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Covid-19 Testing: Transparency

Volume 708: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022

I am today laying in Parliament a set of documents in response to the Humble Address motion of the House of Commons passed on 17 November 2021.

The Department of Health and Social Care has followed a rigorous process to identify and quality assure all relevant-documents. Specialist document review software was used to identify references to “Randox” across 56 ministerial private office and special adviser email accounts. The Department also asked current and former ministers and special advisers who could have been involved in correspondence about the specified meeting and contracts to provide relevant records from their private systems. The Department reviewed approximately 11,000 records to identify the documents laid today.

We are committed to ensuring transparency in order that Parliament is able to scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. However, the Government also have a responsibility to consider whether it will be in the public interest to place information into the public domain. This necessitates balancing the need for openness against other important and long standing, and often competing, principles, such as the need to protect legal confidentiality and Cabinet papers for reasons of collective responsibility, and legislation, such as the Data Protection Act.

This has been a costly and time-consuming exercise. Initial searches identified 1.5 million pieces of information relating to Randox. This was narrowed to the approximately 11,000 documents which then needed individual review in order to determine whether they were relevant or in scope of the Humble Address. Those which have been identified as in scope have been published, subject to public interest considerations such as the application of data protection principles towards named staff. Had this been a Freedom of Information Act request or Parliamentary Question, this exercise would have passed the disproportionate cost thresholds.

As noted in the Government Response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee's Fifteenth Report: “Status of Resolutions of the House of Commons” in March 2019, “the Government therefore agrees with PACAC that this device should not be used irresponsibly or over-used. As the Committee notes, such powers lack statutory force and if they cease to be exercised responsibly, the Government will have to reflect carefully on what measures may be required in order to protect how it should respond in the public interest.”

As the public would expect, at the start of the pandemic the Government took every possible step to rapidly build the largest testing industry in UK history from scratch, this has played an important role in stopping the spread of covid-19 and saving lives, and the service Randox provided was integral to that response.

There are robust rules and processes in place to ensure that all contracts are awarded in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines and that any potential conflicts of interest with respect to commercial matters are appropriately managed. Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts.

Building the scale of testing needed at an unprecedented speed required extensive collaboration with businesses, universities and many others, to get the right skills, equipment and logistics in place as quickly as possible. We make no apology for working at an incredible pace to tackle the biggest public health emergency in living memory.

I want to take the opportunity to reiterate my thanks everyone who has worked tirelessly across Government, the private sector and beyond to help deliver one of the biggest testing programmes in Europe.

[HCWS586]