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UK court: Government VIP lane for Covid contracts unlawful

Given the large volumes of protective equipment they could supply, the companies would have seen their offers prioritized anyway, the judge ruled, even if they had not fast-tracked.

LONDON (AP) — Britain's High Court ruled Wednesday that the government acted unlawfully when it used a so-called "VIP lane" to award millions of pounds' worth of contracts to suppliers of personal protective equipment during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Two groups brought the legal action against the Department of Health and Social Care, alleging its use of the "High Priority Lane," reserved for referrals from lawmakers and senior officials, gave unfair advantage to some suppliers "because of who they knew, not what they could deliver."

The contracts included one worth over 340 million pounds ($464 million) to pest control firm PestFix and another worth some 252 million pounds ($344 million) to the hedge fund Ayanda Capital.

On Wednesday, judge Finola O'Farrell said giving the two companies preferential treatment as part of the VIP lane was unlawful. It was clear that "offers that were introduced through the senior referrers received earlier consideration at the outset of the process," she said, though the VIP lane did not give any advantage at the decision-making stage.

But the judge added that even if the companies had not been allocated to the fast-track lane, their offers would have been prioritized anyway, because of the large volumes of protective equipment they could supply.

Supplies of personal protection equipment such as masks and aprons were severely limited in Britain and elsewhere in the spring of 2020 because of an unprecedented surge in demand and disruptions in supply chains due to the pandemic.

"Never again should any government treat a public health crisis as an opportunity to enrich its associates and donors at public expense," said Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, one of two groups that brought the case.

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