Labour accuses Gove of lying about extent of vetting for PPE deals

Michael Gove has been accused of falsely claiming all personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts for the NHS went through eight steps of vetting, as it emerged this did not happen with a deal for millions of unusable face masks linked to a Conservative adviser.

Rowena Mason

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said Gove and other ministers were “apparently lying to the public and lying to parliament” by claiming that “every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process”.

She uncovered the fact that the much-vaunted eight-step process was not undertaken in the case of Ayanda Capital, which was awarded £252m of deals for PPE supplies in spring 2020. Face masks provided by Ayanda were ultimately unusable because the Department of Health and Social Care had specified masks with ear loops, despite the NHS requiring masks that looped over the head.

The process was also not followed in the case of PestFix, a pest control supplies company with net assets of £18,000 that was awarded a contract to supply PPE worth £350m to the NHS, some of which also did not meet the health service’s technical standards.

In answer to a parliamentary question, the health minister, Jo Churchill, said: “The eight-stage process to assess and approve offers of support to supply [PPE] evolved over a short period of time at the end of April 2020 to formalise the checks quickly put in place by the cross-government PPE procurement cell in March 2020.

“Contracts with Ayanda Capital and PestFix pre-dated the formalised eight-stage assurance process but these suppliers were evaluated by officials on financial standing, technical compliance and ability to perform the contract. The contracts are awarded by the appropriate departmental accounting officer in line with our terms and conditions.”

Internal documents released as part of a judicial review case revealed in May that Ayanda, a “family office” finance house in London, was awarded two PPE contracts for a total of £252m after being referred to the VIP lane for assessing deals because its representative, Andrew Mills, was an adviser to Liz Truss, the trade secretary.

Officials pushed for the contracts to be processed as quickly as possible, with one marking emails “URGENT VIP CASE” and “VERY URGENT VIP ESCALATION”, saying that if the deal did not happen: “Andrew will escalate as high as he can possibly go!”

The two contracts were approved on 30 April 2020, five days after Ayanda was put into the VIP lane, but before required financial checks had been carried out on the company, despite a Cabinet Office official raising “major issues or concerns” because of inadequate availability of public financial information and a “low” credit score.

Ayanda has consistently said it fulfilled the contract according to the specifications it was given.

Rayner, who is the shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Gove’s opposite number, said:

“Why have Michael Gove and government ministers apparently been lying to the public and lying to parliament to try to cover this up? Michael Gove needs to explain why he has not been telling the truth.

“We need a fully independent investigation into the Tories’ VIP fast track for PPE and testing contracts to get to the bottom of who got the contracts, how they got them and what connections they have to Conservative ministers and the Conservative party.”

Jo Maugham QC, director of Good Law Project, which brought the legal challenge to the Pestfix and Ayanda contracts, said: “You begin to wonder if there are any statements from ministers that you can rely on. It looks like they’ve been infected by Johnsonism: total lack of interest in the truth.”

A government spokesperson said: “All PPE contracts went through a robust process of checks and controls led by officials. These contracts have delivered over 9bn items of PPE to protect frontline workers.”

The government is defending the judicial review over the PPE contracts, arguing the VIP route and the contracts awarded, including to PestFix, Ayanda and another company, were lawful and reasonable as the government tried to rapidly meet a serious shortfall of PPE at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A National Audit Office report in November said 144 referrals to the VIP lane had come from ministers’ private offices, but said of its investigation: “Ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”