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Latest 28 May 2024

The fixers who made £98m from the Tories’ VIP lane

Matthew Waring / Unsplash

The government claims its Covid procurement was all above board. So why did companies spend millions of pounds on brokers who knew Tories?

As Bob Woodward struggles to work out what really happened at the Watergate hotel in the movie All the President’s Men, his source tells him to “Follow the money.” And when it comes to piecing together the shady dealings behind the Tories’ unlawful VIP lane the same applies.

The government insists at every turn that ministers had nothing to do with procurement decisions, but four companies paid brokers, each with connections to the Conservative Party, a total of £98m for landing Covid contracts. Which raises the question: what did these companies think they were getting for all this money?

Zoe Ley teamed up with the former Conservative MP Brooks Newmark and made £17.6m acting as a broker for Worldlink Resources. By June 2020, Worldlink had landed £250m across two contracts to supply gowns and safety goggles, ultimately supplying £106m of unfit PPE. 

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Lawyers acting for Ley told Good Law Project that “the adequacy of the equipment provided by Worldlink Resources was a matter for the supplier and what was requested from them, not for our client’s company”. So why was she paid so much? Why was she paid anything? They didn’t say.

In April 2020, Liz Truss’s adviser Andrew Mills brokered a £252m deal for Ayanda Capital to supply masks. Civil servants said they were worried about not giving Ayanda a contract because of his “close ties” to her department. As reported in Private Eye, Mills and Nathan Engelbrecht – the son in law of Ayanda CEO Tim Horlick – made a combined total of £44m in fees on this contract and we believe this was a significant underestimate of the total fees. 

Ayanda had no background in supplying PPE, or goods of any kind. Fifty million of the masks it provided – worth as much as £155m – were unusable in the NHS.

Ayanda Capital did not respond to a request for comment. 

Pharmaceuticals Direct Limited engaged Surbjit Shergill on a ‘no contract no fee’ basis to help them win lucrative covid contracts. He worked with Samar Jassal, a Tory activist and donor on first name terms with a number of key figures in Boris Johnson’s administration, to snag two Covid contracts worth more than £131m between May and June 2020. Documents obtained by Good Law Project reveal that Priti Patel and her adviser Munira Mirza helped them to secure these deals despite concerns raised by officials in the health department that the masks were priced “well above the average”, making the deal “too expensive even in these circumstances”. The differential between buying 20 million masks at the current average price and the price agreed with Pharmaceuticals Direct comes to about £50m. A company controlled by Shergill – Dymon Cap Limited – received payments totalling more than £16m.

According to Pharmaceuticals Direct, the company has been a “a reliable and successful supplier to the NHS for approximately 20 years”. And over the years since, the firm added, it has been “audited, screened, and re-appointed as a valued, ongoing supplier  to  the  NHS” and received “very positive references and approval ratings”.

The company did not address the health department’s concerns that the masks it supplied were over-valued by £50m. Nor did it explain what Dymon Cap’s payments of more than £16m were for, or why a “reliable and successful” NHS supplier thought they were necessary in this case.

It wasn’t just contracts for personal protective equipment. In July 2020, Charles Palmer and Kim Thronger got in touch with Dominic Cummings and bagged a deal for Innova Medical to supply lateral flow tests worth £103m. Palmer and Thronger took home a cool £20.5m.

We still don’t know all the details of the contracts awarded through the Tories’ unlawful VIP lane, but the PPE was on average 80% more expensive, with at least £338m spent on unusable PPE unlikely to ever be recovered. What’s clear is that for some individuals these contracts proved a bonanza, while the taxpayer has been left to absorb the damage.

The Labour MP Kate Hollern called the potential scale of corruption through the VIP lane “truly shocking”.

“Even now, I fear we do not appreciate the totality of what happened,” Hollern said. “This is why I support Labour’s plans for a Covid corruption commissioner to act as a powerful watchdog and recoup the billions of pounds lost to fraudulent contracts. This money belongs to our NHS, our schools, and our crumbling public services.”

For the executive director of Good Law Project, Jo Maugham, it’s clear “we haven’t been told the truth about the VIP lane”.

“There was a whole cottage industry of Tory hangers-on making referrals into the VIP lane for commission,” Maugham said, “and we believe many of them have not yet been named.”

The millions of pounds companies paid to secure these deals raise an important question, he continued. “Why do businesses pay large sums of money to politically-connected fixers if they think that the process is ‘clean’ ? There is no good answer to this question – nil, nada, none.”

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  • We changed this article on 29 May 2024, adding Priti Patel’s first name, which had been removed in an earlier version.