PR giants that received hefty government contracts to run Covid-19 public health campaigns are now bidding to lead an inquiry into the public’s experience of the pandemic response, the Guardian has learned.
The Listening Project was announced earlier this year as a formal part of the Covid-19 inquiry, which will “examine the UK’s preparedness and response to the pandemic and learn lessons for the future”.
A spokesperson for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said the contract risked being “another example of those in power being able to mark their own homework”.
But the contract for the work, estimated to be around £1m, will only be awarded to one of 12 firms on a pre-approved government list, many of whom also undertook work for the government during the pandemic. One industry veteran who contacted the Guardian called it a “ludicrous, farcical conflict of interests”.
The Listening Project, which is due to launch in mid-November, was announced by the inquiry’s chair, Heather Hallett, and designed for the bereaved to be able to talk about the loss of their loved ones, their grief and the effect on their mental health.
It is intended to inform the inquiry’s understanding about how the pandemic has affected people “in a less formal setting than a public hearing”.
But a significant number of the firms on the pre-approved list were involved in key government communications campaigns. London-based agency MullenLowe was awarded a series of contracts by the Cabinet Office in August 2020 to provide “Covid-19 awareness campaigns” – including the creation of the “Hands, face, space” slogan and later the emotive “Look into my eyes” campaign, which asked people to reconsider their rule-breaking.
As well as MullenLowe, PR agencies Engine and 23red were also contracted for work in the Covid-19 comms hub in the Cabinet Office. That hub also developed hand hygiene communication, the “Stay at home” slogan and the subsequent “Stay alert” messaging, which drew widespread criticism.
Another firm on the list, Freuds, was awarded a contract to provide “strategic communications”, including “reputation management”, for the beleaguered coronavirus Test and Trace system – without a tender process.
Accenture, the parent company of Accenture Song, another agency on the list, acquired long-term contracts for software services and business support for NHS Test and Trace. FCB Inferno won the contract for the Home Office campaign to encourage victims of domestic abuse to seek help during lockdown restrictions.
M&C Saatchi obtained a contract during the pandemic for Public Health England’s “Better health” campaign on adult obesity, which described the benefits of weight loss in healthier outcomes for Covid-19.
Another firm on the list, Unlimited and Pablo, has recently been appointed by the Cabinet Office Government Communication Service as a standby agency – in effect, the “go-to” agency for the Cabinet Office, though it did not run any of the big Covid-19 communications campaigns.
The government invites firms to apply for the contract, rather than vice versa, and there remains potential for the contract to be awarded to a firm that was not involved in Covid-19 or NHS communications after the deadline this Friday.
The new contract for the inquiry work says that the Listening Project “will also demonstrate to the country that we are ‘listening’ to what the country wants to tell us, helping to maintain trust and confidence in the inquiry and its findings”.
It says it should be “balancing the need to ‘listen’ to as many people as possible, while being proportional in its delivery to ensure value for money for the taxpayer and to the inquiry”.
The contract also says whichever firm takes on the work should ensure “high proprietary standards are in place which do not impede the delivery of the inquiry’s legal processes”.
A spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said: “This is incredibly disappointing. The fact that Lady Hallet is leaving bereaved families out in the cold and having their stories gathered by a third party is bad enough … The potential conflict of interest is clear as day and it looks like yet another example of those in power being allowed to mark their own homework.
“Hallet herself has acknowledged that for the inquiry to learn lessons that prevent the monumental scale of daily deaths we saw from ever happening again, the bereaved must be at its heart.
“The inquiry needs to urgently come forward and explain how they are going to involve us. So far they’ve rejected our recommendations and told us next to nothing about what their plans are.”
A spokesperson for the inquiry said: “The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is completely independent of the government.
“The listening exercise procurement is being conducted using a Crown Commercial Service framework to ensure value for money to the taxpayer. The contract will be awarded in line with robust procurement and transparency regulations.
“The inquiry has robust processes in place to deal with conflicts of interest.
“A separate firm will be procured to analyse the data collected from the listening exercise.
“The inquiry will be investigating the way that the government communicated with the public – this is part of the inquiry’s terms of reference, which set the scope for the inquiry.”
A Cabinet Office source said: “All bidders are required to declare any potential conflicts of interest as part of standard due diligence required under procurement rules.
“These will be investigated once the bidding process closes. The inquiry will make the final decision as to which supplier to appoint.”