Two PR firms that worked for the government during the pandemic have been hired to manage the voices of bereaved families at the official Covid-19 inquiry, openDemocracy has learnt.
The revelation that PR giant M&C Saatchi and 23Red will be working on the ‘listening exercise’ – a key part of the investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic that claimed at least 200,000 lives – has sparked outrage from survivors and victims’ families.
Both agencies had previously been contracted to work on the government’s pandemic response, while 23Red is currently contracted to do £2m worth of work for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). Between them the companies will be paid £800,000 for working on the inquiry.
“Many bereaved families will feel unbelievably let down by this,” said Rivka Gottlieb, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign. “The inquiry is supposed to be investigating the huge contracts given out to the likes of 23Red, not replicating them.”
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
The inquiry has been tasked with scrutinising how public health decisions were “made and communicated” as well as “procurement” more generally, which may mean contracts like those given to 23Red and M&C Saatchi will be scrutinised.
Gottlieb said she feared families whose perspective should be central to the inquiry will “question 23Red’s motivations and integrity and won’t feel comfortable engaging with a process they’re involved in”.
“Worse,” she added, “they will feel that they’re being sidelined by the very inquiry that they put their heart and souls into securing after losing those closest to them.
“If the inquiry wants to win those worst affected by Covid back over, it must commit to listening to the bereaved in person on each day of the hearings.”
She concluded: “23Red was working with the Cabinet Office throughout the pandemic and their conflict of interest is obvious. They shouldn’t be anywhere near the Covid inquiry, never mind being responsible for how it reaches those worst affected by the pandemic.”
M&C Saatchi, an international PR firm founded in 1995, orchestrated the government’s “Better Health” obesity campaign during the pandemic. The firm had also previously worked on the Conservative Party’s 2010 election campaign.
On 31 October 2022, the inquiry announced it had chosen M&C Saatchi, alongside research body Ipsos, for the “listening exercise”, despite previous concerns over a conflict of interest. Documents from the inquiry show that 23Red’s involvement was first mooted by M&C Saatchi itself.
“[M&C Saatchi] has proposed using a partner company (23Red) which was part of ‘The Covid Hub’, led by the Cabinet Office,” documents from the inquiry read. “This would be subject to approval from the inquiry which will insist on appropriate safeguards to manage any actual or perceived conflicts of interest are put in place.”
The inquiry confirmed to openDemocracy that M&C Saatchi had been given the go-ahead to subcontract 23Red, saying that this decision was taken while ensuring “transparency and value for money for the taxpayer”.
It said it was “satisfied there are no conflicts of interest for the appointed suppliers which would affect the delivery of the listening exercise”, but would not reveal what process had taken place to ensure there was no conflict of interest.
23Red is reported to have received £1.4m for its work with the government’s Covid-19 communications hub. But its links to the Conservative government are not only historic. Two months ago, 23Red was given a contract worth up to £2m by DLUHC to be used as a “standby communications agency” for “any number of priority” campaigns.
The Covid-19 inquiry’s listening exercise is expected to be a process involving vulnerable people who have lost loved ones.
Fleur Anderson, MP for Putney and Labour’s shadow paymaster general, told openDemocracy: “The Covid inquiry must be fully independent and there must be no suggestion of a conflict of interest in its ability to hold power to account, particularly given what we already know about how contracts were handed out like confetti by ministers during the pandemic.
“Outreach to bereaved families and those worst affected is a vital part of the inquiry’s work and their trust in the process is crucial to its legitimacy and independence. There can be no whiff of cronyism or hint of fear or favour in getting to the truth.”
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