By Phillip Kemp
Tory MP Liam Fox received a £20,000 donation in June from a Covid testing firm on whose behalf he had contacted the then health secretary Matt Hancock.
Mr Fox recommended SureScreen Diagnostics to Mr Hancock in 2020, an email seen by campaign group Good Law Project and the BBC shows.
The company went on to win a £500m contract to provide tests without facing competition.
A spokesperson for Mr Fox said the story was a "baseless smear".
It was "concocted by the political activist Jolyon Maugham and the Good Law Project", the spokesman said, and Mr Fox would be making a complaint.
"It is appalling that this should be propagated by the BBC," the statement issued after publication, added.
SureScreen said it had never paid for any government lobbying activity.
A director of the Derbyshire-based firm emailed Mr Fox in June 2020 to say that they were sending millions of antibody tests for use in hospitals in Germany, Spain and Sweden.
They said it was "crazy" that the tests could not be used in the UK, because they had not been approved by Public Health England.
At the time, before lateral flow tests – which detect current infection – became routinely available for use at home, some argued antibody tests were a way of allowing people who could prove they had previously had the virus to come out of lockdown.
Mr Fox immediately forwarded SureScreen's email to Mr Hancock, telling the then health secretary: "I don't think the British people would understand or approve of the widespread export of this capability when we will have a huge need at home."
This email was obtained by the Good Law Project through a Freedom of Information request.
It is not clear what resulted from Mr Fox's intervention over the antibody tests.
But seven months later the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) directly awarded SureScreen a contract worth £500m to supply a different type of antigen test, which shows current infection.
The government said they were the first British tests to be validated in the laboratory by Public Health England.
According to its parent company's most recent set of accounts, SureScreen Diagnostics posted profits before tax of £67.2m for the year ending May 2021.
That is 75 times higher than the figure for the previous year.
The Good Law Project, which has sued the government over its use of emergency powers to make deals with firms without opening them to competition, said the donation raised questions.
"How many times do corporates need to give money to Tory MPs after getting help winning vast public contracts before concluding we have a cash for contracts problem," the Project's executive director Jolyon Maugham said.
"We know perfectly well what we'd call conduct like this if we saw it happening in another country."
SureScreen said it was not aware that Mr Fox had been in touch with Mr Hancock in 2020 until this was pointed out to them by the BBC.
A spokesperson said: "The donation to Dr Fox's office – not Dr Fox personally – was made by one of the directors of the business. This donation was specifically to support a series of events which include education talks from expert guests.
"The payment is not connected in any way to lobbying."
They added that they had supplied 20m tests in full, on time and to the high performance specification set.
They said the firm was already an established leading producer of lateral flow tests which produced a home-grown test at a time when China, which manufactured the majority of such tests, was limiting exports.
The donation is listed in the latest update of the register of members' interests for Mr Fox, who represents North Somerset and served as international trade secretary and defence secretary before returning to the back benches in 2019.
Matt Hancock, who resigned as health secretary in June 2021, vehemently denies that there was any wrongdoing.
His spokesman told the BBC all contracts were independently signed off by the civil service and if he had received an email about expanding testing, he would have acted on it irrespective of the source.
"What was happening at the time was a national effort to expand testing and all this uncovers is people working together to save lives," said the spokesman.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: "All testing suppliers – including SureScreen Diagnostics – were evaluated before contracts were awarded, in line with stringent procurement regulations and transparency guidelines."
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By Phillip Kemp