NHS contract attacked

David Hellier
Sunday 12 December 1993 00:02

THE BRITISH Medical Association has attacked one of the NHS Trusts, the North Herts, over the way it awarded a contract to a company based in Switzerland to manage its pathology services.

The BMA is concerned that the contract, for the Lister Hospital in Stevenage, was inadequately advertised. It has also demanded to know whether the company gained inside knowledge before the official tender process and whether tenders were allowed to be revised after the tender closing date.

Both the company, Unilabs, and the trust say the correct procedures were followed at all times.

But information in the hands of the Independent on Sunday raises new questions on the extent of due diligence carried out by the trust before it awarded the contract, the first of its kind in the health service.

Unilabs is chaired by Edgard Zwirn, a businessman based in Geneva. Mr Zwirn is, according to a number of European businessmen, closely connected to Giorgio Gherardi, who in 1983 was involved in the collapse of a Belgian bank, Credit Commercial et Financier. The bank collapsed with huge liabilities and for his role in the affair Mr Gherardi, otherwise known as Count D'andelo, received a three-year suspended jail sentence and was fined 120,000 Belgian francs.

Mr Gherardi is not a director of Unilabs, but a source who has been involved in negotiations with the company in the past says that in all respects he has behaved as a shadow director of the company and has been presented as a main backer and decision-maker to many clients.

The same source says that during money-raising exercises Mr Gherardi ensured that, although he was present at key meetings, his name never appeared on official documents.

Dr Stewart Ungar, a partner in a private pathology company, the Doctors' Laboratory, said he was recently approached by two men representing Unilabs, Mr Zwirn and Mr Gherardi (presented to him as Count D'andelo). 'At one time they were interested in buying my company and Count D'andelo was presented to me as one of the main financial backers of the company.'

Mr Zwirn said Mr Gherardi had not acted for the company for two years. He said he had always been aware of his background, but that 'after studying the case of Mr Gherardi, I decided that he was not a dishonest person'.

Unilabs, which promises a better service at lower prices for the trust, acquired Britain's largest private clinical testing laboratory, J S Pathology, last month after negotiating a complex deal with the American group Corning. There had been earlier attempts by Unilab to buy J S Pathology but these fell through. J S Pathology was advised during these negotiations by Kleinwort Benson, which abandoned the talks after several unsuccessful meetings.

Unilabs, a privately owned company, has received funding through a series of share placings backed by a number of major banks, including Swiss Bank, Paribas and Suisse Paribas.

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