Exclusive Brethren members emerge as major suppliers of COVID tests, PPE to Australian governments

Dean Hales (right) has emerged as a part-owner of companies supplying the government with protective equipment.

Dean Hales (right) has emerged as a part-owner of companies supplying the government with protective equipment. Photo: Getty/LinkedIn

Members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, better known as the Exclusive Brethren – an ultra-conservative religious sect – have emerged as the interests behind companies that won the rights to import COVID-19 tests and supply them to federal and state governments through contracts worth more than $30 million.

The politically powerful evangelical church abides by a strict interpretation of the Bible and preaches a doctrine of separation, that encourages adherents to shun many aspects of modernity.

Led by Bruce D Hales, who is known to followers as the ‘elect vessel’, the church has been described an “extremist cult that breaks up families” by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, and has faced calls for public scrutiny over the nature of the teaching given through its large network of schools which receive government funding.

The church forbids voting but encourages entrepreneurship and directs followers to shop at church-linked businesses.

Mr Hales has reportedly encouraged his followers to extract as much money as possible when in business with non-believers.

“You charge the highest possible price to the worldly,” he reportedly preached in 2004.

“It doesn’t belong to them anyhow, so we’ve just got to relieve them of it.”

Exclusive Brethren rebranded in 2012 to become the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church but it is perhaps better known by the former name which distinguishes members from “open brethren”; the split dates back to the 19th Century.

Two of Mr Hales’ sons, Gareth and Charles, have been named as the suppliers of more than $1 billion worth of contracts to supply the UK with COVID-19 tests via their former company Unispace Global Limited.

A related company has featured in a UK High Court case this month in a dispute over working conditions in a supplier’s lab.

Bruce Hales advises his followers to extract as much money as possible from ‘non-believers’. Photo: Plymouth Brethren Christian Church

It can now be revealed that another son, Dean, is linked to a network of companies that won more than $30 million in government contracts to supply COVID tests to Australian governments.

The same companies also won the right to import Rapid Antigen Tests at a time of severe shortage and supplied them to outlets such as Woolworths and Australia Post before being fined by the TGA for not providing information about the tests’ accuracy.

One Australian supplier, 2San Pty Ltd, lists Simon Whiley as a director, and a company owned by Dean Hales as a shareholder, was awarded $26 million by the Department of Health to provide medical equipment and accessories.

Mr Whiley was previously a director of the UK Plymouth Brethren Christian Church Limited.

A connected UK company, 2San Global Limited, until recently listed Dean Hales as a significant shareholder and boasted on its website of winning tenders to supply the NSW education and health departments and the ACT government with rapid tests.

The ACT government paid just under $5 million to 2san Pty Ltd for the supply of COVID tests but the value of its two contracts with the NSW government have not been published.

The younger Mr Hales is also the director of another company, Medco Solutions Pty Ltd, which is listed by the Therapeutics Goods Administration as the import sponsor of a dozen products including a COVID nasal swab.

The Australian 2san Pty Ltd was recently fined $66,000 by the TGA for allegedly refusing to provide evidence that its products worked.

“2San Pty Ltd has been issued multiple infringement notices for serial non-compliance in not meeting deadlines for providing information to the TGA,” the regulator said.

Dean Hales’ wife was listed as the buyer of a $7.5 million home that set a suburb record in Sydney’s Epping, and which was described as occupying a vast 4116-square-metre estate.

Gareth Hales, meanwhile, acquired a weekender in Dural for $9.5 million that came with a driving range, tennis court and swimming pool.

The church has denied reports it directly maintains extensive business interests in New Zealand, where ex-members have previously accused it of minimising taxes by transferring money earned from a network of businesses staffed and patronised by church members to an Australian charitable foundation, exempt from taxes, the National Assistance Fund.

The NAF reported $54 million in gross income for 2021, according to the charities register, an increase from $31 million two years before, almost all of which came via donations.

OneSchool, the online-only classroom the church claims to run in 120 countries, reported about $60 million in revenue across its state divisions; half of the $28 million reported revenue in NSW came from government grants.

One church website says its businesses boast a combined income of $22 billion.

In court this month the UK government says it would not have followed through with contracts awarded to Unispace Global Limited had it known of its Chinese supplier’s “repeated and systemic” non-compliance with local labour laws (the same test was not used in Australia).

The awarding of contracts to the Hales brothers’ UK company (since sold to private equity), via a complicated network of smaller businesses, was first exposed by Private Eye magazine and led a UK MP to last month slam a Covid procurement process “shrouded in secrecy”.

The church claims members in 17 countries and emerged as a major force in international politics in 2004, when members began making donations to the Republican Party and a group campaigning for the Liberal Party during the time of former Prime Minister John Howard.

(It denied a suggestion made by former New Zealand PM Helen Clark that it had hired a private detective to dig dirt on her husband).

At a 2016 inquiry the NSW ICAC found church entities had made tens of thousands of dollars in donations to the New South Wales Liberal Party made in small amounts by a network of 62 companies labelled as “friends” by the political party. 

“The fact is that our church does not own, operate or hold any commercial business interests. Not one,” a spokesman for the Plymouth Brethren Church said.

“That said, just as I am sure that there were plenty of Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims and atheists who ran companies involved in the global COVID response, there were people involved in the response who worship at our church.

“Like any other church, we would not comment on the personal or business matters of individual parishioners.”

A director of 2san Pty Ltd, Raymond Lee, could not comment when reached by phone on Sunday evening because he said he had poor mobile reception.

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