Matt Hancock has hit back at criticism of his department for spending nearly £44,000 on takeaways for staff during the coronavirus pandemic, saying “of course” it should feed civil servants working long hours.
The health secretary was challenged on the bill, which was uncovered in an investigation into “wasteful” government spending by the Daily Mail and the TaxPayers’ Alliance, on Sky News.
FOI requests by the newspaper and the right-wing lobby group showed the Department for Health and Social Care had spent £43,348.96 at Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen in East London in the first two weeks of the March lockdown.
Asked on Sky News how he could justify the spending, Hancock said: “I can absolutely justify feeding people who are working 18 hours a day to keep you and everybody else in this country safe.”
He went on to praise officials for their "absolutely brilliant teamwork" during the pandemic.
“My team in the department have been unbelievable: a combination of my civil servants, who’ve been there from the start, and NHS colleagues and military colleagues – there was one point when one of the floors of my department had people from the logistics brigade in uniform moving testing capabilities around the country, working on the logistics – and the private sector,” he said.
“And when people are working 18 hours a day, often seven days a week in the middle of a pandemic, of course I’m going to feed them. It’s probably the best value for money food you’re going to get, in terms of allowing people to work so hard to tackle this virus and I’m really proud of all the work [they have been doing].”
A spokesperson for the department noted that other catering options for staff had been closed under the coronavirus lockdown measures.
The health secretary was also challenged by Sky News’s Kay Burley to explain why the government had initially been unwilling to fund free school meals during holidays while it was paying for staff takeaways.
“Actually, the education secretary made an announcement about that and… we are going to be able to support people throughout the Christmas holidays, but when you have a team working hard you need to support them, absolutely,” he said.
The government announced its U-turn on free school meals following a high-profile public campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford.
The Daily Mail said its investigation had revealed £5.6bn spent on “luxuries for Whitehall workers” in a year. It did not give a full breakdown of the costs, but the figure appears to include dining and travel expenses as well as £432,071 spent on artwork through the Government Art Collection.
Other expenses included £42m in bonuses for civil servants, and £81m in union subsidies – with around 0.27% of the public-sector paybill being spent on union facility time. Departments are legally required to give union representatives paid time off for duties including pay negotiations.
Around £10m was used to provide furniture to officials who were required to work from home during the pandemic.
Responding to the original report, a DHSC spokesperson said: “The department led the government's response to the pandemic and during lockdown we had key workers in the office from early in the morning until late at night.
“These purchases were necessary to ensure staff working shifts were able to access hot food when other catering options were unavailable during lockdown, until alternative arrangements could be made.”
They added: “All departmental spend is in line with approved government processes.”