The team behind the Covid inquiry have insisted there is no conflict of interest in having a PR firm that works on Whitehall’s response to the pandemic run a listening exercise with bereaved families.
Families of Covid-19 bereaved for justice group have reacted with dismay after their concerns were dismissed, saying they were “incredibly disappointed”.
Firm 23Red was behind important government messages such as hand hygiene communication and the “stay at home” slogan. It has now been sub-contracted by advertising agency M&C Saatchi to run part of the Covid inquiry’s listening exercise, which seeks to connect with the bereaved and others.
Covid-19 bereaved families for justice group have said it represents a conflict of interest, with their lawyer Pete Wetherby Casey raising the matter with the inquiry chairman during a preliminary hearing on Tuesday. But the investigative team stressed the nature of 23Red’s work meant none would arise.
“We have sought legal advice and are satisfied that 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 He has no direct access to the legal team of the investigation or the wider work of the inquiry.
“Additionally, M&C Saatchi and 23red will not conduct any listening or have any access to the experiences shared with the practice of interrogative listening. Their role is only to help the investigation reach those most affected by the pandemic, so that they can share their experiences.”
But a spokeswoman for Families of the Covid-19 Bereaved for Justice said many of its members would feel “incredibly frustrated” by the firm’s insistence on hiring them.
Susie Flintham said: “23Red was working with the Cabinet Office throughout the pandemic and they have a clear conflict of interest. They shouldn’t even be around Covid testing, never mind how it reaches the people worst affected by Covid-19.
“It is unfathomable that they have been tasked with ‘helping the investigation reach those most affected by the pandemic’. The fact that many of the ‘most severely affected’ will call into question 23red’s motivations and integrity, and they Will not feel comfortable participating in the process in which they are involved.
“The fact that these PR companies have re-branded the listening exercise ‘every story matters’ suggests they have no clue how to reach the people ‘most affected’.”
She continued: “During a cost of life crisis, why is a huge sum of taxpayer money being paid to a company whose involvement will deter people from participating? It is self-defeating and a clear waste of resources.” feels like.
“If the inquiry is serious about listening to those worst affected by the pandemic, it should give them a meaningful voice, which at a minimum means allowing them to speak on each day of the hearing.”
Concerns were first raised about the firms that had been part of the government’s Covid response and were also contracted to work on an investigation into the same last September.