Messages show how disgraced MP Owen Paterson lobbied health secretary Matt Hancock for Randox

MP, who resigned from the Commons after a botched attempt to save him from suspension, urged Hancock to ‘kill’ story about him being consultant

Geraldine Scott
Friday 04 February 2022 17:37
Owen Paterson (Victoria Jones/PA)
Owen Paterson (Victoria Jones/PA)

Whatsapp messages between Owen Paterson and then health secretary Matt Hancock have been released showing how the disgraced former MP lobbied for a firm that was paying him more than £8,000 a month.

Mr Paterson resigned from the Commons in November last year, after he was found to have lobbied – against parliamentary rules – on behalf of Randox, a health firm for which he was a paid consultant.

The saga prompted a sleaze scandal in Westminster after Boris Johnson’s government launched a defence of Mr Paterson and tried to save him from a 30-day suspension, only to back down when under considerable pressure.

Mr Paterson, who had been the MP for North Shropshire since 1997, then resigned. His last entry in the register of financial interests showed Randox was paying him £8,333 a month for 16 hours of work.

The newly-released documents, forced by Labour, show the extent to which Mr Paterson was in contact with Mr Hancock over Randox’s offers to provide coronavirus testing services.

Randox was awarded nearly £600m of Covid testing contracts while normal competition rules were bypassed due to the emergency situation.

A Randox spokesperson said contracts were awarded in “full compliance with government procedures and protocols in place at a time of the emerging pandemic”.

The messages showed how Mr Paterson had given Mr Hancock the contact details of Randox boss Peter Fitzgerald on 26 January, 2020, and said he had told Mr Fitzgerald to “expect an email” from the health secretary.

Mr Hancock contacted Mr Fitzgerald that night and then told Mr Paterson on 5 February, 2020 that Public Health England would be in touch.

Matt Hancock during a visit to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital (Steve Reigate/Daily Express)

But by 25 February, Mr Paterson contacted Mr Hancock on Whatsapp to say no contact had been made for 19 days. He said: “PHE’s attitude looks incomprehensible given current developments. Are you voting today? Can we discuss briefly? Great announcement on pharmacies by the way!”

Another communication from Mr Paterson, who Mr Hancock refers to as “Owen Patz” details how the MP was finding the process “exasperating” when Randox kits were being dispatched to China. In the message, he added: “Nb I’m a consultant to Randox. PS Good news on the nurses!”

After this message, Mr Hancock asked officials for “chapter and verse” on the situation and said he was “very worried about this”, adding: “If we are treating other companies like this we are failing.”

Later, during discussions about Randox’s long-term involvement in the testing programme, a senior official in then health minister Lord Bethell’s office said on 11 May, 2020 – ahead of a meeting – that “Lord Bethell has indicated that he would like a 1:1 with Owen Patterson [sic] beforehand as well (who I understand is a consultant employed by Randox)”.

In July 2020, it was found some Randox kits may not meet safety standards, and one email said: “PM worried about swabs and the number of swabs that turned out not to be sterile when tested.”

But in September 2020, Mr Paterson sent a Whatsapp message asking Mr Hancock to “revisit even briefly and privately” the long-term future of Randox’s involvement in testing, he said he had visited the firm and was impressed but that there was “widespread exasperation that Randox’s achievements have not been promoted”.

The next month, Mr Paterson noted in Whatsapp messages that The Guardian had run a story saying the government “only gave Randox the testing contract because I am a paid consultant”. He asked: “If it comes up, can you kill this once and for all as I know absolutely nothing about the contact?”

Two days later, Mr Paterson messaged again to promote Randox’s achievements in testing.

The documents also revealed that Lord Agnew, who dramatically resigned as the minister in charge of tackling fraud last month, warned that the government was “paying dramatically over the odds” for Randox’s tests.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “It is now beyond any doubt that Owen Paterson was guilty as charged and the prime minister personally intervened to protect him regardless. No wonder standards in government have collapsed.

“We now know that the public are paying the price for these crony contracts. In the minister’s own words, we were paying ‘dramatically over the odds’. Yet nearly a year after their deadline to overhaul the process, the emergency procurement rules are still being used to hand out vast sums of public money in exactly the same way.

“These documents have blown apart months of denial, revealing a government that is awash with sleaze from the prime minister down, and simply incapable of governing in the public interest.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

A Randox spokesperson said: “The awarding of the contracts reflected Randox’s extensive diagnostics capabilities within the UK and 40 years of experience in that field.”

They said: “It is clear from these papers that the company has delivered a vital and core part of the UK’s testing capacity.

“Randox remains proud of its performance and delivery of Covid 19 testing throughout the pandemic. To date Randox has reported almost 24 million PCR results and has played a key role in both keeping people safe and sustaining vital national infrastructure.”

In a written ministerial statement published alongside the documents, health secretary Sajid Javid said: “As the public would expect, at the start of the pandemic the government took every possible step to rapidly build the largest testing industry in UK history from scratch – this has played an important role in stopping the spread of Covid-19 and saving lives, and the service Randox provided was integral to that response.

“There are robust rules and processes in place to ensure that all contracts are awarded in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines and that any potential conflicts of interest with respect to commercial matters are appropriately managed. Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts.”

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