Today
Sun 5 December 2021

The Cabinet minister’s office played a role in the expedited deals awarded to a financial supporter of Gove and the Conservative Party

The office of senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove referred a firm to the expedited ‘VIP’ COVID contracts programme, owned by a man who has personally donated to Gove, and agreed to assist his 2016 Conservative leadership campaign.

After legal pressure from the Good Law Project, the Government has today released the 47 companies that won COVID-related contracts via the VIP fast-track system. This process sped up the procurement process for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early stages of the pandemic, by inviting ministers, officials and MPs to refer potential suppliers.

The records show that Meller Designs was referred to the programme by the office of the Government Chief Commercial Officer, and by the office of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – a position held by Gove from July 2019 to September 2021.

The co-owner of Meller Designs – David Meller – has donated nearly £60,000 to Conservative politicians and the central party since 2009, including £3,250 to Gove’s unsuccessful leadership campaign in 2016. The Guardian has reported that Meller agreed to serve as the finance chair of Gove’s short-lived party leadership campaign in 2016.

Our calculations suggest that Meller Designs has won at least £171.9 million in PPE contracts during the pandemic. The company saw its profits rise by more than 9,000% during the latest accounting period, from £143,000 to £13 million for the period ending December 2020. “Turnover increased to £170 million (2019: £12.8 million) reflecting the additional PPE business in the year,” the company’s accounts say. Meller Designs typically specialises in supplying home and beauty products to high street retailers, including Marks & Spencer.

A Meller Designs spokesperson previously told The Times: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150 million items of PPE.”

Byline Times has previously revealed that former Government Health minister Lord James Bethell held a meeting with Meller Designs on 6 April 2020. A month later, Government records show, the firm began winning PPE contracts worth millions of pounds.

In response to the questions of House of Lords members about these meetings, and the subsequent awarding of COVID contracts, Bethell admitted that “informal arrangements” were used in the procurement of PPE.

The global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) “completely collapsed” after the onset of the pandemic, Lord Bethell said, prompting the Government to rely “on a very large network of contacts and informal arrangements in order to reach the people who could manufacture, often moving their manufacturing from one product to another”.

The spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, found that companies referred to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded Government work. One in 10 suppliers (47 out of 493) channelled through the high-priority lane obtained contracts, compared to less than one in a hundred (104 of 14,892) of those processed through other channels.

Several of these VIP suppliers have been covered by Byline Times previously. They include a small luxury packaging firm that won a £70 million PPE contract, a hotel carpeting company awarded £5 million in PPE deals, a 44-day-old firm awarded £122 million for the supply of gowns, a ‘micro’ firm awarded £40.5 million across two PPE deals, and several firms linked to the Exclusive Brethren.

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Former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock was involved in referring four of the firms to the VIP lane, while former Conservative Party Treasurer and ex-Department of Health advisor Lord Andrew Feldman referred multiple companies.

A firm called MDS Healthcare was also referred to the VIP lane, winning two PPE contracts worth £2.5 million. Our investigation has revealed that the firm subsequently donated £5,000 to the Conservative Party in July 2020, a couple of months after its contracts were awarded. Another party owned by a Conservative donor, called P14 Medical, was also referred via the VIP lane. P14 Medical won contracts worth £276 million for the supply of PPE. As Byline Times previously revealed, the owner of the firm donated £7,500 to the Conservative Party on 20 October 2020.

There has been an ongoing battle between journalists, legal campaigners and the Government, to force the release of firms that benefitted from the VIP lane. On 18 October, the Information Commissioner ordered the Government to release the names of the 47 companies within 35 days. The Government had previously refused to release the names on commercial grounds.

“There was no good reason – but there were obvious bad reasons – for government to keep the public in the dark about these links,” said Good Law Project director Jolyon Maugham. “We now need some transparency about the equivalent VIP lane for Test and Trace contracts – on which £37 billion of public money was spent.”

“At the height of the pandemic there was a desperate need for PPE to protect health and social care staff and the Government rightly took swift and decisive action to secure it,” a Government spokesperson said. “Ministers were not involved in awarding contracts.”

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