Boris Johnson refuses to deny using private email for government matters amid security risk concerns

Boris Johnson has refused to deny using his personal email address to carry out government business amid concerns about the conduct of a sacked cabinet minister.

Asked by reporters during a campaign visit to the town of Batley whether he had had also broken the rules, Mr Johnson said would not comment on the matter.

It comes after Labour demanded an investigation into allegations that Matt Hancock and junior health minister Lord Bethell had used their personal accounts for official work.

During the by-election campaign trail visit to Johnstone’s Paints Limited, the Prime Minister said: “I don’t comment on how I conduct Government business.”

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland this morning admitted the practice of using personal email accounts was a threat to government security.

Asked in a Monday morning interview whether Matt Hancock’s use of a personal email account was a “huge security issue” that could potentially see hackers gain access to government communications, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told the BBC:

“I agree, and that’s why I think it’s important that we use the systems that we are provided with.”

Ministers are supposed to use their secure government emails and telephones for work to avoid hackers and foreign security services listening in on the inner workings of government.

The approach also ensures official correspondence is logged and subject to data protection and freedom of information laws.

Questions have been raised about whether Mr Hancock’s use of a personal email account will make it harder to scrutinise the process by which so many emergency Covid contracts came to be given to Conservative aquaintances and donors.

But commenting on the admission about security by Mr Buckland, Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “It’s staggering that a government minister has admitted that the Tory party could be putting national security at risk by carrying out government business on private emails but hasn’t said that ministers are going to do anything about it.

“We already know that hostile actors target Ministers’ private email accounts to access sensitive information.

“We need a full independent inquiry to get to the bottom of how wide this goes, whether Ministers have put our national security at risk and what steps will be taken to protect vital information and our country’s security.”

Mr Johnson’s visit to Batley comes ahead of the Batley and Spen by election, scheduled for 1 July, where the Tories are hoping to win a seat off Labour.

Speaking on Monday morning less than 48 hours after Mr Hancock’s resignation, Mr Buckland claimed that under the rules, “anything that is very sensitive, I can assure viewers, isn’t actually viewed on email”.

On the question of an inquiry, he told Sky News: “We should use Government emails, I think that’s very clear.

“I think the Cabinet Office, if they’re asked to look at this, they probably will be, will need to satisfy themselves that if that was the case then the material is available.”

Mr Hancock quit on Saturday following revelations about his relationship with an aide and CCTV footage of them embracing and apparently breaking social distancing instructions in a government office.

Health minister Helen Whately used private email for government work

A third health minister, Helen Whately, used a private email account for government business, the Guardian can reveal, as the UK’s information watchdog said it was considering launching an investigation into the use of Gmail by Matt Hancock and James Bethell.

Jessica Elgot 

The Guardian can also reveal a number of emails were copied into Lord Bethell’s private email account. His address was copied into at least four official exchanges relating to a businessman who was attempting to get government contracts during the pandemic.

Bethell, who oversaw the award of Covid contracts, has faced calls for his resignation over his use of private email and his sponsorship of a parliamentary pass for Hancock’s married aide Gina Coladangelo, with whom the former health secretary had an affair.

In April 2020 the businessman had approached his MP, Oliver Dowden, as he believed his firm’s testing kits were cheaper than those being bought by the government.

Andrew Feldman, the former Conservative party chairman who had been brought into the government to advise on its approach to the pandemic, passed the matter on to a number of officials, copying in a private email address belonging to Bethell.

Later that day, a Department of Health and Social Care official (DHSC) circulated another email to his colleagues, again copying in the private email address belonging to Bethell. The emails were obtained by the Good Law Project, which has launched a series of legal challenges over the government’s handling of contracts during the pandemic.

Separately, Whately, the social care minister, copied in a private Gmail address to a diary invitation, according to a leaked email. Whately’s diary invitation, seen by the Guardian, was sent to both her official email and her Gmail and does not contain sensitive information, but will raise further questions about the routine use of private accounts.

Boris Johnson has also refused to answer whether he has ever conducted government business using a personal email account, saying: “I don’t comment on how I conduct government business.”

Hancock is reported to have routinely used a private account, according to minutes of an official meeting at the DHSC seen by the Sunday Times. The minutes said Hancock was only dealing with his private office “via Gmail account” and said he did not have a departmental inbox.

The minutes, which were to discuss a Good Law Project legal challenge over government contracts for faulty tests, also say that Bethell “routinely uses his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”.

Cabinet Office guidance says ministers should use official email accounts in order to leave a paper trail for important decisions and to allow for scrutiny.

Elizabeth Denham, the UK information commissioner, said she was considering further action. “It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability that official records are kept of key actions and decisions,” she said.

“The issue of ministers and senior officials using private email accounts to conduct sensitive official business is a concerning one for the public and is one my office has advised on before. I am looking carefully at the information that has come to light over the past few days and considering what further steps may be necessary to address the concerns raised with me.”

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “Both the former health secretary and Lord Bethell understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses,” and said using personal Gmail was “related to things like diary acceptances”.

Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings suggested the prime minister and Hancock routinely used WhatsApp messages instead of official communications channels. He said there were “WhatsApps between PM, [Hancock] and Tory donors which No 10 officials know exist cos they’re copied in to some … So dozens of No 10 officials know No 10 press office openly lying again.”

The Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez defended the use of private email addresses with regards to contracts, telling the Commons “a huge volume of correspondence was coming to ministers via their personal email addresses …”

Angela Rayner, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, called for an investigation into government use of private email. “Who is telling the truth, the Cabinet Office minister and the Department of Health and Social Care civil servants, or the prime minister’s official spokesperson?” she said.

“We need a fully independent public inquiry to get to the bottom of ministers using their private email accounts to discuss and agree government contracts, which have resulted in taxpayers’ money being handed out to Tory donors and their friends.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “All ministers are aware of the rules around personal email usage and government business is conducted in line with those rules.”

No-show Tory health minister faces call to resign over private emails

Matt Hancock has gone but more allegations of sleaze are swirling around the Ministry he led. – Owl

Tory health minister Lord Bethell faces calls to quit amid allegations he used his personal email account to discuss PPE contracts.

Rachel Wearmouth

Labour’s Jon Ashworth told new Health Secretary Sajid Javid his minister should be “relieved of his responsibilities” following revelations some business may have been conducted in secret.

Minutes of an official Department for Health meeting, obtained by the Good Law Project, claim that he “routinely uses his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”.

The news follows an explosive few days for the government, after Matt Hancock’s resignation in the wake of news he broke social distancing rules by kissing aide Gina Coladangelo.

It has also emerged that Mr Hancock appointed Ms Coladangelo personally and that he and Lord Bethell used private emails for government business – something Downing Street disputes.

Separately, Lord Bethell has been referred to the standards watchdog over claims he sponsored a parliamentary security pass for Ms Coladangelo, despite reports that she never worked for him, which is against the rules.

He dodged appearing at the despatch box in the Lords on Monday as the scandal rumbled on, sending Government whip Baroness Penn in his place, prompting allegations he was “in hiding”.

Mr Ashworth said to the Health Secretary in the Commons later: “Does he have confidence in this minister?

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“Isn’t it time this health minister was relieved of his responsibilities as well?”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner also pressed Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez over the issue.

She asked: “Can the minister now say from this despatch box categorically and on the record that no minister or prime minister has used or does use private email for Government business, especially when it involves spending public money?”

She said: “This morning a Government spokesperson claimed that all ministers only conduct Government business through their departmental email addresses, yet I have right here the minutes of a departmental meeting in which senior civil servants report Government contracts being approved from the minister’s private email address. Who is telling the truth?”

Ms Rayner also called for the government to refer the matter to the information watchdog.

Ms Lopez said “official devices, email accounts and communications applications” should be used for government business.

She added: “At the time at which we’re in the height of the pandemic, a huge volume of correspondence was coming to ministers via their personal email addresses, to their parliamentary email addresses, to their ministerial email addresses – I am not suggesting that there is something that we should not be looking into – my point is there were 15,000 offers of help in securing PPE that came in following the Prime Minister’s call for assistance.

“The important thing to note is that when PPE offers did come in, they went through the same eight-stage process, so no matter which way those things were communicated, they went through the same process and that should provide assurance.”

The final straw: how appeal from 80 Tory MPs sealed Matt Hancock’s fate

According to the Telegraph, 80 Tory MPs complained about Matt Hancock to the whips’ office. 

Owl wonders whether Neil Parish and Simon Jupp were amongst them. It’s all a question of being on the right side of history. Though in this case Owl thinks the choice was pretty obvious.

By Christopher Hope, Chief Political Correspondent (Extract)

Matt Hancock resigned after being told that 80 Tory MPs had complained to the whips’ office that he had not quit over breaching lockdown rules with his mistress in his office.

Mr Hancock finally stood down on Saturday night, admitting that the news he had breached social distancing rules by kissing an aide in his Whitehall office had begun to “distract attention” from the Government’s response to Covid-19.

Separately, Mr Hancock is unlikely to accept the three-month pay-off  worth around £16,000 for resigning as a minister. Critics were already comparing it to the one per cent pay offer to nurses……

Are holidays causing regional surges?

Since the early days of the pandemic Owl has always regarded Tim Spector’s Covid study as providing the first indications of what is happening.  It is now ringing the alarm bells.

His latest symptom tracker results (28 June) suggest that East Devon has suddenly become a hotspot in the South West, along with Exeter, with a number of active cases estimated at 527 per 100,000. A week ago things were very different with case rates low in East Devon. Just a blip or is it a trend?

Are holidays causing regional surges? 24 June

According to ZOE COVID Study figures, it is estimated that among unvaccinated people in the UK there are currently 15,099 new daily symptomatic cases of COVID on average, based on PCR test data from up to five days ago [*]. An increase of 18% from 12,830 last week. Comparatively there are currently 4,023 new daily symptomatic cases in partly or fully vaccinated people, an increase of 37% from 2,930 new cases last week (Graph 1 below). The data continues to show that the positivity rate is much higher in those with just a first dose, compared to those who are double vaccinated (Graph 2 below). 

The ZOE COVID Study incidence figures (new symptomatic cases) are based on around one million weekly reporters and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have received positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on data from 6,435 recent swab tests done between 6 June to 19 June 2021. The data excludes lateral flow tests.   

In terms of prevalence, on average 1 in 264 people in the UK are currently estimated to have symptomatic COVID [1] (Table 1 below). 

The UK R value is 1.1 and regional R values are; England, 1.1, Wales, 1.1, Scotland, 1.1 (Table 1 below). These are the lowest R values that have been seen since the third wave started in the UK. One of the highest R values is in the South West of England which appears to be driven by an increase in cases in Cornwall (map below).

According to the prevalence data by age, the number of cases in the 20-29 age group continues to rise, however cases in the age groups over 30 have begun to level off. (Graph 5 below). 

According to our data, a small proportion of those who have been vaccinated still get infected. ZOE collected reports last week from 487 contributors who had an infection after two doses of the vaccine, and 284 who reported an infection after one dose. The following approximate risk factors for infection based on one, two or zero doses of the vaccination, have been recorded using the latest ZOE data:

Current risk of new daily COVID infection:

  • In the unvaccinated: 1 in 1,664
  • after 1 vaccine dose: 1 in 4,374
  • after 2 vaccine doses : 1 in 13,506

This data shows that when people have received both vaccinations they have much greater protection against COVID-19.

The ZOE COVID Study Local Authorities’ Watch list for Active Cases of COVID-19‍

The following are UTLA regions with the highest estimates of prevalence rates averaged over the past week. Please note, that the local authorities’ watchlist is intended to be an early indication system of areas where cases might be rising, but these prevalence estimates might be volatile due to the limited amount of responders and positive cases in some areas.

Tim Spector OBE, lead scientist on the ZOE COVID Study app and Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, comments on the latest data:

“ZOE COVID Study data this week shows rates in former hotspots, such as Scotland and the North West of England, continuing to plateau. At the same time, top UK holiday destinations like Cornwall are emerging as new areas with rapidly increasing cases. I think this is down to a number of factors, including the sudden influx of holidaymakers over half term, as well as the recent G7 summit and a previously unexposed local population. We need to remain vigilant of these UK holiday destinations as summer holidays approach, and ensure that we minimise outbreaks by following government guidelines.

Since early on in the pandemic, the data from the ZOE COVID Study has shown that there are over 20 different symptoms of COVID-19, not just the classic three: fever, cough and anosmia. The COVID-19 situation in the UK is different to last summer due to new variants and the vaccine roll out. We’ve found that the symptoms in younger people and post-vaccination are both different. People urgently need to know there are more than just the three classic symptoms. The top symptoms being currently logged in the Zoe app are; headache, runny nose, sneezing, fatigue and sore throat, which for many will feel more like a common cold. The earlier people can catch the infection, the quicker they can self-isolate until symptoms abate and stop the spread. We encourage anyone feeling under the weather to take a test as soon as they can and stay at home.” 

Professor Tim Spector gives more detail in his weekly video update on YouTube here

The app is delivered in collaboration with King’s Health Partners, an Academic Health Sciences Centre based in South East London.

Graph 1. Daily new cases of COVID in UK by vaccination status

Graph 2. Positivity rate in vaccinated (1st and 2nd dose) and unvaccinated

Table 1. Incidence (daily new symptomatic cases)[*], R values and prevalence regional breakdown table 

Please refer to the publication by Varsavsky at al. (2020) for details on how R values are calculated 

Graph 3. The ZOE COVID Study UK Infection Survey results over time 

The ZOE COVID Study map of UK prevalence figures

Graph 4. The ZOE COVID Study daily active cases by region in the last month

Graph 5. Daily prevalence rates by age group

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 14 June