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PR firm behind Tory pandemic response linked to Covid inquiry

PR firm behind Tory pandemic response linked to Covid inquiry

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group say this represents a ‘conflict of interest’ in preliminary hearing
The team behind the Covid inquiry has insisted there is no conflict of interest in having a PR firm which worked on Whitehall’s response to the pandemic running a listening exercise with bereaved families.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group reacted with dismay after their concerns were dismissed, saying they were “unbelievably let down”.

The firm 23red was behind important government messaging such as hand hygiene communication and the “Stay at home” slogan. It has now been subcontracted by the ad agency M&C Saatchi to run part of the Covid inquiry’s listening exercise, which seeks to engage with the bereaved and others.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group have said this represents a conflict of interest, with their counsel Pete Weatherby KC raising the matter with the inquiry’s chair during a preliminary hearing on Tuesday. But the inquiry team insisted the nature of the work 23Red means none would arise.

“We sought legal advice and are satisfied there is no conflict of interest that affects the delivery of the listening exercise. M&C Saatchi and 23red do not have a decision making role with the inquiry, and they have no direct access to the inquiry’s legal team or the wider work of the inquiry,” an inquiry spokesperson said.

“Additionally, M&C Saatchi and 23red will not be carrying out any of the listening or have any access to the experiences shared with the inquiry’s listening exercise. Their role is only to help the inquiry reach those most affected by the pandemic, so that they can share their experiences.”

But a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said many of its members would feel “unbelievably let down” by the insistence on hiring the firm.

Susie Flintham said: “23red were 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 Covid-19.

“It is unfathomable that they’ve been tasked with ‘helping the inquiry reach those most impacted by the pandemic’. The fact is ‘many of those worst affected’ will question 23red’s motivations and integrity, and won’t feel comfortable engaging with a process they’re involved in.

“The fact that these PR companies have rebranded the listening exercise ‘every story matters’, suggests they don’t have a clue on how to reach those ‘most affected’.”

She continued: “Why is the inquiry paying a hefty sum of taxpayers money, during a cost of living crisis, to a company whose involvement will put people off participating in it? It feels self defeating and like a clear waste of resources.

“If the inquiry is serious about listening to those worst affected by the pandemic then it must give them a meaningful voice, which at the very least means allowing them to speak at each day of the hearings.”

Concerns were first expressed about firms who had been part of the government’s Covid response also being contracted to work on the inquiry into the same last September.
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