Dominic Cummings tried to dodge contract rules and ordered officials to fast-track a £530,000 grant to an external data team, according to reports.
The PM’s former top aide, instructed civil servants at NHSX, the government unit responsible for digital transformation in health, to grant the money to Our World in Data, a research project run by a not-for-profit organisation, emails leaked to the Guardian, Source Material and BBC show.
“Someone please ensure that they have the 530k within 24 hours from now and report back to me it’s been sent,” Cummings wrote to the chief executive of NHSX in March 2020, when the the UK was in the early throes of the pandemic.
“No procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay please – just send immediately,” he added.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was copied in on the email chain, backed the demand.
The government has denied wrongdoing and said proper processes were followed.
“We take these checks extremely seriously to ensure our contracts deliver results and value for money,” the Department of Health and Social Care said.
The grant was given to the project, run with the help of Oxford academics, in four instalments from summer 2020.
Mr Cummings, who left his role in No 10 in November 2020, has been contacted for comment.
Our World in Data said it needed the funding to keep staff and hire contractors.
Their request was passed to Mr Hancock and a minute after he received the email he emailed Matthew Gould, Chief Executive of NHSX saying he supported the move.
An email from Mr Cummings to Mr Gould a couple of hours later said: “Someone please ensure that they have the 530k within 24 hours from now and report back to me it’s been sent.”
Further emails suggested civil servants were uncomfortable with the fast-tracking of the cash.
Government guidance aimed at safeguarding against corruption and the misuse of taxpayers’ cash says directly awarding grants without competition is discouraged, but ministers have the power to override this.
The guidance also says grants any grant of more than £100,000 should be referred to the Cabinet Office.
The following day, Mr Gould said his team could “have the money in place by tomorrow”, and warned it would mean “waiving the normal grant-giving process”.
“I don’t want to do anything untoward, but given the secretary of state’s and Dom Cumming’s strong steer I’d really welcome your help/advice/green light,” he wrote to a colleague.
Max Roser, the founder and director of the project, said a full grant application was submitted on March 25 and agreed to on April 30.
“I have no way to know the internal processes inside the government,” he said.
Jolyon Maughan QC, director of the Good Law Project, said: “The government guidance talks about extra safeguards for sums above £100,000. This was well above £100,000.
“There was no process that I can see before the decision was made to award this very substantial sum.”
Responding to the story, the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Officials carried out due diligence and followed appropriate processes before this grant was awarded.
“Every contract agreed by the government with partners has proper due diligence carried out on it.”