Ministers accused of putting selective bids for Covid testing contracts through 'fast-track' process, ITV News reveals

Ministers have been accused of putting selective bids for government coronavirus testing contracts through a “fast-track” process at the start of the pandemic.

Government correspondence seen by ITV News and the Good Law Project shows that, much like the controversial “VIP” system for PPE firms, the £37 billion test and trace programme appears to have also had a special route for selected organisations bidding for government contracts. 

Emails show, at the start of the pandemic, ministers were told to forward requests from those who wished to supply testing kits to a specific Department of Health email address used to 'triage' offers.

Ministers were instructed to write “FASTTRACK” in the email subject line, signalling that they should be given priority by Department of Health officials processing the bids for testing contracts. 

There is also evidence that a former Department of Health official, Simon Greaves, who was working with Health Minister Lord Bethell, as a “VIP engagement lead” used his personal Gmail account to conduct government business about this process.

Mr Greaves, who had previously held senior positions at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, worked as a volunteer for three months for the Department of Health as the government formulated its response to the pandemic.

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In response to the revelations, Mr Greaves said: “I used a Department of Health and Social Care email account and computer for the majority of my time in the voluntary role.

"I was asked to use my personal account for the period the request was being processed - from my start date to early May.” 

Jolyon Maugham, the Director of Good Law Project, described the revelations as “the PPE VIP lane on steroids - three times as much was spent on testing."

"But, given so much appears to have been conducted via unofficial channels, will we ever get the answers?

"What has government got to hide?"

The use of private email addresses raises further questions about transparency and security after it was previously revealed that both Lord Bethell and the former health secretary Matt Hancock had also used their private email accounts to conduct government business. 

ITV News has seen evidence that senior Department of Health officials believed the emails in both Lord Bethell's and Matt Hancock's private accounts would not be subject to the usual level of official scrutiny, despite Cabinet Office rules stating otherwise.  

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “All ministers are aware of the rules around personal email usage and government business is conducted in line with those rules.”

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said a full and independent investigation is needed to look into both the use of private emails in government and how the fast-track testing system worked.

"This is yet more evidence of the endemic use of private emails across government, to agree contracts and hand out taxpayers’ money while avoiding scrutiny and accountability,” Ms Rayner told ITV News.

"We need a full and independent investigation into any VIP lane for testing contracts and the publication of all correspondence and contracts, showing who got them and how, and any connections they had to ministers or the Conservative Party.” 

A government spokesperson said: “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’.

“Any discussions relating to government business were fed back to officials in the usual way and we take the impartiality and integrity of government procurement processes extremely seriously.

“The response that came from suppliers to the government’s call to arms last spring has played an integral role in establishing the UK as a testing powerhouse by building up the largest diagnostic network in British history.”

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