Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are being sued over the appointment of Tory peer Dido Harding to run the government’s Test and Trace system.
Runnymede Trust and the Good Law Project have brought forward legal proceedings against the two over alleged cronyism.
The NGOs claim top-ranking affiliates of the Conservative Party were given key public sector roles without undertaking the proper recruitment process and that positions were filled without being advertised to the public.
The organisations claim Westminster broke its public sector equality duty and the Equality Act 2010 in the process.
It is understood that ministers may have also indirectly discriminated candidates on grounds of race and disability by recruiting without open competition.
Johnson and Hancock were served a notice of intended action on Thursday.
Dr Halima Begum, a director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “When a recruitment process is not open and fair, it discriminates against those who are not already connected to the decision-makers.
“This has a serious detrimental impact on equality and on the diversity of the people at the top of organisations who get to call the shots. This is always important, but even more so now so many lives depend on it, and particularly as we know Black and Asian people continue to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.
“We are calling on the government to ensure proper process is followed and for NHS bodies to be truly representative of the people they protect.”
Begum added: “The sad reality is that now, as we enter a second national lockdown, responsibility for much of the UK’s emergency response to the Covid catastrophe essentially appears to rest in the hands of a former telephone saleswoman and a supermarket manager.
“The chumocracy has plummeted [to] new lows.”
This comes after Harding, whose husband is a Tory MP close to the prime minister – was appointed interim head of the National Institute for Health Protection – the body set to replace Public Health England. Harding is also a friend of former prime minister David Cameron.
Harding is also the head of the NHS Test and Trace service which has been in the spotlight for its failure to reach people in contact in those who have tested positive with coronavirus.
The Tory life peer was CEO of telecoms company TalkTalk until 2017 when she forced to step down following a cyber attack which affected tens of thousands of customers. Both her new roles are unpaid but she has received a £65,000-a-year salary to chair NHS Improvement – a non-departmental body that oversees NHS Trusts – for just two days’ work a week since 2018.
The appointment of Mike Coupe, the former CEO of Sainsbury’s, has also raised eyebrows. Coupe was appointed head of NHS Test and Trace testing despite having no known experience as a public administrator or in the health sector. He is also a former colleague of Harding’s.
The organisations bringing the case say no position descriptions for these and other roles were placed in the public domain and that it was unclear who identified these candidates as suitable for the job.
The Department for Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.
This comes as crowd fundraising efforts for legal cases against the government pick up pace. In one example, a campaign titled It’s Time For An End To Cronyism raised £30,000 in just 24 hours.