Why everyone’s talking about the government Covid lobbyists scandal

Consultant hired by No. 10 sent advance information on policy to banks and pharmaceutical firms

Boris Johnson chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Office
Consultant hired by No. 10 sent advance information on policy to banks and pharmaceutical firms
(Image credit: Eddie Mulholland/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Calls are growing for an inquiry into whether lobbyists quietly hired by Downing Street during the early days of coronavirus pandemic used their insider access to help benefit the outside companies that also employ them.

The Sunday Times reports that one of these influential lobbyists, Portland Communications chair George Pascoe-Watson, sent “advance information about policy to paying clients”.

The allegations surrounding Pascoe-Watson, who was originally hired to work on the NHS Test and Trace scheme, have “reignited” the ongoing dispute over the so-called “Covid chumocracy”, the paper adds.

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What are the allegations?

Boris Johnson’s government has “repeatedly faced criticism for alleged cronyism” and for “blurring the lines between the public and private sectors” in its response to the coronavirus crisis, The Guardian says.

According to The Sunday Times, “whole organisations have achieved remarkable penetration within Whitehall during the pandemic, often under the cloak of secrecy”.

The paper points to Portland Communications, a lobbying firm with clients including HSBC, Pfizer and BAE Systems that employs “a number of former Tory advisors”. Boss Pascoe-Watson was “parachuted into government” in March, “without any announcement”, to advise on strategy and communications, the paper continues.

A former political editor of The Sun, he reportedly “participated in their daily calls, prompting civil servants to raise concerns about appropriate channels”. But “nothing happened”, according to a source, and Pascoe-Watson “made the most of his access” to give his clients advance notice about lockdown policy and other government plans.

The row has contributed to growing criticism about the government’s alleged lack of transparency in its hiring processes.

Former Tory chair Andrew Feldman was also “quietly given a job advising a health minister despite potential conflicts of interest with clients of the lobbying firm that he runs”, openDemocracy reports.

The Tory peer is currently managing director of PR consultancy Tulchan, but his separate advisory role, which is supported by a “small civil service private office”, was “never formally announced by the government”, the investigative site says.

Who stands to benefit?

While “almost any price is worth paying to constrain and mitigate” the Covid outbreak, No. 10 has “let standards fall” during its response, says The Telegraph’s assistant editor Jeremy Warner.

The government is accused “of scandalously suspending normal competitive tendering processes, vastly overpaying for many goods and services, and in a number of cases outright cronyism”, Warner writes.

Pascoe-Watson was unpaid in his government advisory role, but is alleged to have used his inside access to give his business partners a jump on the lockdown restrictions.

On 15 October, for example, he emailed clients saying he had been “privately advised” that restrictions in London launched that day would continue until spring 2021, The Sunday Times reports.

“Decision-makers have told me personally,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Tory peer James O’Shaughnessy was both a paid “external adviser” to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and a paid Portland adviser until August, the paper says. In May, O’Shaughnessy took part in a call with Bethell and Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a Portland client that has gone on to receive £21m in Covid-19 contracts.

And the reaction?

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner today tweeted that she has written to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case demanding an urgent inquiry into “how lobbyists and their clients benefited from this vital information before the public knew, as the rest of the country waited anxiously for government announcements about lockdown... and whether they could see their families, friends and loved ones”.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is also calling for an inquiry into the “rampant cronyism”.

“There must be a public inquiry into the scandalous way that public money, jobs and privileged access have been handed out by the Tory government during this crisis,” said Kirsten Oswald, the party’s deputy leader in Westminster.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said that “we rightly have drawn on the expertise of a number of private sector partners who provided advice and expertise to assist in the government’s vital work” in tackling the health crisis.

“As a result of public and private sector organisations working together at pace, we were able to strengthen our response to the pandemic so we are better prepared for the challenges of the coming months,” the spokesperson added.

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