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David Cameron met vaccines minister before firm he advises won health contracts

Exclusive: Ex-PM met the vaccines minister to discuss genome sequencing – two months before the genome firm he advises won contracts worth £870,000

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Martin Williams
30 July 2021, 11.31am
David Cameron met with vaccines minister Nadim Zahawi
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Victoria Jones/PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

David Cameron met with the UK’s vaccine minister less than two months before a private health firm, which pays him for his advice, won £870,000-worth of public contracts.

The UK arm of Illumina Inc. was awarded two contracts relating to genome sequencing by Public Health England in late April.

But openDemocracy can reveal that Cameron discussed “UK genomics sequencing” with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi on 1 March. Official disclosures also make it clear that Illumina was being represented at the meeting.

Cameron has previously claimed that his role at the company is simply to promote the benefits of genome sequencing, and that he does not lobby the government for contracts on Illumina’s behalf.

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But questions have been raised previously about his role at the company. In 2019, Illumina secured a £123m contract the week after Cameron appeared at a genomics conference with the then health secretary Matt Hancock.

Cameron set up Genomics England, which is wholly owned by the department of health, during his time as prime minister. A £78m deal between Genomics England and Illumina was later announced.

Cameron visited Illumina’s headquarters in the US, shortly after resigning as prime minister in 2016, and “shared optimism for the opportunity for Illumina’s technology”. He was signed up as an adviser to the company in 2018, while also becoming chair of its international advisory board.

“David Cameron’s behaviour is evidence that the rules that are supposed to regulate lobbying are completely unfit for purpose and need a radical and urgent overhaul,” Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, told openDemocracy.

“There appears to be nobody in government who the former prime minister has not lobbied in an effort to enrich himself and his clients during this pandemic.”

David Cameron’s behaviour is evidence that the rules that are supposed to regulate lobbying are completely unfit for purpose

Angela Rayner

When he was appointed to Illumina, Cameron said he “would not play any role in contract negotiations between Genomics England (or DH) and Illumina”.

He confirmed that the role “might involve some very limited contact with UK ministers from time to time”, but said he would not lobby ministers on behalf of the company.

Rose Whiffen, research officer at Transparency International UK, said: “It will make troubling reading for many that a former prime minister can meet with his past colleagues in government on behalf of a paying client, yet there are no enforceable rules to prevent this from happening.”

Whiffen added: “Given what we know now about his lobbying for Greensill, the appearance of David Cameron elsewhere in official transparency disclosures suggests that was not an isolated attempt by him to exert influence in Whitehall after leaving office.”

‘Reputation in tatters’ after Greensill

This month an official parliamentary inquiry accused Cameron of a “significant lack of judgment” after his intensive efforts to lobby for Greensill Capital were revealed.

Between March and June last year, the ex-PM sent at least 62 emails, texts and WhatsApp messages to former government colleagues, desperately trying to get them to help the supply chain finance company, in which Cameron held a “very significant personal economic interest”.

When Boris Johnson was self-isolating with COVID symptoms before being admitted to intensive care, Cameron messaged cabinet minister Michael Gove saying: “I know you are manically busy – and doing a great job, by the way … But do you have a moment for a word? I am on this number and v free.”

And in a text to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, he said: “I can’t see the case against helping to fund supply chains and SMEs in this way […] Could you try and give it another nudge over the finish line.”

Appearing in front of a parliamentary committee in May, Cameron was told he had left his “reputation in tatters” and had drawn the position of prime minister into “disrepute”.

The committee’s report, published this month, said Cameron had not breached lobbying rules, but argued that this “reflects on the insufficient strength of the rules”.

Kirsten Oswald, the SNP's Westminster deputy leader, told openDemocracy that the government “can no longer continue to dodge accountability and scrutiny”.

"At a time when the government's focus should be on protecting lives, the Tories have instead been driven by self-interest – with friends, contacts and party donors rewarded with lucrative COVID contracts.”

She added: “The prime minister must now act upon his words and immediately commence the COVID-19 public inquiry."

A spokesperson for Illumina told The Independent: “Illumina always follows the correct and necessary process in its negotiations with customers.

“We have worked with Genomics England since 2013, when we won a competitive tender process for the £78m contract for the 100,000 Genomes Project. Our ISO-accredited facilities in Cambridge were chosen by Genomics England as being the most appropriate in the UK in terms of being able to deliver this advanced genomics programme.

“The vast majority of David Cameron’s work with Illumina is outside the UK, representing the best practices of the UK in genomics to other countries.”

Cameron did not respond to a request for comment.

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