The UK Government has given contracts worth £200 million to a firm whose investment origins remain unknown and are linked to the Isle of Man, The Guardian reported on Monday.
Tasked with supplying the UK with personal protective equipment (PPE), PPE Medpro was placed in a “high-priority lane” for well-connected firms, according to the outlet.
A contract of £80.85m to supply 210 million face masks was first awarded to PPE Medpro on 12 June. Just weeks later, the company was offered a second contract for £122m, to provide 25 million surgical gowns.
Both agreements were given directly by the Government without any alternative bids because coronavirus-related emergency regulations have meant that typical procedures have been swept aside.
The identities of the financiers and businessmen behind the company are currently unknown. It is also currently unclear how the offer by PPE Medpro to supply the essential medical materials was issued through the channels where companies are given reference by lawmakers and top officials close to the government.
However, two out of three of the firm's directors, Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, also head 'Knox House Trust', part of the Isle of Man-based Knox Group, a management and tax advice firm headed by businessman Douglas Barrowman.
According to Companies House records, Page is the official owner of PPE Medpro, but has acknowledged that there is a “group behind PPE Medpro” with members who are experienced in medical product distribution. Citing unspecified “confidentiality obligations”, Page has not named the organisation behind PPE Medpro.
Speaking to The Guardian through his lawyer, Page told the Guardian that he was not aware of a high-priority lane, claiming that the UK government “requested assistance” from the group behind PPE Medpro because of their "decades of experience" and they were awarded the contract on account of the low cost they quoted.
Page said that the contract had been under discussion for a "considerable time" but declined to say how the UK Government was aware of the group behind PPE Medpro.
A government spokesperson confirmed that PPE Medpro’s offer was processed through the high-priority lane, which was set up by the Government in order to ease the supply of essential medical equipment, leading to allegations that firms were profiting thanks to their political links.
National Audit Office (NAO) investigations also revealed that companies who had their contracts sent through the high-priority lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded PPE supply offers.
In December, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) minister Lord Bethell said that the Government does not intend to unveil the names of companies given high priority, as “there may be associated commercial implications”.
However, Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, urged the Government to disclose all the high-priority lane suppliers as transparency is in the public interest.
“Slowly it is going to emerge which companies won highly lucrative public contracts having been ushered through the VIP lane”, he said.
“There is a serious public interest in the Government explaining precisely who was put in that lane, and why".
The investigation also found that the funds were also given to companies with little experience in the field they were tasked with covering or had controversial history ranging from tax evasion and fraud to corruption and human rights abuses.