Internal government emails show that Mr Hancock passed on to officials procuring personal protective equipment an approach from Brooks Newmark, a minister in David Cameron’s government who resigned after sending sexually explicit photographs of himself.
An aide to the health secretary sent the bid to the procurement team, asking for it to be brought the personal attention of the government’s PPE tsar Lord Deighton, describing it as “excellent” and calling for it to be dealt with “urgently”.
Mr Newmark was lobbying for a dog food company which had set up a firm to broker PPE deals for international suppliers. The deal led to millions of protective goggles being delivered by Hong Kong-based Worldlink Resources and there is no suggestion of wrong-doing on behalf of the company.
According to emails released under Freedom of Information rules and obtained by the Sunday Times, the former Braintree MP wrote to Mr Hancock on 27 May last year about the possibility of importing safety goggles from China, adding that he had “chatted with your spad [special adviser] ... He will be circulating this idea to you, Michael [Gove] and Liz [Truss]”.
Newmark attached a detailed proposal explaining that he had links to a “well connected and powerful” person in China but needed government help in accelerating deals.
Mr Hancock responded within hours to say: “Thanks. Definitely one for the PPE team who are firing on all cylinders now.”
In response, Mr Newmark said: “Can someone internally please lead the charge in trying to seriously explore this option. I have said all along I can help but I need yours and [Gove’s] support to help make this happen for the Govt.”
The following day, Mr Hancock’s aide sent an email to the PPE team, copying in the health secretary: “Please see below from former MP Brooks Newmark ... an excellent PPE proposal that the health secretary and I would be very grateful if Lord Deighton could look into urgently.”
On 1 June the Department of Health awarded a £178 million contract for protective goggles to the firm without a competitive tendering process.
Asked on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show whether it was appropriate for him to get personally involved in a approach for a government contract from a former colleague, Mr Hancock replied: “Yes, it was absolutely appropriate for people to get in contact with anybody at the Department for Health when the country desperately needed PPE, and I sent this contact straight on to the PPE team, and they looked at it.
“I don’t have anything to do with the award of contracts.”
Challenged over whether Mr Newmark got “special treatment” because of his proposal being presented to Lord Deighton by the health secretary’s office, Mr Hancock said: “No, I just pinged it on.”
He did not respond to the question of how his office was in a position to say that the bid was “excellent” and needed looking at “urgently” if his involvement had simply been to pass the approach on.
Mr Hancock said: “We had a process in place to ensure that when there were opportunities to get hold of PPE to save lives on the front line, that they were looked at rapidly. And in this case, we ended up with 90 million goggles for people in the NHS as a result of this approach.”
It was “not true” that companies and individuals with personal contacts with ministers and their officials were able to jump the queue for PPE bids, he claimed.
“This process for making sure that when there were high-quality offers that they could be taken up rapidly, that process was open to everybody, and many, many people came through that process, and the result was we saved lives on the front line,” he said.
“At no point did we have a national outage of PPE, and I’m incredibly proud of my team that pulled that off.
“But of course when somebody approaches the health secretary in the middle of a pandemic when you’re desperately short of PPE, It’s perfectly reasonable for the health secretary then to send on the email and say ‘Can we have a look at this?’, and then I didn’t have anything to do with the signing of any of these contracts.
“I wanted it to be looked at. And, by the way, 90 million goggles later, I’m glad that I did.”
Lawyer Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, which is suing the government over its awarding of PPE contracts, said the “scandalous” contract revealed “VIP access to ministers”.
A government spokesperson said: “In response to this unprecedented global pandemic, our absolute priority has always been saving lives.
“Decisions on whether to award contracts for PPE are taken by officials. The decision making process includes whether the offer had cleared seven previous checks including clinical acceptability and financial due diligence.
“We take these checks very seriously. Ministers are not involved in this process.
“We have delivered over 11 billion items of PPE to protect our frontline workers and as the National Audit Office report recognised, all NHS providers they audited were able to get the equipment they needed in time.”