‘Considerable unease’ over Covid inquiry PR firms that worked for Government during pandemic

There is “considerable unease” among families bereaved by Covid about the national inquiry into the pandemic hiring PR firms who previously worked for the UK Government, the chairwoman was told.

Pete Weatherby KC, who is representing bereaved families, told a preliminary hearing of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that it was an “acute concern” for his clients to read reports that companies involved in promoting the probe’s so-called “listening exercise” had past contracts with government departments.

It was confirmed in October that PR giant M&C Saatchi would “help the inquiry inform people how and when to come forward to talk about what happened to them”.

The inquiry later announced that London-based creative agency 23red had been subcontracted by Saatchi to assist with the project.

A spokeswoman for the inquiry said officials were “satisfied” there were “no conflicts of interest” in hiring the two firms.

During the session on Tuesday, Mr Weatherby cited reporting by the website openDemocracy, stating that both M&C Saatchi and 23red previously had “contracts to work on the Government’s Covid response”, alongside other public sector work.

The barrister told chairwoman Baroness Hallett (pictured): “Another website asserts that 23red actually worked from the Cabinet Office on that work.

“I’m not commenting on whether those accounts are correct or indeed whether there is an actual conflict of interest, but there is considerable unease about this.

“And what we seek is a clear indication from the inquiry as to it using companies that have undertaken what might reasonably be perceived to be a conflict of interest.

“And indeed, for companies contracted to do inquiry work, to make a public statement concerning any work they have done that could be perceived to be a conflict.”

He said that without a “robust and transparent approach to these issues” then the listening exercise would “have less utility and less credibility”.

The first part of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, which its legal team has requested be delayed from May until June, will look at the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, with thousands of pages of UK Government evidence set to be sifted through as part of the process.

A spokeswoman for the inquiry said: “The inquiry is developing an extensive, nationwide, listening exercise that will enable thousands of people across the UK to share their experiences of the pandemic.

“It has appointed research and communications specialists to support this.

“The inquiry announced that the communications contract was awarded to M&C Saatchi at its preliminary hearing on October 31.

“An update was also posted on its website. ‘23red has been subcontracted by M&C Saatchi to provide the inquiry with expertise on working with external organisations to support public engagement and encourage people to share their experiences.’

“The contract was awarded in line with Crown Commercial Service’s robust procurement regulations, ensuring transparency and value for money for the taxpayer.

“We were satisfied there are no conflicts of interest for the appointed suppliers which would affect the delivery of the listening exercise.”

M&C Saatchi and 23red have been approached for comment.

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