The Government’s £348,200,000 contract with a media planning and buying agency has been criticised by parents’ groups who called the campaign to encourage parents to send their children back to school during the Coronavirus crisis ‘misleading’

The Government paid £3.7 million on its summer 2020 ‘Back To School’ campaign – which encouraged parents to send their children into classrooms during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The figure emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the campaigning group Parents United UK, which supports families concerned about school safety during the Coronavirus pandemic. Around half of its 20,000 members are extremely clinically vulnerable, clinically vulnerable or have vulnerable children. 

The media campaign included placing sponsored content in a range of local and national newspapers, including the Telegraph and Evening Standard, encouraging parents to send their children back to school in September 2020. A sponsored editorial entitled ‘Safety First As School Pupils Return To Classrooms’, for examples, was published in several news outlets on 28 August 2020.

However, just one month earlier the Government’s scientific advisors had briefed that reopening schools risked increasing Coronavirus transmission in the community. 

The editorial was criticised by parents who felt that the images used to reassure families that schools were safe were unrealistic. 

Catherine Wilson, support manager at Parents United UK, submitted the FOI request. She told Byline Times that “the editorials marked a shift in the way things were being communicated… a shift from public health to a media marketing PR exercise” and that these articles were “so misleading”. Wilson’s seven-year-old son was hospitalised with COVID-19 after returning to school in September.

One member of the group complained that a BBC News article showed “children wearing masks and being socially distanced in classrooms” – a scenario which “the current Government guidance does not allow to happen in reality”.

Both Wilson and Parents United UK’s co-founder Gemma Sewell said that the way schools were represented in the articles made it difficult for “parents who have a concern about safety issues, as everybody around them thinks schools are spaced out when that is not their experience” and that trust was shattered “when the messages we see in the campaign are different to what’s happening in schools”.

The Government contracted its media buying and planning agency, OmniGOV, to run this and the wider COVID-19 safety campaign ‘All In, Together’. Its contract with OmniGOV for “provision of media buying services for COVID-19-related campaigns” was worth £348,200,000. 

School Safety

Back in July 2020, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned ministers of the risks of schools reopening after the first national lockdown. Its SPI-M-O ‘Expert Narratives For Potential Autumn And Winter Events’ briefing explained that pupils returning to the classroom “increase transmission because people (including children) will mix more outside of their homes, resulting in great contacts between households”.

The warnings from SPI-M-O suggest that, as the Back to School safety campaign was running across local and national media, ministers had been briefed that schools reopening was a risk factor in virus transmission. 

Despite the warning, politicians continued to insist that schools were safe. Even in January 2021, on the day before schools closed for the second time, the Prime Minister told BBC News that there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe”.

A teacher told Byline Times about their frustrations that the narrative of schools being safe ignored children being vectors of transmission. “We know the virus isn’t in the buildings, it’s not in the walls,” they said.

Throughout the pandemic, decision-makers have had to perform a delicate balancing act on school closures. On the one hand, keeping schools shut has a negative impact on children’s physical and emotional health, as well as their educational attainment. On the other, keeping schools open during a pandemic risks increasing Coronavirus transmission – putting families and communities in danger. 

School safety is now back under the spotlight after Public Health England published data showing the Delta COVID-19 variant has begun spreading in schools and colleges throughout England.

Director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit, Professor Christina Pagel, said that the data was evidence that schools are now “a major source” of transmission.

There have been approximately 40 outbreaks or clusters of the Delta variant in primary and secondary schools in the week leading up to 30 May alone. However, Public Health England has not released the data on cases linked to schools – a decision Dr Deepti Gurdasani, of Queen Mary University of London, has said is “astonishing”.

Earlier this year, the University of Warwick published research that found that, between September 2020 and December 2020, there was “no significant evidence that schools are playing a significant role in driving the spread of the COVID-19 disease in the community”.

Government-Sponsored Content

The school safety campaign formed part of the All In, Together campaign – described as the “first ever alliance between rival news industry publishers and MG OMD’s OmniGOV”.

It was designed to spread public health messaging about the Coronavirus, including by successfully disseminating the crucial ‘stay at home’ message during the first lockdown in England. 

But the campaign is also part of something which has been described in these pages as “sleazy and murky” – with the Government giving tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money to the press, including to the Daily Mail and the Sun, as well the Guardian and local newspapers such as the Manchester Evening News

The Cabinet Office described the arrangement in its response to Parents United UK as “an unique and unprecedented partnership with the newspaper industry, providing essential funding to these much-loved publications”.

Although the Cabinet Office told the group that the “titles for this campaign have been selected independently by our media planning and buying agency OmniGOV”, Cathcart’s report from last spring revealed that the “direct, secretly-negotiated subsidy [was] provided exclusively to members of the News Media Association”. 

According to OmniGOV’s website, its wider work in Government communications has a projected annual spend of £150 million per year. 

This article was amended at 7am on Thursday 10 January to correct the amount spent on the back to school campaign from £3.4 million to £3.7 million. We apologise for the error.


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