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Health Department emails reveal ‘VIP route’ for UK COVID test contracts

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A drive-through COVID-19 testing center in Bolton, Britain, September 22, 2020.

Further evidence has emerged about a controversial ‘VIP’ fast-track route, which the British government has used for preferred personal protective equipment (PPE) firms, leading to allegations that ministers misled the public about billions of pounds of COVID-19 testing contracts.

Internal emails between civil servants of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), discussing the Rapid Testing Consortium (RTC), described the process as “the VIP route”. Officials referred to the then Health Minister Lord Bethell as a "sponsor" of the consortium.

RTC is a group of companies led by York-based Abingdon Health test manufacturer, which was awarded huge government contracts without a competitive tender. During the COVID crisis, the UK government directly awarded contracts worth billions of pounds to specific companies offering to supply PPE, which would usually be opened to competing bids.

Campaign groups the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor joined together in April to challenge the government in the High Court over the decisions it made in signing several of these deals, which they argued Whitehall officials had “apparent bias” in the award of the contracts to Abingdon Health, and that the government “failed to undertake any transparent or lawful process”.

During the legal challenge, the DHSC disclosed the June 2020 emails, in which one civil servant discussing how to process the RTC companies, said an anonymous official “would like them to go through the VIP route”. The official asked: “Who should they name as their sponsor?”

Then a colleague replied: “Are the sponsors usually ministers? I would imagine RTC can name Lord Bethell?”

In another email referring to the RTC, another official wrote: “This is usually for the VIP route which comes via ministers.”

In June, Abingdon was awarded two contracts, worth of £85 million in total, without any competitive tender process. The government justified that, as it has for billions of pounds worth of COVID-19 contracts, by saying it was due to the emergency of the pandemic.

Gemma Abbott, legal director at Good Law Project, said: “When evidence last emerged of a VIP lane for testing contracts, government said our claims were ‘completely false’. Now our legal action has proved their denial is false – there was a fast track to award lucrative test and trace contracts to firms favored by ministers.”

“Government needs to stop misleading the public and come clean. £37 bn has been allocated to test and test contracts. Where has that money gone? We should not need to drag government to court to get an honest account,” she complained.

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