Covid: Government use of 'VIP lane' to award PPE contracts was 'unlawful', High Court rules

The majority of PPE supplied by the two firms was unable to be used in the NHS. Credit: PA

The government acted unlawfully by using a so-called VIP lane to award contracts for Personal Protective Equipment during the Covid pandemic, the High Court has ruled.

The court also noted that the majority of products, supplied by firms Pestfix and Ayanda during the first wave of coronavirus, could not be used for their initial purpose, to protect NHS staff.

In a challenge to the High Court, brought by the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor into behind-closed-doors dealings worth billions, the court found that the "operation of the High Priority Lane was in breach of the obligation of equal treatment".

"The illegality is marked by this judgment," it added.

Downing Street said the government is considering whether to appeal the High Court ruling and insisted "all contracts underwent sufficient and technical due diligence".

It said the government was responding to "global challenges" in acquiring PPE and did everything it could to protect the NHS.

Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: "While our hardworking NHS staff were going without PPE, Tory politicians saw an opportunity to line their cronies' pockets.

"A judge has now ruled the 'VIP lane' unlawful but that may be just the tip of the iceberg. Even now Ministers are covering up key documents while critical messages and minutes have gone missing.

"Only a fully independent investigation will get to the bottom of how £3.5bn of taxpayers' cash were handed out in crony contracts and ensure it can never happen again."

It's a further blow for Boris Johnson, who has been facing calls for his resignation as prime minister over claims he broke coronavirus laws.

He's accused of breaking lockdown by attending a party in his garden at 10 Downing Street, after ITV News released a leaked email showing more than 100 staff members were invited to attend the event in May 2020.

ITV News understands the prime minister and his wife Carrie attended the party, and during PMQs on Wednesday Mr Johnson admitted he attended the lockdown-breaking party in May 2020, but defended himself by claiming to think he was at a work event.

Despite the ruling that Pestfix and Ayanda received unlawful preferential treatment via the VIP lane, the judge said they would likely have been awarded contracts anyway.

Mrs Justice O'Farrell said: "PestFix offered high volumes of a range of PPE items that were in urgent demand. It had an established business in sourcing PPE, plausible contacts with manufacturers...and could provide a logistical solution to transport the PPE from the manufacturers to the UK.

"These skills, experience, contacts and credibility justified priority consideration of the high volume offers.

"Regardless whether they were made through the portal and assessed by the opportunities team, or were assessed by the high priority lane team, it is very likely that the offers would have resulted in the award of the PestFix contracts."

The judge made similar findings in relation to the contract awarded to hedge fund Ayanda Capital.

A spokesperson for Matt Hancock MP said: "We are delighted that the Department for Health has won this case, as the Court found that the priority treatment was "justified" and rightly refused to grant any rectification for the way PPE was urgently bought in the height of the crisis.

"It is good that this costly legal action has come to an end with no further action necessary. At the time, a huge number of people were doing everything they could to get PPE to the front line as fast as possible in a national emergency.

"As the National Audit Office has confirmed, Ministers had no involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.

"The Department was doing the best it possibly could within the rules to respond to an unprecedented situation, and crucially, the Court has rightly found that action was justified and absolutely no rectification or further action is necessary."