Labour has accused the government of having “one rule for lobbyists and their paying clients and another rule for the rest of us” after it emerged that a Westminster lobbyist was quietly taken on as an adviser and joined coronavirus strategy calls with health ministers.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has written to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, urging him to investigate the roles of George Pascoe-Watson, director of the PR consultancy Portland Communications, and his colleague James O’Shaughnessy.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has conceded that Pascoe-Watson gave unpaid advice on communications to NHS Test and Trace. He attended daily calls on communications chaired by the Conservative health minister James Bethell, a hereditary peer who formerly ran Matt Hancock’s Tory leadership campaign.
The Sunday Times reported that shortly after Pascoe-Watson’s temporary role ended, Portland partners wrote to its clients warning them to prepare for a nationwide lockdown, and said Boris Johnson would “announce next week that he is prepared to ‘sacrifice November to save December’.”
The message was sent several days before details of a potential national lockdown for England began appearing in newspapers.
On the back of the story, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) lodged a complaint against Portland Communications under its professional charter and code of conduct. Francis Ingham, the PRCA director general, said: “We have well-established independent procedures for investigating such complaints, and those procedures will now be put into action.”
Rayner asked Case to investigate “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.”
Questions posed by Rayner in her letter to Case included whether other lobbyists had been used as paid or unpaid advisers; whether civil servants’ concerns about their role had been ignored; and whether they had been asked to sign confidentiality agreements.
The government has repeatedly faced criticism for alleged cronyism and for blurring the lines between the public and private sectors – including in Dido Harding’s role. As a Conservative peer, Lady Harding votes with the government in the House of Lords while also running NHS Test and Trace, a government body that would usually be expected to be led by a civil servant.
Meanwhile, several lucrative contracts relating to the pandemic have been handed to firms with connections to the prime minister’s departing chief aide, Dominic Cummings, and other senior government figures. Emergency legislation allowed the usual tendering process to be bypassed.
Pascoe-Watson, a former Sun political editor, said: “I was honoured to be asked to serve the NHS Test and Trace service in my personal capacity as an unpaid adviser.” He insisted he had declared his professional interests to the department and had no role in daily calls after 7 October.
“To be clear, the information shared with [Portland] clients on 15 and 29 October was in no way connected to the Test and Trace calls, in which I was no longer a participant.” He said the information had come from “multiple conversations had by our consultants”.
There are also questions about the role of Lord O’Shaughnessy, a partner at Portland, who was a paid adviser to government until August. The Sunday Times reported that O’Shaughnessy took part in a call with Lord Bethell and Boston Consulting Group, a Portland client.
It emerged last month that some Boston Consulting staff are being hired out to the government to work on test and trace for as much as £6,250 a day.
O’Shaughnessy said: “Earlier this year I was asked to support the government as part of the national effort to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, something I was proud to do. This role, which involved providing policy advice to DHSC ministers and officials around testing innovation, was approved by the permanent secretary and declared in my register of interests. It did not involve responsibility for procurement decisions.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic, 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. This included helping establish the largest diagnostic network in British history and a test-and-trace system used by tens of millions of people.
“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 that any role O’Shaughnessy played in procurement decisions would have gone through relevant sign-off procedures.