Conservative health minister has big stake in Covid testing firm

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The fact that a conservative health minister has a significant financial stake in a private health screening and COVID testing firm raises questions about the potential for conflicts of interest.

Nick Markham, a business tycoon assigned to the health department with a precedent under Liz Truss, owns approximately 30% of Cignpost Investments, and did so during his first four months in office.

The company was established to provide Covid testing and health screening services to the private sector during the pandemic process. Markham’s biography on the Department of Health website makes no mention of his private healthcare industry interests, although he describes previous private sector jobs at ITV and TopUp TV and as the founder of a charity.

Markham became health minister in September and announced the Cignpost investment on its register of interests in the House of Lords. It is intended to have ministry interests overseen by an independent adviser, but that post has been vacant for six months since Lord Geidt resigned under Boris Johnson.

The Labor Party and Liberal Democrats said it was inappropriate for a government minister to have such a stake.

Angela Rayner, vice-president of the Labor Party and shadow chancellor of the duke of Lancaster, said: “Conservative adherents have been rewarded with precedent and plum ministerial work while protecting their lucrative interests. There is a rotten smell around the revolving door that the Tories left wide open. Labor will clean up politics by restoring standards in public life with an independent ethics and integrity commission.”

“These interests are not only inappropriate, but downright unethical,” said Sal Brinton, Lib Dem’s health spokesperson for the House of Lords.

“The rules say that ministers must eliminate conflicts of interest to avoid any influence on their decisions and to preserve public confidence. Our minister must be held to the highest standards, but these slip with each new appointment.

“Lord Markham must get rid of these interests and Rishi Sunak must immediately appoint a new ethics adviser.”

Cignpost did not win any government contracts during the pandemic, but has expanded its business as a result of its policy of requiring people to test regularly and the transition from free testing to paid testing.

Its subsidiary, Cignpost Diagnostics, made a pre-tax profit of approximately £15m on revenue of £49m per year through its first nine months of operation to March 2021.

According to his interest records, Markham also owns a stake in a family investment firm and a management consulting firm.

The Ministry of Health and Social Care did not comment when asked what has been done to reduce the risks of conflicts of interest. However, it is understood that Markham told the ministry that he is currently in the process of divesting his stake. When he became a minister in September, he resigned from the directorate.

Markham’s healthcare firm stock is the latest in a series of cases where, contrary to historical precedent, ministers have been appointed despite direct financial interests in their business.

Jacob Rees-Mogg was allowed to hold a stake in Somerset Capital Management, an asset manager while he was business secretary, and Chris Philp was allowed to hold a major stake in a real estate finance group and play a managerial role at an investment firm. At the time, Philp was the Treasury secretary in charge of spending policy on housing and planning.

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