Bids from politically connected firms to provide Covid-19 tests in Britain were designated as “fast track”, according to an email which suggests a VIP priority lane could have operated for tests as well as for personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic.
An email sent by a senior civil servant last year said there was a dedicated email address for offers to supply PPE from people who had been recommended by a minister or senior official. It was later publicly confirmed that a “VIP lane” or “high priority route” existed for PPE offers. More attention was paid to those companies that were referred by ministers, MPs or officials.
The same email, sent last April by Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, also referred to Covid testing, saying there was a separate dedicated email where offers would be “triaged”. Hy het bygevoeg: “If they come from a minister/private office then please put FASTTRACK at the beginning of the subject line.”
The email was sent to the private offices of ministers Michael Gove, Lord Bethell, Lord Agnew, Esther McVey, and Jo Churchill.
It was disclosed by the government as part of its response to a legal challenge against three PPE contracts brought by the Good Law Project, which argues that the operation of the “VIP lane” was unlawful because it favoured companies with connections to politicians.
Further evidence that a VIP process could have operated for Covid testing kits has also emerged from Simon Greaves, a consultant who worked on the government’s testing operation from April to June 2020.
On his LinkedIn profile Greaves described his role as working “to lead VIP stakeholder engagement” alongside Bethell, who oversaw the award of Covid contracts at the Department of Health and Social Care. Greaves described his role as “working with diagnostic and biopharma industry executives to build a resilient UK diagnostic sector”.
The operation of the VIP fast track priority route for PPE suppliers led to widespread criticism, legal and political challenges for the government, a warning by Transparency International over “red flags” for corruption, en a critical report by the National Audit Office.
Until now no evidence had been seen publicly to indicate that a similar system operated for other elements of the pandemic response on which the government spent billions of pounds.
Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said there was clear evidence of a VIP route for companies supplying testing kits. “There is an email saying fast track for referrals from ministers, and there was someone dealing with VIP stakeholder engagement. The suspicion is there that contracts were given to companies with VIP connections to ministers," hy het gesê.
One email seen by the Guardian, sent by Greaves last April apparently responding to an offer from a potential supplier, arrived from his personal Gmail account, not a government email address. Cabinet Office guidance is that all government business must be conducted through official channels, to provide a paper trail for important decisions and allow for scrutiny.
Greaves said he was asked to use his personal email address but said it was only for a short time before he was provided with an official DHSC email address. Greaves told the Guardian he had worked as a volunteer for the DHSC on the testing operation, but declined to explain his role or what he had meant by “VIP”.
The Cabinet Office and the DHSC have not yet responded to a request for comment.