Tory-linked PR firm hired to provide test and trace ‘reputation management’

A PR firm owned by Matthew Freud, who was closely associated with the Conservatives during David Cameron’s time as prime minister, was awarded a contract to provide “strategic communications”, including “reputation management”, for England’s beleaguered coronavirus test-and-trace system without a tender process, the Guardian can reveal.

Haroon Siddique www.theguardian.com 

The contract with Freud Communications Limited was for services to be carried out between 1 November last year and 15 January this year but it only came to light after details were published on a government website on 19 February.

They appeared on the same day as a high court judge ruled that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law, amid allegations of “chumocracy” and lack of transparency in the awarding of contracts during the pandemic.

Although the start date for the £55,000 contract with Freud Communications was 1 November, the government website says it was awarded on 8 February 2021.

Freud, a friend of Cameron and George Osborne, is listed by the Electoral Commission as having made a one-off non-cash donation of £11,000, relating to travel, to the Conservative party in 2008. When married to Elisabeth Murdoch, he was part of the Chipping Norton set.

Gemma Abbott, the legal director of Good Law Project, which brought the high court action against the government, said of the contract: “Another day, another deal awarded with only a handshake and documented later. The fact we are just seeing the details of this arrangement now, months after work began and after the work has already been completed, speaks volumes about this government’s complete disregard for transparency.

“For the sake of good governance and protecting taxpayers’ money, government must get its house in order on procurement.”

The £12bn NHS test-and-trace system, which despite its moniker has been outsourced to private contractors, has been beset by criticism. In October, shortly before the start of the Freud Communications contract, Boris Johnson and his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, admitted to failings, with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) describing the success of the supposedly “world-beating” system as “marginal”. Other experts have claimed it is not fit for purpose.

The contract with Freuds says: “A carefully curated group of senior reputation management specialists from across agency specialisms (eg corporate, crisis and issues) will be available to NHS test and trace to assist in reputational issues and provide counsel and assistance.”

The Freuds website says it can help “construct communications strategies that protect our clients at the time they need it most”. Work for past clients has included making “very factual changes” to their Wikipedia pages.

Last month, Freuds announced it had hired Sheila Mitchell, who was the Public Health England (PHE) marketing chief before leaving in September last year. In 2011, while Mitchell was at PHE, Freud Communications was accused of a conflict of interest over its approximately £500,000 contract to advise on PHE’s Change4Life anti-obesity scheme while at the same time promoting businesses selling fizzy drinks and sweets. As Mitchell only commenced work with Freuds this month, she was not involved in the NHS test-and-trace contract.

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “As part of our response to this global pandemic we have drawn on the enormous expertise and resources of a number of public and private sector partners. The government has been clear from the outset that public authorities must achieve value for taxpayers and use good commercial judgment.”

A Freuds spokesperson said: “We’re proud of our long-term association with PHE and the DHSC for whom we have worked continuously for over 15 years through a procurement process that strictly adheres to government guidelines.”

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