Gavin Williamson referred firm that won £1.7m PPE contract to VIP lane, DHSC admits

Department says it mistakenly left the company off a list of those referred to the high-priority lane in November
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

14 Feb 2022

The Department of Health and Social Care has admitted former education secretary Gavin Williamson referred a firm that won a £1.7m contract for PPE supplies to its VIP procurement lane during the pandemic.

Technicare, trading as Blyth Group, won a £1.725m contract in June 2020 to supply disposable aprons to protect NHS and care workers from getting Covid. The contract was awarded without an open tender.

An update to DHSC's list of PPE high-priority lane awardees revealed Williamson, who was education secretary until last September, had referred Technicare to the high-priority route, which was used to fast-track bids to provide personal protective equipment from companies a connection to ministers or officials.

The firm was not included in the department's original list of awardees, which was published in November.

DHSC said: “This listing was added after the original publication. Following a review of our records, we discovered this offer was in fact processed through the high-priority route.”

The department updated the list after the Good Law Project released a leaked report suggesting 18 more companies had been handed contracts – worth £984m –  through the high-priority lane than previously admitted.

The list published by the GLP included Technicare but did not say who referred the company.

DHSC has only admitted to mistakenly leaving one company off its own list.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “It is inaccurate to claim that all [18] companies were processed through the High Priority Lane route.

“The purpose of the High Priority Lane was to efficiently prioritise credible offers of PPE, and our efforts have helped secure vital PPE to protect healthcare workers during the pandemic.”

Blyth Group’s office in Wolverhampton is just seven minutes’ drive away from Williamson’s constituency office.

The building and maintenance contractor, which is a Wolverhampton Wanderers FC kit sponsor, sourced the aprons from China-based WeiFang Green Packaging Products.

The company is the 51st firm which DHSC has confirmed won a PPE contract during the pandemic after being referred to the high priority list by ministers or MPs.

Suppliers were not necessarily aware they were in the VIP lane, and there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on their part.

The High Court ruled last month that the government's operation of the high-priority lane to allow MPs and ministers to recommend PPE suppliers was unlawful after a legal challenge was brought by two campaign groups.

The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor argued the system gave preference to individuals with political connections.

They took legal action over £592m in contracts awarded to pest control firm PestFix and hedge fund Ayanda Capital in 2020 for the supply of PPE in the pandemic.

The High Court said the "high priority lane" that allowed these firms to win the contracts "was in breach of the obligation of equal treatment".

In its judgement, the court found that the government prioritised bids on a "flawed basis" and considered some firms as high priority "even where there were no objectively justifiable grounds for expediting the offer”.

However, EveryDoctor said it will appeal the decision as it believes the High Court ruling did not go far enough in admonishing the government.

The High Court found, for example, that it was not unlawful for the government to fail to carry out financial due diligence about the companies.

And it denied EveryDoctor and the Good Law Project’s request to publish the total figure of how much government money was wasted in ordering PPE through the high priority lane.

Earlier this month, DHSC revealed it had written off £8.7bn spent on unsuitable or overpriced personal protective equipment during the first year of the pandemic.

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