Tory peer lobbied for PPE firm months after lawyers said she had stopped, leaked emails suggest

Leaked emails suggest that the Conservative peer Michelle Mone lobbied a health minister on behalf of a company seeking Covid contracts – five months after the point at which her lawyers said she had stopped doing anything for the firm.

David Conn www.theguardian.com 

The documents add to questions surrounding Lady Mone’s account of her involvement in PPE Medpro, which was awarded government contracts worth more than £200m to supply personal protective equipment early in the pandemic.

Several months later, according to the leaked emails, Mone was trying to help PPE Medpro secure a lucrative contract to supply the government with Covid-19 antigen tests.

Mone has repeatedly sought to distance herself from PPE Medpro, whose business she first recommended to the government in early May 2020.

When Mone’s referral of May 2020 became public, she said her involvement in the company went no further than a single recommendation to the then Cabinet Office minister Theodore Agnew. Her lawyer said: “Having taken the very simple, solitary and brief step of referring PPE Medpro as a potential supplier to the office of Lord Agnew, our client did not do anything further in respect of PPE Medpro.”

However, emails seen by the Guardian from October 2020 suggest that Mone was by that point still promoting the company, which was selling Covid tests.

Anthony Page, one of PPE Medpro’s directors, emailed the Tory peer James Bethell, then a minister at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), on 6 October mentioning Mone’s involvement.

“I write to you in my capacity as UK managing director of PPE Medpro,” Page said. “I understand that Baroness Mone has kindly made you aware of the company and our recently developed coronavirus antigen rapid test.”

The email continued: “By way of introduction, PPE Medpro is a PPE and medical product supplier that, in recent months, has successfully completed orders of 235m units to DHSC.”

In addition to his role as the sole public face of PPE Medpro, Page is a longtime senior employee in the Knox Group, the Isle of Man-based financial services firm run by Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman.

Lawyers for Mone, who sold her stake in the Ultimo lingerie company before David Cameron made her a member of the House of Lords in 2015, have said she “was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity” and “has no involvement in the business”.

Barrowman’s lawyers have similarly distanced him from the company, but they have not denied that he benefited financially from PPE Medpro’s business.

Last month the Guardian revealed that leaked files appear to suggest that both Mone and Barrowman were secretly involved in PPE Medpro’s mask and surgical gowns business.

The newly leaked emails between Bethell and Page suggest that Mone was subsequently also involved in supporting PPE Medpro’s attempt to secure a slice of the testing market.

In his 6 October 2020 email, Page told the Tory minister that the “consortium behind PPE Medpro” had partnerships with two factories that could produce 1.9m Covid tests a day. “We are able to start production immediately following agreement of terms and on receipt of signed contract and PO [purchase order] from DHSC. I would welcome a dialogue with you and/or your team to get things moving.”

According to a government source, Bethell then referred PPE Medpro to a specialist team of officials and consultants who gave him prompt, attentive service. PPE Medpro, the source added, was among a number of companies referred as potential Covid-testing suppliers that were given a similar priority service.

The source, a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the process of prioritising well-connected firms offering coronavirus testing kits as akin to the government’s “VIP lane” for well-connected PPE firms.

Despite the special attention, Page appears to have become impatient with his treatment by the department, complaining in an email to officials and copying in Bethell and Bethell’s private secretary.

PPE Medpro ultimately failed in its testing bid. However, the government source believes officials gave PPE Medpro undue priority because of its political backing.

“Given their lack of experience, PPE Medpro should have been turned down at the start for testing contracts, which were such a vital part of our response to the pandemic,” the official claimed. “But instead we tutored that company through the process because we knew that senior people were involved: we were very aware that Baroness Mone had held that initial discussion with Lord Bethell.

“The concerns were already starting about the VIP lane that operated for PPE, yet here we were giving a special service to companies just because of their political connections.”

Mone appears to have been still contacting officials on behalf of PPE Medpro four months after her contact with Bethell, and nine months after she first recommended the firm to Lord Agnew.

Jacqui Rock, the chief commercial officer for NHS test and trace, told colleagues in February 2021 that Mone was “incandescent with rage” at the treatment of PPE Medpro over testing contracts, saying they had been “fobbed off”, and was planning to speak to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock about her concerns.

Mone’s lawyer did not respond directly to questions from the Guardian about her referral of PPE Medpro to the government for Covid-19 tests, saying: “She has no involvement in the business.”

Bethell did not respond to a request for comment.

A DHSC spokesperson said there had been “a rigorous scientific validation process with officials to ensure no products were progressed that did not meet the required specification”.

Page denied that the company was given preferential treatment because of Mone’s recommendation, saying that PPE Medpro had already been working with the DHSC, so already had the necessary contacts. He blamed the company’s failure to secure testing contracts on “adverse press” and “the process being frustrated by the various testing phases,” although he said they “passed at each phase”.