Matt Hancock has defended a decision to hand Covid test orders worth £30million to a former neighbour now under investigation by the medical watchdog, saying it would be ‘ridiculous’ to block friends of ministers from public contracts.
Alex Bourne, who crossed paths with the Health Secretary while running the Cock Inn in Thurlow, West Suffolk, began producing millions of NHS Covid test vials during the pandemic.
His company, Hinpack, which was originally a packaging manufacturer, won around £30million in work to supply a distributor contracted by the NHS with two million test tubes a week, as well as around 500,000 plastic funnels for test samples.
However the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) confirmed at the weekend it has launched a probe into Mr Bourne’s company – which had no previous experience of making medical supplies prior to the pandemic.
Asked about the contract on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning Mr Hancock said he ‘didn’t have anything to do with that contract’, despite claims by Mr Bourne that it came about after exchanging a personal WhatsApp message with the Health Secretary .
‘This has all been looked into in great detail, it’s only because of the transparency that I support that we can ask questions about these contracts,’ Mr Hancock added.
‘The implication of your question about the specific one that you raised is that people should be barred from taking contracts if they know anybody involved. That would be ridiculous.
‘What’s more is that it is easy to ask these questions, but what is hard is to deliver PPE in the teeth of a pandemic and that is what my team did.’
On Sunday, MHRA director of devices, Graeme Tunbridge said: ‘We take all reports of non-compliance very seriously.
‘We are currently investigating the allegations about Hinpack and will take appropriate action as necessary. Patient safety is our top priority.
‘As this is an ongoing investigation we are unable to disclose further information at this time.’
It is understood that the investigation was launched after South Cambridgeshire council officers received concerns about the company’s hygiene and safety standards and passed them onto the MHRA, The Guardian reported.
Last year it was revealed that Mr Bourne sent a WhatsApp to Mr Hancock’s mobile number on March 30 offering his services after a nationwide call to manufacturers to respond to the pandemic, beginning the exchange with: ‘Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow’.
Mr Bourne said Mr Hancock responded to his WhatsApp message by directing him to the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) website where he could fill out a form detailing his company’s manufacturing capabilities.
The businessman insisted at the time that his relationship with Mr Hancock had no role in his company supplying goods to the NHS.
He had initially hoped to produce PPE but later decided his company would be more suited to making test tubes thanks to the skills some employees had developed in previous jobs.
Mr Hancock also defended his wider handling of Covid contracts amid claims of ‘cronyism’.
Last week the High Court ruled he unlawfully failed to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of coronavirus-related contracts in time.