The Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew, the health minister Lord Bethell and one of Matt Hancock’s most senior officials were among the “main routes” through which well-connected people were referred to a “VIP” channel to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a court has heard.
In internal emails revealed as part of a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project (GLP), civil servants explained that the “VIP route”, or “high priority lane”, provided companies referred via political connections with a personal service including “hand-holding”. One official, whose name has remained confidential, explained to Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, that referrals came from a handful of “main routes”, including Bethell, Agnew and Jonathan Marron, the director general of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) “working to Matt Hancock”. Companies referred by Bethell, the official said, “require a personal response”.
The official added that they tended to deal with “super senior/politically sensitive” referrals, and had a team of three who responded to suppliers “within the hour”.
The official said last April that the team was overseeing approximately 60 bids, which ranged from “semi-dubious individuals” to large corporations offering to donate PPE.
Companies processed via the VIP route had a 10 times greater success rate for winning contracts than the thousands of companies offering to supply PPE not given priority, the National Audit Office (NAO) has reported.
The government has repeatedly refused to publish which companies were referred to the VIP route and why, but the names of four more companies were revealed as part of the GLP’s legal challenge. Hancock, named as the defendant, argues that the VIP route and the contracts awarded were lawful and reasonable as the government tried to rapidly meet a serious shortfall of PPE.
The companies newly revealed to have won contracts via the VIP process are P14 Medical, run by the Conservative councillor and donor Steve Dechan, introduced by a senior official at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and awarded £276m in PPE contracts; Meller Designs, run by David Meller, a prominent Tory donor, which had previously supplied PPE to the government and was awarded contracts worth more than £160m; the design company Luxe Lifestyle, awarded a £26m contract after being referred by an unnamed MP, and Clandeboye Agencies, a confectionery company, awarded £108m in PPE contracts after its application was supported by the director of NHS Wales, according to the court disclosures.
Last week it was revealed that PestFix, which specialises in pest control products, was referred through the VIP route after an approach telling the DHSC’s chief commercial officer that its chairman was a friend of his father-in-law. The finance house Ayanda Capital, promoted by Andrew Mills, then an adviser to the trade secretary, Liz Truss, was also revealed to have been processed through the VIP route. In one of the emails, one of the procurement officials told another that Mills “comes through as highly backed”.
Bethell, a former corporate lobbyist, was made a junior DHSC minister in March 2020 as the pandemic took hold. A close ally of Hancock and a Tory party donor, he was given wide-ranging responsibilities for Covid supplies, test and trace and vaccines.
Private equity financier Agnew, also a Tory party donor, was appointed a Cabinet Office and Treasury minister in February 2020, and made responsible for supporting Covid-19 procurement.
The DHSC is defending the legal claim, and says the VIP lane was “widely advertised across government as a way of more quickly triaging offers of support”. It contends the deals were entered into lawfully.
An NAO investigation found no evidence that ministers were involved in procurement decisions or contract management, and said many VIP lane leads came from opposition MPs and peers.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell ordered the government to disclose further documents, including any instructions or decisions made by Hancock or other ministers relating to the setting up of the VIP route and criteria for companies referred to it, and key civil servants’ texts and WhatsApp messages. She also ordered the government to pay the GLP’s costs for the application.
The full hearing of the judicial review application is due to be held on 17 May.