The UK government could face legal action over its handling of food supplies given to vulnerable people during the first national lockdown, the New Statesman can reveal.
The Environment Secretary George Eustice, the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and two private food wholesalers face questions about the “inadequate” nature of the weekly food parcels for the clinically extremely vulnerable and the “high prices paid” for their contents, it is revealed in a legal letter dated 14 December.
In March 2020, the government announced a scheme to provide food boxes to people deemed at “highest risk from coronavirus”, who were advised by the government to “stay at home at all times”.
Around 1.5 million people were told to stay indoors for at least 12 weeks to avoid contracting Covid-19 and risk overwhelming hospitals. Because they could not safely go shopping for food and supermarket slots were booked up, in England, between 27 March and 31 July, the government provided food packages to those who applied for them.
The scheme was outsourced to private firms by the government, in contracts totalling £208m awarded to two food wholesalers, Brakes and Bidfood. (The National Audit Office has since revealed the amount spent was £191m.)
The same contractors were used in equivalent schemes in Scotland and Wales, while Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities provided the same service with councils and voluntary and community organisations, as well as private firms.
[See also: Revealed: The £208m food box rip-off]
Each food box was supposed to provide a week’s worth of “basic supplies”, which were “nutritionally balanced”, for one person.
The letter, seen by the New Statesman, from lawyers acting for the Good Law Project asks for relevant information so far guarded by government departments about the scheme – which provided 4.8m food parcels – rather than formally launching legal action.
The Good Law Project began investigating the scheme when the New Statesman published an article in October revealing the poor quality of some boxes and their bafflingly high costs compared with retail prices.
The letter, sent by Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, raises “significant concerns” about the parcels’ standards, suggesting that “a large number of confined and vulnerable individuals did not have their most basic needs met” because of these failings.
Ministers face questions about the nutritional quality of the boxes, which the letter claims were “inadequate to the needs of clinically vulnerable people with serious medical conditions”.
“It is unclear whether a person shielding would have been able to meet the official recommended intake of essential food groups and micronutrients,” the letter states. “For example, from the evidence that we have seen, it seems unlikely that a shielded person would have been able to eat their recommended minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.”
It also notes that people shielding – who are by definition medically compromised – require a “higher basic standard” of nutrition than the average person.
The letter also questions the “one size fits all” approach to the parcels, which were not tailored to individual medical, dietary or religious needs.
“By way of example, there were reports of pork sausages and bacon being sent to vulnerable Muslim families,” the latter states. “It is unclear how vulnerable individuals from certain religious communities could meet their most basic dietary requirements if they could not use some of the already limited contents of the box.”
Some goods were “received in a damaged state, produce on occasion was rotten or ‘on the turn’, and… goods were repackaged to hide their expiry date”, according to the letter, echoing some of the New Statesman‘s reporting.
The Good Law Project, which is currently challenging the government in a number of cases related to Covid-19 outsourcing (including the procurement of PPE), also raises concerns about the cost of the boxes.
“On the basis of the limited information available, there is cause for concern that the food boxes supplied by the contractors contained cheap and poor quality food which allowed them to increase their own profit margins at the expense of the health of vulnerable groups,” the letter states. “It strikes us as inexplicable that the costs of the boxes were so inflated.”
The price of each box – which the New Statesman estimated to be £44 compared with £26 if they had been delivered by Tesco – “seems significantly inflated” in the view of the Good Law Project’s lawyers, who claim the “bare facts suggest that private operators may have made very significant profits” and are asking the government to reveal more about the costing process.
The Good Law Project suggests that the government’s failings in this scheme “may amount to a breach… of its legal obligations, in particular under the Human Rights Act 1998”.