Boris Johnson’s most senior aide is facing “conflict of interest” accusations over a consultancy role he reportedly undertook for Babylon.
Dominic Cummings is alleged to have advised Babylon on its communication’s strategy and senior recruitment, an investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has revealed.
His role with the digital-first healthcare company ended in July last year, but he continued to advise the firm on recruitment grounds until September 2018 – the same month Secretary of State Matt Hancock visited Babylon and told them the NHS wanted to help the company expand.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth told the Guardian and TBIJ the links between Cummings, the health secretary and Babylon were “increasingly murky and highly irresponsible”. He also made reference to the fact Babylon could benefit from a £250m AI fund, which was announced by the government in August 2019 in a bid to improve diagnostics and screening in the NHS.
“Mr Cummings’ work for this company raises serious questions about a potential conflict of interest, given the firm could be in line to receive public money from this new £250m AI fund,” he said.
“We need to know if he declared his work for the firm to the cabinet secretary when he joined the government payroll. If not, why not?”
Hancock has faced fierce criticism in the past for his seemingly open support of Babylon, including appearing in a paid for advertorial for the company in the Evening Standard and a Telegraph interview in which he called the company’s primary care app, GP at Hand, “revolutionary”.
Sam Smith, coordinator at MedConfidential, told Digital Health News: “The current government has a policy that all analytics must involve private companies, so whether they’ll get the whole £250m or just most of it is a political decision largely unrelated to the quality of patient care.”
Babylon confirmed Cummings carried out a “very short, one-off piece of consultancy work” advising on the company’s communications strategy.
“This piece of work was completed in 10 days and happened a full year before he was appointed by Government,” they said.
“Our mission is to give accessible, affordable healthcare to everyone on the planet and we wanted an external view of our communications plans.
“We were also looking to appoint a PR Director and Mr Cummings was involved in the recruitment process on a couple of days in September 2018, but no-one was appointed.”
Downing Street was contacted by Digital Health News for comment.
A spokesperson told the Guardian that special advisers have no role in authorising expenditure of public funds.
The Babylon controversy
Aside from the health secretary’s backing, Babylon has attracted a number of headlines since it began disrupting primary care.
The company already holds an NHS contract with Hammersmith and Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) for its GP at Hand app, which has left the CCG with a funding deficit of at least £21 million.
In June 2019 the company was given the green light to expand to Birmingham, with initial restrictions on the number of patients they could register. In October Babylon revealed it was in formal talks to expand to Manchester in early 2020.
The initial cap on patient registrations in Birmingham is set to be lifted this month once Hammersmith and Fulham CCG update a key part of its referral software.
Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaughter, has called for an inquiry into the company’s services before any further expansion takes place.
He said NHS appears to be facilitating the digital provider “without looking at the consequences for primary care”.
Mr Slaughter told Digital Health News: “Babylon has been favoured by the health secretary and the justified concerns of GPs, CCGs and professional bodies have been dismissed by government and the NHS.
“Now, to find that the PM’s senior adviser has benefited personally and that Babylon may be in line for department funding escalates fears about this relationship.
“There should be no additional cooperation with Babylon GP at Hand until these links have been thoroughly and independently investigated.”
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