PPE was on average 80% more expensive when the government bought it from firms referred through a special “VIP lane” by Conservative ministers, MPs and officials, new information has revealed.
The Good Law Project, which has long been investigating PPE deals during the Covid pandemic, said internal government documents showed that the unit price paid for items under VIP lane contracts was up to four times higher than average.
The organisation highlighted one example as being the cost of PPE delivered by Meller Designs, a fashion company at the time co-owned by the Tory donor David Meller, which was referred through the VIP lane by Michael Gove’s office. Meller Designs was awarded six PPE supply contracts worth £164m during the coronavirus pandemic.
In three of these contracts with Meller Designs, the government paid between 1.2 and 2.2 times the average unit price. The average price for medical gowns was £5.87 but the gowns bought from Meller Designs cost £12.64. About £8.46m worth of the equipment supplied by Meller Designs was later found to be not used in an NHS setting.
A spokesperson for Meller Designs said: “Meller Designs approached the government in March 2020 and offered to supply PPE for the NHS and other essential public services.
“We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the Covid-19 crisis and managed to secure more than 100m items of PPE – including masks, sanitiser, coveralls and gloves direct from the manufacturers – at a time when they were most needed. This PPE was used in hospitals and by emergency services throughout the country.
“In responding to the national emergency, we were able to rely on our many years’ experience of sourcing, testing and quality control of a wide range of products.
“As a company Meller Designs has been in business for more than 100 years but we can honestly say this was one of the most difficult and important contracts we have ever been asked to respond to and we would like to thank all our colleagues who worked so hard to make it happen.”
Responding to the PPE figures, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said: “The British public are sick of being ripped off under the Conservatives. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been squandered … when it could have been spent in our schools, hospitals and police.
“That is why Labour will appoint a [commissioner] to go through pandemic contracts line by line and whenever they have failed to deliver, we will clawback every pound we can for the public.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said its priority throughout the pandemic “was to save lives and we acted swiftly to procure PPE at the height of the pandemic, competing in an overheated global market where demand massively outstripped supply”.
“Due diligence was carried out on all companies and every company was subjected to the same checks,” the spokesperson said.
Separately, the Conservative peer Michelle Mone said she was wrong to publicly deny involvement in a PPE firm now under investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Lady Mone released a YouTube documentary in which she and her husband, Douglas Barrowman, launched a fightback “because we have done nothing wrong”.
Mone had lobbied ministers, including the communities secretary, Michael Gove, and officials for PPE Medpro to win contracts and it went on to obtain £200m in deals to supply masks and medical gowns. Her lawyers subsequently denied to the Guardian repeatedly that she was involved in the firm.
The NCA has been conducting an investigation into PPE Medpro since May 2021, which is continuing.
Gove said he could not comment on matters under NCA investigation but insisted it was wrong for anyone to suggest that ministers were doing favours for their contacts.
He told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday: “Ministers did not take individual decisions about who should receive contracts … teams of civil servants assessed the worthiness of any contracts put forward.
“The suggestion that somehow ministers were seeking to deliberately do favours for or line the pockets of other individuals is totally unjustified because the decisions were only taken after a proper coherent and fair procurement process.”