An acquaintance and former neighbour of Matt Hancock is supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests despite having had no previous experience of producing medical supplies.
Felicity Lawrence www.theguardian.com
Alex Bourne, who used to run a pub close to Hancock’s former constituency home in Suffolk, said he initially offered his services to the UK health secretary several months ago by sending him a personal WhatsApp message.
Bourne’s company, Hinpack, was at that time producing plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. It is now supplying about 2m medical grade vials a week to the government via a distributor contracted by the NHS.
Bourne categorically denies he profited from his personal contact with Hancock. However, the case raises questions for the health secretary and is likely to reignite the row over alleged government cronyism during the pandemic.
Contacted last week by the Guardian, Bourne’s lawyers flatly denied that their client had any discussions with Hancock in relation to Covid-19 supplies.
However, on Monday, after being confronted with further details about his interactions with the health secretary, Bourne backtracked. In a phone call with the Guardian, he conceded that he has in fact exchanged text and email messages with Hancock over several months.
He also participated in an industry Zoom meeting in August attended by Hancock, Boris Johnson and several dozen suppliers in the Covid test-and-trace programme.
Bourne said he sent his WhatsApp message to Hancock’s mobile number on 30 March offering his services amid a nationwide call to arms to respond to the pandemic. Bourne said he opened the exchange: “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”
Until the end of 2017 when they leased it out, Bourne and his wife had run the Cock Inn, a village pub in Thurlow a few hundred yards from Hancock’s former constituency home. The Conservative cabinet minister was a supporter of the pub, attending its reopening after refurbishment in 2016 and nominating it for an award in 2017. Hancock posted a photo of himself pulling a pint with Bourne on his parliamentary website. Hancock moved in 2018.
Bourne said his initial hope was that his packaging firm might be able to retool to provide personal protective equipment (PPE). Hancock messaged back, according to Bourne, directing him to a Department of Health and Social Care website, where he formally submitted details of the work his firm could do. Bourne’s lawyers said there was no further follow-up with Hancock.
A week or two later, around mid-April, Bourne said a major distributor of medical products that he had never heard of called him asking if he could produce specialist Covid-related items such as drop-wells and pipette tips. His company Hinpack was not deemed suitable for that job.
Later that month, Bourne said he was called back by the same distributor. The firm, which already had a general government contract in place to supply the NHS regularly when Covid struck, said it had been asked by the government to supply test tubes. Bourne persuaded the firm he could produce the vials, and said he also discussed Hinpack’s work with two civil servants representing the DHSC.
By June, after engaging the assistance of external advisers and regulatory experts, Bourne was producing large quantities of medical vials. He said he was now making about 2m vials a week, as well as about 500,000 plastic funnels for test samples.
In August, he switched distributor, and is now supplying the same tubes via Alpha Laboratories, which also had a pre-existing contract with DHSC. In a statement, Alpha Laboratories said: “Although we were aware Alex Bourne had met Mr Hancock, this was irrelevant to our discussions as we were sourcing from Hinpack a price-competitive product for the NHS supply chain which fitted within our product range.”
A Suffolk local and friend of Bourne’s, Sukhvinder Dhat, said he had regularly seen Hancock in the pub when he lived in the village and claimed that Bourne and Hancock were “friends” and “buddies”. Bourne’s lawyers denied that characterisation, saying Bourne does not now have a “close personal connection” with the health secretary.
In his call with the Guardian, Bourne also played down his relationship with Hancock. “I’ve never once been to his house,” he said. “He’s never been to mine. I’ve never once had a drink with him.” A spokesperson from the DHSC said: “We do not comment on the secretary of state’s personal relationships.”
Dhat, a retired business consultant, said Bourne had been talking to him over the summer about being in touch with Hancock and sitting in on government meetings about Covid supplies, including a Zoom meeting with the prime minister.
Over the weekend, Dhat said Bourne had confided in him that the Guardian was investigating his relationship with the health secretary. Dhat said he asked Bourne if he was being caught up in “chumocracygate” – a reference to the growing row over government contracts being given to Tory-linked firms.
Dhat said of his conversation with Bourne: “He said he had been approached by the Guardian about being a friend of Hancock’s but he had said, no, he wasn’t a friend. It was sort of ‘how can they prove anything’.”
Dhat also questioned how Bourne managed to become involved in providing medical supplies to the government given his limited business experience. Prior to running the Cock Inn, which was sold in January, Bourne set up a string of companies that did not trade and were later dissolved. Hinpack was established in July 2018, trading in disposable items for the catering industry.
“How does someone like [Bourne] get a contract to do something like this?” Dhat asked. “I was in management consulting for decades and we had to show some sort of capability or at least a client reference to get business. Who knew him to say he was an appropriate person?”
While he had no prior experience in medical supplies, Bourne said a partner company in the disposable catering business did have relevant experience. He also stressed his company had hired industry experts and retired professors.
His lawyers said it was “untrue” Bourne was helped “in any way, commercially or operationally” by Hancock. “To suggest that our client has had political, indeed ministerial, help is to betray a deeply regrettable lack of understanding of how the supply chain works.”
They said that Bourne, a former captain in the British army, offered his services to the government out of a “sense of duty and willingness to serve, not obtaining financial advantage”, adding that UK companies had “retooled” during the pandemic. They said the medical devices Bourne manufactured were “by no means complicated and are well within our client’s existing skillset”.
New to the industry, Bourne has certainly displayed ingenuity. He initially did not have the “clean rooms” required for manufacturing medical products and so commissioned a series of inflatable rooms.
He also paid a manufacturer of bouncy castles and blimps to make him a specially commissioned inflatable structure to unpack and decontaminate incoming supplies, which his lawyers described as a room that was intended to be “comparatively contamination-free” but “not medical-grade sterile”.
They said their client’s decision to turn to the bouncy castle company showed “creative and lateral thinking in a time of crisis”.
It remains unclear precisely how, with no prior experience in the field, and without the pre-existing facilities in produce medical supplies, Bourne came to provide millions of test tubes via two distributors with pre-existing deals with the DHSC.
Last week, the National Audit Office revealed that PPE suppliers with political connections were directed to a “high-priority” channel for UK government contracts where bids were 10 times more likely to be successful.
However, Bourne did not have a direct contract with the DHSC and said he did not believe he was added to any high-priority lane after contacting Hancock and entering details of his company’s area of work on the department’s website in March.
Asked whether Hinpack received any preferential treatment because of Bourne’s contacts with the health secretary, a DHSC spokesperson said it had not: “There is no evidence to support these claims. As the National Audit Office report has made clear, ministers are not involved in procurement decisions or contract management and to suggest otherwise is wholly inaccurate.”