If you needed proof that Boris Johnson won’t fix the culture of rule-breaking in Downing Street – because he is the problem – it’s in the way he protected Owen Paterson’s persistent lobbying.
Paterson – now the former MP for North Shropshire – was being paid £8,333 per month for 16 hours’ work as a consultant for health firm Randox when he started pestering then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock on the company’s behalf.
His lobbing started in January 2020 – two months before Boris Johnson accepted the seriousness of Covid-19 and locked the UK down.
And he wouldn’t wait for a decision. Here’s the timeline according to Sky News:
WhatsApp messages show Mr Paterson gave Mr Hancock Randox boss Dr Peter Fitzgerald’s contact details on 26 January 2020.
Mr Paterson said he told Mr Fitzgerald to “expect an email” from the health secretary, who contacted the Randox boss that night.
Mr Hancock then told Mr Paterson on 5 February 2020 that Public Health England (PHE) would be in touch with Mr Fitzgerald “directly”.
On 25 February, Mr Paterson again contacted Mr Hancock, saying Randox had not been contacted by the government for 19 days, while its test kits had been shipped to “China, Mexico, Ukraine, Oman, Tunisia and Guatemala”.
He added: “PHE’s attitude looks incomprehensible given current developments” and said there was “absolutely no sense of urgency”.
Forwarding Mr Paterson’s messages on to officials, Mr Hancock [said] he was “very worried about this… If we are treating other companies like this we are failing.”
Randox was awarded its £133 million contract in March 2020. It was a closed process – unadvertised and with no other companies being asked to bid.
In later messages, before a meeting, a senior official in then-health minister Lord Bethell’s office said on 11 May 2020: “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).”
This may correspond with the information we had that, a month after the contract was awarded, Paterson was a party to a call between Randox and James Bethell, then the Tory minister responsible for Covid-19 testing supplies.
We know that there was concern in July 2020 about Randox testing kits.
Randox was hired to supply 2.7 million testing kits – but 750,000 of them were withdrawn after spot checks in July 2020 found that some of the kits, supplied by a Chinese manufacturer but sent out by Randox, were not sterile and could therefore be contaminated.
The failure delayed plans to provide regular testing for English care home residents and staff. We later discovered that Tory government failures to protect care homes resulted in around 30,000 unnecessary deaths.
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, as he had visited the firm in Northern Ireland for the first time and was impressed.
He added there was “widespread exasperation that Randox’s achievements have not been promoted”.
Randox’s contract was extended for a further six months in October 2020. Again, the process was closed – unadvertised, with no other companies permitted to bid.
In October 2020, Mr Paterson complained that a story in The Guardian said the government “only gave Randox the testing contract because I’m a paid consultant”.
He asked Mr Hancock: “If it comes up, can you kill this once and for all as I know absolutely nothing about the contact?”
Mr Hancock replied: “Of course.”
Well, hang on a second, there. Paterson contacted Hancock to secure a contract for Randox to supply test kits in January 2020, then followed this up the following month; Randox got its contract in March.
He was involved in some way in at least one meeting between the government and Randox.
And after Randox’s kits were found to be potentially contaminated, Paterson went back to demand that its contract should be “revisited”, and it was renewed very soon afterwards.
And then, in the very month the Randox contract was renewed – at his urging – Paterson secured Hancock’s collusion in misleading the public that he had nothing to do with it!
Here’s the topper, though:
Also revealed was the fact Lord Agnew, who suddenly resigned last month as the minister in charge of tackling COVID fraud, warned Mr Hancock the government was “paying dramatically over the odds” for Randox’s tests.
So not only was Paterson instrumental in securing and renewing the Randox contract but the company received more than the going rate – in public money – for its services.
This Writer doesn’t blame Randox for any of this wrongdoing; it is a commercial firm and was acting in its interests.
But Paterson was clearly breaking Parliamentary rules on lobbying by MPs – which is what the Standards Commissioner found after an investigation.
Now, here’s why Boris Johnson can’t be trusted to end the kind of corruption that led to members of the government in Downing Street holding lockdown-busting parties while the rest of us suffered:
Instead of accepting a ruling against his MP, he tried to change the rules to get rid of the person who made it, and to ensure that corporate sponsorship of Tory MPs would be legalised.
Perhaps Johnson hadn’t seen the WhatsApp messages mentioned above, but he had seen the evidence that had gone before Kathryn Stone, and his first instinct was to use his own powers to make changes that override it.
His reason? We think it’s that Paterson’s penalty was 30 days’ suspension from Parliament, which would have exposed him to a possible recall petition from his constituents, who could then vote him out in a by-election.
Johnson couldn’t bear that – even though he had an 80-seat Parliamentary majority.
So he decided to change the rules – in all our faces – instead.
And now another inquiry has shown that the Downing Street parties were symptomatic of a failure of standards in the government.
Johnson’s first instinct has been to make changes.
Logic – and the precedent created by Paterson – tells us those changes would be to ensure nobody ever again finds out what goes on in Downing Street, or to put that address above the law that affects every other location in the UK.
That is why Johnson is the problem. And that’s why he has to go.
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