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High Court finds UK gov’t acted unlawfully over COVID contract

Officials showed ‘apparent bias’ in dealings with a company run by associates of Dominic Cummings, judge rules.

The United Kingdom’s High Court has ruled that the government acted unlawfully when it handed a contract to a company run by associates of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former aide.

The court said on Wednesday the government had shown “apparent bias” in awarding more than 560,000 pounds ($794,000) to Public First to test public opinion on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The public relations company, which undertook research for the government on its public health messaging around the coronavirus pandemic, is headed by James Frayne and his wife Rachel Wolf.

The pair previously worked with Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.

The Good Law Project (GLP), a campaign group, had brought a judicial review against the government, saying the contract was awarded without any competitive tenders in the early stages of the pandemic.

In her ruling, High Court Justice Finola O’Farrell concluded the government’s failure to consider other firms could be seen as indicating a “real danger” of bias.

“The defendant’s failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision-maker was biased,” she said.

‘Chumocracy’

Officials have previously denied showing any favouritism towards Public First.

Cummings has said he was more concerned about trying to save lives than ensuring all decisions taken during the first wave of the pandemic were lawful in the eyes of the court.

“On this basis the courts [should] rule that many 2020 decisions were similarly ‘unlawful’ as I & the Cabinet Secretary repeatedly told officials ‘focus on imminent threats to lives/destruction, not process/lawyers/Potemkin paper trails,” he tweeted after Wednesday’s ruling.

A Public First spokesman said the company was proud of the work it did, adding: “The judge made no criticism whatsoever of Public First anywhere in the judgement.”

The National Audit Office has previously accused the government of failing to explain why certain suppliers were chosen, or how any conflict of interest was dealt with, in procurement deals between March and the end of July worth about 18 billion pounds ($25bn).

Opposition politicians have also accused the government of running a “chumocracy” with contracts, including for the purchase of what turned out to be unusable personal protective equipment, and appointments made to those with family or business links to those in power.




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