Officials have described the government’s Covid testing scheme as ‘illegitimate’ and ‘no way to do business’ in emails revealed during a High Court challenge to the award of contracts of up to 85 million pounds for antibody tests.
Activist organization Good Law Project (GLP) is challenging the health and social care secretary, saying contracts with Abingdon Health, a mid-sized UK business, were illegal because they weren’t advertised or open to competition, and that the correct procurement process was circumvented.
Antibody tests developed by Abingdon subsequently failed regulatory tests and the vast majority expired without being used.
At the start of the hearing in central London, the GLP released details of emails obtained as a result of its legal challenge, including one in which David Williams, then second permanent secretary to the Department of Health and Business Societies (DHSC), expressed concern about “how illegitimate the whole testing strand is”.
In another email, specifically relating to Abingdon, Steve Oldfield, DHSC’s commercial director, asked Williams “to have a quiet word with [Lord] Bethell and explain to him that we could make this all much more legitimate if we only took two days to issue a public call to arms to “flush out” any other companies that might be playing a role in this space, and suppress criticism that we haven’t given everyone a fair chance”.
Bethell, then Minister of Health, reportedly, according to the GLP, “made a number of interventions to help [Abingdon]”, including defending the company – illegally, according to the GLP – on the basis of its British character. Bethell’s WhatsApp messages relating to government business could not be disclosed in the case because they were deleted when he replaced his cell phone.
The GLP said concerns had been highlighted over the way contracts were awarded in relation to Abingdon but also more generally, with an email from an official stating: “[This is] no way to do business but we are in an exceptional period.
Additionally, the documents show an anonymous external consultant for the Health and Social Care Secretary saying of the arrangements with Abingdon: “Beyond the individual risks in themselves, there is a point to be mentioned that in conjunction the with each other, it becomes a monster of a story: First, we selected the RTC [rapid test consortium, which included Abingdon] without competition, then we might have biased validation leading to a preferred product, we help them financially by funding initial purchases without sufficient due diligence (i.e. without a contract in place) and with that, we commit to purchase the test kits without anchoring any pricing principle. It’s big.”
After Public Health England discovered the tests were not accurate enough for mass antibody testing, they were still accepted by the DHSC, with the government saying they were suitable for use in surveillance studies, although emails also showed that concerns had been raised over Abingdon’s bankruptcy. reputational/political damage”.
Concerns were then raised that it “looks like we bought a bunch of worthless devices”.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Our engagement with Abingdon Health has been led by officials – not ministers or MPs.”
The case is expected to last three days.