Health company favoured by Hancock linked to Tory donors

22 June 2021

Health company favoured by Hancock linked to Tory donors

Shareholders in Babylon Healthcare made donations to Conservatives and Hancock’s 2019 leadership campaign

Matt Hancock has promoted a digital healthcare company whose shareholders have made donations to the health secretary and the Conservative party, SourceMaterial can reveal.

The revelations about investors in Babylon Health, the developer of an app that allows patients to consult doctors via their smartphones, raise questions about possible conflicts of interest for Hancock, who has repeatedly endorsed Babylon’s products publicly and said he wants everyone in England to have access to them.

Babylon’s connections to government also extend to Dominic Cummings, who until November 2020 was Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser. In 2019 the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, accused Cummings of a conflict of interest over previous consultancy work for Babylon.

SourceMaterial understands that after leaving Downing Street Cummings returned to work advising Babylon in March. Cummings and Babylon did not respond to questions about their relationship.

Our investigation, in collaboration with the BBC and The Guardian, found that Babylon’s current and former investors include figures with ties to the Conservative Party, among them former advisors to Hancock and the former prime minister, David Cameron.

We also found that Cameron made a personal visit to Babylon’s headquarters in mid-2018 at a time he was seeking consultancy work. A spokesman for Cameron said he did not take on any paid work from Babylon.

Babylon, whose NHS service was launched in 2017 and now covers around 100,000 patients, is in the process of a US listing expected to make its founder, British-Iranian former banker Ali Parsa, a billionaire. Sources close to the company say that while Babylon’s UK business currently makes a loss, the prestige of working with the NHS has helped win over international investors.

But Babylon’s services are also controversial. In October 2018 the Advertising Standards Authority ordered it to take down posters at London underground stations, saying they were misleading because they did not make clear that consumers would need to leave their current practice to use its GP at Hand app.

Babylon has also denied claims that it keeps down its expenses and pushes up costs for other NHS clinics by cherry-picking younger, healthier patients who are cheaper to treat. An independent report by Ipsos Mori concluded in May 2019 that the NHS “may be overcompensating Babylon GP at Hand for the actual health needs of their patients”.

Shortly after becoming health secretary in 2018, Hancockgave a speech at the company’s headquarters saying he wanted to help thecompany expand “so loads of companies can come do what Babylon are doing”.

“GP at Hand is revolutionary,” he told the Daily Telegraph the same month. “I want to see GP at Hand available to all.”

In November 2018, the Labour Party demanded an inquiry after Hancock endorsed Babylon in a sponsored newspaper supplement paid for by Babylon in the Evening Standard.

“GP at Hand is revolutionary. I want to see it available to all.”

A source close to Hancock said that the health secretary supported digital innovation and so it was unsurprising that he had talked about NHS services.

Links between the Conservatives and Babylon’s current and former shareholders “would seem to me to be a fairly massive failure of transparency,” said Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. “There should be an investigation by the appropriate parliamentary watchdogs.”

One of Babylon’s significant backers is Nassef Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire whose holdings include stakes in Adidas and Aston Villa Football Club. Sawiris acquired around 7 per cent of Babylon through his company NNS Holdings during 2017, according to records from Babylon’s Jersey-based holding company.

Between May 2017 and July 2018 Sawiris donated £200,000 to the Conservatives through OCI UK, the British subsidiary of a fertiliser conglomerate he owns in the Netherlands. Sawiris did not respond to emails and calls to two of his companies.

An early investor in Babylon was Ian Osborne, a tech entrepreneur whose company Hedsophia was among the first backers of Spotify. He purchased around 1.7 per cent of Babylon in 2015 through a Guernsey-registered company, Longsutton, and exited his investment in 2019.

Osborne worked as an informal adviser to Cameron in 2010, helping open doors in the US and preparing him for television debates, according to the Financial Times. He also assisted Cameron’s chancellor, George Osborne, remaining close to both, as well as organising a trip to the US for Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London.

In April 2019 a company owned by Ian Osborne, Connaught International, donated £10,000 to Hancock for his Tory leadership bid. The contribution is acknowledged in the health secretary’s declaration of financial interests.

Osborne’s business also declared a donation in kind in the form of an employee giving time to the Tories. He said that he had had no active dealings with Babylon whatsoever and had never encouraged Hancock to endorse Babylon, adding that to suggest the political donation was linked to Babylon was completely misconceived.

Among Osborne’s co-investors in Babylon was Demis Hassabis, a founder of DeepMind, an artificial intelligence company now owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. In June 2018, Hancock, then digital secretary, appointed Hassabis as an adviser to the government’s new Office for Artificial Intelligence.

Like Osborne, Hassabis bought around 1.7 per cent of Babylon in 2015 and exited his investment in 2019. A spokeswoman for Hassabis said he had never discussed Babylon with Hancock or the UK government, had never been involved in any discussions with either the NHS or Babylon, and had not acted on behalf of Babylon in any form.

Lawyers for Babylon said the company had never made political donations and that any political donations made by a few of its many shareholders were not linked to the firm’s success. They added that Babylon had no control or knowledge of donations to political parties or MPs made by its many shareholders.

They said Babylon had not benefited from special treatment, saying its innovative and highly valued service was the reason for its success. This service had understandably led to praise and interest from politicians across the political spectrum, the lawyers added, insisting there was no basis to attribute Babylon’s achievements to political donations by third parties.

“There are very important questions that the health secretary needs to answer.”

But while there is no evidence that shareholders’ donations were given to influence Hancock, the various links to him and the Conservative Party raise questions of transparency, said Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK.

There are “very important questions that the health secretary needs to answer” about his relationship with Babylon, Bruce said:

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be like this. Ultimately, we, the public, the electorate, need tohave absolute confidence that that line between the public interest and the private commercial interest doesn’t get dangerously blurred.”

In recent weeks it has been reported that, following visits by Hancock and senior health officials to see Babylon’s technology in use in Birmingham, a symptom checker based on Babylon’s product is being considered for a wider roll-out across the country.

Image: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street (Creative Commons)