‘VIP lane’ for PPE contracts ruled illegal by High Court
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The judgment yesterday was yet another blow for the embattled Prime Minister in the wake of a series of sleaze allegations. Campaign groups argued that the VIP lane was reserved for referrals from MPs, ministers and senior officials and had given some companies an unfair advantage.
A judge ruled that it was unlawful to give those firms preferential treatment, which meant their offers were considered more quickly.
However, she said the two companies involved in the case were likely to have been given contracts anyway.
The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor took legal action over almost £600million of contracts awarded to pest control firm PestFix and hedge fund Ayanda Capital at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
They argued the Government had “prioritised suppliers including PestFix and Ayanda because of who they knew, not what they could deliver”.
In a judgment, Mrs Justice O’Farrell said the use of the VIP lane, officially known as the high priority lane, was unlawful.
However, she found 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 said: “Even if PestFix and Ayanda had not been allocated to the high priority lane, nevertheless they would have been treated as priority offers because of the substantial volumes of PPE they could supply that were urgently needed.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had 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 later said DHSC’s evidence “establishes that presence on the high priority lane did not confer any advantage at the decision-making stage of the process”.
She continued: “However, what is clear is that offers introduced through the senior referrers received earlier consideration at the outset.
“The high priority lane team was better resourced and able to respond to such offers on the same day they arrived, in contrast to the opportunities team, where the sheer volume of offers prevented such swift consideration.”
She later said: “Timeous consideration of an offer was a material advantage in obtaining the award of a contract, given the urgency.”
Jason Coppel QC, representing the campaigners, previously argued that PestFix was referred into the VIP lane because an ex-director of the company was an “old school friend” of the father-in-law of Steve Oldfield, the chief commercial officer at the DHSC.
He also claimed Andrew Mills, a former member of the UK Board of Trade and representative for Ayanda Capital, was added to the VIP lane when he contacted a senior official at the Department for International Trade.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell found that the DHSC had complied with the duty to give “clear and sufficient reasons” for awarding both sets of contracts and that “sufficient financial due diligence” and technical verification was carried out.
A spokesman for former Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are delighted that the DHSC has won this case.
“Huge numbers were doing everything they could to get PPE to the frontline as fast as possible.”
The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor said they were considering implications of certain aspects of the ruling and their next steps.
Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said: “We revealed the red carpet-to-riches VIP lane. And the court has now held that, unsurprisingly, the lane was illegal.
“Never again should any government treat a public health crisis as an opportunity to enrich its associates and donors at public expense.”
Dr Julia Grace Patterson, EveryDoctor chief executive, said: “NHS staff and other frontline workers were woefully unsupported and unprotected by this government.
“Many were provided with no PPE, and many died. The government must never again be allowed to conduct themselves in this manner during a national healthcare crisis.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We are pleased the court has ruled that our industry call to arms was open and transparent.”
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