The government’s use of a so-called VIP lane to award PPE contracts to two companies during the first COVID wave was unlawful, the High Court has ruled.
The challenge was brought by campaign groups the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor which argued the bid process conferred unlawful preferential treatment on those with political connections.
They took legal action over more than £340m in contracts awarded in 2020 to pest control firm PestFix and a contract worth around £252m to the hedge fund Ayanda Capital.
The judgment adds to the pressure on Boris Johnson and his government as it battles a series of sleaze allegations – with Labour claiming there is a “cash for access” culture within the Tory party.
The PM’s personal reputation has taken a battering – with Mr Johnson admitting at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons today that he attended a Downing Street garden drinks party during the first lockdown, prompting calls from opposition parties for him to resign.
The High Court was told the VIP lane for PPE contracts was reserved for referrals from MPs, ministers and senior officials, as the Department for Health – under-then Health Secretary Matt Hancock – had “prioritised suppliers including PestFix and Ayanda because of who they knew, not what they could deliver”.
The department contested the claim, telling the court it “wholeheartedly” rejected the case against it and that the VIP lane was rational and resulted in a “large number of credible offers” in an environment where PPE deals often failed within “minutes”.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell said that it was unlawful to give the two companies preferential treatment on the basis of being part of the VIP lane.
However, she found that both of the companies’ offers “justified priority treatment on its merits” and were “very likely” to have been awarded contracts even without the VIP lane.
The judge also found that “sufficient financial due diligence” was carried out in respect of both sets of contracts.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock welcomed the decision.
“We are delighted that the Department for Health has won this case, as the court found that the priority treatment was ‘justified’ and rightly refused to grant any rectification for the way PPE was urgently bought in the height of the crisis.
“At the time, a huge number of people were doing everything they could to get PPE to the front line as fast as possible in a national emergency.
“As the National Audit Office has confirmed, ministers had no involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.
“The department was doing the best it possibly could within the rules to respond to an unprecedented situation, and crucially, the court has rightly found that action was justified and absolutely no rectification or further action is necessary.”
Ms Rayner demanded a full, independent, investigation into the award of contracts during the crisis to date.
She responded: “While our hardworking NHS staff were going without PPE, Tory politicians saw an opportunity to line their cronies’ pockets.”