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The former publican and neighbour of Matt Hancock who secured lucrative work producing millions of vials for NHS Covid tests is under investigation by the UK’s medicine agency, the Guardian can reveal.
Alex Bourne, who used to run the Cock Inn near the health secretary’s old constituency home in Thurlow, won about £30m of work producing the test tubes despite having no prior experience in the medical devices industry.
Prior to the pandemic, his company, Hinpack, made plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. Now it supplies tens of millions of vials from its production site on an industrial potato farm complex in Cambridgeshire.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) confirmed it has launched an investigation into Bourne’s company. “We take all reports of non-compliance very seriously,” said Graeme Tunbridge, director of devices at the MHRA. “We are currently investigating allegations about Hinpack and will take appropriate action as necessary. Patient safety is our top priority.”
The Guardian understands the MHRA investigation was launched after officers from the local South Cambridgeshire council passed on some concerns reported to them about hygiene and safety standards around the end of January. Through his lawyers, Bourne said he was unaware of any MHRA investigation and had not been contacted by the regulator.
Bourne made headlines last year after the Guardian revealed that he had offered his services to respond to the pandemic via a personal WhatsApp message sent to Hancock, whom he had known for several years.
Bourne and his wife previously ran the village pub in Thurlow, a few hundred yards from Hancock’s former constituency home. The Conservative cabinet minister was a supporter of the pub, attending its reopening after refurbishment in 2016 and nominating it for an award in 2017.
Contacted back in November, Bourne’s lawyers initially denied that their client had any discussions with Hancock in relation to Covid-19 supplies. Bourne later backtracked, telling the Guardian he had in fact exchanged text and email messages with Hancock over several months.
However, he categorically denied that he profited from his personal contact with Hancock and the DHSC said “there is no evidence” to support claims he received preferential treatment.
Bourne’s company supplies test tubes via a large distributor of medical products that has contracts with the DHSC.
His lawyers said previously that while he had no experience in the highly-regulated medical supplies industry, he involved a partner company that did have relevant experience and hired qualified experts. They said that the medical devices that Hinpack manufactures are “by no means complicated and are well within our client’s existing skillset”.
However, the MHRA investigation and information provided to the Guardian by well-placed sources raise questions about whether he is upholding appropriate regulatory standards.
Bourne created his medical-grade processing facilities, installing inflatable “clean rooms”, in a building on an industrial farm owned by his father-in-law Robert Smith, one of the leading potato suppliers to supermarkets.
According to allegations from sources, there was a period of months early in the operation when Hinpack production workers had no permanent toilets or access to running water for hand washing.
Workers were also accused of failing to follow strict hygiene protocols when entering the inflatable rooms, according to the sources, and failing to change in and out of protective clothing properly when taking breaks. For a period, workers were using outdoor portable toilets without hand-washing facilities, the sources added.
Bourne’s lawyers said all of these allegations were “untrue” and suggested they may have been made maliciously. They insisted that coveralls are always appropriately discarded, and running water and toilet facilities were available to staff, who were made fully aware of strict hygiene protocols.
The lawyers added that the MHRA had previously approved and inspected Hinpack’s products and working practices.
Another complaint relates to the burning of waste. A source with direct knowledge of Hinpack’s operations said that waste was repeatedly burned by the company last autumn.
In October, during an unconnected visit to another part of the farm site, the Environment Agency (EA) recorded evidence of burning of waste by Hinpack. It issued guidance to Bourne but said it would not take further action unless it happened again.
In November, residents reported further burning of waste at the site. The EA said the this report did not contain enough details to identify the company responsible.
However, Bourne’s father-in-law later wrote to residents to address the issue of “burning of rubbish”.
In the letter, he explained that his son-in-law had originally searched for other production sites and “literally begged me to move into our buildings as no alternative could be found … Alex has assured me no burning of rubbish will take place on the site in the future.”
Bourne’s lawyers said the report about burning commercial waste in November was untrue and suggested it was the result of a malicious complaint.
Meanwhile, a local Thriplow councillor, Conservative Richard Williams, has asked South Cambridgeshire council to investigate whether breaches of planning regulations have been committed at the site.
There is a dispute over whether new consent is required for certain buildings and structures on the site, but Bourne’s lawyers concede that a car park used by Hinpack shift workers requires planning permission. They added they were in the process of applying for it.
Asked about Bourne’s work producing vials at a Downing Street press conference in December, Hancock replied: “I had absolutely nothing to do with that contract.”
But questions remain about the relationship between the two men. Locals have described Bourne and Hancock as “friends” and “buddies”. The DHSC said it would not comment on “the secretary of state’s personal relationships” and Bourne has played down his relationship with Hancock.
Earlier this month an image went viral after it appeared to show that Hancock has a photo of Bourne’s old pub on the wall behind him in a room at his home from which he sometimes gives live TV interviews.
It has also emerged that a member of the landlord family of Hancock’s former constituency home, the Vesteys, had recently bought a house from Bourne in London.
Hancock claimed rent for his use of the Vestey family’s Thurlow house – a few hundred yards from the Cock Inn – in his MP’s expenses for the years during which he rented it. Robin Vestey bought the £1.2m London house from Bourne and his wife’s family last November. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.
Lawyers for Bourne said the Vestey purchase of the London house arose simply because Vestey lived nearby and liked it. They said Vestey was not involved in Bourne’s Covid-related projects. Vestey did not respond to a request for comment.
Source: The Guardian
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