It is claimed the contracts were signed without due diligence, after two of the companies – Ayanda Capital and PestFix – were fast-tracked through the procurement system in to the government’s controversial ‘VIP Lane’.
Michael Bowsher QC, representing Health Secretary Matt Hancock, argued at the High Court on Thursday afternoon it is important to remember the government was acting at a time of national crisis.
“The challenges faced by the defendant were extraordinary, unprecedented, and of course the defendant’s staff were still being assembled from a number of different departments at great haste,” he said in opening submissions.
Mr Bowsher said the officials at the hearing of the legal battle “should be congratulated and encouraged for what they did in a moment of national crisis”.
“This is not to say they had a free pass, but it’s important their role is recognised,” he said.
Mr Bowsher argued: “Circumstances and experiences at that time are important and directly relevant to the way the defendant conducted themselves, and any individuals in departments conducted themselves.
“There was no real idea how fast Covid-19 would spread given the measures that were put in place, how many people would need to be hospitalised, how long treatment would last, whether it would be possible to develop a vaccine, and the need for PPE.
“There already was and would be a need for delivery of PPE on a scale hitherto unimagined.”
He said a new supply chain for PPE, including masks, gowns, and gloves, had to be created from scratch, without knowing how much equipment they needed to find.
He said a “peacetime approach” to procurement was not appropriate, and the department accepted there would be “some wastage”.
“It was all done in haste, so any allegations relating to waste all have to be seen in that context”, he said.
The ‘VIP Lane’ was set up to handle offers to supply equipment which had come from Ministers, MPs, or senior officials.
Lawyers for Ayanda and PestFix have said claims of “cronyism” are “baseless and false”.
The case continues on Monday.