The High Court has ruled that the “VIP fast-lane” for awarding PPE contracts to “politically connected” suppliers to be unlawful.
The legal challenge was brought to the High Court by the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor and sought to the legality of the behind closed door “VIP lane”, which saw the allocation of billions of pounds of public money.
The high priority lane was introduced in April of 2020, midway through the first wave of covid, to help the government choose between suppliers. It allowed contract offers to be dealt with more quickly, if the supplier came with a recommendation from government officials or members of parliament.
The Judge said of the VIP lane:
“Offers that were introduced through the Senior Referrers received earlier consideration at the outset of the process. The High Priority Lane Team was better resourced and able to respond to such offers on the same day that they arrived.”
“The Claimants have established that operation of the High Priority Lane was in breach of the obligation of equal treatment… the illegality is marked by this judgment.”
However, the judge also found that Pestfix and Ayanda, which were both awarded PPE contracts through the VIP lane, would likely have been awarded the contracts anyway. Saying:
“[The evidence] establishes that presence on the high priority lane did not confer any advantage at the decision-making stage of the process.”
A National Audit Office report found that one in ten suppliers recommended to the government through the high priority lane received a contract, while only one in one hundred suppliers received a contract that applied through the conventional method.
Responding to the Court’s ruling, the Good Law Project said:
“Never again should any Government treat a public health crisis as an opportunity to enrich its associates and donors at public expense.”
Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, echoed the same sentiments, calling for an investigation to “get to the bottom of how £3.5bn of taxpayers’ cash were handed out in crony contracts and ensure it can never happen again”.
The ruling does not mean that any criminal law was breached, and there will therefore not be any prosecutions. However, the decision comes at a bad time for the government, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitting to attending a gathering at Number 10 during the first lockdown, a potential breach of criminal law that is piling the pressure on his government.