Ministers “lobbied” officials to chase the progress of contracts for the supply of personal protective equipment that were being processed through a government “VIP lane” for companies with personal connections, a court has heard.
In an internal WhatsApp message revealed as part of a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project (GLP) and EveryDoctor, a civil servant supporting the government’s urgent PPE procurement efforts at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic said they needed a tracker system to check the progress of VIP offers.
If they had such a tracking system for PPE offers from companies referred by ministers, MPs or civil servants, the official said it would save the procurement team from “being lobbied further by ministers/VIPs etc and the like”.
The government has consistently said that although ministers could refer offers from people to supply PPE to the relevant procurement team, they were not involved in the award of contracts.
The GLP and EveryDoctor are challenging the government, naming the health secretary, Matt Hancock, as the defendant, over the propriety of the VIP lane, and multimillion-pound contracts awarded to three companies in particular: PestFix, Ayanda Capital and Clandeboye Agencies.
Internal documents released as part of the judicial review case reveal that Ayanda, a “family office” finance house in London, was awarded two PPE contracts for a total £252m having been referred to the VIP lane because its representative, Andrew Mills, was an adviser to Liz Truss, the trade secretary. Officials pushed for the contracts to be processed as quickly as possible, with one marking emails “URGENT VIP CASE” and “VERY URGENT VIP ESCALATION”, saying that if the deal did not happen: “Andrew will escalate as high as he can possibly go!”
The two contracts were approved on 30 April 2020, just five days after Ayanda was put into the VIP lane, but before required financial checks had been carried out on the company, despite a Cabinet Office official having raised “major issues or concerns” because of inadequate public financial information being available and a “low” credit score.
In text exchanges disclosed one official wrote: “Shit hit the fan,” explaining: “due diligence hadn’t been carried out on Ayanda … there are a lot of people covering there [sic] own arses.”
The face masks provided by Ayanda were ultimately unusable, the court heard, because the Department of Health and Social Care had specified masks with earloops, despite the NHS requiring masks that looped over the head.
Ayanda has consistently pointed out that it fulfilled the contract according to the specifications it was given.
PestFix, a company that did supply PPE, had its offer progressed through the VIP lane after one of its shareholders reminded a senior DHSC official that he was a friend of his father-in-law’s.
The official passed PestFix’s offer to a colleague marked “Importance: High”, and followed up by emailing: “Thanks for doing this! He’s an old school friend of my father-in-law, but on this occasion it does look like he might have something.”
According to the GLP’s legal submission, a PestFix director later suggested in a message that the company’s agent in China had secured PPE gowns by bribing local officials, “which is how he gets what he wants”. PestFix declined to comment.
The government is defending the legal claim, arguing that the VIP route and the contracts awarded, including to PestFix, Ayanda and Clandeboye, were lawful and reasonable, as the government tried to rapidly meet a serious shortfall of PPE at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. A National Audit Office report in November stated that 144 referrals to the VIP lane had come from ministers’ private offices, but said of its investigation: “Ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”
The trial, being heard by Mrs Justice O’Farrell, is expected to last five days.