Civil servants described the government’s Covid testing programme as “unlegit” and “no way to do business” in emails revealed in a high court challenge to the awarding of up to £85m in contracts for antibody tests.

The campaigning organisation Good Law Project (GLP) is challenging the health and social care secretary, claiming the contracts with Abingdon Health, a medium-sized UK firm, were unlawful because they were not advertised nor open to competition, and the correct procurement process was bypassed.

The antibody tests developed by Abingdon later failed to pass regulatory tests and the vast majority expired without being used.

At the beginning of the hearing in central London, the GLP released details of emails obtained as a result of its legal challenge, including one in which David Williams, then the second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), expressed concern at “how unlegit the entire testing strand is”.

In another email, concerned specifically with Abingdon, Steve Oldfield, the chief commercial officer at the DHSC, asked Williams to “have a quiet word with [Lord] Bethell and explain to him that we could make this all a lot more legit if we just took two days to do a public call-to-arms to ‘flush out’ any other companies who might be able to play a role in this space, and remove the criticism that we haven’t given everyone a fair chance”.

Bethell, then a health minister, is said by the GLP to have “made a number of interventions to assist [Abingdon]”, including championing the company – unlawfully, according to the GLP – on the basis of it being British. Bethell’s WhatsApp messages relating to government business have been unavailable for disclosure in the case because they were deleted when he replaced his mobile phone.

The GLP said there were concerns highlighted over the way contracts were being awarded in relation to Abingdon but also more generally, with one email by a civil servant stating: “[This is] no way to do business but we are in exceptional times.”

Additionally, the documents show an unnamed external consultant for the health and social care secretary saying of the arrangements with Abingdon: “Beyond the individual risks by themselves is there a point of mentioning that in conjunction with each other it becomes a monster of a story: first, we selected the RTC [rapid test consortium, which included Abingdon] without competition, then we might have a biased validation leading to a favoured product, we help them financially by funding upfront purchases without sufficient due diligence (ie, no contract in place) and with that commit to buying the test kits without anchoring any pricing principles. That’s big.”

After Public Health England found the tests were not accurate enough for mass antibody testing they were still accepted by the DHSC, with the government saying they were suitable for use in surveillance studies, although emails also showed concerns were raised about Abingdon going bust and “extensive reputational/political damage”.

Concern was subsequently expressed that it “will look like we’ve bought a load of worthless devices”.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “Our engagement with Abingdon Health was led by officials – not ministers or MPs.”

The case is expected to last three days.