Labour have stepped up calls for Boris Johnson to sack one of his health ministers after Downing Street admitted they had used a private email address for government business during the COVID crisis.
Number 10 confirmed that Lord Bethell, a minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, had used a private email address – despite having previously said both he and ex-health secretary Matt Hancock “only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses”.
It comes after The Sunday Times reported leaked minutes of a meeting in which a senior departmental official discussed how Lord Bethell “routinely uses his personal inbox”.
And an email, published by the Good Law Project, from former Conservative Party chairman Lord Feldman discussing COVID testing kits was shown to have been sent to a private email address of Lord Bethell’s.
Asked if it was recognised the emails showed Lord Bethell was using a private email account, the prime minister‘s official spokesman said: “Yes, we have been clear that ministers are able to communicate in a variety of different ways as long as they adhere to the guidance as set out.”
But the spokesman also suggested the use of private email addresses by ministers was acceptable if emails were copied to an official account.
“The guidance on using private email addresses is published online,” he said. “Ministers are able to use various forms of communication as long as they take heed of the guidance that is published.
“The guidance itself says those receiving communications should consider if information contained in it is substantive discussions or decisions generated in the course of conducting government business and, if so, take steps to ensure the relevant information is acceptable, for example by copying it to a government email address.
“All ministers are aware of this guidance around personal email usage and government business is conducted in line with that guidance.”
Claims that ministers have used private email addresses during the COVID crisis have prompted concerns that key decisions have not been properly recorded ahead of a promised inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
But Lord Bethell told the House of Lords on Tuesday he was “absolutely rigorous to ensure that government business is conducted through the correct formal channels”.
He told his fellow peers: “Contracts are negotiated by officials, not by ministers. Submissions from officials are handled through departmental digital boxes and that is right.
“Official decisions are communicated through secure governmental infrastructure.
“The guidelines are clear – it is not wrong for ministers to have personal email addresses and I have corresponded with a very large number of members in this chamber from both my parliamentary address and from my personal address and that is right and I will continue to do so.
“In their enthusiasm, third parties often seek to engage ministers through whatever means they can find and that includes their personal email. That is not the same as using a personal email for formal departmental decision-making.”
Lord Bethell urged people to judge “distorted fragments of evidence” published on the internet “extremely sceptically”.
But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the Tory peer of using his private email address to sign off contracts, adding: “The government tried to cover it up.
“Sack him, publish the private emails and hand them over to the public inquiry.”