The Government’s use of so-called VIP lanes to award contracts during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has been ruled unlawful by the High Court.
The VIP lane was used to award contracts for supply of personal protective equipment to two companies at the start of the pandemic.
The decision comes after The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor claimed the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) unlawfully awarded contracts worth more than £700 million to supply PPE at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The groups took legal action over contracts awarded to pest control firm PestFix and the hedge fund Ayanda Capital.
In May 2021, the two campaign groups argued that millions of pounds worth of equipment, which was “useless to the NHS”, was purchased in April and May 2020 without proper technical checks, at inflated prices, as a consequence of the contracts provided by a “VIP lane”.
The High Court was told this lane was reserved for referrals from MPs, ministers and senior officials, adding that DHSC “then prioritised suppliers including PestFix and Ayanda because of who they knew, not what they could deliver”.
DHSC contested the claim, telling the court it “wholeheartedly” rejected the case against it.
The department’s barrister Michael Bowsher QC said the VIP lane, also known as the high-priority lane (HPL), was rational and resulted in a “large number of credible offers” in an ecosystem where PPE deals often failed within “minutes”.
“The goal here was to try and get as much of the right PPE in as quickly as possible. That was the simple point,” Mr Bowsher said.
In a judgment on Wednesday, Mrs Justice O’Farrell said that it was unlawful to give the two companies preferential treatment on the basis of being part of the VIP lane.
However, she found that both of the companies’ offers “justified priority treatment on its merits” and were “very likely” to have been awarded contracts already without the VIP lane.
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