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Latest 02 February 2024

Michael Gove opened the door to biggest VIP lane firm

Alamy/Russell Hart

Fervent prayers for ‘the Conservative Party’ and a promise to ‘follow up!’ How Michael Gove’s emails greased the wheels of Unispace’s £679m PPE deals.

with Russell Scott

Unispace Global Ltd took the largest slice of the VIP lane contracts handed out by the Tories for PPE during the pandemic, landing contracts worth £679m at some of the highest rates. Details on how they were able to secure a place on the unlawful fast-track scheme have been hidden – until now.

Following a six-month freedom of information battle with the Cabinet Office, Good Law Project can reveal Michael Gove was lobbied by the firm in the weeks leading up to its first eye-watering PPE deal.

In a previously unpublished email signed by the company’s “Founder”, the firm contacted Gove on 24 March 2020, thanking him for his “time spent with us on the phone earlier” and offering to sell PPE, hospital beds, ventilators and other supplies. This initial message seems to have been sent to a personal email address, but the Cabinet Office refused to disclose whether Gove used his personal email address.

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The email finishes by saying they are “praying fervently for all men and for you and the Conservative Party at this difficult time”.

Another email shows the Unispace “Founder” contacted the Minister five days later, thanking him for what appears to be another telephone call they held together earlier in the week. Both Gove and the Cabinet failed to declare these calls in ministerial transparency reports that cover this period.

Gove replied the same day, thanking the firm in turn, before confirming “we will follow up!”

The next day, Gove’s office referred the offer on to the office of Matt Hancock – and the pandemic quickly became very lucrative for the firm. The first contract was awarded to Unispace just 20 days after Gove’s referral. On 20 April 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care handed the company a £239m contract to provide coveralls – a deal that was signed without any formal competition.

The Department of Health and Social Care’s published records admit that Unispace was in the VIP lane but assert that both the “source of the referral” and the “actual referrer” was a Cabinet Office Covid mailbox.

Unispace went on to bag contracts with a combined value of £679m, the largest total of any company pushed through the VIP lane. And these seven contracts, issued between April and June 2020, were set at some of the highest prices per unit. Two Unispace contracts, for gloves and gowns, were agreed at 5.1 and 4.1 times the average unit price paid during the pandemic for these items.

PPE bought from VIP lane firms was 80% more expensive than from other pandemic suppliers. And five of Unispace’s seven contracts were set at above-average prices. At least £3.67m worth of PPE supplied by Unispace was unusable in an NHS setting.

Last year, Edward Argar revealed the Department of Health and Social Care is in dispute with Unispace, which only “partially met its contractual obligations”. Despite being paid £603m, Argar said, the NHS had received PPE worth only £484m. The Minister did not explain what had happened to the missing £119m.

According to the Cabinet Office, the emails and phone calls between Gove and the Unispace “Founder” had nothing to do with the lucrative contracts the Government handed out.

“Unispace directly contacted the Government Commercial Function who referred the offer to the High Priority Lane,” a spokesperson said. “Ministers had no involvement in these procurement decisions.”

Unispace told Good Law Project that the founders of Unispace went on to set up Sante Global in 2021 and the PPE contracts were transferred over from Unispace to Sante.

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Investigation: The VIP Files