Whilst they intend to deny people their rights to financial security, pensions, health, and welfare services, the Conservatives in government organised a VIP channel for cronies to access government contracts and gain billions on the public purse during the pandemic.
First published in August 2021.
The Good Law Project has joined up with Led By Donkeys to expose the truth about the Government’s secret back-channel which allowed friends of the Conservative Party and other politically connected suppliers to secure billions of pounds of PPE contracts.
This is a story about a national medical emergency when we’ve lost three times more people than died in the Blitz.
It’s a story about Boris Johnson’s government and the Conservative Party.
It’s a story that everyone in the country should hear.
It’s about what his government did when the coronavirus struck. What its priorities were. And who it looked after.
Priti Patel & Boris Johnson. | Number 10
Let’s go back to the spring of 2020. As the first wave of Covid-19 was raging, Johnson’s government created a secret back-channel that allowed friends of the Conservative Party and other politically connected suppliers to secure billions of pounds of PPE contracts.
All while under-protected NHS staff were struggling on the front line. According to the National Audit Office, companies channelled into this so-called “VIP lane” were ten times more likely to win contracts than companies without political links.
This secret channel for cronies wasn’t about cutting red tape to access life-saving PPE.
It wasn’t about cutting corners to get cheaper deals.
It had the opposite effect.
One official complained in an email that this secret back-channel left UK civil servants ‘drowning’ in unsuitable bids.
Meanwhile, taxpayers sometimes ended up paying millions of pounds over the already-inflated pandemic average market price for vital equipment.
It’s a scandal that is still being uncovered.
At least 47 companies benefited from the secret back-channel. The government is doing all it can to keep their names from us, but we know some of them.
So, who are they?
The ‘My Little Crony’ map shows a web of contracts between the UK Government, the Conservative Party, MPs and family members.
One of them is run by Steve Dechan. He’s a former Conservative Councillor who secured government contracts worth £276 million for face masks and gowns.
The year before the pandemic his company, which sold devices for managing chronic pain, recorded significant losses. But the UK’s Covid crisis was good to him.
He recently swapped his modest house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, for a £1.5 million 17th-century mansion with 100 acres of land.
When details of his new grade II listed home emerged, Mr Dechan said he was “chuffed” about his company’s success, tweeting that he “did very, very well out of the pandemic.”
But amid the confusion about the quality of visors, fewer than one in 400 of them have been used, meaning each one has so far cost the taxpayer the equivalent of £423.
Then, there is the company Ayanda Capital, a private family fund that specialises in currency trading, offshore property, and private equity.
A man called Andrew Mills worked for them. He also acted as an adviser to Trade Secretary Liz Truss and secured a £252 million government deal for Ayanda without any competition.
Emails obtained by Good Law Project reveal that civil servants appeared afraid of losing the contract with Ayanda because Andrew Mills “has close ties to [the Department for Trade], so wouldn’t be a good outcome.”
One civil servant was seemingly annoyed at Andrew Mills’ access, saying he “is using previous relationships and making noise that we are not responsive.”
Another senior civil servant then wrote: “Andrew comes through as highly backed as he sits on the board for [the Department for Trade], so I don’t want things being escalated.”
Ayanda says it made a profit of £17 million after tax, insisting their profit margin was actually low.
The government later concluded that £156 million worth of FFP2 face masks purchased from Ayanda, which had ear-loop fastenings, did not create an adequate seal to protect against coronavirus, meaning they would not be used by the NHS.
There was Meller Designs, a company run by David Meller, a Conservative Party donor who was given more than £160 million in PPE contracts.
Who are the other people who benefited from secret back-channels? We don’t know for sure because the government wants to keep that secret.
Is one of them Alex Bourne? Bourne is a pub landlord who manufactured disposable cups and had no history of making medical products. But crucially, he was a friend of then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Bourne messaged Hancock offering to sell the government test tubes for Covid testing and soon secured a £30 million contract.
Bourne later recalled at least 8 million of his test tubes from warehouses and agreed to quarantine them after officials who tested them found many were either cracked, broken, scratched or had missing or poorly screwed caps. The UK’s medical regulator is now investigating Bourne’s company.
We also now know that Matt Hancock “habitually” used a private email account for government business. Making it harder for his communications to be seen by civil servants or by the public using Freedom of Information laws.
Then there was Samir Jassal, a former aide to Priti Patel, who secured face mask contracts worth at least £130 million acting as a middle man for a company called Pharmaceuticals Direct despite concerns in Whitehall that the taxpayer was paying significantly over the odds for Jassal’s masks.
Jassal’s fellow middleman for Pharmaceuticals Direct, Shurbit Shergill, saw the value of his company increase from £200 when the pandemic began to almost £10 million.
And who else?
We know there are dozens more but so far Boris Johnson’s government is refusing to tell us who they are. At a time of national crisis, some of the most senior people in government saw their associates and donors access huge sums of public money.
Serious questions remain unanswered.
Who ordered the creation of secret back-channels that gave people with political connections a huge advantage?
Who ran the secret PPE back-channel?
Who did they report to?
Was creating and operating this secret back-channel even legal?
Now the prime minister needs to come clean and publish all internal government correspondence about the secret back-channel.
The country deserves answers.
Now, watch the video by Led by Donkeys:
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- Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic | National Audit Office
[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 16 August 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 4 August 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)