PR firm at centre of Covid vaccine tsar row went on ‘frenzied’ hiring spree

The public relations firm paid to advise Kate Bingham, the head of the UK government’s vaccine taskforce, went on a “frenzied” hiring spree in an attempt to recruit staff after being given the work, which was awarded without any competitive process.

Bingham, a venture capitalist whose husband Tory MP Jesse Norman is a government minister, billed taxpayers £670,000 for a fleet of consultants from Admiral Associates, a boutique public relations outfit with an address in London

Admiral then went on a hiring rampage, recruiting PR consultants “at break-neck speed” over a single weekend in mid-September, a source with inside knowledge of the project told openDemocracy.

A director of Admiral is a long-standing business associate of Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law. Bingham has come under fire for hiring expensive external advisors – despite her department having a team of full-time PR professionals – and for sharing sensitive information about Britain’s vaccine plans with US private equity investors.

As the government’s vaccine tsar, hired in May this year by Boris Johnson, Bingham reports directly to the Prime Minister. Although her taskforce nominally sits inside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), no minister in the department, including the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was consulted on £670,000 bill for the new PRs.

However, in briefings to lobby journalists, it was claimed ‘officials’ in BEIS had signed off the Admiral Associates deal, which was described as “specialist communications support.” No further detail was offered.

“Everything was done with abnormal haste. There was a frenzied effort by Admiral, which included posts on LinkedIn, to hire these additional advisers for ultra-high agency fees that are usually reserved for leading firms like Saatchi or Freud when they are dealing with elite wealthy clients, “ an insider told openDemocracy.

Admiral Associates is headed by Georgie Cameron. Her full name is Georgina Claire Collingwood Cameron. Her firm, largely based in the north of England, though with a small London office, is effectively a boutique operation that hires freelancers tailored for specific projects.

A leading PR executive, who has also worked at the heart of Whitehall, told openDemocracy: “This kind of contract is totally, and I mean totally, out of Admiral’s league. In any normal circumstances bidding for this kind of new business would take a couple of months, with numerous presentations and pitches. For it to be done over a weekend borders on financial farce.”

Admiral did not reply to openDemocracy’s request for comment.

Georgie Cameron’s husband, Angus Collingwood Cameron, is Admiral’s other main director. He also holds a managerial role at the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, part of the Chillingham Castle estate in Northumberland which is owned by Sir Humphry Wakefield.

Sir Humphry Tyrell Wakefield is Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law. His daughter, the journalist Mary Wakefield, married the Prime Minister’s chief adviser in 2011.

OpenDemocracy asked 10 Downing Street if Mr Cummings knew Georgie Cameron or her husband Angus, or was aware of his father-in-law’s connections to the Collingwood Cameron family. As of publication no answer has been received.

Koray Camgoz, director of communications and marketing at the PRCA, the trade body for public relations consultants, said government departments needed to be clear about how they spend taxpayer’s money. “Decisions, including the recruitment of PR agencies, must be subject to robust processes. If this doesn’t happen, it threatens to damage public trust at a critical time for the country.”

Bingham unilaterally hired what is believed to be eight PR advisers for an initial fee of £500,000 that will be topped up to £670,000 when the contract ends in January next year. Ministers have said they were unaware of her decision to bring in expensive outside freelancers.

Bingham’s position as the chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, though under fire, is largely thought to be untouchable because of her closeness to the Prime Minister and Cummings. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson tweeted his “huge thanks to Kate Bingham and the Vaccine Taskforce”.

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» PR firm at centre of Covid vaccine tsar row went on ‘frenzied’ hiring spree | James Cusick | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/11/10/pr-firm-at-centre-of-covid-vaccine-tsar-row-went-on-frenzied-hiring-spree/ | 2022-01-24T14:07:42+00:00
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