Matt Hancock denied he was involved in awarding a contract to Hinpack © Getty Images
Matt Hancock denied he was involved in awarding a contract to Hinpack © Getty Images

Hancock ‘acted unlawfully’ over Covid contract transparency

22 February 2021

Health secretary Matt Hancock “acted unlawfully” by failing to publish contract details for personal protective equipment (PPE), a High Court judge has ruled. 

Justice Martin Chamberlain said Hancock had “breached his legal obligation” to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of contract awards in “a substantial number of cases”.

“There is also no dispute that the secretary of state failed to publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy,” he said.

In his ruling, Justice Chamberlain said Hancock and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had spent “vast quantities of public money” on pandemic-related procurements.

He added it was “understandable that attention was focused on procuring what was thought necessary to save lives”.

However, the judge said “the public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded”. 

Legal action against the department was initiated by campaign group The Good Law Project and MPs Caroline Lucas (Green), Debbie Abrahams (Labour) and Layla Moran (Liberal Democrats).

In a pre action letter, they said data had shown there was over £3bn worth of contracts that had not been made public and they accused the government of breaching the law and its own guidance in terms of transparency.

The Good Law Project said the judgment was a “victory for all of us concerned with proper governance and proof of the power of litigation to hold government to account”. 

“But there is still a long way to go before the government’s house is in order,” it said. 

A DHSC spokesperson said the department had been “working tirelessly” to secure supplies to protect health and social care staff “within very short timescales and against a background of unparalleled global demand”.

“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public,” they said.

“We fully recognise the importance of transparency in the award of public contracts and continue to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible.”

Under emergency procurement rules, contracts were able to be awarded for PPE without competition.

However, Colin Cram, chief executive at consultancy Marc1, told SM competition for contracts to provide PPE “would have been easy to achieve” despite the urgent need for goods.

“DHSC could quickly have done what the companies who were awarded the non-competitive contracts would have done. It would have taken anyone on DHSC about 15 minutes to identify manufacturers/suppliers of PPE,” he argued.

Cram added major existing contractors to DHSC such as DHL already have good links to firms in China and Southeast Asia, which could have ensured quicker delivery of goods to the UK and operated on lower margins. 

Meanwhile, a British firm that was awarded a £30m contract awarded for manufacturing vials for Covid testing purposes is being investigated by the UK medical regulator.

The firm, Hinpack, is owned by Alex Bourne, who used to run a pub in Hancock's old constituency in West Suffolk. The Guardian reported that Bourne had offered his services via a personal WhatsApp message to the health secretary, saying they had known each other for years.

The health secretary previously denied having any involvement in awarding the contract. Speaking to the Guardian, Bourne denied receiving any preferential treatment from DHSC. 

Graeme Tunbridge, director of devices at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, told the BBC he could not disclose why the company was being investigated as the inquiry was ongoing.

He said: "We are currently investigating the allegations about Hinpack and will take appropriate action as necessary.”

The Labour Party has called for the government to “wind down” the use of emergency procurement procedures amid claims of “cronyism”.

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