The Labour party has called for an inquiry after Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock was accused of endorsing Babylon Health services in a newspaper interview sponsored by the digital health company.
According to The Guardian, the shadow health minister Justin Madders has written to Prime Minister Theresa May accusing Hancock of breaking the ministerial code by endorsing Babylon’s products in an interview he gave to the Evening Standard, which carried Babylon branding.
Hancock’s interview was featured in the Evening Standard’s Future London Health supplement last week.
An online version of the piece reads at the end: ‘This article was published in the Evening Standard’s Future London Health Supplement, which has financial support from Babylon.’
A source close to the health secretary told The Guardian that Hancock ‘had no prior knowledge that Babylon was sponsoring the article which he thought was going to be about health technology.’
Hancock has publicly backed Babylon’s GP at Hand service on a number of occasions, saying a few months ago that the app ‘should be available to all’.
He said in his interview with the Evening Standard: ‘I’ve become known for using this GP at Hand app.
‘Serving some people more efficiently allows more resources for the people who don’t want to use the technology.’
He added: ‘AI can augment the human factor. It will never replace it. Throughout the ages technology has enabled people to perform better in their jobs and it is just as true now. If technology can remove some of the labour-intensive tasks where the computer can do better than the human eye; that helps.’
Both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs have criticised proposals from private providers like Babylon for a wider rollout of virtual GP app, saying issues of ethics and patient access need to be considered first.
The Advertising Standards Authority also recently banned a Babylon tube advert, after it ruled the advert misled consumers about the fact that they needed to change GPs to use the service.
Commenting on Hancock’s interview, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘As the Health Secretary has made clear in the past, he holds no portfolio for any particular company or brand and regularly champions the benefits of a range of technologies which can improve patient outcomes, free up clinicians’ time and make every pound go further.
‘We are working to create a tech ecosystem which allows all innovations to flourish in the NHS, a number of which were highlighted.’