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Matt Hancock reignites ‘chumocracy’ row after ex-neighbour is handed Covid work following WhatsApp message

Health secretary Matt Hancock delivers a ministerial statement on COVID-19 in the House Of Commons, London. - Credit: PA

The company of a former neighbour of Matt Hancock’s has won a multi-million-pound contract to supply medical equipment to Covid testing centres despite having no previous experience.

Alex Bourne, who ran a pub close to Hancock’s former constituency in Suffolk, said he offered his company’s services to the health secretary in a WhatsApp message.

Hinpack, Bourne’s company, was producing plastic cups and takeaway boxes at the time but is now supplying two million medical-grade vials a week to Covid testing centres via a distributor contracted by the NHS.

Bourne at first vehemently denied claims he profited from his contact with the health secretary but was forced to backtrack on Monday during a call with the Guardian after being presented with evidence of his interaction.

This has raised questions for the health secretary and is likely to reignite the row over alleged government cronyism after it emerged a “high-priority” channel for Covid contracts had been established by the Cabinet Office that saw companies with links to the Tory Party ten times more likely to have their bid accepted.

Bourne sent Hancock a text message on March 30 with the opening line: “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”

Thurlow is a few hundred yards from Hancock’s former constituency and is where Bourne and his wife ran a pub the minister attended and was pictured at pouring a pint.

Bourne said his initial hope was that his packaging firm might be able to retool to provide personal protective equipment (PPE).

Hancock messaged back, according to Bourne, directing him to a Department of Health and Social Care website, where he formally submitted details of the work his firm could do. Bourne’s lawyers said there was no further follow-up with Hancock.

Bourne was called two weeks later by a major distributor of medical products to produce Covid-related items like drop-wells and pipette tips. His company was not deemed suitable for that job.

He later convinced the distributor to contract his company to supply test tubes and highlighted his work with two civil servants representing the DHSC.

By June, he was producing two million vials a week and about 500,000 plastic funnels for test samples.

In August, he switched distributor, and is now supplying the same tubes via Alpha Laboratories, which also had a pre-existing contract with DHSC. In a statement, Alpha Laboratories said: “Although we were aware Alex Bourne had met Mr Hancock, this was irrelevant to our discussions as we were sourcing from Hinpack a price-competitive product for the NHS supply chain which fitted within our product range.”

Bourne has dismissed allegations he was “buddies” with Hancock, telling the Guardian: “I’ve never once been to his house. He’s never been to mine. I’ve never once had a drink with him.”

A spokesperson from the DHSC said: “We do not comment on the secretary of state’s personal relationships.”

While he had no prior experience in medical supplies, Bourne said a partner company in the disposable catering business did have relevant experience. He also stressed his company had hired industry experts and retired professors.

His lawyers said it was “untrue” Bourne was helped “in any way, commercially or operationally” by Hancock. “To suggest that our client has had political, indeed ministerial, help is to betray a deeply regrettable lack of understanding of how the supply chain works.”

They said that Bourne, a former captain in the British army, offered his services to the government out of a “sense of duty and willingness to serve, not obtaining financial advantage”, adding that UK companies had “retooled” during the pandemic. They said the medical devices Bourne manufactured were “by no means complicated and are well within our client’s existing skillset”.

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