UK acted illegally with “VIP” covid contract lane, court rules

Court decision caused further embarrassment for government after facing calls for Boris Johnson’s resignation


A London court ruled on Wednesday that the British government acted illegally by setting up a fast-track “VIP lane” to allow ministers and officials to recommend suppliers of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.

Opposition politicians have accused the government of running “chumocracy”, giving deals to people with family or business links with those in power, including in some cases useless PPE.

Campaign groups, Good Law Project and EveryDoctor took legal action, claiming that some suppliers were given an unfair advantage in securing contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

The contracts included more than £340 million ($465 million) awarded to pest control firm Pestfix and another worth £252 million to investment firm Ayanda Capital.

In a ruling, Judge Finola O’Farrell said the government violated its obligation to treat potential suppliers equally by giving some firms preferential treatment.

“There is evidence that opportunities were treated as a high priority, even where there were not objectively justified grounds to expedite the proposal,” she said.

But the judge said that even if the two companies had not been allotted fast-track lanes, their proposals would have been accepted by the government, given the large amount of protective equipment they could have supplied.

A spokesman for the prime minister said the government had acted when there was an “extreme need” for protective equipment and that all contracts were awarded after due diligence.

The court’s decision caused further embarrassment for the government after Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced calls to resign on Wednesday for attending a gathering at his official residence during the country’s first coronavirus lockdown.

The National Audit Office has said there was a lack of transparency in purchase deals worth more than £18bn and a failure to explain why certain suppliers of protective equipment were chosen, or how any conflicts of interest were dealt with.

Julian Maugham, founder of the Good Law Project, said after the ruling, “No government should ever treat a public health crisis as an opportunity to enrich its allies and donors at public expense”.

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