The Government has now spent more than £10m in legal costs in pursuit of PPE Medpro, the company with alleged links to Baroness Mone and her husband, Douglas Barrowman, himself facing unrelated criminal charges in Spain. Neither party seems set to step back or admit defeat.
It has been reported that the supplies provided by PPE Medpro were rejected as not being suitable. It is the latter fact that seems to be the reason the government has pursued this case.
The central allegation is that gowns did not come with the correct legal documentation to state that they had been reliably ‘sterilised for medical use’. Without that documentation, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had no option but to reject the gowns. In that rejection notice, cited in the High Court proceedings, PPE Medpro were required to repay the money, collect the gowns, or pay DHSC to dispose of them safely. This has not happened. PPE Medpro has stated that it “acted in good faith” and the accusations would be rigorously defended.
The VIP Lane controversy can be traced back to the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time – as is now well documented – then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, created the mechanism through which the alleged fraud subsequently took place.
Once the ad-hoc system was set up, those who gave approval for companies to be added to the VIP Lane included Hancock himself and Tory peer, Lord Agnew. Hancock later claimed he felt threatened by Michelle Mone’s emails, saying he’d felt pressured by her ‘extraordinarily aggressive’ lobbying on behalf of a company trying to win a contract to provide lateral flow tests. He and Agnew (or his office) were identified as putting forward seven companies comprising nearly 15% of the entire list.
A court recently ruled use of the lane was ‘unlawful’ as it gave companies an unfair advantage compared to the standard procurement process with its checks and safeguards. In response, the government argued it was a ‘perfectly reasonable’ system to have set up. Neither Matt Hancock nor Lord Agnew has apologised. In fact, Agnew appeared on Newsnight to argue that the VIP lane did not really exist at all, and what occurred was misconstrued by others.
This appearance came some months after Agnew’s dramatic resignation as the Minister of State in the Treasury with responsibility for cross-government efficiency. At the time, he accused the treasury of having “little interest in the consequences of fraud to our society” when handing out covid loans.
Baroness Mone is linked to one of the 47 companies listed on the documents reported by ‘The Good Law Project’ as benefitting from the VIP Lane. The court case against PPE Medpro goes on.
It remains unclear how much PPE is still in storage – mostly at sites around Suffolk – or even if it is useable. We know that storage costs have now exceeded £1,000,000,000.
Given all the issues with it, the VIP lane and the questionable decisions surrounding it appear far from ‘perfectly reasonable’.