Paid lobbyist given unfettered access to sensitive Covid-19 meetings

Picture of George Pascoe-Watson

George Pascoe-Watson advised a Tory minister of health for six months without publicly declaring it - Credit: YouTube

A lobbyist who secretly advised a health minister for six months was given unfettered access to private coronavirus meetings and later leaked sensitive information to clients.

George Pascoe-Watson, who chairs the PR firm Portland Communications, advised Lord Bethell on Test and Trace strategy while still a Westminster lobbyist, a Sunday Times investigation has revealed.

Portland Communications represents pharmaceutical companies, weapons manufacturers and banks.

Pascoe-Watson was appointed to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on April 9 without announcing the move publicly.

He attended daily coronavirus meetings for six months and advised Lord Bethell, the minister in charge of England's Test and Trace system.

It is understood Pascoe-Watson passed on sensitive information on government lockdown policy to paying clients.

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Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said the appointment had been "incomprehensible".

He said: "I think the public interest requires that appointments to public office should go through a public process."

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Labour ’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, described it as an “insult to the British people” and called for an inquiry.

The Sunday Times investigation has reignited concerns over cronyism at the heart of government after Pascoe-Watson became the latest person appointed to a role without any public process or announcement.

Pascoe-Watson, a former Sun editor, attended daily meetings chaired by Lord Bethel which some times included the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and the head of NHS Test and Trace, Dido Harding.

His role, which was unpaid, ended on October 7.

The Times probe found Pascoe-Watson "privately advised" clients that lockdown restrictions launched on October 15 in London had would run into Spring 2021, adding that "decision-makers" had told him personally.

A fortnight later told clients of Boris Johnson's plans to introduce a nationwide lockdown and that the prime minister was ready to announce the news "next week".

The memo came three days before details of the prime minister's plans were leaked to the press, prompting Johnson to launch an inquiry.

The Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have drawn on the expertise of a number of private sector partners who provided advice and expertise to assist in vital work."

Pascoe-Watson said: "I fully declared my role and responsibilities at Portland Communications to the DHSC.

"I stepped down from this role on October 7 by mutual agreement as the media calls were due to take on a new form. After that point I had no further involvement in NHS Test and Trace daily calls.

"To be clear, the information shared with clients on October 15 and 29 was in no way connected to the Test and Trace calls, in which I was no longer a participant.

"In keeping with our communications industry colleagues, Portland provides many professional services to its clients, including the provision of media and political insight. This information comes from multiple conversations had by our consultants."

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