‘What exactly aren’t we understanding? It is a fact these companies worked with the Government’, a campaigner who lost his key worker father, told Byline Times
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The top lawyer for the official inquiry into the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic has suggested that groups representing bereaved families have a “lack of understanding” after they highlighted a potential conflict of interest at the heart of the process.
Legal discussions took place today on how the inquiry will be run, as part of preliminary hearings. They heard from the lead counsel for the probe, Hugo Keith KC, responding to submissions from the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice (CBFJ) campaign, among others as they try to get their voices heard in the investigation.
Bereaved family representatives had told the inquiry that they were concerned about revelations first reported by openDemocracy that two PR firms that worked for the Government during the pandemic are running the official public ‘listening exercise’ for the inquiry that will hear from the families of victims.
PR giant M&C Saatchi and 23Red will effectively “manage the voices of bereaved families” in the inquiry, CBFJ says.
23Red is currently contracted to do £2 million worth of work for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and worked for the Cabinet Office on Coronavirus communications during the pandemic.
M&C Saatchi also worked on public health communications for the Government during the pandemic – albeit on obesity – and has led ad campaigns for the Conservative Party itself. Lord Saatchi, its co-founder, is a Conservative peer and former chair of the party.
The two companies will be paid £800,000 for working on the inquiry. There is no allegation of wrongdoing on their part, but families believe there is a potential conflict of interest given their links to the Government.
However, inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC told the hearing today that there seemed to be a “lack of understanding or confusion” regarding the listening exercise the two PR firms are working on – dubbed ‘Every Story Matters’.
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The barrister said: “May I repeat that Every Story Matters is an essential part of the COVID Inquiry, it supports the aims of the Inquiry, to gather individual experiences of the pandemic, [and] analyse those experiences to ensure the conclusions are robust.”
He added that the project would input the “human impact of the pandemic” to help make “robust recommendations”. However, he did not appear to address the concerns over conflicts of interest directly.
“Every person will be able to submit through a webform, or on paper, through community listening events, and targeted approaches which will be made in due course,” he said. “All that supported by a very extensive communications campaign. A great deal of time and energy has already gone into it.”
According to Chambers & Partners, Keith represented Princess Anne when she was prosecuted over a dog attack, as well as the Queen in the inquest into the death of Princess Diana. He also appeared in the Leveson Inquiry on behalf of Rebekah Brooks.
Lobby Akkinola, who lost his dad Femi to the virus in 2020, told Byline Times that the comments were “very patronising”.
“What exactly aren’t we understanding?” he said. “It is a fact these companies worked with the Government… they had a role and are now gathering information on the people affected by that response… It feels like they are saying our concerns are not based in fact. As families, we are feeling ignored and dismissed, pushed to the side.”
He said the two PR firms’ involvement was “concerning” and he hopes there is “no malicious intent, but there’s an obvious conflict of interest”.
“They were involved in government communication,” he added. “They are the filter for bereaved families. It will naturally input some bias. It will make you think ‘will I be heard’?”
Many COVID-bereaved families are also concerned that there will be little or no opportunity for victims’ relatives to speak directly to the inquiry – instead they will be filtered through the mass listening exercise.
“The testimonies of bereaved people aren’t just stories – they are powerful and insightful,” Mr Akkinola added. “I can give testimony on the things that went wrong. I know the issues intimately because of the impact it had on me and my family. It’s not possible to hear testimony from everyone, but they’re not hearing from anyone directly.”
Boris Johnson, who was Prime Minister during the pandemic, will have his legal fees covered during the Inquiry. Photo: Reuters/Alamy
He also expressed anger over former Prime Minister Boris Johnson having his legal fees paid for when he is questioned at the Inquiry.
“It’s ridiculous to think that, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, people who’ve lost loved ones are contributing to the legal defence of the man who betrayed our trust and was forced out because of it,” he said. “And on top of it, he’s gone on to make millions off the back of his time as PM… Boris Johnson has every op and resource to look after himself.”
Mr Akkinola’s father Femi was a key worker and used his winter scarf and gloves as makeshift PPE when he went to work as a carer for Mencap. “As people of colour, we were more exposed to COVID,” his son said. “There’s no biological reason for a higher death rate for people of colour. It’s systemic.”
Becky Kummer, a spokesperson for CBFJ, welcomed a decision to push back the hearings for module one – covering pandemic preparedness. But she said she was also “disappointed” at Hugo Keith’s claim that families have “misunderstood” the listening exercise.
“They [the PR firms] shouldn’t be anywhere near the COVID Inquiry, never mind being responsible for how it reaches those worst affected by the pandemic,” she told Byline Times. “Keith’s dismissive attitude has only worsened our concerns that we’re being sidelined by the very inquiry that we put our heart and souls into securing after losing those closest to us, and we trust that this attitude isn’t shared by the chair.
“If the Inquiry is serious about engaging with those worst affected by COVID-19, it must commit to listening to the bereaved in person on each day of the hearings.”
The next preliminary hearing for the COVID Inquiry will take place on 28 February, shaping the section of the probe that will look at the impact of the pandemic on healthcare.
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