The government has issued civil legal proceedings against a firm allegedly linked to Tory peer Baroness Michelle Mone who is at the center of a row over the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “We can confirm that we have commenced legal proceedings in the High Court against PPE Medpro Limited for breach of contract regarding gowns delivered under a contract dated 26 June 2020.
“We do not comment on matters that are the subject of ongoing legal proceedings.”
PPE Medpro said the case over the supply of sterile gowns would be “rigorously defended” and accused the DHSC of a “cynical attempt to recover money from suppliers” who acted in good faith.
It said in a statement: “PPE Medpro will demonstrate to the courts that we supplied our gowns to the correct specification, on time and at a highly competitive price.
“The case will also show the utter incompetence of DHSC to correctly procure and specify PPE during the emergency procurement period. This will be the real legacy of the court case and it will be played out in the public arena for all to see.”
The company has been at the center of a Westminster controversy, with Tory peer Baroness Michelle Mone taking a leave of absence from the Lords following allegations linking her to it.
Reports – denied by Lady Mone – have suggested the peer may have profited from the firm winning contracts worth more than £200m to supply equipment after she recommended it to ministers in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
PPE Medpro claim the government department was fighting over “contract technicalities” such as whether gowns were single or double-bagged because it had “vastly over-ordered” protective equipment.
The firm said it had made “numerous attempts at mediation with DHSC” but “they didn’t want to settle”.
The PPE Medpro statement said: “Over a two month period, July through to the end of August 2020, PPE Medpro supplied DHSC with 25 million sterile gowns.
“The gowns were manufactured to the correct quality, standards and specification set out in the contract, delivered on time and at a price that was 50% of what DHSC had been paying at the time.”
But “by the end of 2020 it was clear that DHSC has vastly over ordered and held five years supply of PPE across the seven major categories including gowns” and because of limited lifespans for products “it was clear that the DHSC would never be able to use all the PPE they procured”.
“Consultants were then brought in to pick over all the contracts and fight product not on quality but on contract technicalities that were never envisaged at the time of contract.
“For example, PPE Medpro’s contract never specified double bagging of gowns. Yet it became clear in late 2020 that all the gown manufacturers who had correctly produced single bagged gowns were being unfairly challenged by DHSC.
“Despite numerous attempts at mediation with DHSC, it is clear they didn’t want to settle.
“Too many gowns and other PPE items that will never enter the supply chain. That’s why DHSC currently have 174 disputes with suppliers to a value of £4 billion. Most of this product will be incinerated or given away.”
Ministers are under significant pressure to explain how they assessed PPE Medpro fit to receive government contracts worth more than £200m during the pandemic.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Lady Mone would be taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords with immediate effect.
A spokesman for Baroness Mone said: “With immediate effect, Baroness Mone will be taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords in order to clear her name of the allegations that have been unfairly leveled against her.”
PPE Medpro was granted contracts to make surgical gowns and masks during the covid pandemic after Baroness Mone flagged the firm to ministers through a so-called “VIP lane” system.
The VIP lane system saw a separate mailbox set up for MPs to send on offers from firms, but led to the government being criticized for giving preferential treatment to companies with political contacts.
She has since faced accusations of profiting from the business, but has consistently denied any “role or function” in the company, with lawyers previously saying she is “not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”.
Baroness Mone is currently under investigation by the House of Lords’ commissioner for standards, with parliament’s website saying the probe is over “alleged involvement in procuring contracts for PPE Medpro leading to potential breaches…of the House of Lords code of conduct”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said earlier this month: “Due diligence was carried out on all companies that were referred to the department and every company was subjected to the same checks.
“We acted swiftly to procure PPE at the height of the pandemic, competing in an overheated global market where demand massively outstripped supply.”