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Covid-19 inquiry appears to distance itself from Tory-linked PR firms

Revealed: Official inquiry into the pandemic is looking for ‘new partners’ to continue work by M&C Saatchi and 23Red

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
26 May 2023, 10.28am

Boris Johnson during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The UK’s official Covid inquiry appears to have distanced itself from a pair of Tory-linked PR firms, months after openDemocracy revealed concerns about their involvement.

Although M&C Saatchi has not been barred from applying for further contracts or from subcontracting 23Red, an official document states that the inquiry is looking for “new partners” to continue the firms’ work with bereaved families now that their agreements have ended.

M&C Saatchi, which had orchestrated the government’s “Better Health” obesity campaign during the pandemic and worked on the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto, was hired in October 2022 to manage part of the inquiry’s “listening exercise” with bereaved families now called Every Story Matters.

The high-profile ad agency had subcontracted PR firm 23Red, which is also being paid £2m for work with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).

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Between them, the companies will have received £800,000 for working on the inquiry.

Our revelations that Tory-linked PR firms had been trusted to manage the voices of the bereaved sparked outcry from families who had lost loved ones during the pandemic, and the potential conflict of interest was raised during the inquiry’s preliminary hearing following our publication.

The inquiry’s letter described the original contracts with M&C Saatchi and its subcontractors as “short-term” and said the firms were hired to “design and test the listening exercise”.

“We will shortly be seeking new partners to help us deliver the next phase of Every Story Matters. These will replace the inquiry’s current contracts.”

In a separate open letter, inquiry secretary Ben Connah says the inquiry will soon be looking for bids from companies, acknowledging that “concerns have… been raised about the appointment of companies to work with us on parts of it…”

“We will shortly be seeking bids from companies and I hope to sign contracts in the coming weeks with firms who share our ambition to run a wide-ranging and inclusive listening exercise that gives the inquiry meaningful insight into the lives and experiences of people – especially bereaved people – over the past three years.”

The contracts with M&C Saatchi and 23Red were due to expire in March.

It comes as the inquiry threatens the Cabinet Office with legal action unless it hands over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and diaries. The scandal, first reported by openDemocracy, also saw the Cabinet Office rapped for redacting key information from evidence.

The inquiry would not disclose which of the Cabinet Office’s 2,733 approved partners had applied for the new Every Story Matters contracts or when the contracts would be announced.

Lindsay Jackson, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told openDemocracy she hoped the inquiry would “take this opportunity to step back from making this exercise [Every Story Matters] more divisive than it already is”.

“Bereaved families have been incredibly clear with the inquiry how inappropriate they consider the involvement of 23Red and M&C Saatchi to be,” she added.

“After losing my mum, families like mine threw everything we had into campaigning for this inquiry so that lessons could be learned to stop others suffering the same fate. For that to happen, the experiences of the bereaved must be heard.”

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