The former chair of the Conservative party used an advisory role in the UK health department at the start of the Covid pandemic to initiate a government contract for a client of his lobbying company, according to emails seen by the Financial Times.
Andrew Feldman was quietly given an unpaid job advising health minister Lord James Bethell from March 24 to May 15 last year — despite potential conflicts of interest with clients of Tulchan, the lobbying and PR firm he has run since 2019.
Emails obtained by the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign group, show that Feldman — while advising Bethell — urged an official at the Cabinet Office in March 2020 to buy personal protective equipment from Bunzl, a Tulchan client.
The health department subsequently awarded Bunzl a £22.6m deal on April 2, 2020.
The FT reported last November that Bunzl won three other contracts to supply PPE during the pandemic without a competitive tender process.
At the time Bunzl insisted its only state orders were from the separate NHS Scotland and Wales under longstanding framework procurement arrangements.
But in March this year the government disclosed the existence of the separate £22.6m contract for Bunzl to provide goggles, masks and gowns to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in London.
Emails obtained by the Good Law Project, which has issued several legal challenges over the government’s procurement practices during the pandemic, show how Feldman linked Bunzl with the government.
In an email on March 22 2020 the peer wrote to Frank van Zanten, Bunzl chief executive, saying the group was “well-placed” to supply the NHS. “There have been some historic issues which mean you have been removed from the approved suppliers list. I would like to remedy that as soon as possible.”
The same day he emailed representatives at Bunzl, copying in Andrew Wood, the official leading the procurement process at the Cabinet Office: “I have spoken to him (Wood) about Bunzl and the opportunity for you to supply the UK government with equipment. He will be in touch.”
On March 30 he wrote to Wood saying Bunzl was under pressure to sell its stock elsewhere: “We need to move quickly.”
On April 3 Bunzl emailed Wood, saying it was still waiting for sign-off “since we first communicated with each other via Andrew Feldman in March”. Ten minutes later Wood confirmed the order.
The emails raise new questions about “double-hatting” inside the government.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has ordered an investigation into civil servants with outside jobs after it emerged that Bill Crothers, former head of government procurement, also worked for the controversial finance firm Greensill Capital.
Feldman defended his actions, telling the FT that hospitals were suffering a desperate shortage of PPE early last year.
“When I agreed to help at the start of the first lockdown, it was clearly a time of significant national crisis,” he said. “My sole motivation was to try to support the government and the NHS in protecting medical staff and saving the lives of patients.”
But Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said the emails raised concerns. “An ex-Conservative party chair, who now runs a huge PR agency, walked into a role at the heart of this vast procurement process without any formal process,” he said. “He then spent his days chivvying officials to speed up a contract for a firm his agency represents.”
FTSE 100-listed Bunzl is a long-established supplier of PPE, unlike some more unlikely companies that won contracts.
Asked why the company did not acknowledge the £22.6m order six months ago, it said the deal was with a subsidiary company.
“It only became clear to Bunzl’s UK & Ireland management team that this had been ordered centrally, as opposed to being awarded under existing framework agreements, after HMG [the government] published the details of this contract.”
Feldman gave the health department a declaration of interests form, seen by the FT, mentioning five potential conflicts, four of which have been redacted.
Feldman, Conservative co-chair under former prime minister David Cameron, stopped sitting in the House of Lords last June.
One official from the DHSC said publication of the contract award to Bunzl was delayed due to an internal error. Lord Feldman had no involvement in the contract award process to Bunzl, which was instead decided by the department’s accounting officer, the official added.
The department said it did “proper due diligence” on all contracts.