Tuesday, 3 May 2022 — The Goodlaw Project
Civil servants described the Government’s shambolic testing programme as “unlegit” and “no way to do business”, in new internal emails we can publish today.
The emails were uncovered in the course of our legal action over the award of multimillion pound testing contracts to Abingdon Health during the pandemic, which has reached the High Court this week.
Despite warnings from the Government’s own lawyers that these contracts could be unlawful as they bypassed the correct procurement process, emails reveal Ministers steamrolled the project anyway, with then-Secretary of State Matt Hancock exhorting his team to “go hell for leather” at it. The contracts were awarded secretly, without any advertisement or competition.
And despite substantial public subsidies being gifted by the Government, the antibody tests it supplied were entirely unfit for the Government’s intended purpose. The vast majority expired without ever being used.
In Court today, it was revealed that the senior civil servant responsible for the antibody testing team fretted that the preferential treatment being given to Abingdon Health would mean that competitors “might complain”. And at one point, the Chief Commercial Officer at the Department of Health asked the accounting officer at the Department of Health to “have a quiet word with Bethell and explain to him that we could make this all a lot more legit if we just took two days to do a public call-to-arms to ‘flush out’ any other companies who might be able to play a role in this space, and remove the criticism that we haven’t given everyone a fair chance?”.
The revelations don’t stop there. The same accounting officer wrote of his wider concerns about “how unlegit the entire testing strand is” and stated: “I am concerned that in this area of our coronavirus response we are running at pace without any clear financial approvals and well outside departmental delegations. It [the Covid testing programme] is a clear outlier. It is important to regularise that partly for the audit trail, partly to protect you and your teams when things go wrong and partly to provide a framework against which decisions can be made at speed.”
Emails between civil servants reveal they were told by Ministers “don’t bother with HMT and rules, just buy the stuff and we can deal with it later”. One references “No 10” trying to push through a separate deal that was “dodgy”. It’s little wonder that costs on testing quickly spiralled out of control, with the “lack of clarity on value being delivered against big contracts such as Randox”. Conservative MP Owen Paterson resigned in November after it emerged he had lobbied the Government on behalf of Randox, whilst being paid by the company. Randox has won over £400 million worth of testing contracts.
Documents revealed over the life of this case have shown, despite Ministers’ denials, that a fast-track ‘VIP route’ was created for preferred testing suppliers, just like with dodgy PPE procurement.
Ministers have struggled to get their story straight at every turn, but it’s clear to us now why they have been so backward in coming forward. Has there ever been a Government so allergic to accountability?
The High Court hearing continues until Thursday.
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Good Law Project