Emails emerge of ‘VIP route’ for UK Covid test contracts

Further evidence has emerged that the government operated a “VIP” fast-track process for favoured companies leading to accusations that ministers misled the public about billions of pounds of Covid-19 testing contracts.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) has previously denied operating any VIP process for companies referred by ministers for possible Covid contracts. Nel mese di giugno, when it emerged that civil servants had passed on referrals labelled “fast track” from ministers, a government spokesperson said: “These claims are completely false – there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers. All offers of testing went through the same robust assurance checks and there was no separate ‘fast track process’.”

tuttavia, internal emails between DHSC civil servants, discussing the Rapid Testing Consortium (RTC), a group of companies led by York-based Abingdon Health, which was awarded huge government contracts without a competitive tender, did describe the process as “the VIP route”. The then health minister, Lord Bethell, was described by officials as a “sponsor” of the consortium.

The DHSC disclosed the June 2020 emails during a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project (GLP), which argues there was “apparent bias” in the award of the contracts to Abingdon Health, and that the government “failed to undertake any transparent or lawful process”. The DHSC is defending the case, arguing that the emergency of the pandemic justified it making direct contract awards.

In the email exchanges, one civil servant, discussing how to process the RTC companies, said a person in authority, whose name is redacted, “would like them to go through the VIP route.” The official asked: “Who should they name as their sponsor?"

A colleague replied: “Are the sponsors usually ministers? I would imagine RTC can name Lord Bethell?"

In a further email referring to the RTC, another official wrote: “This is usually for the VIP route which comes via ministers.”

Asked by the Guardian about these references to a VIP route, the DHSC did not maintain its previous denial. Instead a government spokesperson said:

“All offers of testing supplies that were evaluated by DHSC went through the same clinical evaluation process. Every application went through robust assessment checks, and decisions were based on merit.”

Abingdon, a medium-sized health diagnostics company founded in 2008, has itself described the dramatically rapid process that led to their formation of the RTC with three other companies, and the award of huge government contracts. The company has emphasised that it and its directors did not have Conservative party membership or connections, that the government asked them to contribute to the Covid response, and they were not aware if there was a fast track process.

Having been first contacted on 22 marzo 2020 by an adviser to Public Salute Inghilterra, Abingdon said they were asked to email the general DHSC and NHS Covid testing and research email addresses. Su 1 aprile, the company was contacted by Prof John Bell, a senior government adviser on testing, and on the same day asked to join a conference call with the then health secretary, Matt Hancock. Following discussions with Bethell and other senior government figures, Abingdon then formed the RTC and were initially given a £3m research contract.

Nel mese di giugno, Abingdon was awarded two contracts whose process GLP is challenging: one for £10m to supply components for lateral flow test kits, another for a potential total £75m to supply a maximum 10m test kits, beginning with a firm order for 1 million kits.

No competitive tender process had been undertaken before awarding these contracts. The government justified that, as it has for billions of pounds worth of Covid-19 contracts, by saying it was due to the emergency of the pandemic.

The DHSC heralded the test-kit deal at the time, saying it demonstrated “how, supported by government investment, the UK diagnostics industry is leading on the global stage.” Bethell said: “We are thrilled by the RTC product, both for Britain and export markets around the world.”

However the major contract with Abingdon culminated in the DHSC saying in January that it had cancelled outstanding orders, because there had not been official approval for home use of the tests, and a bitter dispute with the company. Abingdon has complained publicly that there were no orders outstanding, and that the DHSC has not paid £6.7m it owes for the 1 million tests the company had already supplied, and some components. Abingdon say that the government’s non-payment has forced it to reduce its workforce from 190 people to 130.

Gemma Abbott, Legal Director at Good Law Project said: “When evidence last emerged of a VIP lane for testing contracts, government said our claims were ‘completely false’. Now our legal action has proved their denial is false – there was a fast track to award lucrative test and trace contracts to firms favoured by ministers.

“Government needs to stop misleading the public and come clean. £37bn has been allocated to test and test contracts. Where has that money gone? We should not need to drag government to court to get an honest account.”

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