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Case update 28 June 2021

REVEALED: Health Minister Lord Bethell failed to declare meeting with firm that subsequently won £85m Covid contract

According to explosive emails published by The Sunday Times, Health Minister Lord Bethell held a ‘private meeting’ with controversial Covid testing firm Abingdon Health on 1 April 2020 without disclosing this meeting in its transparency data.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is required to publish quarterly schedules of ministerial meetings with outside companies, but the 1 April meeting with Abingdon is missing from the departmental records covering the period of April to June 2020. The meeting was only uncovered in emails published by the Sunday Times. 

Lord Bethell, a hereditary Peer and current Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation held two further meetings with Abingdon Health on 29 April 2020 and 13 May 2020 – these were declared by the DHSC.

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Abingdon Health went on to secure two contracts from the DHSC totalling £85million – both deals were awarded without any competition.

The missing meeting entry adds to alarm surrounding the procurement of the Abingdon Health tests which have been besieged by problems. Good Law Project has already commenced legal action on the grounds that:

  • There was apparent bias in the award of contracts by Government, given the role the Government’s own scientific advisor Professor Sir John Bell played in securing the deal for Abingdon Health. The Judge has observed that Professor Sir John Bell was on ‘both sides of the contract’, given his role both as a key Government advisor and also as a significant figure in the UK Rapid Testing Consortium, which acted as subcontractor to Abingdon Health; 
  • Government awarded the contracts to Abingdon Health unlawfully by giving preferential treatment to Abingdon Health because it was a British company; 
  • the decision to award the contracts to Abingdon Health breached the obligations of equal treatment, transparency and proportionality because Government failed to undertake any transparent or lawful process at all in respect of the award of the contracts;
  • the contract awards led to the grant of unlawful state aid (including Government subsidies for research and components), for which no justification whatsoever has been put forward;
  • Government acted irrationally when awarding contracts to Abingdon Health. In particular, the first contract stated that the tests had to be tested and deemed fit for use by the regulator by a certain date. The date came and went without the tests being validated, yet Government pressed ahead with another contract.

Good Law Project have approached the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.

The legal challenge is being crowdfunded. If you’re in a position to do so, you can make a donation here.