Families bereaved by Covid will write to eight PR companies that received hefty government contracts during the pandemic asking them to withdraw from a tender process to manage part of the inquiry.
The tender process is to run the Listening Project, announced earlier this year as a formal part of the Covid-19 inquiry, which is to be awarded to one of 12 firms on a pre-approved government list. Many of those firms also undertook work for the government during the pandemic, the Guardian revealed last month.
The Listening Project is part of the inquiry that will hear the testimonies of those affected by the pandemic and was 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.
But the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group has written to eight of the firms on the shortlist asking them to withdraw from the process in order to inspire confidence in the inquiry.
Among the firms on the list, the 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 that asked people to reconsider their rule-breaking.
The PR agencies Engine and 23red were also contracted for work in the Covid-19 communications hub in the Cabinet Office. That hub 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 test and trace system – without a tender process. Others on the shortlist had provided contracts for test and trace, the Home Office and Public Health England during the pandemic.
Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the project was “the most critical part of the Covid inquiry” and that the involvement of companies who worked on government campaigns was alarming. “It’s only through getting that right that it will be able to understand what happened, and what lessons need to be learned to protect lives in the future,” he said.
“If this goes ahead [with the companies involved] it will seriously damage the inquiry’s credibility in the eyes of the bereaved, and we’re therefore asking all of the companies with clear conflicts of interest to do the right thing and withdraw from the process. Should they fail to do so then sadly they are sending a clear message that they don’t care about the pain they are inflicting upon us, or the impartiality of the inquiry’s findings.”
A spokesperson for the inquiry said: “The contracts will be awarded in line with robust procurement and transparency regulations. We have robust processes in place to deal with conflicts of interest if they arise as part of the procurement process.”
All bidders will be required to declare any potential conflicts of interest as part of standard due diligence required under procurement rules.