to have conducted official business from private email addresses on such a massive scale contradicts what Downing Street claimed in June. An official spokesman said then that both Lord Bethell and former health secretary Matt Hancock (centre), who is also caught up in the controversy, ‘understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses’

Its two directors’ shares were valued at £19.6million in February after the firm launched on the AIM stock exchange on the back of the antibody deals.

The Mail revealed in February that the main supply contract was eventually cancelled because the tests were not accurate enough.

Official guidance says ministers should use Whitehall systems, and if they do not, should ensure they copy private emails and other communications concerning official business to their departments’ computers, so that a full record is preserved.

The use of private emails to conduct official business is being investigated by Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

It has also emerged that Lord Bethell has given three different versions of events to explain why he has been unable to produce crucial text and Whatsapp messages relating to Covid deals.

Letters from the Government legal department show that after Lord Bethell confirmed he had sent the texts and messages from his phone relating to the deal, he first said he could not produce them because the phone had been ‘lost’. 

But, a few days later, Lord Bethell said instead that his phone was ‘broken’ or ‘defective’. Finally, in a meeting with the lawyers, he said that too was wrong, and he had given the phone to a member of his family to use.

Asked by the Mail about a possible security risk and whether he had wiped it clean of official data, the Department of Health and Social Care refused to comment.

Angela Rayner, Labour deputy leader, said last night: ‘It is vital that the Information Commissioner’s investigation gets to the bottom of this racket, and this must be extended to other government departments. 

Letters from the Government's lawyers say searches of Lord Bethell's private email accounts using keywords relating to the Covid contracts reveal there are between 8,463 and 33,428 separate emails in his private accounts that contain them

Letters from the Government’s lawyers say searches of Lord Bethell’s private email accounts using keywords relating to the Covid contracts reveal there are between 8,463 and 33,428 separate emails in his private accounts that contain them

‘These emails and texts must be secured for the public inquiry so we know exactly what has been going on in secret.

‘After he has handed them over, Lord Bethell should clear his desk. He has breached security rules, broken the ministerial code and ignored basic standards of integrity and transparency in public office. 

‘If he had any shame he would resign and if the Prime Minister had a backbone he would sack him.’ Lord Bethell was previously caught up in a row over sponsoring a parliamentary pass for Gina Coladangelo, his then boss Matt Hancock’s special adviser and lover.

The Good Law Project’s High Court case claims the Abingdon Health antibody deals were awarded without proper competition or scrutiny.

Jolyon Maugham QC, the Good Law Project’s director, said: ‘How on earth do we move from a blanket denial by No 10 that ministers were using private email accounts for government business, to an admission that a single minister may in fact have used his private email for thousands of official emails? 

‘It’s far from clear to me that personal phones used extensively for government business can safely be handed over to family members – one assumes children.

‘What steps did Lord Bethell take, for example, to ensure that highly sensitive material couldn’t be retrieved by a specialist?’

The Daily Mail revealed in February that – as the deals were about to be finalised – senior officials and government lawyers warned that normal Whitehall processes had been bypassed, which meant they would not survive a legal challenge.

Lord Bethell dealt closely with Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University and a key government adviser throughout the pandemic, who put the consortium together and supported the contracts.

Lord Bethell has previously said that although ‘third parties’ might ‘in their enthusiasm’ contact ministers via their personal email accounts, ‘that’s not the same as using a personal email for formal departmental decision-making’. He insisted he did nothing wrong.

Letters from the Government’s lawyers say searches of Lord Bethell’s private email accounts using keywords relating to the Covid contracts reveal there are between 8,463 and 33,428 separate emails in his private accounts that contain them.

The totals differ according to which keywords are used.

There are also thousands of attached documents containing keywords.

But the Government has told the Good Law Project that to examine or disclose all the emails would be ‘disproportionate’, and it is refusing to do so.

Downing Street said: ‘Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance. 

‘The Covid pandemic has necessarily required remote working and fast-paced communications.’

The Department of Health and Social Care refused to comment.



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