Late last night, the Independent revealed that health secretary Matt Hancock had spent almost £50,000 on “takeaway meals” from Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen, a small Filipino restaurant on Hackney road in east London, in the months of March and April. Separately, 24 hours earlier, the restaurant’s owners Lee Johnson and Sinead Campbell announced that it would close permanently as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Independent reports that Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) “spent a total of £47,528 on takeaways” from Bong Bong’s this spring: nine orders totalling £43,348 were placed during April; another, for £4,179, was place in March, “according to spending data requested by the Daily Mail and the TaxPayers’ Alliance.”
But nearly £50,000 worth of “takeaways” is slightly misleading, since it appears the restaurant pivoted to catering after the government had mandated all non-essential businesses to close at the end of March. Bong Bong’s said it had been “incredibly fortunate to be offered some private catering during the months of April to June,” which enabled the business to “stay afloat,” pay its bills, and support its suppliers, “who had been incredible while the restaurant was open!”
Unflustered at the crack of dawn today, Hancock defended the spending, saying it was “possibly the best value for money food you can get.” He told Sky News’ Kay Burley this morning that the orders fed a mix of civil servants, NHS staff, military personnel, and private sector workers who were working up to 18 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis:
“When people are working 18 hours a day […]in the middle of a pandemic, of course I’m going to feed them [...] It’s possibly the best value for money food you can get in terms of allowing people working so hard to tackle this virus.”
Why did Health Secretary @MattHancock spend almost £44,000 on takeaway food for his staff at the start of the pandemic but take so long to commit to free school meals? RH#KayBurley pic.twitter.com/04cFkd6rYO— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) November 23, 2020
According to the Independent, a spokesperson later added that the spending was “necessary to ensure staff working shifts were able to access hot food when other catering options were unavailable during lockdown, until alternative arrangements could be made.”
Johnson and Campbell opened the “Filipino-inspired” business almost exactly a year ago having won investment from their appearance on BBC Two’s Million Pound Menu. The duo had previously operated the street food business BBQ Dreamz. On Sunday, when announcing its closure on Instagram, they said 2020 had “been an absolute shit show of a year.”
How the department of health and social care, headquartered on Victoria Street in SW1, came to favour such a niche restaurant brand, almost five miles and 30 minutes away in Hackney will remain a source of great intrigue. Or maybe not, according to some: One of Bong Bong’s investors is married to a Conservative councillor, therefore slightly reducing the randomness of the predilection.
As it was, such generous spending from Hancock’s team could not arrest Bong Bong’s’ subsequent demise. Johnson and Campbell said two days ago that “it’s with a sad heart” that the temporary closure had now become permanent. “The decision was a really tough one but given the current situation with lockdowns and COVID-19 we believe that it’s the best move for the business,” they said.
The duo added that they would now wait out the Christmas period and return in the new year with Honey Boo Boo, the brand’s food truck, whose revival comes as a result of a crowdfunding campaign this summer. They said it was “on track to be back up and running very soon.”
Matt Hancock can’t wait.