The Department for Health and Social Care could pay headhunters up to £125,000 to fill the vacancy left by NHS Test and Trace communications chief who left for the royal household this spring.
The programme was left scrambling in March when Victoria O’Byrne, its then-director of comms, was appointed communications secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave a tell-all interview to Oprah Winfrey in spring.
Test and trace therefore took the unusual step of awarding a contract to fill the vacancy directly to Odgers Berndtson, a recruitment firm that has handled several government contracts in the past, without a competitive tender.
That meant that while work began under the contract – worth up to £124,950 – in April, it was not officially awarded until August.
Rae Stewart, managing director of Ashburn Fleming communications consultancy and a veteran civil service comms specialist, was named interim director of commmunications for test and trace in May.
He had previously been comms director for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the now-defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Exiting the European Union. He was also press secretary to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, after beginning his career as a journalist.
DHSC commissioned Odgers Berndtson to find someone to step up to the “prominent and politically sensitive role” for 119 working days – amounting to around six months.
The successful candidate would be expected to devise and execute a comms plan that “influences and improves public perception and behaviours” and “make gains in trust and ‘group think’ compliance”, it said.
They would need to use other government departments, local councils, No.10 and other comms channels to get key messages out, as well as acting as a "trusted adviser" to top civil servants and ministers.
The contract was awarded under the RM6160 framework, which allows NHS trusts to appoint temporary and fixed-term non-clinical staff.
Ben Stimson, chief customer officer for test and trace at the time, took the decision not to hold a competitive tender “due to the unanticipated roll off of the former director of communications who left NHS Test and Trace to take up an urgent role in the royal household”, according to contract documents published by DHSC.
Matt Hancock, health secretary at the time, personally signed off on the process.
Leaving for Kensington Palace earlier this year, O’Byrne wrote in a LinkedIn post that she felt “very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such a remarkable group of people at NHS Test and Trace and the wider health family under the most challenging circumstances”.
Before moving to the test and trace programme, O’Byrne was director of communications for the Lawn Tennis Association and before that spent four years as group corporate affairs director for Virgin.
She also had extensive experience in the civil service, serving as head of comms for Ofsted and then the Olympics before becoming director of comms and marketing for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2011.
Asked why the sudden personnel change warranted a direct award, a DHSC spokesperson did not address the contract specifically but commented on the use of headhunters by test and trace in general. They said the programme has drawn on a "diverse set of skills across this country" from the public and private sectors to achieve its goals, and that all the usual on-boarding processes and due diligence checks have been followed with all of its appointments.