The Government has released correspondence revealing how the former Environment Secretary lobbied ministers

The Government has today been forced to release a tranche of documents revealing for the first time how Owen Paterson lobbied Matt Hancock in relation to contracts awarded to Randox for the supply of COVID-19 tests.

These documents were requested by opposition MPs, after public scrutiny grew over the role of Owen Paterson MP as a paid consultant for the firm.

Paterson stood down as an MP last year after facing suspension from the House of Commons for breaking rules on lobbying.

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson had attempted to rip up the standards system in a bid to overturn Paterson’s suspension, triggering a wave of public anger and an eventual U-turn.

The messages reveal that Paterson corresponded directly with then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock in January 2020 about the services that Randox could potentially offer in developing COVID-19 tests.

Peter Fitzgerald, referred to below, is the founder and owner of Randox.

After being contacted by Paterson at 9:23pm on 26 January, it appears that Hancock then contacted Fitzgerald just minutes later by email at 9:33pm.

The documents show Paterson again contacting Hancock on 25 February, complaining that “it is now 19 days since [Public Health England] contacted Randox at your request” – calling the attitude of PHE “incomprehensible”.

Hancock then appears to forward Paterson’s concerns to officials, noting that he was “very worried” about the matter and adding that: “If we are treating other companies like this we are failing”.

Paterson repeatedly notes in his messages that he is a paid consultant to Randox.

Information was then provided to Hancock on 1 March about PHE’s approach – noting that NHS-developed tests were being prioritised.

Contracts with Randox were ultimately signed on 30 March, and renewed on 30 September. However, Chief Operating Officer for the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office Alex Chisholm noted that he was “disappointed” that a competitive tendering process had not been established in the meantime, and that directly renewing the Randox contract was the “only viable option”.

The documents provide further details on concerns within government about the voided tests provided by Randox, which reported in the summer of 2020.

The documents also include several messages discussing future potential dealings between Randox and the department, with names redacted.

In one WhatsApp message from the 22 October 2020, an individual asks for help to “kill…once and for all” claims that “you only gave Randox the testing contract because I am a paid consultant.”

The request references a Guardian piece published the day before. An article by the paper’s columnist George Monbiot appeared on that day questioning whether the former Paterson’s role with Randox had helped secure the deal. The individual insists in the message that “I know absolutely nothing about the contract.”

Randox has won a total of £619.7 million in Government contracts since the start of 2020.

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The Department of Health and Social Care said: “As the public would expect, at the start of the pandemic we took every possible step to build the largest diagnostic industry in UK history rapidly and from scratch – which has helped to stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep people safe.

“Building the scale of testing needed at an unprecedented speed required extensive collaboration with businesses, universities, and others, to get the right skills, equipment and logistics in place as quickly as possible. 

“There are robust rules and processes in place to ensure that conflicts of interest do not occur and all contracts are awarded in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines. Decisions on whether to award contracts are taken by officials and approved by ministers. The documents given to the House show no evidence of any breach of these principles”.

A Randox spokesperson said: “It is clear from these papers that Randox contracts were awarded in full compliance with Government procedures and protocols in place at a time of the emerging pandemic.   

“The awarding of the contracts reflected Randox’s extensive diagnostics capabilities within the UK and 40 years of experience in that field… Randox’s laboratories expanded rapidly in order to operate at scale and were the first laboratory to report over 100,000 PCR results in a day. It is clear from these papers that the company has delivered a vital and core part of the UK’s testing capacity. Randox remains proud of its performance and delivery of COVID-19 testing throughout the pandemic”.

A spokesperson for Matt Hancock said: “The extensive transparency publication proves Matt did nothing wrong… Matt cannot control who contacts him, but he followed protocol and Owen Paterson’s lobbying was flagged to officials.

“To suggest Matt should have ignored the UK’s biggest existing testing capacity because he was being contacted by Owen Paterson is absurd and would have been a dereliction of duty. Matt is incredibly grateful to Randox for the enormous part they have played in the national effort to combat COVID”.

Owen Paterson has been approached for comment.

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