UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he makes "absolutely no apologies" for telling billionaire businessman Sir James Dyson he would "fix" tax issues for Dyson workers making ventilators during the pandemic.
Text messages obtained by the BBC showed that Mr Dyson contacted Mr Johnson directly, seeking assurances there would be no change in tax status for his Singapore-based staff coming to Britain to work on the emergency project.
The exchange took place in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic when the government was appealing to companies to supply ventilators over fears the NHS would run out.
At the time, health officials estimated the NHS would need 20,000 ventilators on top of the 5,000 it had – along with an existing 900 specifically to treat children.
Mr Dyson first contacted the Treasury but received no reply and then approached Mr Johnson.
“We are ready. But nobody seems to want us to proceed,” Mr Dyson said in a text.
Mr Johnson replied: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic.”
The prime minister texted him again to say the issue was resolved. “[UK Chancellor] Rishi [Sunak] says it is fixed!! We need you here!!”
When Mr Dyson sought further assurance, Mr Johnson replied: “James, I am First Lord of the Treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.”
A series of cases have raised questions over whether former ministers, civil servants and some businessmen are granted easy access to the Conservative government.
Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused the accused the government of cronyism.
But Mr Johnson said he had not broken any rules and had informed officials about the exchange with Mr Dyson.
"I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I possibly could, as I think any prime minister would in those circumstances, to secure ventilators for the people of this country," he said.
Two weeks after the text message exchange, Mr Sunak told the Commons Treasury Committee that the tax status of people who came to the UK to provide emergency support during the pandemic would not be affected.
The UK government said it did everything it could to get the right equipment during testing times.
“At the height of the pandemic, there were genuine fears that we would quickly run out of ventilators, leaving the NHS unable to treat patients and putting many lives at risk,” a spokesman said.
“As the public would expect, we did everything we could in extraordinary times to protect our citizens and get access to the right medical equipment.”
Ministerial code stipulates that a private secretary or official should be present for any discussions relating to government business.
Shadow Business Secretary Lucy Powell said the case was “jaw-dropping”.
“It stinks that a billionaire businessman can text the prime minister and get an immediate response and, apparently, an immediate change in policy,”she said.
Mr Dyson spent £20 million ($27.8m) designing the new ventilators, but the equipment was no longer required.
He said his company did not receive "any benefit from the project" and it was "absurd to suggest that the urgent correspondence was anything other than seeking compliance with rules".
The messages came to light as a row over lobbying in Westminster continued, in which former prime minister David Cameron texted Mr Sunak seeking government help for struggling finance company Greensill Capital.