United Kingdom

Matt Hancock's neighbour with no experience making medical supplies won Covid testing kit contract

The former landlord of Matt Hancock's local pub is supplying tens of millions of Covid tests to the NHS after sending him a personal WhatsApp message - despite his company having no previous experience of making medical supplies. 

Alex Bourne got to know the Health Secretary while running the Cock Inn in Thurlow, West Suffolk, a few hundred yards from the Conservative MP's constituency home. 

He later set up Hinpack, a packaging manufacturer, which is now supplying a distributor contracted by the NHS with two million test tubes a week, as well as around 500,000 plastic funnels for test samples. How much the company is being paid is not yet known. 

The Government has faced repeated claims of cronyism over its £18billion rush to source PPE and other equipment during the Covid crisis, with ministers criticised for handing lucrative contracts to personal contacts with no experience in the sector.

Today Mr Bourne admitted to exchanging personal WhatsApp messages with Mr Hancock but denied his connection helped win the business. He said Hinpack was a British manufacturing success story that had retooled to meet an urgent demand. 

Alex Bourne with Health Secretary Matt Hancock when he was landlord of the Cock Inn in Thurlow, West Suffolk

Mr Bourne sent a WhatsApp to 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'. 

The ex-Army officer ran the Cock Inn until the end of 2017, the Guardian reported. Mr Hancock was a supporter of the pub, attending its reopening after a refurbishment in 2016 and nominating it for an award a year later. He moved away in 2018. 

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 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 skills some employees had developed in previous jobs.  

He told MailOnline: 'Yes, I sent Mr Hancock a WhatsApp message in the early stages of the pandemic about making PPE, then I got referred straight to the Department of Health website to offer my services. 

'We looked at PPE and decided we didn't have the expertise to make it. But we could make test tubes, so we designed one from scratch and made it in response to a very urgent demand. 

'We rang up the DHSC and we spoke to their purchasing managers very closely - he had no knowledge of those discussions. I know Matt Hancock, he's not a friend, he's an acquaintance. There's no link between the contracts we received and him.' 

A Suffolk local, Sukhvinder Dhat, has claimed Mr Hancock and Mr Bourne were 'friends' - a characterisation the businessman has repeatedly denied. 

'How does someone like [Bourne] get a contract to do something like this?' Mr Dhat asked. 

'I was in management consulting for decades and we had to show some sort of capability or at least a client reference to get business. Who knew him to say he was an appropriate person?'

While his company had no experience in providing medical supplies, Mr Bourne said many of his employees did. 

He said: 'As a legal entity we have never dealt with medical products, but members of our team have experience of manufacturing them and we brought in extra regulatory expertise. 

'Our quality manager has 20 years' experience in the sector.' 

Mr Bourne's company, Hinpack, is now making 2m test tubes a week, in addition to around 500,000 plastic funnels for test samples. File photo 

Mr Bourne noted that he had recently employed 200 extra staff in 'well-paid' roles to meet demand.  

 'We are an experience manufacturer who showed resourcefulness the time we as a nation were importing 90 per cent of consumables,' he said. 

'I'm perfectly open because I know there's nothing wrong and there's no impropriety. 

'We see what we've done as a real success that is helping to bring manufacturing back to the UK.'  

Asked whether Hinpack received preferential treatment due to Mr Bourne's contacts with the health secretary, a DHSC spokesperson said it had not: 'There is no evidence to support these claims. 

'As the National Audit Office report has made clear, ministers are not involved in procurement decisions or contract management and to suggest otherwise is wholly inaccurate.' 

How £18billion rush for PPE and other Covid equipment sparked a 'cash for cronies' scandal 

The way the Government sourced PPE and other equipment during the early stages of the Covid crisis has repeatedly drawn criticism, and was detailed in a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO). 

Many companies with zero experience of supplying PPE won multi-million pound deals while suppliers with political contacts were ten times more likely to get business.

The NAO said it would launch an urgent investigation into one extraordinary deal for surgical gloves and gowns with a Florida-based jewellery designer where Spanish businessman, Michael Saiger, who served as a middleman, was paid an astonishing £21million in UK taxpayers' cash.

Sabia Mokeddem, a 23-year-old investor from Lyon, (left) who was given £880,000 to supply 55,000 coveralls; and Michael Saiger and his girlfriend Rachael Russell. Spanish middleman Michael Saiger (right, with his girlfriend) received £21m in taxpayers' cash 

The report - which came out last week, sparked claims the Government had frittered away huge sums of public in flawed and uncompetitive contracts, sometimes buying 'useless PPE', with the 'taxpayer now reaping the ruin'. 

In another case, Sabia Mokeddem, a 23-year-old investor from Lyon, France, was given £880,000 to supply 55,000 coveralls despite not having any experience in the sector. 

She said she acted as a go-between for a wholesaler in Hong Kong and has since completed delivery of all the coveralls, priced at £16 each. Miss Mokkedem said the coveralls cost £11 before the pandemic – but they charged £16 as market demand and rising cargo costs pushed up prices.  

Labour MP Rachel Reeves said that 'a select group have been given privileged access to the government', adding: 'The country deserves to have confidence their money is being spent effectively by the government - and to know without doubt that friends and donors to the Conservative Party aren't profiting from this pandemic.'

But Business Secretary Alok Sharma insisted he would not say sorry for working rapidly to secure supplies during the coronavirus crisis and said: 'We had to do an enormous amount of work very fast to secure PPE and that's what we did, and I'm not going to apologise for the fact that quite rightly we made that effort'.     

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