The former neighbour of Matt Hancock who is supplying the NHS with millions of Covid test tubes joked to the health secretary that he had “never heard of him” during a private WhatsApp exchange.
The exchange, seen by the Guardian, suggests Alex Bourne, a former publican who had no prior experience of producing medical devices before he began supplying the government, may have downplayed his relationship with Hancock in public.
The messages, which suggest an easy familiarity between the two men, were sent in late November, shortly before the Guardian published a story about Bourne’s work supplying the NHS and his links to the health secretary.
In a WhatsApp message Hancock sent to Bourne about the imminent story, the health secretary called the newspaper “a rag”. Bourne wrote back: “Matt Hancock – never heard of him” before assuring the health secretary that his lawyers were “all over” a reporter investigating their connection “like a tramp on chips”.
The disclosure of the messages is likely to intensify pressure on Hancock to fully explain how Bourne’s company came to be awarded lucrative work supplying test tubes for use in NHS Covid test kits.
Bourne, Hancock and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have all insisted the health secretary had no role whatsoever in awarding the work.
Bourne’s company, Hinpack, which he runs from his father-in-law’s industrial potato farm in Cambridgeshire, has been beset by problems. It recently voluntarily recalled at least 8m test tubes that had been delivered to warehouses for the NHS over quality issues.
Bourne initially offered his company’s services to the health secretary at the start of the pandemic in a personal message sent to Hancock’s WhatsApp on 30 March. Those messages have not been publicly revealed, but Bourne said Hancock referred him to the DHSC website.
At that time, Hinpack made plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. The company’s 2019 accounts state Hinpack was at that time technically insolvent. His lawyers said the Companies House filings at that time reflected the fact Hinpack was a startup and its debts were loans from Bourne himself, “a man of private resources”.
The firm was able to convince officials in the NHS supply chain and two of its major distributors that it was capable of supplying tens of millions of sterile test tubes.
In total, Bourne has been asked to supply orders worth nearly £50m for Covid tests as a subcontractor to one of the NHS’s official distributors, Alpha Laboratories.
Bourne’s lawyers deny that Hancock helped their client in any way and have also denied the pair are friends, saying they were merely “acquainted”. Hancock has refused to be drawn on the nature of his relationship with Bourne, who ran a village pub close to his former constituency home.
‘Matt Hancock – never heard of him’
The WhatsApp exchange seen by the Guardian took place on 25 November, the day before the newspaper published its first story about the pair. Both had been asked questions about the nature of their relationship and whether Bourne had received any preferential treatment.
At 3.38pm, Hancock wrote to Bourne: “Apparently we are appearing in the Guardian together tomorrow. I am accused of – shock horror – having your phone number. Apologies in advance for this uninvited publicity. What a rag.”
Seven minutes later, Bourne replied: “Matt Hancock – never heard of him. We managed to get the chain of events on how we ended up supplying NHS along with supporting evidence that shows you were nothing to do with us.”
Referring to a London law firm he had hired to deal with inquiries from a female reporter, Bourne added: “I’ve got Carter-Ruck all over her like a [t]ramp on chips. No apology necessary, I’m sorry I’ve implicated you in something by association.”
The phrase “like a tramp on chips” is offensive slang that means with the enthusiasm that a hungry homeless person would approach discarded food.
The law firm Carter-Ruck promises to help clients deal with “unwanted media interest”, claiming on its website that it has an “unrivalled track record in using its legal and strategic expertise to prevent the publication of adverse and intrusive articles”.
It remains unclear precisely how Hinpack came to be selected as a major supplier of medical devices to the NHS – or exactly how often Bourne and Hancock have communicated with each other.
When first asked in November, Carter-Ruck flatly denied that Bourne had any discussions with Hancock in relation to Covid supplies. Bourne later backtracked, conceding he had in fact exchanged text and email messages with the health secretary over several months.
According to Bourne, after sending Hancock the initial WhatsApp message in March 2020, he formally submitted details of the work Hinpack could do on a DHSC website. Bourne’s lawyers said he sent Hancock another WhatsApp message on 4 April, to which the health secretary did not respond.
Around mid-April Bourne said VWR, a major distributor of medical products that had a framework agreement to supply the NHS, called him. After several conversations VWR ended up asking Bourne to supply test tubes for the NHS.
Bourne’s lawyers said he sent Hancock another private message on 14 May, informing him he had won a contract. Since early autumn, Bourne has been supplying test tubes via Alpha Laboratories, another medical distributor with a pre-existing contract to supply the NHS. Hinpack is specified as the sole subcontractor in one £40m contract between DHSC and Alpha Laboratories.
Bourne’s lawyers say he has not sought to avoid scrutiny of his contacts with Hancock, and said that after every exchange he sent the DHSC a note to ensure there was a record of their conversation.
However, responding to a recent freedom of information request for the dates of their communications last year, the DHSC said its records showed Bourne and Hancock had communicated only once – on 25 August.
It made no mention of the numerous WhatsApp messages between the two in March, April, May and November, or other communications believed to have taken place in June and September.
Although only a subcontractor, Bourne has had repeated direct communications with DHSC officials.
Several sources have said Bourne regularly boasted about his close relationship with Hancock in conversations with those officials, as well as business partners and employees. Other sources have described Bourne and Hancock as “friends” and “buddies”.
His lawyers described allegations that he had boasted about his relationship with Hancock as “unsubstantiated embroidery”.
Faulty test tubes
Meanwhile, there are mounting questions about Bourne’s capacity to supply safe and reliable vials to the NHS.
In December, a DHSC report recorded the results of checks on 11,000 Hinpack test tubes due to be assembled into kits for the public. Sterile and leak-proof test tubes are an essential component as they are used to securely transport swabs to laboratories.
Remarkably, the DHSC report, seen by the Guardian, noted that all 11,000 were faulty, being either cracked, broken, scratched, and with missing or poorly screwed caps.
After the checks, Bourne recalled his supplies – at least 8m test tubes – from warehouses and agreed to quarantine them.
Hinpack’s consultant quality manager, Michał Kisiel, who is based in Poland, told the Guardian Bourne had recalled his stock from NHS logistics hubs because tubes did not pass pressure tests, meaning they could not be guaranteed as leak-proof. “DHSC asked for tubes that pass this test. If they contain swabs from patients, they must not leak,” he said.
Previously, Bourne’s lawyers had said the medical devices produced by Hinpack were “by no means complicated and are well within our client’s existing skillset”. They said the recent recall of millions of vials was caused by DHSC changing the product specification.
A government source said that, after Hinpack’s recall of test tubes, a site visit was conducted and the company has provided all of the necessary evidence that appropriate processes “are now in place” to ensure products meet the necessary standards.
DHSC is rolling back its orders for the Covid test programme and, as part of that, it is understood to be seeking a dramatic reduction in the number of Hinpack vials ordered through Alpha Laboratories, requesting a cut in volume of up to 75% on a £40m order placed in December.
Substantial numbers of Hinpack’s plastic test tubes are alleged to have been burned in recent months without a licence at various properties to which Bourne had access, including in his own garden.
The Guardian has seen evidence of one such fire, with test tubes scattered around the base of a fire sending huge plumes of black smoke into the sky. The Suffolk fire service had to attend another outdoor fire at Bourne’s home to extinguish it on 2 January.
Bourne’s lawyers said it was “untrue” that Hinpack test tubes had been disposed of in unlicensed fires. They said the 2 January incident at Bourne’s property was related to “a mistaken burning of domestic carpet underlay”.
Last month the Guardian revealed Bourne’s company was under investigation by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) over allegations relating to hygiene standards. Bourne’s lawyers denied allegations of hygiene failures and said their client was unaware of the investigation by the regulator.
They said he “very much regrets” his choice of language in his WhatsApp message and had no desire to stifle proper factual reporting.
A DHSC spokesperson stressed Hinpack does not have a “direct” contract with the government and said “claims that ministers were directly involved in procurement decisions or contract management are false”. The spokesperson said the impartiality and integrity of government procurement “is taken extremely seriously”.
Hancock declined to comment. When asked about Bourne’s work at a Downing Street press conference in December, Hancock replied: “I had absolutely nothing to do with that contract.” In February, when the health secretary gave TV interviews from his constituency home, viewers spotted a photograph of Bourne’s pub on his wall. The photo has since been removed.
In a statement, Alpha Laboratories distanced itself from the recall of vials, which happened at the behest of Hinpack. “We have a rigorous quality management system and within this have a robust product recall system which thankfully has been rarely used.” It added that its quality system received no details of quality issues relating to tubes supplied by Hinpack.
VWR confirmed it had previously supplied Hinpack test tubes to the NHS but no longer did, and declined to comment on how the business had come about.