Matt Hancock and his deputy did use private emails for official work, No 10 has admitted – while refusing to say if they complied with government rules.
On Monday, Downing Street insisted the pair had not used personal accounts – despite leaked minutes suggesting otherwise – but it has backtracked 24 hours later.
But he repeatedly ducked the question, saying only that all ministers are “aware of that guidance”.
That official guidance states that all “substantive” government information must be “accessible” by, for example, “copying it to a government email address”.
The controversy has blown up because leaked minutes showed a top health department civil servant warned Mr Hancock “only” deals with his private office “via Gmail account” – and, extraordinarily, that he “does not have” an official email inbox.
Meanwhile, Lord Bethell, “routinely uses his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for Covid contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”, the documents obtained by The Sunday Times said.
“It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability that official records are kept of key actions and decisions,” Elizabeth Denham said.
On Monday, Downing Street insisted that both ministers “only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses”.
Mr Hancock quit on Saturday for breaking Covid rules by embracing his lover in his office, but Lord Bethell remains in his post – despite Labour calls for him to be dismissed,
In the Lords, the peer also ducked questions when challenged, saying: “I have read the ministerial code, I signed the ministerial code and I seek to uphold it in everything I do.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “Lord Bethell used his private email account to sign off contracts and the government tried to cover it up.
“Sack him, publish the private emails and hand them over to the public inquiry.”
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief aide, had ridiculed No 10’s denial of any personal email use as “nonsense”, tweeting: “I can prove it with screenshots from my phone”.
They included examples of Mr Hancock using WhatsApp to “discuss procurement issues” with Tory donors and with Downing Street officials, he claimed.
Asked, again, if personal emails had been used for government work, the spokesman said: “Yes. Ministers are able to communicate in a variety of different ways as long as they adhere to the guidance as set out.”
But, asked if Mr Hancock and Lord Bethell had copied information to official accounts, he replied: “What I am saying is that ministers are aware of the guidance and government business is conducted in line with that guidance.”