Firm with mystery investors wins £200m of PPE contracts via ‘high-priority lane’

A company with mystery investors and links to the Isle of Man was awarded government contracts worth £200m to supply the UK with personal protective equipment (PPE) after it was placed in a “high-priority lane” for well-connected firms, the Guardian can reveal.

David Conn www.theguardian.com 

PPE Medpro has not revealed the identities of the financiers and businessmen behind the venture, and it remains unclear how its offer to supply PPE came to be processed through a channel created for companies referred by politicians and senior officials.

PPE Medpro was awarded its first contract, for £80.85m to supply 210m face masks, on 12 June. The company secured its second contract two weeks later, for £122m, to supply 25m surgical gowns. Both contracts were awarded directly by the government without competitive tenders under Covid-19 emergency regulations that have waived normal requirements.

Two of the company’s three directors, Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, are also directors of Knox House Trust, which is part of the Knox Group in the Isle of Man, a tax advisory and wealth management firm run by the businessman Douglas Barrowman.

Page is also registered at Companies House as the sole owner of PPE Medpro, although he has said there is a “group behind PPE Medpro” whose members have decades of experience in distributing medical products. Page has declined to identify the investors due to unspecified “confidentiality obligations”.

The National Audit Office said in a report last month that earlier in the pandemic, as the government grappled with the urgent need to provide frontline workers with PPE, it set up a high-priority lane to assess and process potential leads from “government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs, members of the House of Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”.

Companies processed through the high-priority lane were 10 times more successful in securing PPE contracts, the NAO found, leading to questions about whether some firms profited from political connections.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) minister Lord Bethell said earlier this month that the government did not plan to disclose which companies were given high priority, because “there may be associated commercial implications”. However, a spokesperson for the government confirmed to the Guardian that PPE Medpro’s offer to supply PPE was indeed processed through the high-priority lane.

The NAO report said 47 companies obtained contracts after being processed through the high-priority lane, but identified only two: Ayanda Capital and another, Pestfix, that the DHSC said had been put in that lane by an initial mistake. PPE Medpro is therefore only the third company to have been identified as having been processed through the high-priority lane – and the first the government itself has disclosed as having been referred in that way.

The DHSC declined to say how or why PPE Medpro’s offer was given high priority, or who referred the company. Page told the Guardian via his lawyer that he was unaware that there was a high-priority lane. He said that the UK government “requested assistance” from the group behind PPE Medpro, who had prior experience in the industry, and that the contracts were awarded because the firm could deliver the PPE reliably and at competitive prices.

The contract had been under discussion “for a considerable time” before PPE Medpro was incorporated on 12 May, he said. Asked how the UK government knew the group behind PPE Medpro, and how the request for assistance was made, Page, via his lawyer, declined to explain.

He also did not respond to a question about how the Knox House Trust came to provide services to the group, including the directorships of PPE Medpro and its registered office in London.

Barrowman, the founder and chair of the Knox Group, is married to Michelle Mone, the former owner of Ultimo lingerie and a Conservative peer. She also has a connection to Page, who was previously the registered secretary for her company, MGM Media, which, according to her House of Lords register, manages her personal brand.

A lawyer for Mone and Barrowman told the Guardian that neither of them is an investor, director or shareholder in PPE Medpro, and that neither had any role or function in the company, or in the process by which the contracts were awarded.

Page said that neither he nor anybody involved with PPE Medpro approached any MPs, peers, government officials, ministers, NHS staff or other health professionals as part of making the approach to the government to supply PPE, and that all discussions were with the “correct and appropriate individuals” within the civil service.

“PPE Medpro was not awarded the contract because of company or personal connections to the UK government or the Conservative party,” he said.

The government has rejected accusations that it has operated a “chumocracy” in its award of contracts during the pandemic. The Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez said last week that the high-priority lane was “a separate mailbox” set up to assess the influx of offers to triage credible leads. “All PPE offers went through the same eight stage checks. This was not a case of special treatment for friends of ministers.”

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, said the government should disclose all the companies that came through the high-priority lane. “Slowly it is going to emerge which companies won highly lucrative public contracts having been ushered through the VIP lane,” he said. “There is a serious public interest in the government explaining precisely who was put in that lane, and why.”

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