The Byline Intelligence Team reports on the legal threats from PPE Medpro, a firm awarded £200 million in Government PPE deals

A company that won £200 million in Government contracts during the Coronavirus pandemic threatened Byline Times with legal proceedings when this newspaper enquired about facts that have now been shown to be accurate. 

Byline Times previously contacted PPE Medpro to find out whether the firm had any connection to Conservative peer Baroness Michelle Mone or her husband Douglas Barrowman.

The first reply from PPE Medpro stated: “Thanks for your email. Your email has been sent onto our legal lawyer as your comments are defamatory! We are putting you on notice and you will hear from us by tomorrow.”

The following day, PPE Medpro’s principal director, Anthony Page, emailed to state: “We trust that there will be no inaccurate or misleading statements within your article. If that were to be the case then we will instruct our lawyers immediately.”

Byline Times was the first publication to reveal in September 2020 that PPE Medpro had won hundreds of millions in Government COVID contracts, just 44 days after being incorporated.

Very similar language was used in emails to the Financial Times, reporters for which were told: “We have sent your email to our media lawyer who will be closely watching what you publish. Ensure that you consult your editor.”

This raises concerns that PPE Medpro is using the UK’s often-described draconian libel laws as a way of dissuading journalists from posing valid questions about a company that has won substantial contracts funded by the taxpayer. 

There has been increasing public and political concern in recent months about so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which are typically launched by high-profile individuals or corporations against journalists or publications to “financially and psychologically exhaust” them and “evade scrutiny in the public interest”, according to the Government’s definition.

Following a number of high-profile cases involving UK-based journalists and authors and individuals with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, the UK Government signalled its intention to clamp down on SLAPPs and launched a consultation. The Law Society has backed the move, adding that it’s “time for action”.

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Questions Persist

The hostile reception experienced by this newspaper came when it asked questions regarding Baroness Mone and her husband’s links to PPE Medpro.

The company won two contracts worth more than £200 million to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to the Government at the height of the first wave of COVID-19. These contracts were awarded without a competitive tender process.

One was for face masks worth some £81 million; the other was for £122 million worth of sterilised gowns to the NHS.

In response, PPE Medpro director Anthony Page told Byline Times that “Baroness Mone is neither an investor, director or in any way associated with PPE Medpro. She has never had any role or function in PPE Medpro, nor in the process by which contracts were awarded to PPE Medpro. Similarly, Mr Barrowman is not an investor, director or shareholder in PPE Medpro. He has also never had any role or function in PPE Medpro, nor in the process by which contracts were awarded to PPE Medpro.”

It is now known that some of Page’s claims were not true – though it is unclear whether Page knew this at the time. Therefore, he may have believed that threatening legal proceedings was a proportionate response. 

Yet, Page had strong links to Baroness Mone. As reported in the Financial Times, Page was “the registered secretary of MGM Media – the company that manages Mone’s personal brand, according to the House of Lords register of financial interests, until he quit the role on the same day that PPE Medpro was set up”.

In November 2021, it was further revealed – by the Government – that Baroness Mone was indeed the person who referred PPE Medpro to the Government’s ‘VIP’ procurement lane. 

After these facts were revealed, Byline Times contacted Page again, asking if he still maintained his previous assertion that Baroness Mone was in no way involved with the company. It received no reply.

Then, in March 2022, private emails between Baroness Mone and Lord Theodore Agnew – at the time a Cabinet Office minister responsible for procurement – were also released, showing that Baroness Mone had used a private email address to correspond with the minister.

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The Guardian described Baroness Mone’s emails as a “sales pitch” for the procurement of PPE from Hong Kong which she said “my team” could provide. Baroness Mone copied senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove into the email, telling Lord Agnew that Gove had asked her to “urgently” contact him. At the time, PPE Medpro had not been incorporated as a company.

Finally, in May this year, according to The Times, Baroness Mone’s husband Douglas Barrowman admitted that he did have a financial interest in PPE Medpro. “Sources close to the Glasgow-born businessman said he had declared this ‘at the outset’ to the Cabinet Office,” the newspaper reported – contradicting the previous testimony of Anthony Page.

It is unclear whether Page was aware of these facts or not when he emailed Byline Times threatening legal action. Byline Times is not accusing Page of lying.

But other questions persist. It “remains unclear whether Mone declared Barrowman’s financial interest to civil servants at the Cabinet Office,” The Times says, highlighting that Baroness Mone is being investigated by the House of Lords’ standards watchdog on this matter.

Byline Times was the first publication to reveal in September 2020 that PPE Medpro had won hundreds of millions in Government COVID contracts, just 44 days after being incorporated.

The Guardian revealed in March 2022 that the equipment purchased by the Government from PPE Medpro for £122 million was in fact bought by the firm for just £46 million.

The 25 million gowns were never used by the NHS after Government officials rejected them following an inspection. The Department of Health and Social Care has for months been seeking to recover money from PPE Medpro through a mediation process. The firm claims that it is entitled to keep the money, arguing that department’s agents approved the gowns after inspection.

It is not known if some of the profits from the £200 million contracts are being used to pay PPE Medpro’s current legal team.

What is clear is that Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband had meaningful links to PPE Medpro, contravening Anthony Page’s earlier remarks to this newspaper. 

PPE Medpro, Baroness Michelle Mone and Anthony Page declined to comment on the record.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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