Pest control firm unaware it was in ‘VIP lane’ for PPE contracts, court told

Health secretary Matt Hancock listens to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) during a cabinet meeting

Health secretary Matt Hancock listens to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) during a cabinet meeting - Credit: PA

A pest control company has said it did not know it had been put into a so-called “VIP lane” for government contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor are bringing High Court action against the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), claiming contracts worth more than £700 million were awarded unlawfully to three companies in April and May 2020.

A large part of the groups’ claim is that the use of the “VIP lane” gave an unfair, unlawful advantage to some companies.

Jason Coppel QC, for the groups, said the high-priority route was set up in late March 2020, reserved for referrals from MPs, ministers and senior officials.

Coppel said PestFix was referred into the process because an ex-director of the company was an “old school friend” of the father-in-law of Steve Oldfield, the chief commercial officer at the DHSC.

However, Alan Bates, representing PestFix, said the company was unaware of any preferential treatment when it was given six contracts to supply PPE.

He told the court: “PestFix did not know anything about the so-called VIP lane until it read about it in the National Audit Office’s report and during these proceedings.

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“It did not know it had been allocated to any such lane, let alone asking to be allocated to it.”

The barrister said the company responded to the government’s request for help because it had experience in sourcing PPE and had contacts in China, with people there who could speak Chinese.

“It was that happy combination that made PestFix feel that it was well placed to help,” Bates added.

Coppel previously said PestFix’s agent in China had secured surgical gowns by bribing local officials.

Denying the allegation, Bates told the court: “It is a misuse of the court process to raise unpleaded allegations that they know will be picked up by a journalist.

“The allegation that it paid bribes, its agents or anyone on its behalf paid bribes, is strongly denied.”

DHSC is contesting the claim and has told the court it “wholeheartedly rejects” the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor’s case against it.

On Friday the department’s barrister Michael Bowsher QC said the high-priority lane was rational and resulted in a “large number of credible offers”.

Bowsher said the Government “put together an unprecedented programme, on a huge scale, at commendable speed, during a serious crisis”, when the market for PPE had been “fundamentally reshaped” by the pandemic.

He stressed the urgency of the situation early in the pandemic, with deals sometimes folding within “minutes”.

“The goal here was to try and get as much of the right PPE in as quickly as possible. That was the simple point,” he said.

The case, being heard remotely by Mrs Justice O’Farrell, is due to end on Tuesday.

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