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Government's Covid testing programme was derided in its infancy as ‘no way to do business,’ High Court hears

THE government’s shambolic Covid-19 testing programme was derided in its infancy as “no way to do business” in a series of explosive emails revealed at the High Court today.

On the first day of a three-day challenge against the Department for Health and Social Care over the multi-million-pound contracts it awarded during the pandemic, lawyers for the Good Law Project revealed that the government created a “VIP route” for preferred test suppliers.

It has previously been revealed that such routes were created for personal protective equipment contracts.

Medical diagnostic firm Abingdon Health was given preferential treatment when it was awarded contracts to produce antibody tests that later failed to pass regulatory procedures, lawyers for the not-for-profit organisation said.

Despite warnings from the government’s own lawyers that these contracts could be unlawful as they bypassed the correct procurement process, emails show that ministers forged ahead with the project anyway, with then-health secretary Matt Hancock exhorting his team to “go hell for leather.”

The contracts were awarded secretly, without any advertisement or competition, and without any lawful decision-making process, the Good Law Project is arguing.

Lawyers have disclosed several alarming emails highlighting civil servants’ concerns at ministerial behaviour, including former health minister Lord Bethell.

In one email, Department for Health chief commercial officer Steve Oldfield asked accounting officer David Williams to “have a quiet word with Bethell” to explain that “we could make this all a lot more legit [sic] if we just took two days to do a public call-to-arms to ‘flush out’ any other companies who might be able to play a role in this space and remove the criticism that we haven’t given everyone a fair chance?”

Mr Williams also expressed wider concerns about “how unlegit [sic] the entire testing strand is.”

He wrote to Kathy Hall, a former director in the department: “I am concerned that in this area of our coronavirus response we are running at pace without any clear financial approvals and well outside departmental delegations.”

Other emails show senior civil servants discussing how they were told: “Don’t bother with rules, just buy the stuff and we can deal with it later,” with specific references to No 10 trying to push through a “dodgy deal.”

Good Law Project legal director Gemma Abbott said: “Over the life of the case, ministers have struggled to get their story straight, but it’s clear to us now why they have been so backward in coming forward.

“Has there ever been a government so allergic to accountability?”

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