Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has hit out at the "unjustified" spending of £670,000 of taxpayers' cash on a team of PR consultants for the head of the UK's coronavirus vaccine taskforce.
Kate Bingham, an investment fund manager and the wife of a Conservative minister, has used eight full-time consultants from Admiral Associates, a London PR agency, to oversee her media strategy since her appointment earlier this year.
The Sunday Times reported the consultants had helped prepare Ms Bingham for media appearances, draft statements and to oversee a vaccines podcast on Spotify.
She was said to have "insisted" on hiring the consultants, despite concerns they would duplicate the work of communications staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
The newspaper also reported the team's hire was signed off by civil servants and not Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
On an LBC Radio phone-in show on Monday, Sir Keir said the spend on the PR consultants "can't be justified".
The Labour leader contrasted the expenditure with the troubles of small business owners, who had earlier called into the show, during the coronavirus crisis.
"You cannot justify that sort of money being spent," he added.
"If only it was the only example.
"There are lots of examples of lucrative contracts going without any due process and I think the public mood on this is very, very clear."
Environment Secretary George Eustice failed to defend the use of PR consultants by Ms Bingham, suggesting it would have been better to use "in-house" government resources.
He told Sky News' Kay Burley that Health Secretary Matt Hancock would be "monitoring all of the work they do", adding: "I don't know whether it was strictly PR consultants or whether it was management consultants more generally.
"I used to work in that industry, but also as press secretary to [former Conservative leader] David Cameron.
"And so, generally, I think these resources can come from in-house. I don't know the specific circumstances of those particular contracts."
BEIS did not comment on The Sunday Times' report.
But Whitehall sources said specialist communications support was employed by the vaccine taskforce for a time-limited period, with details of the contract to be published in line with usual transparency rules.
The UK's vaccine taskforce was set up by Mr Hancock and Mr Sharma.
It is led by the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and England's deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan van Tam.
Ms Bingham reports directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
She is married to Tory MP Jesse Norman, a junior Treasury minister.
Mr Norman is two years older than Mr Johnson, with both having attended Eton College and then Oxford University.
Ms Bingham attended Oxford University at the same time as Mr Johnson's sister, Rachel Johnson.