Government admits 50 firms were in VIP lane for test and trace contracts

The government has admitted that 50 firms were put in a “priority” lane for securing test and trace contracts worth billions, including Immensa, the company involved in a scandal over 43,000 false negative results.

The UK Health and Security Agency revealed the names of the 50 companies to the Good Law Project, the campaigning organisation that successfully challenged the government’s VIP lane for personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts in the courts.

The names of the companies and organisations on the list range from universities such as Oxford and big medical suppliers such as Roche and Innova to much smaller, sometimes recently established companies. These include Immensa, incorporated in May 2020, which is under investigation by UKHSA over one of its laboratories, which gave at least 43,000 people potentially false negative Covid-19 test results.

The UKHSA disclosure does not reveal how companies and organisations were referred to the priority lane, but it is likely to raise questions about whether the process was similar to the VIP fast track that existed for ministers and senior officials to recommend companies for offers of PPE.

An email sent by a senior civil servant in 2020 said there was a dedicated email address for offers to supply PPE from people who had been recommended by a minister or senior official. It was later publicly confirmed that a “VIP lane” or “high-priority route” existed for PPE offers, where more initial attention was paid to those companies that were referred by ministers, MPs or officials.

The same email, sent by Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, also referred to Covid testing, saying there was a separate dedicated email where offers would be “triaged”. He added: “If they come from a minister/private office, then please put FASTTRACK at the beginning of the subject line.”

When this email emerged in June 2021, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) denied operating any VIP process for companies or organisations referred by ministers for possible Covid contracts, saying: “These claims are completely false – there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers. All offers of testing went through the same robust assurance checks and there was no separate ‘fast track process’.”

However, more evidence subsequently emerged in September 2021 in the form of internal emails between DHSC civil servants. These discussed the Rapid Testing Consortium (RTC), a group of companies led by York-based Abingdon Health, which was awarded huge government contracts without competitive tender, and did describe the process as “the VIP route”. The then health minister, Lord Bethell, was described by officials as a “sponsor” of the consortium. Abington Health was not on the list of 50 companies provided to the Good Law Project.

Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said: “Here are the 50 VIP firms that government flatly denied existed. We are now going to go after the names of the ministers or others who referred them into the VIP lane. On what basis were they prioritised?”

A government spokesperson said: “The pandemic was unprecedented and we moved swiftly to build the UK’s largest testing network from scratch that could process millions of tests a day, helping to break the chains of transmission and save lives.

“The purpose of the triage process was to prioritise credible suppliers and all 50 companies were evaluated before contracts were awarded, in line with stringent procurement regulations and transparency guidelines. Any suggestion that being referred via this route resulted in a contract is wrong.”

This article was amended on 9 September 2022 to clarify that Abingdon Health was not on the list of 50 companies provided to the Good Law Project.

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