The provision of PPE (personal protective equipment) and Coronavirus (Covid-19) related contracts reveal a pattern that suggests, at best, government incompetency and, at worst, cronyism. These contracts are worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Some of the contractors have links to the Conservative Party and Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings. Others are linked to a religious sect.
Covid-19 related contracts
In recent weeks there have been a number of revelations concerning the contracts relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some went to dormant companies, or firms that have no history of PPE provision.
- A contract worth £43.8m was awarded to TAEG Energy, a company shown as dormant by Companies House, for the supply of hand sanitiser.
- Ayanda Capital is an investments firm that specialises in “currency trading, offshore property, and private equity and trade financing”. It was awarded £252m for the supply of face masks, many of which it’s claimed are below standard. Board of trade advisor and Ayanda’s senior board adviser Andrew Mills arranged the contract.
- Byline Times revealed that PPE contracts were awarded “to a fast fashion company, a one-man firm specialising in international trade (ISO) standards, and a business owned by a gambling industry specialist previously listed in the Panama Papers”.
- UK logistics company Uniserve, was awarded PPE contracts valued at £186m. Its owner is “listed as a speaker for the influential pro-Brexit lobby group Prosperity UK”.
- Initia Ventures Ltd possessed assets totalling £100 and is registered with Companies House as dormant. But it was awarded two PPE contracts valued at £49m.
- Kau Media Group “specialises in social media, search engine optimisation, online advertising and e-commerce” but was awarded a PPE contract for the supply of coveralls.
- PPE Medpro Limited was awarded a contract to supply gowns only “44 days after the firm had been incorporated” and set up “by Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, both of whom work in fiduciary services – private trust and wealth management”.
- Hanbury Strategy was awarded contracts worth £580,000 and £68,000 to research pandemic related public attitudes and behaviours. The company was co-founded by Vote Leave director Paul Stephenson, who worked with Cummings.
- Aventis Solutions was awarded an £18.5m contract to supply face masks. Aventis is an employment agency whose net assets total £322.
- Clandeboye Agencies Limited specialises in nut and coffee products, chocolate, and confectionery. It’s based in the north of Ireland and was awarded a £108m contract to provide PPE.
- A £108m contract was awarded to Crisp Websites Limited, trading as PestFix, a firm that specialises in pest control. In an update, the government clarified that the PestFix award is actually £32m and covers isolation suits, though there are “a number of further contracts”.
- Globus (Shetland) was awarded a £93.7m contract to supply respiratory face masks. The company donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party.
- Other large Covid-19 related contracts include: Medicine Box (awarded £40m), SG Recruitment UK Ltd (awarded £23.9m), and Randox £133m (Tory MP Owen Paterson is a paid consultant to the firm).
Some of those companies form part of a list of single-bidder contracts awarded by the UK government, as of 8 July 2020, with costs totalling just under £1bn. Yorkshire Bylines published the following list of single-bidder contracts:
Then there’s Public First, headed by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf (who helped write the 2019 Tory manifesto). The company was given £956,000 for “advice on Covid-19 and reorganising the health and care system”. It was previously awarded £840,000 to conduct research on public opinion regarding government policies and £116,000 to examine how the government can better learn from the Covid-19 pandemic. Curiously, the contract codes for the award to Public First were listed as “Gov Comms EU Exit Prog” and “EU Exit Comms”.
Frayne worked with Cummings at the Department of Education and in 2003 set up a thinktank, New Frontiers Foundation. In 2000, they worked on Business for Sterling, which campaigned against Britain joining the Euro. According to the Guardian, the arrangement with Public First includes: “on-site resource to support No 10 communications” via its partner Gabriel Milland, who was “seconded to Downing Street until 26 June” and was “head of communications at the Department for Education when Gove was the minister and Cummings was his political adviser”.
Covid firms linked to religious cult
A number of companies awarded Covid contracts reportedly have links to the fundamentalist Exclusive Brethren (EB). Unispace Global Health was awarded £240m for PPE (overalls), £103.7m for the supply of protective gloves and £113.95m for face masks, totally more than £450m. CEO Gareth Hales’ father is fundamentalist EB world leader Bruce Hales.
Other companies who were awarded contracts and which are reportedly linked to EB or its network include: Tower Supplies (£40m), Techniclean Supply Ltd (£20m), Blueleaf Ltd (£4m), Denka UK (£348,000), Accora Ltd (£248,000), ToffeIn Ltd (£4m), Oska Care Ltd (£338,000), and Medco Solutions (more than £10m).
The EB receives support from Conservative MP Peter Bone and former Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke.
From fake accounts to Covid-19 contract
Topham Guerin Ltd (TG) was awarded a Covid-19 related contract worth £3m. As The Canary previously reported, the contract states that TG is required to “Attend meetings with 77 Brigade and Cabinet Office staff to review fake news mitigations efforts and provide recommendations on further actions to take”. Part of the 77 Brigade’s remit is “countering Covid misinformation”.
New Zealanders Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, who run TG, were contracted to manage the Conservative Party’s digital campaign during the 2019 general election. TG was also responsible for the rebranding of a Conservative Party Twitter account as a so-called fact checking service in the midst of that general election. It’s further reported that TG set up a website presented, falsely, as the Labour Party’s manifesto.
Faculty has been awarded at least 13 contracts, worth around £3m, by the UK government. One such contract is for £930,000 (excluding VAT) to help develop an NHS AI lab, improvement of NHSX data analytics, and related services. Another contract was for “Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response” and worth £400,000. Its remit includes: “Identification, exploration and setup of alternative data sources (e.g. social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies, etc.)”.
The “Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response” contract awarded to Faculty is described as “Provision of data scientist capability to develop and support data sources and analysis to support MHCLG response to Covid-19”. Another contract was on the coronavirus data store project and saw Faculty working alongside controversial multi-billion-dollar firm Palantir.
Faculty was previously called Advanced Skills Initiative (ASI) and under that name produced advertising for Vote Leave, whose communications director was Cummings. Much of Vote Leave’s advertising (the examples pdf is now deleted from UK Government website) was subsequently criticised as dishonest. Vote Leave was found to have breached spending limits in its campaign and subsequently fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission. As The Canary previously reported, Cummings paid just over a quarter of a million pounds during 2018 and 2019 to Faculty. That money came from a company, Dynamic Maps, set up in October 2017 by Cummings and listed as a computer consultancy.
Earlier in the year, the government awarded contracts for a test and trace app to VMware and its subsidiary Go Pivotal for more than £4.8m and Zuhlke Engineering Ltd for more than £5m. As reported by The Canary, from the very beginning it was clear the app had serious flaws in its design. The app was eventually abandoned by health secretary Matt Hancock on 18 June. Apple and Google were then asked to provide a new app.
Deloitte was contracted to “set up and manage a network of 50 off-site testing centres in England and Scotland”. This includes logistics and “booking tests, sending samples to laboratories and communicating test results”. Deloitte “nominated Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, G4S and Boots to staff and manage operations at the testing sites”.
The main test and trace contract is with Serco and Sitel. According to openDemocracy:
Serco was initially contracted for £108 million for fourteen weeks up from the contract start date up to the 23rd August, with the option to extend for a longer period up to a value of £410 million in total. Sitel had a similar arrangement, with £84.2 million for the initial fourteen week period and £310 million in total if it were extended.
In addition, Serco has been awarded a £45.75m to £90m contract to provide “Emergency Capacity Contact Centre Services for the Vulnerable People Support Service”.
Test and trace is now a shambles.
Referring to these contracts, Labour MP Dawn Butler has accused the government of cronyism:
It cannot be the case that Government contracts, even during a pandemic where fast decision making is essential, are awarded to political insiders and friends of this government and its ministers. That’s cronyism, or worse.
Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves similarly commented:
People are sick and tired of public money landing in the pockets of businesses with close ties to the Tories. The Government should have listened to the health and careworkers who were denied PPE, followed the advice of scientists who urged them to lockdown sooner, and sacked Dominic Cummings for breaking the rules he told us to follow.
No response from Johnson
Labour MP Rushanara Ali has written to Johnson, also expressing concern over the Covid-related contracts. She refers to four companies – Ayanda Capital, TAEG Energy, P14 Medical and Elite Creations:
On Wednesday at #PMQs, @BorisJohnson invited me to write to him detailing concerns about the Government’s procurement of particular PPE contracts and how public money has been used. This letter highlights my specific concerns. I look forward to hearing from him. pic.twitter.com/h2B2EmP1Ry
— Rushanara Ali (@rushanaraali) September 11, 2020
In response to earlier criticisms regarding the awarding of PPE and Covid-related contracts, a government spokesperson told the Guardian.
Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the frontline. Over 2.9bn items have been delivered, and more than 30bn have been ordered from UK-based manufacturers and international partners to provide a continuous supply which meets the needs of health and social care staff both now and in the future.We are absolutely committed to being transparent in the awarding of contracts and we aim to publish these as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, for many thousands of people, Covid-19 means the death of loved ones, destitution, or both. But for a few companies, it means business – and the likelihood of huge profits.
As for the Johnson government, it’s now looking like perhaps the most corrupt and sleaze-ridden in recent memory.
Fund our Investigations Unit
You can help us investigate corruption, expose injustice and uncover the truth.
As one of the only independent investigations units in the country, we work for you – but we need your help to keep going. We need to raise £10,000 to continue our groundbreaking investigations. Can you chip in?