UK government officials complained they were “drowning” in requests from MPs, ministers and other “VIP” contacts as they scrambled to source personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, the High Court heard on Thursday.
The existence of the “VIP lane” for PPE providers only emerged in November after an investigation by the National Audit Office, Whitehall’s spending watchdog, which revealed that those companies were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts than other businesses.
Suppliers channelled through the VIP lane included those recommended by either health officials, ministers or MPs, prompting the NAO to conclude that “standards of transparency” had not been consistently met.
Evidence disclosed to the High Court on Thursday suggested that the creation of the channel had in some cases hindered rather than helped the rapid procurement of safety equipment.
An unnamed civil servant wrote in an email that officials were “drowning in VIP requests and high priority contacts” which “do not hold the right certification or do not pass due diligence”.
The same official on the Covid-19 Emergency PPE Sourcing Team also wrote: “This contact has already been allocated a team member — unfortunately if he jumps to the front of the queue it then has a knock-on effect to the remaining offers of help.”
The email was disclosed as part of a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign group which is suing the government over its decision to award nine PPE contracts worth £650m to three companies. A substantial proportion of the PPE procured under the contracts is unsuitable for use by the NHS, the Good Law Project claims.
The opposition Labour party has jumped on the issue of PPE procurement — and how entrepreneurs with Tory connections won some contracts — as part of a wider “sleaze” problem in the government.
Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster, called the latest revelations “explosive.” “It is shocking that basic checks were missed and companies without proper certification were allowed to jump the queue,” she said.
Ministers have argued that Britain entered the crisis with a severe shortage of masks and gowns, meaning they were in a Dunkirk-style situation to buy kit as quickly as possible from wherever they could source it.
In its lawsuit, the Good Law Project alleged that the government breached its duties of transparency and gave insufficient reasons for the award of the contracts through the high-priority lane. A judicial review hearing of the case is due to start in mid-May.
On Thursday Jason Coppel QC, representing the Good Law Project, urged the High Court to order the government to hand over unredacted emails about the PPE procurement ahead of the upcoming legal challenge.
Coppel claimed that the government had made “countless redactions” of key emails disclosed ahead of the case so that the civil servants sending and receiving the correspondence could not be identified. “The basic events cannot be pieced together when it is unclear who is being referred to in evidence,” he said.
Michael Bowsher QC, representing the Department of Health and Social Care, opposed the application and argued that the names of junior civil servants should not be put into the public domain.
Justice Finola O’Farrell ruled on Thursday that the government should hand over unredacted emails which name senior civil servants involved in the procurement process, but said the information should be provided on a confidential basis only to parties involved in the lawsuit.
The government did not immediately respond to request for comment.