PestFix, a small family-run firm from Littlehampton, secured £342 million of contracts to supply masks, gloves, and gowns to the NHS, having been fast-tracked through the government’s controversial ‘VIP Lane’.
One of the firm’s directors, Dan England, secured PPE through an agent in China, nicknaming him ‘Little Man’ in texts to Nick Dawson who was working in the government’s PPE procurement team.
On April 18 last year, Mr England said he had “funded the Little Man” with cash “to be able to secure a deal if NHS decide to go for it”.
Later the same day, in a discussion about the potential purchase of gowns, Mr England wrote: “Little Man is bribing officials at the factory (of his own doing not ours) which is how he gets what he wants”.
He later added that the gowns “are being taken to Little Man’s warehouse today to protect them from going ‘missing’”, amid concerns about the “chaotic” market in China for PPE.
The texts have emerged during a judicial review brought by the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor into the way almost £700 million of PPE was bought by the UK from PestFix, hedge fund Ayanda, and confectionary firm Clandeboye.
Referring to the texts from Mr England, the claimants’ barrister Jason Coppel QC said on Wednesday: “It seems some quite murky dealings were going on on the ground in China.”
He said the government has accepted the deal with PestFix “bypassed the normal processes”, and argued it “ought to have set the alarm bells ringing”.
In a note to the court in advance of this week’s hearings, Alan Bates, representing Ayanda and PestFix said the allegation of bribery is “irrelevant” to the case, suggesting it had been raised for publicity.
“PestFix strongly denies that it, or any of its employees or representatives, has ever been involved in bribery”, he wrote. “A colloquialism in a single text message is not a proper basis for the Claimants to make a serious allegation of this kind.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is fighting the judicial review claim, arguing the government acted properly while sourcing vast quantities of PPE in a short timeframe when the pandemic struck.
While accepting that mistakes may have been made, he contends government officials acted diligently and properly when pursuing deals.
It is said the ‘VIP Lane’ offered companies with political connections an unfair advantage in the scramble for PPE deals.
Supply offers which had been recommended by MPs, Ministers, or senior officials were responded to quickly and assisted through the procurement process, while other others not designated ‘high priority’ went unanswered, it is said.
Ayanda, a hedge fund with ties to the Department for International Trade, won a £252.5 million deal despite a ‘red flag’ on its financial background.
NatWest temporarily suspended the government’s banking abilities at the start of May last year over concerned that proper due diligence was not being done in PPE deals, and it was opening itself up to fraud.
The hearing continues.