In the terrifying, unprecedented onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it did not make headline news that the government had suspended normal tendering processes for its spending of public money.
There were then delays in publishing many of the new multi-million-pound contracts, for test and trace, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other services. But as the contracts were published, the number of questions about which companies were winning work and why quickly grew.
Reporters, including at the Guardian, soon discovered numerous companies with links to Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and other senior Tories that had been granted emergency contracts for government work.
It gave rise to the suspicion – denied by the government and the companies that benefited from its rapid spending – of a “chumocracy” in which contracts bypassing the tendering process went to firms with friends in high places.
Late last year it emerged that the government had created a “high priority lane” for PPE companies referred by an MP, peer or government official. The existence of this route was first revealed by Jolyon Maugham QC, of the Good Law Project (GLP), who was leaked government documents, calling it “the VIP lane”.
Maugham and the GLP, a not-for-profit organisation financed by crowdfunding that describes its mission as achieving progressive change through the law, has been challenging some contracts with judicial reviews, alleging their award was improper.
The GLP’s case claiming “apparent bias” against the Cabinet Office over a £564,000 contract with the research company Public First, whose owners have previously worked with Cummings and Gove over many years, is the first to reach a hearing.