MPs have called on Matt Hancock to apologise after he denied there was ever a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves urged the health secretary to say sorry to NHS and care staff who “had to make makeshift PPE” due to a lack of equipment.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons relating to the awarding of Covid-19 contracts during the pandemic, Reeves also accused ministers of thinking they were “above the law”.
Last week, the High Court ruled that the government unlawfully failed to publish details of coronavirus-related contracts worth billions.
It followed the launching of a judicial review against the Department of Health and Social Care by The Good Law Project over its failure to disclose details of contracts worth more than £120,000 within 30-days of them having been awarded.
Speaking in the Commons, Reeves said: “A stain has emerged with this government’s response to the crisis. There has been an unedifying gold rush of chums and of chancers.”
Echoing Reeves’ calls for the government to apologise to those working on the front line who at times “were not protected”, Green MP Caroline Lucas added: “Does he understand why that is so insulting to the doctors who were forced to wear bin bags in the absence of gowns and to the nurses who were wearing goggles from Screwfix?”
Health minister Edward Argar reiterated that the National Audit Office (NAO) found the country “did not run out of PPE nationally”, although he admitted there were “significant challenges” in some hospitals.
Responding to Lucas, he said: “As the NAO report highlighted, we did not run out of PPE nationally. That is not to say that there were not significant challenges in some hospitals in some areas around the distribution of that PPE – and that has been acknowledged throughout this pandemic.”
On the question of contracts, Argar told Reeves: “The NAO report was absolutely clear that there was no evidence of any inappropriate behaviour and indeed, no court has found this.”
The health minister added that he makes “no apologies” for the government doing “everything in its power” to ensure NHS and frontline workers did not run out of PPE.
But SNP MP Hannah Bardell (Livingston) said the breaches mean Hancock “must resign”.
Argar replied: “Well (Bardell) will not be surprised to know that I completely and utterly disagree with her. I think (Hancock) has done and continues to do an extraordinary job under extraordinary pressure over the past year to help this country through this pandemic.”
Conservative Aaron Bell accused some MPs of “trying to extend politics through court cases”.
Bell said: “Would (Argar) agree with me that this recent practice of trying to extend politics through court cases is actually becoming quite damaging to our democracy as a whole – particularly when technical judgments are then deliberately misrepresented as seems to have happened in this case?”
Argar replied: “While I appreciate members of this House feel strongly on this issue and understandably so, I would echo this point that I would hope that they would not seek to use the courts to make political points rather than to use them for what they are there for – which is to highlight legal issues.”
Meanwhile, Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy asked whether the government will seek to reclaim taxpayers’ money which was given to companies who provided inadequate equipment.
Argar replied: “Any contract that did not deliver against that we either refused to pay or we will be seeking to recoup that money and a number of investigations are already under way to fulfil that commitment.”
Responding to Conservative MP and Father of the House Sir Peter Bottomley’s request to know how much PPE is now made in the UK, the health minister added that 70% is “being supplied by this country”.