ITV News' Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports as families who lost loved ones to coronavirus plan to boycott the Covid inquiry over company's 'conflict of interest'
Dozens of families who lost loved ones to coronavirus have told ITV News they will boycott a key plank of the Covid inquiry because of the involvement of companies which profited from government contracts during the pandemic.
At least 70 families have told Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK they will not take part in the "listening exercise" - the part of the inquiry designed to gather their stories.
And the group believe that only a small minority of their thousands of members have confidence in the system.
That is despite many of them being key campaigners for the inquiry in the first place.
It comes as ITV News can also reveal former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Chancellor George Osborne have been approached by the inquiry to give evidence about how prepared Britain was, which is likely to include whether austerity left our health service unable to fully cope.
Safia Ngah, who lost her father Zahari in February 2021, said she felt the involvement of creative agency 23Red in running the listening exercise was a "huge conflict of interest" because it was hired to help the government with communications during the pandemic.
Contracts published online show 23Red was paid millions for its work inside the Cabinet Office, including one contract worth £10 million. Families also point out that it has since been taken over by a new parent company, Capgemini, which also won contracts worth millions of pounds - including in NHS Test and Trace.
Meanwhile another company involved in the listening exercise, M&C Saatchi, worked with the government to deliver an anti-obesity campaign triggered by concerns over healthy living during the pandemic.
Ms Ngah described losing her dad in February 2021 in "horrifying" circumstances, saying goodbye over video link when he was ventilated and went into a coma.
Unable to hug friends after his death, she says she channelled her grief into the Covid-19 bereaved families group - and a campaign for a public inquiry.
When it was announced she felt it offered a glimmer of light in a dark time, but is now devastated that she feels unable to take part.
'Had the government taken precautions during that time he would still be alive,' says Safia Ngah, who lost her father Zahari during the Covid pandemic in February 2021
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK ran a poll of its members for ITV News about their confidence in the inquiry. Of 232 respondents, only 7% said they would definitely take part in the listening exercise in its current form while 27% said they would not. The rest were unsure.
Lobby Akinnola, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK said: “23Red were working with the Cabinet Office throughout the pandemic and have an obvious conflict of interest.
"They shouldn’t be anywhere near the Covid inquiry, never mind have responsibility for how it reaches those worst affected by Covid-19. Predictably, many of the bereaved now won’t participate in the listening exercise because of 23Red’s involvement, so they’re achieving the opposite of what the inquiry is paying them huge sums of taxpayers of money to do."
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A spokesperson for the inquiry said that Baroness Hallett wanted bereaved families at the heart of her work and said over 5,300 people had shared their experiences - although this is open to anyone, not just families who have lost loved ones.
“Our listening exercise will allow anyone to tell the inquiry what happened to them during the pandemic. Sharing your experience means we can truly understand its impact.
"Coming forward is a personal choice, and we are sorry that some people may choose not to - our door is open," they added.
They also said that 23Red was appointed for its expertise in reaching people across society - and would not be carrying out the listening exercise.
But the Covid-19 families group said the fact this was the set up was putting people off taking part - and also argued it undermined the ability of the inquiry to investigate the contracts that were given to those companies during the pandemic.
In response to ITV News' report, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: "Outreach to bereaved families is a vital part of the Covid Inquiry’s work - their trust in the process is crucial to its legitimacy. "There can be no whiff of cronyism - or hint of fear or favour - in getting to the truth."
Hugh Southey KC, from Matrix chambers, said: "The whole purpose of public inquiries is to give the public confidence that lessons will be learnt and truth will come to light. And I think it is unfortunate that those companies are involved because I think it does create a potential perception that there is a lack of independence and that undermines the confidence the public will have in the outcome."
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