Science minister George Freeman had claimed that NHS datastore Genomics England was suffering attacks in 2014
A minister has withdrawn claims that a Chinese company made multiple attempts to hack into the NHS’s genetic database in 2014, with critics describing the official correction as “alarming”.
Science minister George Freeman had claimed that NHS datastore Genomics England was “suffering several hack attacks from BGI each week” during 2014 in a Westminster Hall debate on March 8.
But Mr Freeman has since issued a correction to the claim via Parliament’s official record Hansard, writing: “There is no evidence of attempted hacking of Genomics England in 2014 from BGI.”
The correction to Hansard was welcomed by Shenzhen-based BGI Group.
But Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman who led the debate, described it as “bewildering” and called on Mr Freeman to set out the facts of the case to Parliament.
BGI Genomics, China’s leading genetic research company and a subsidiary of the BGI Group, was awarded an £11 million Covid contract in 2021.
Mr Carmichael expressed concerns about the UK Government’s relationship with BGI during the debate, claiming that the company may have to share sensitive information with the Chinese government as a result of the country’s national security laws.
The Lib Dem MP, who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Uighurs, also claimed BGI is implicated in China’s repression of the Muslim minority group, as well as the “forced collection” of genetic information.
Responding to the correction made by Mr Freeman, the Lib Dem MP told the PA news agency: “This bewildering correction to the record is alarming.
“BGI has been implicated in the repression of the Uighurs and the forced collection of genetic data. George Freeman should come before Parliament and urgently set out the facts.
“From a failure to stand up for Hong Kong, to the refusal to recognise what is going on in Xinjiang as a genocide, this Conservative Government’s record on China is shameful.”
Mr Carmichael raised a point of order on the matter in the Commons on Tuesday, claiming the correction was “not a matter of detail, but it is a flat contradiction of what the minister said”.
He added: “In Westminster Hall, the minister was recounting an incident of which he had personal knowledge. There was nothing to correct. The only explanation I can see is that the company in question, BGI, has got at the officials in the minister’s department and that they have buckled to the pressure.”
He said the official report “belongs to Parliament”, adding: “Mr Speaker has been robust in other areas in defending the rights of parliamentarians against outside pressures, especially those coming from China.”
In his original speech, science minister Mr Freeman claimed officials had told him in 2014 about multiple attempts to hack Genomics England by BGI, when he “was wheeled out to give a speech on the occasion of the visit of President Xi to the Guildhall”.
Chinese president Xi Jinping did not visit the UK in 2014, but did make a state visit to the country in 2015.
During that visit, he attended a banquet at the Guildhall, in the heart of London’s financial district.
A BGI Group spokesman said: “BGI Group welcomes the correction regarding the inaccurate statement made by minister of state, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology George Freeman.
“BGI Group has never been, and will never be, involved in ‘hack attacks’ against anyone. We will continue to support the UK in improving the health of the people and continue to advocate for open and inclusive global scientific collaboration with the aim of fighting diseases more effectively.”
The spokesman also insisted the company was not “state-linked”, adding: “None of BGI Group is state-owned or state-controlled, and all of BGI Group’s services and research are provided for civilian and scientific purposes.”
Mr Freeman also issued a second correction to his original speech, after he referred to the “the great Mary Black at King’s College London” as “the third discoverer of DNA”, clarifying that he meant to name Rosalind Franklin.
Published: 14/03/2023 by Radio NewsHub