Dominic Cummings pushed civil servants to skirt government rules and channel half a million pounds to a non-urgent project in the early days of the pandemic, emails leaked to SourceMaterial show.
On 22 March last year, the day before Boris Johnson ordered the UK into full lockdown, Cummings instructed civil servants at NHSX, the government unit responsible for digitised healthcare, to grant the money to Our World in Data, a not-for-profit organisation run by Oxford academics.
"Someone please ensure that they have the 530k within 24 hours from now and report back to me it’s been sent," Cummings wrote. "No procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay please – just send immediately."
The leaked emails raise concerns about the accountability of NHSX, set up in 2019 and described by Nicholas Carding, a senior correspondent with the Health Service Journal, as "a hybrid agency" that does not have to publish its accounts and is "not a very transparent body".
"My team can do this via DHSC and have the money in place by tomorrow, but it will mean your team waiving the normal grant-giving process," NHSX chief Matthew Gould wrote in response to Cummings, who did not reply to our questions.
Officials appear to have been worried about details of Cummings’s request being passed on. "Obviously please don’t share this chain further," a senior civil servant wrote.
A well-placed Whitehall source who understands the intricacies of the grant-giving process and is familiar with the contents of the email chain told us: "A member of the senior leadership team was being very explicit that people should not share this. In my view that’s because it is so damaging to the NHS."
"Due process and procedures are being thrown out the window."
"Due process and procedures are being thrown out the window."
Cummings, who in November stepped down as Johnson’s most senior adviser, last month told a parliamentary committee that the national emergency justified circumventing normal spending rules.
"I sat down in the cabinet room with the cabinet secretary and the head of commercial and the head of HR for the civil service and another whole bunch of top officials. The cabinet secretary and I said to all of them, this is a war," he said. "Any rules, forget."
But the emails suggest that the proposed Our World in Data grant was neither urgent nor immediately necessary to save lives. Despite the scramble sparked by Cummings, the grant was not even wanted by the organisation in the form being offered.
Following Cummings’ email, one civil servant wrote to Gould: "They are not keen for us to give them money urgently and have made clear they want to understand the implications of taking government money and agree it with their board of trustees. They are not in any financial distress and have sufficient funding to continue."
"I need your help please to progress this to a point where there is enough air cover to justify adecision to proceed," another wrote to Gould, saying further checks were necessary before disbursing the grant.
"Ordinarily this organisation would not meet due diligence as they do not have a full year's audited accounts and there are therefore no financial accounts to determine they are a going concern. We risk getting into state aid issues without this," the official wrote. "I’m sorry I couldn’t just ‘make this happen’, but I share your concern about doing anything untoward."
'Air cover' "simply means you’re doing something that is going to go down badly with the media orthe public, so you need to have some backup, some explanation or maybe a distraction,” said Peter Smith, a former civil servant and the author of a book on the misuse of public money.
While there are circumstances under which Hancock can award grants without competition, internal Department of Health documents reviewed by SourceMaterial suggest Cummings breached government rules by instructing civil servants to hand out money immediately.
"No procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay please – just send immediately."
“The proposed grant did not meet the internal guidance,” said a senior civil servant familiar with the process.
Jolyon Maugham, who runs the Good Law Project, which has taken the government to court over the use of public money during the pandemic, called Cummings’s actions “an abuse of power”.
“It looks as though Cummings is treating the public purse as his private piggy bank,” he said. “If he had cared to look, he would have seen lengthy and detailed government guidance that said you have to do all this stuff to see money is properly spent. He would have seen that there are shortcuts that can be taken in an emergency. But he would have recognised that, as Our World in Data themselves say, this wasn’t an emergency. He didn’t want to know."
The grant proposal was first brought to Hancock’s attention by William Warr, a special adviser in the Downing Street team led by Cummings.
Our World in Data’s director, Max Roser, said that he had not approached the government but had been contacted by Warr after posting on Twitter about lack of funding. Warr messaged him within hours and three days later the grant proposal was being pushed by Cummings onto the NHSX budget.
Roser said that no one at Our World in Data had had any prior contact with Warr and that the group later chose to follow its own due process, applying formally to the Department of Health and receiving a benchmarked grant disbursed over several months.
The civil servant familiar with the emails said that the emergency circumstances in March 2020 demanded greater adherence to rules, not less.
"Every opportunity within the early weeks of the pandemic, all steps were ignored. There was no governance, accountability, transparency, openness," the civil servant said. “There was the whole attitude of 'Dominic Cummings wants this, so it's got to happen'."
A Department of Healthspokesman said that appropriate processes were followed in awarding the grant.
"In response to the unprecedented global pandemic, the government did everything it could to stop the spread of infection and to save lives," he said. "Every contract agreed by the government with partners has proper due diligence carried out on it and we take these checks extremely seriously to ensure our contracts deliver results and value for money."