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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Is it really who you know?

The Guardian reports that internal emails suggest the government gave “VIP treatment” to a firm offering Covid testing facilities which had entered the system “informally” because Matt Hancock was “a good friend” of somebody working with the company.

They say the emails between officials within the Department of Health and Social Care appear to contradict denials from that department and the Cabinet Office of the existence of a VIP or “fast track” process for firms with political connections seeking government contracts for Covid testing.

The Animal Health Trust (AHT) had a laboratory based in Newmarket, in the then health secretary’s West Suffolk constituency, and much of its work focused on medical care for horses, including for the horse racing industry with which Hancock has close ties:

In an email on 23 April 2020 to health department officials working on the operation to scale up testing, a civil servant wrote: “AHT came in direct to SofS [secretary of state] office – someone who works with them is a good friend of his and so they entered the system informally that way … They must have fallen through the records gap if we’ve not got trace of them – they’ve definitely been in touch with us and had VIP treatment.”

Apparently addressing the lack of clear records documenting the discussions with AHT, the next morning a senior civil servant wrote: “We definitely need to capture them in the system somehow, so they receive future comms and offers. Owner [sic] is a friend of SofS, lab is in his constituency/area – so he will get direct feedback on our processes!”

A reply was sent to that email by Simon Greaves, a consultant who has described his role for the health department as working “to lead VIP stakeholder engagement” alongside Lord Bethell, the minister brought in by Hancock who oversaw the awarding of Covid contracts.

A government source told the Guardian last month that “VIP” in Greaves’s role description meant leading figures in the testing industry, not people with political connections, as it did in relation to the “VIP/high priority lane” that the government operated when awarding contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Greaves’s newly revealed email asked if AHT could be logged as a VIP “based on the below” – the email from the civil servant who said the AHT “owner” was a friend of Hancock’s. “We have a stakeholder log in which we capture VIP stakeholders relevant to pillar five [building testing capacity],” Greaves wrote. “Can we capture animal health group [sic] based on the below?”

Addressing one NHS England staff member in the group, Greaves added: “We should also speak about how to ensure our Vip [sic] processes are aligned to minimise duplication.”

Despite the VIP treatment, AHT does not appear to have been given a government testing contract. A royal charter company and registered charity with annual funding of approximately £700,000 from horse racing, AHT was already experiencing financial difficulties in March 2020. In July of that year, it went into liquidation.

However, the outcome is not as important as the fact that these emails appear to show that there was a VIP track for companies to secure contracts. As Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, says of these latest emails: “It’s just so explicit: civil servants were giving special treatment to friends of the minister. The government flatly denied that there was a VIP process for testing, so what are we supposed to make of all the other denials the government has issued?”
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