Specialist consultants called in to help with Covid public inquiry comms strategy

Agency to provide advice on media relations and a consultation on the public inquiry's terms of reference
Yesterday a campaign group urged Boris Johnson to commit to accepting the terms of reference presented to him in full. Photo: Gareth Fuller/Pool via REUTERS

The Cabinet Office has drafted in a specialist communications company to support the launch of the Covid-19 public inquiry.

Crest Advisory, which describes itself as the UK’s “only consultancy with a crime and justice focus”, is supplying media relations and strategic comms advice to the long-anticipated inquiry, which is set to start work in spring. It is also providing press office cover while an in-house communications team is being recruited.

Work is underway to set up the inquiry, which will examine the government’s response to the pandemic, after Baroness Heather Hallett was named as its chair in December.

Over the course of the contract, which runs from 21 December to the end of this month, consultants are providing advice on an upcoming consultation on the terms of reference for the inquiry.

Their goal is to ensure it reaches "key stakeholders" as well as a “broad representation of the UK population, including overcoming barriers to participation for hard to reach and underrepresented communities”, according to contract documents.

Yesterday, a campaign group representing people who had lost family members to Covid had called on the prime minister to commit to accepting the terms of reference put forward by Hallett once the consultation is completed.

The current arrangement means Boris Johnson will have the final say on the topics of the inquiry. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said this could allow the PM to limit scrutiny of how his own conduct, and that of some of his aides and officials, may have dented public confidence in coronavirus measures. 

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not good enough for him to just take the chair’s recommendations for the terms of reference as advice and he needs to commit to implementing them in full,” Hannah Brady, a member of the group, told the Guardian

“The fact his office is under police investigation for breaching the rules shows he is compromised and cannot be allowed to have a final say on what the inquiry looks into.”

Johnson is expected to respond to a questionnaire submitted to him by the Met Police force this week about his involvement in potentially illegal gatherings in Downing Street while Covid-19 restrictions were in effect.

The contract called for a consultancy with an “in-depth understanding” of the legal process of a public inquiry, the Inquiries Act, and the potential scope of this particular exercise.

Crest Advisory has previously provided support to a number of public inquiries, including those looking into the Grenfell Tower fire, the Manchester Arena bombing and the infected blood scandal.

The agency, which is being paid up to £50,000 for the two-month project, is providing three consultants: a strategic communications lead and project director, a media relations lead and a media and stakeholder analyst.

Day rates for each have been redacted from the published documents under FOI legislation protecting commercial interests.

A spokesperson for the inquiry said: “The UK Covid-19 inquiry's chair was appointed in December and the inquiry is in the process of setting itself up. It has commissioned communication services to support its initial preparatory phase while it establishes its communications needs and builds its team.

"The inquiry will examine the UK's response to the coronavirus pandemic, and is therefore seeking advice that is independent of the government. Details of inquiry expenditure will be published on a regular basis."

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