Tory peer ‘secretly involved’ with firm that won £200m in PPE contracts after she referred it to ‘VIP lane’

Companies in the fast-track lane were 14 times more likely to win contracts than other suppliers, according to the NAO
Baroness Michelle Mone (centre). Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock

By Tevye Markson

07 Jan 2022

A Tory peer may have been secretly involved in a PPE firm which she referred to the Cabinet Office and which subsequently won £200 million in government contracts, according to reports.

Leaked files obtained by the Guardian suggest Michelle Mone and her husband may have played key roles in PPE Medpro winning the contracts.

PPE Medpro was fast-tracked through the government’s “VIP lane” after Baroness Mone’s referral, while her husband Douglas Barrowman was “part of the financial consortium that backed” the company, one source told the paper.

During the coronavirus pandemic, ministers and civil servants could refer companies that were bidding for personal protective equipment contracts during the coronavirus pandemic to a “high-priority lane”. Those in the fast-track lane were 14 times more likely to win contracts than other suppliers, according to the National Audit Office.

The government has maintained that all PPE procurement went through an eight-step assurance process, with due diligence carried out on every contract.

PPE Medpro secured an £80.85m government contract to supply 210 million face masks in May 2020, followed by a second government contract a month later worth £122m to supply 25 million gowns – which were never used, according to a BBC investigation.

The firm may have made in excess of £40m gross profits from its DHSC contracts, according to the Guardian.

Lawyers for both Mone and Barrowman have denied they had any connections to the firm in any capacity.

Mone’s referral to the Cabinet Office was revealed via a Freedom of Information request in November 2021, with her lawyers saying at the time it was a “very simple, solitary and brief step” but denying any further involvement.

Barrowman was part of the financial consortium that backed PPE Medpro and was involved in initial conversations with the Department of Health and Social Care, according to one source closely involved with PPE Medpro.

Anthony Page, a director at PPE Medpro, was a long-time employee in Barrowman’s Isle of Man-based financial services firm Knox Group, and also runs Barrowman’s family office.

Mone and Barrowman were both included in correspondence between PPE Medpro’s suppliers about the price of gowns, according to the leaked documents.

WhatsApp messages believed to have been sent by Mone show her discussing the required sizes of the gowns and details of DHSC’s purchase order, in an exchange understood to have taken place days before PPE Medro won its second government contract.

A person in the supply chain appears to ask “Lady Michelle” for a conversation about the required sizes for the gowns, the Guardian reports.

The response allegedly sent by Mone is: “We are just about to take off in the jet. The sizes are in the order. We are waiting for the official PO [purchase order], this should come in today. They tell you not to start until you have this PO.”

Mone has also been linked to the firm by the FT, which revealed a letter from Jacqui Rock, chief commercial officer for the government’s test and trace programme, in February 2021 raising the alarm that the peer was "incandescent with rage" at the way PPE Medpro had been treated.

PPE Medway is one of a series firms which won PPE contracts during the pandemic that have come under scrutiny.

Eighteen of the 47 companies awarded contracts via the VIP lane were referred by Conservatie MPs, ministers or peers, including former health secretary Matt Hancock and prominent MPs Julian Lewis, Steve Brine, Esther McVey and Andrew Percy.

Pestfix, a company that made headlines for winning a £350m contract despite just having 16 staff and £18,000 in net assets, was added to the high-priority lane in error.

The emergency measures introduced to speed up the procurement of personal protective equipment in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic hampered civil servants’ ability to buy necessary equipment from legitimate suppliers, campaign group the Good Law Project has said previously.

Responding to the latest revelations, Good Law Project director Jolyon Maugham said he thinks “businesses believed – and the high success rates of government's preferred VIPs suggest they believed rightly – that they were participating in a corrupt process”.

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