DHSC admits record keeping fell short during pandemic as MPs probe sleaze row

Department says Randox meetings should have been better documented
A Randox centre in Liverpool. Photo: Ed Rooney/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

22 Jun 2022

The Department of Health and Social Care has admitted its record keeping was not up to scratch at times during the pandemic.

DHSC permanent secretary Shona Dunn and UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dame Jenny Harries acknowledged the department’s failings in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee about government contracts with Randox.

The National Audit Office said in March that DHSC had failed to adequately document key decisions on Covid testing contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Randox and DHSC were at the centre of a lobbying scandal last year, when it emerged Owen Paterson, an MP at the time, had lobbied then-health secretary Matt Hancock on behalf of the healthcare firm for Covid contracts.

DHSC published minutes, notes and correspondence relating to government contracts awarded to Randox in February. But this did not include documents from several meetings.

“We recognise that, at times, due to the incredible pace of work tackling the biggest public health emergency in living memory, the recording of minutes from some meetings did not happen or did not meet the high standards of the department,” the duo said.

“We will do our utmost to ensure this does not happen again.”

The department has enhanced its quality assurance process and reviewed other relevant processes since the meetings took place, Dunn and Harries said.

The letter was written as a follow-up to the duo’s appearance at PAC on 18 May, to answer questions posed which they said they could not answer at the time.

In the letter, sent to the committee on 14 June and published yesterday, the health chiefs said they had been unable to find notes from some key meetings with Randox during the pandemic.

But Dunn and Harries said they were “nonetheless able to understand the content of the meeting” from the supporting documents that they do hold, such as mail chains indicating a meeting was organised, agendas and other meeting papers.

“These documents, when read together, give an indication of what the meeting was about and what was discussed,” they said.

The health chiefs added that they would not ask officials, Randox or Owen Paterson to give verbal retrospective accounts of the meetings that had not been recorded.

“Due to the time that has lapsed since these meetings were held and the significant staff turnover of the department throughout the pandemic, we do not think it would help with the creation of an accurate record,” they explained.

The letter does, however, include a note from a meeting on 7 August 2020 that the department said it had not discovered until now.

Dunn and Harries said officials had found this note after giving evidence to parliament in February and to the National Audit Office, which is investigating DHSC’s contracts with Randox.

The note is an email from a senior private secretary which sets out what happened at the call between Randox owner Peter Fitzgerald, the company’s general manager Mark Campbell and then-DHSC innovation minister Lord James Bethell, who oversaw the award of Covid contracts.

Up to 750,000 unused coronavirus testing kits manufactured by the health diagnostics company were recalled due to concerns about safety standards.

At the PAC hearing in May, Dunn said she did not believe Randox had gained any benefit from Paterson lobbying ministers to use its Covid swabs.

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