LONDON — Solicitors acting for the Good Law Project campaign group have written to the British government with concerns about how procurement contracts were awarded at the beginning of the pandemic.
In a letter to the Government Legal Department, law firm Bindmans pointed to a report from POLITICO that revealed details of a VIP lane used to speed up the processing of offers of protective equipment from some suppliers. The letter argues failure to be transparent about the contracts could “constitute a serious breach” of the government’s “duty of candor.”
The VIP lane, which was set up by officials, allowed ministers, MPs, Lords and top government officials to recommend firms that could help secure protective gear for medical staff when the U.K. was struggling to source equipment in 2020.
According to the government watchdog, the National Audit Office, leads referred via this route were considered by the cross-government protective equipment team to “be more credible or needed to be treated with more urgency.” The usual competition and tender process, which helps guard against corruption, had been suspended to speed up procurement.
The list leaked to POLITICO named the person who had originally referred each firm to the government and also detailed who had passed that referral on to the VIP process. It listed former Conservative chair Andrew Feldman, who was drafted in to help the Department of Health during the pandemic, as both the original referrer for three firms and also the person who flagged all three referrals to the VIP lane.
But a final version of the list, published by the government later the same week, suggested the initial contact in all three cases came from other people.
Feldman said his volunteering role at the department “involved considering offers sent in from potential sources of PPE or other medical supplies, and passing credible offers on to officials.” He said he had “no previous knowledge” of the three firms in question, and “have never had any commercial relationship with them or their owners.”
The government is facing a judicial review over a fourth firm that won a contract for protective equipment after Feldman referred it to the government — although that firm, Bunzl Healthcare, did not appear on the VIP list. Bunzl Healthcare is a client of Feldman’s lobbying firm Tulchan.
Bindmans questioned the government about the differences between the two lists. It said the lists raise questions about Feldman’s role in light of the Bunzl case, which was also brought by the Good Law Project. “Both versions of the list raise questions relevant to these proceedings; the discrepancies between the two versions suggest a lack of clarity as to Lord Feldman’s role, which is in itself concerning,” the letter said.
Feldman did not respond to questions about the differences between the two lists.
Government officials said the list POLITICO published was correct at the time of publication. Downing Street said it did not know individual details about the list but insisted due diligence was undertaken at the time.