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Mon 25 October 2021

One of the companies involved secured a £16 million grant from the Government, reports Sam Bright

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed to declare two meetings between a firm owned by a Conservative Party donor and Health Minister Lord James Bethell at the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Byline Times can reveal.

On 2 April 2020, Lord Bethell met with Adjuvo Network – a company that brings together investors and early-stage business ventures. They were joined by the molecular diagnostics company QuantuMDX, which is part of the Adjuvo portfolio.

The founder, CEO and part-owner of Adjuvo is Mark Foster-Brown, who donated £127,500 to the Conservative Party between 2005 and 2010. Lord Bethell held two further meetings with Adjuvo, on 4 April and 3 May. Foster-Brown is explicitly listed as a participant in the latter meeting. All of the summits related to COVID-19 testing.

As QuantumMDx has subsequently declared, the firm has received £16 million in Government grant funding to develop a COVID-19 test that combines the accuracy of a PCR test with the speed of a lateral flow device. As of March this year, QuantuMDx was completing the manufacturing and commercial scale-up of its new device.

The Prime Minister personally visited QuantuMDx’s Newcastle headquarters in February. “We were delighted to welcome the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, to QuantuMDx today and we are grateful for his and the Government’s support,” said the firm’s CEO, Jonathan O’Halloran. “The funding we received at the beginning of this pandemic has enabled us to rapidly accelerate the scale up of our Q-POC™ system for SARS-CoV-2 testing.”

It is not known whether Lord Bethell’s meeting with Adjuvo and QuantuMDx helped to facilitate this public investment. The Government’s contracts portals also do not show any contracts signed with QuantumMDx or Adjuvo – although major departments do have a record of delaying the publication of deals.

“Ministers have no involvement in the awarding of NHS contracts. The DHSC does not hold any contracts with QuantuMDx,” a DHSC spokesperson said.

Adjuvo’s purpose, according to the company’s website, is to introduce early-stage companies with “a network of top tier investors with capital to invest”. Adjuvo “provides a powerful network for its members, as well as hosting and curating high-end bespoke social occasions,” its website states.

As first revealed by Byline Times yesterday, the DHSC failed to declare 27 meetings held by Lord Bethell at the beginning of the crisis in early April 2020. The original list of ministerial meetings was published by the department on 29 October last year – meaning that these previously undeclared meetings were published eight months late and 14 months after they took place.

Lord Bethell has led the DHSC’s effort to find private sector partners during the pandemic, and the firms involved in these 27 meetings went on to win contracts worth £1.14 billion. A DHSC spokesperson said that an “administrative error” prevented these meetings from being released by the department in October.

There is no direct evidence that Adjuvo or QuantumMDx used their political connections to secure meetings with the Government or received any sort of favourable treatment. However, the Good Law Project yesterday revealed that a Government ‘VIP’ lane for companies providing testing and contact-tracing services did exist.

“If [offers] come from a minister/private office then please put FASTTRACK at the beginning of the subject line,” one official email read.

Byline Times and The Citizens have also exposed contracts worth £3 billion awarded to companies with links to Conservative Party donors and associates during the Coronavirus pandemic. While many of the firms involved are experts in their relevant fields, there has been widespread concern about the conflicts of interest involved in these deals.

As the Government’s own guidance states: there can be “far-reaching consequences” if conflicts of interest are not managed appropriately, including “undermining public confidence in the integrity of the organisation and Government as a whole”.

According to the guidance, the Government should even guard against “reasonably perceived” conflicts of interest – i.e. when an organisation has some sort of link to a Government department or governing party, but did not use this link to influence a public procurement process.

The much-discussed Government ‘cronyism’ crisis during the pandemic has also been amplified by a general lack of transparency from departments. By failing to declare any conflicts of interest when releasing details of public contracts and meetings, for example, it gives the appearance that the Government has something to hide.

The DHSC’s failure to declare these 27 meetings sooner, especially given the political connections and the contracts accrued by some of these firms, is unlikely to help this perception.

Byline Times contacted the Department of Health and Social Care and Adjuvo for comment.

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