Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for “a full and transparent investigation into Randox and the government contracts”.
It follows the resignation of Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who had been employed as a consultant by Randox since 2015.
The Committee on Standards watchdog had criticised his behaviour, saying: “No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests.”
What does Randox do?
Randox is a big international testing and health company based in Northern Ireland. It was set up in 1982.
It is well-known as the sponsor of the Grand National, and it has made several contributions to the Conservative Party.
It had multi-million pound contracts with the UK government years before the pandemic started, and has been a big player in the Covid testing programme.
The company was at a meeting with the government on 17 March 2020, where they discussed how to implement the new testing regime.
The government decided that the testing programme would be built around big centralised labs set up outside existing healthcare or research structures, as opposed to building on the existing labs in universities.
How was Owen Paterson involved with them?
Owen Paterson, who was Conservative MP for North Shropshire, declared that from August 2015 he had been a consultant to Randox. From April 2017 they were paying him £8,333 a month for 16 hours of work, making him one of the highest paid consultants in the House of Commons.
He pointed out in his declaration that he had “consulted the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about this role”.
That is true, and what the committee told him was: “Although Randox will have engagement with government in pursuit of its business, you have informed us that it will not be part of your role with the company to be involved in such engagement.”
But the Standards Committee found that he had in fact approached and met officials at the Food Standards Agency, and ministers at the Department for International Development a number of times, on behalf of his employers.
He also used his parliamentary office and stationery for his consultancy work, and failed to declare his interests in some meetings, its report said.
Mr Paterson claimed that his approaches had been attempts to prevent a “serious wrong” – which is allowed – but the committee rejected this in all but one case.
In his resignation letter he said: “I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety.”
What government contracts does Randox have?
The highest profile recent ones were the two big contracts for Covid-19 testing. The first of those was for £133m awarded on 18 May 2020, followed by a £346.5m contract on 26 November 2020.
Neither of these contracts was advertised or opened to competition. This is allowed under the rules “due to extreme urgency brought about by unforeseen events”.
Many contracts were handed out like this during the pandemic. The government said this was necessary because of the need to act quickly, but it is facing several legal challenges over the awarding of Covid contracts.
We know that Health Minister James Bethell had a phone call with Randox to discuss Covid-19 testing shortly after the first contract was awarded and about six months before the second one, on 9 April 2020, at which Owen Paterson was present.
The government published the fact that the meeting had taken place, but it has so far refused to release the minutes of the call.
Another health minister, Gillian Keegan, has said she has been “unable to locate” the minutes of the meeting.
She said it was a “courtesy call” after the contract was signed.
Randox has repeatedly said: “Owen Paterson MP has played no role in securing any Randox contract with DHSC.”
Have there been any problems with these contracts?
In August 2020, Randox recalled 750,000 test kits sent to care homes and individuals, because swabs were not up to standard.
It came weeks after the health secretary said Randox kits should not be used until further notice.
The problem with the tests was one of the factors that led to the government delaying a pledge to provide regular testing to care homes and staff.
The Sunday Times has found evidence of shortages of testing equipment early in the first contract.
It turned out that as part of the contract, the government agreed to help Randox get hold of equipment if it was struggling to get hold of any, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock had to write to universities to ask for loans of the things that were needed.
Later in the year, the government chartered flights to take completed test kits from Stansted Airport and Bournemouth Airport to Belfast at a cost of almost £1.5m, to allow them to be processed at Randox’s Antrim laboratories.
UPDATE 10 November: The piece was amended to correct the date a contract was awarded and clarify the nature of the testing labs.