Government’s Covid testing programme disparaged as ‘unlegit’ and ‘no way to do business’

‘Has there ever been a government so allergic to accountability?’

A person's hands running a Covid test

In a three-day high court challenge this week over the Department of Health and Social Care’s awarding of up to £85m in contracts for antibody tests during the pandemic, a series of emails were revealed showing the government’s Covid-19 testing programme was ‘unlegit’ and ‘no way to do business.’

The emails were uncovered by the Good Law Project, the non-profit that uses law to protect the interests of the public.

‘VIP routes’ for suppliers

In November 2020, the government shared a list of 50 companies which were fast-tracked for contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) through a ‘High Priority Lane.’ This week’s legal challenge reveals that the government created a ‘VIP route’ for its preferred suppliers during the health crisis, as it did with PPE contracts.

Lawyers for the Good Law Project said the manufacturer of rapid lateral flow tests, Abingdon Health, was given preferential treatment when the government awarded the firm with several multi-million pound contracts. According to the not-for-profit, the tests later failed to pass regulatory tests.

Steamrolled contracts

The emails revealed in the hearing show that ministers steamrolled the contracts, despite warning from the government’s own ministers that the contracts could be unlawful – thereby bypassing the correct procurement procedure.

During the hearing, emails showing civil servants’ concerns over ministerial code were revealed, including that of Lord Bethall, the then health minister already mired in the lobbying scandal.

According to one email sent by a senior civil servant in Test and Trace, several weeks after the government had agreed to purchase tests from Abingdon, the tests were reduced to “tart[ing] the [Abingdon Health test]… around for uses.” The email also expressed concerns that a proposed free donation of the Abingdon tests to the UK charity Biobank, would fall through because the government would then be “a bit stuffed and will look like we’ve bought a load of worthless devices”.

Secretive back channels

Commenting on the case, Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project said: “Our legal action has uncovered a secret VIP process for testing contracts, revealed persistent use of secretive back channels for important Government business, and exposed a shocking waste of public money on Covid tests that weren’t fit for purpose.

“Over the life of the case, ministers have struggled to get their story straight, 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?”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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