Exclusive: Government calls on external comms personnel from multiple sectors to assist in coronavirus response

The Government has seconded comms professionals from sectors including banking and retail to work with its own departmental comms teams during the COVID-19 pandemic, PRWeek has learned.

The Government has seconded comms expertise from external sources to assist with the coronavirus response (©GettyImages)
The Government has seconded comms expertise from external sources to assist with the coronavirus response (©GettyImages)

The government announced last week that it would bring together comms professionals from all its major departments into a ‘hub’ to co-ordinate the response to coronavirus.

The hub is ultimately led by Government Communications Service executive director Alex Aiken, although PRWeek understands that another senior civil servant is in day-to-day control of the operation.

The core of the hub, which sits within the Cabinet Office, deals with civil contingencies and major emergencies, as well as having a convening function to co-ordinate work across government.

It is similar in scope to those the government has created for other major issues and emergencies in the past, such as wars, fuel crises and Brexit, a senior government source told PRWeek.

The source said: “With something as big as COVID-19 – with all government departments doing the best they can and pumping stuff out furiously – you want something in the centre to co-ordinate that activity, to ensure that the comms are joined up.”

External comms expertise sought

As part of the comms effort, PRWeek understands that the government staff are also speaking to their opposite numbers from sectors outside the hub to assist the response.

The government source told PRWeek: “The principle is about having the right people in the room and having the capacity and the expertise there.”

The government hopes that, by co-ordinating its comms efforts, it will avoid a situation in which health experts are saying one thing while Whitehall releases different information.

Carousel of personnel

There are thought to be up to 20 people involved in the hub, but the roll-call of individuals is understood to be changing on a daily basis to cope with the changing nature of the task, as well as “natural fatigue and burn-out”, the source revealed.

Comms professionals in the hub are working together in Whitehall rather than remotely and their job is to keep in contact with Number 10 and all relevant parts of government by feeding information out to departments from the centre.

Feeding back intelligence

A second function of the hub is to share intelligence it has gleaned from one government department to the rest.

The source said: “Maybe the Department for Culture Media and Sport is – through conversations with sporting stakeholders – aware that there is disquiet among certain venues. They can feed that back into the hub, and it can feed the information around government to the people it might affect, such as health professionals.”

Intelligence-sharing could also include the geographical location of a new cluster of coronavirus cases in the UK.

“One department might be aware of an outbreak in a particular area quicker than the Department of Health, for some bizarre reason, so that gets fed into the centre and then out again so everyone is working off the same information," the source added.

Health professional criticises government response

News of the workings of the hub came as Professor John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, launched a scathing attack on the Government and Public Health England’s response to the pandemic, saying that it lacked transparency and had failed to mobilise the public.

Ashton told The Guardian that the Prime Minister should have adopted a single spokesperson throughout the crisis to act “as a trusted voice who could have been interrogated regularly”.

He said the government’s response was “too little, too late” and accused Public Health England of being “almost invisible” during the crisis – an opinion shared by LBC radio host Iain Dale, who also criticised PHE last week.

The government and PHE were not immediately available for comment in response to Ashton’s criticisms.

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