Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

PR firm at centre of Covid vaccine tsar row went on ‘frenzied’ hiring spree

After Admiral Public Relations was paid £670,000 to advise Kate Bingham, the PR firm – which has ties to Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law – took to social media to try to find staff

James Cusick
James Cusick
10 November 2020
Under-fire UK vaccine chef Kate Bingham and her late father Lord Bingham
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Chris Young/PA Archive/PA Images

The public relations firm paid to advise Kate Bingham, the head of the UK government’s vaccine taskforce, went on a "frenzied" hiring spree in an attempt to recruit staff after being given the work, which was awarded without any competitive process.

Bingham, a venture capitalist whose husband Tory MP Jesse Norman is a government minister, billed taxpayers £670,000 for a fleet of consultants from Admiral Associates, a boutique public relations outfit with an address in London

Admiral then went on a hiring rampage, recruiting PR consultants "at break-neck speed" over a single weekend in mid-September, a source with inside knowledge of the project told openDemocracy.

A director of Admiral is a long-standing business associate of Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law. Bingham has come under fire for hiring expensive external advisors - despite her department having a team of full-time PR professionals – and for sharing sensitive information about Britain’s vaccine plans with US private equity investors.

As the government’s vaccine tsar, hired in May this year by Boris Johnson, Bingham reports directly to the Prime Minister. Although her taskforce nominally sits inside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), no minister in the department, including the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was consulted on £670,000 bill for the new PRs.

Screenshot 2020-11-10 at 15.37.30.png

However, in briefings to lobby journalists, it was claimed ‘officials’ in BEIS had signed off the Admiral Associates deal, which was described as “specialist communications support.” No further detail was offered.

“Everything was done with abnormal haste. There was a frenzied effort by Admiral, which included posts on LinkedIn, to hire these additional advisers for ultra-high agency fees that are usually reserved for leading firms like Saatchi or Freud when they are dealing with elite wealthy clients, “ an insider told openDemocracy.

Admiral Associates is headed by Georgie Cameron. Her full name is Georgina Claire Collingwood Cameron. Her firm, largely based in the north of England, though with a small London office, is effectively a boutique operation that hires freelancers tailored for specific projects.

A leading PR executive, who has also worked at the heart of Whitehall, told openDemocracy: “This kind of contract is totally, and I mean totally, out of Admiral’s league. In any normal circumstances bidding for this kind of new business would take a couple of months, with numerous presentations and pitches. For it to be done over a weekend borders on financial farce.”

Admiral did not reply to openDemocracy’s request for comment.

Georgie Cameron’s husband, Angus Collingwood Cameron, is Admiral’s other main director. He also holds a managerial role at the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, part of the Chillingham Castle estate in Northumberland which is owned by Sir Humphry Wakefield.

Sir Humphry Tyrell Wakefield is Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law. His daughter, the journalist Mary Wakefield, married the Prime Minister’s chief adviser in 2011.

OpenDemocracy asked 10 Downing Street if Mr Cummings knew Georgie Cameron or her husband Angus, or was aware of his father-in-law’s connections to the Collingwood Cameron family. As of publication no answer has been received.

Koray Camgoz, director of communications and marketing at the PRCA, the trade body for public relations consultants, said government departments needed to be clear about how they spend taxpayer’s money. “Decisions, including the recruitment of PR agencies, must be subject to robust processes. If this doesn’t happen, it threatens to damage public trust at a critical time for the country.”

Bingham unilaterally hired what is believed to be eight PR advisers for an initial fee of £500,000 that will be topped up to £670,000 when the contract ends in January next year. Ministers have said they were unaware of her decision to bring in expensive outside freelancers.

Bingham’s position as the chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, though under fire, is largely thought to be untouchable because of her closeness to the Prime Minister and Cummings. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson tweeted his "huge thanks to Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce".

“Decisions, including the recruitment of PR agencies, must be subject to robust processes. If this doesn’t happen, it threatens to damage public trust at a critical time for the country.

Koray Camgoz, the Public Relations and Communications Association

The Sunday Times claimed Bingham had shared “official sensitive” documents on her taskforce’s progress in briefings with US financiers during a recent $200-a-head ‘webinar’ conference. BEIS defended her by claiming she was “uniquely qualified” for the role of chairing the taskforce and had offered the conference delegates only publicly available information.

Although the Sunday Times article stated she had discussed classified information and called for her resignation, most of the information in her presentation did come from publicly accessible academic analysis on how vaccine research is progressing throughout the world.

One leading vaccine tracker, produced by the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), has already been widely cited on UK government websites and by international organisations such as the World Health Organisation. The tracker lists all the current global efforts to find a Covid vaccine, describes the stages of each research project and what, if any, progress has been made in clinical trials. Bingham’s presentation relied heavily on the information already available in the LSHTM tracker.

However much of the defence of Bingham later cited by BEIS was an overblown account of the work of her Vaccine Taskforce.

BEIS incorrectly claimed that “under her leadership” 300,000 people had enrolled in a national registry for clinical vaccine trials. That is the role of the researchers who run each trial, not the taskforce. It was also wrongly claimed that her taskforce had provided funding for UK sites to manufacture vaccines. Much of this had been agreed by the government before Johnson offered her the job in May.

BEIS also claimed that a recent article in the respected medical journal, the Lancet, had detailed “the achievements of the Vaccine Taskforce.” The department however failed to mention that it was Bingham herself who had authored the Lancet piece.

A leading UK-based clinical scientist told openDemocracy that the Lancet article read like “an ill-informed party political broadcast, flag-waving and claiming sole credit for the UK government on the global progress of vaccine research.”

The article – published in October - fails to mention that a similar vaccine initiative was already in existence under the leadership of Professor Chris Whitty. This was set up during the Ebola crisis four years ago and had received state funding from the Medical Research Council.

A research colleague, close to Professor Whitty, told openDemocracy: “This article could have been written by Downing Street. It most certainly is not a science paper written by a scientist familiar with vaccines and the framework of the international vaccine community. It’s full of spin and plays down the global efforts to find a Covid vaccine and instead focuses heavily on the UK. If this is the misinformed PR you get for £670,000 the money has been wasted.”

This article could have been written by Downing Street

Scientific expert on Kate Bingham's Lancet article

BEIS have so far failed to offer any specific details of what the consultants have done to merit the £670,000 fees. So far only vague descriptions of preparing Bingham for media appearances, or helping her draft statements or overseeing social media appearances have been offered.

Although there was no tendering process which led to the appointment of Admiral Associates, it also unclear how the Prime Minister chose Bingham, what criteria were used, and what other people, if any, were considered for the role.

So far only Bingham’s connection to Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel – they went to the same school – and the fact that she was at Oxford University at the same time as the PM, have been mentioned.

Although Johnson’s cabinet members are regarded as uniformly loyal, the fallout from Bingham’s behaviour as vaccine tsar has threatened division.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, has suggested that PR should be delivered “in-house” and appeared to suggest that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, would now be monitoring the work of the Vaccine Taskforce.

However Hancock instead praised Bingham and her taskforce. Ignoring the criticisms that followed expose of the £670,000 PR bill, Hancock said the country should say “a massive thank you” for her work.

Following the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and his criticism of Kate Bingham’s use of public money, Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said Downing Street needed to be more transparent about its procurement processes.

She added: ‘These revelations raise yet more serious questions about how taxpayer money is being spent during the pandemic and how the government is being run. The public deserve urgent answers as to how a small PR agency with close links to the PM’s closest adviser was simply gifted such a large contract - and what exactly was delivered for such a price tag.”

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