A toxic and chaotic environment at the heart of government, with distrust between civil servants and political aides, a weak and vacillating prime minister, and a boosterish conviction that the UK’s pandemic response would be “world beating.” That was the picture that emerged as the UK Covid-19 Inquiry took evidence this week from key figures involved in the government’s early response to the pandemic.
In early 2020, at the start of a crisis that was to see England locked down three times and many lives lost, the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, initially thought covid was no worse than swine flu. WhatsApp messages shared by the team around him and diaries kept by the then chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, as the pandemic unfolded reveal despair among political aides and officials that Johnson, nicknamed “the trolley” by his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, kept veering back and forth in trying to decide what action to take. “He will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room,” Johnson’s then director of communications, Lee Cain, told the inquiry, chaired by the retired Court of Appeal judge Heather Hallett.1
The WhatsApp messages paint a vivid picture of a dysfunctional workplace headed by a leader with the “wrong skill set” for such a crisis, in Cain’s words. Vallance’s diaries detailed scientists’ frustration with the fact that Johnson would get the science wrong and they had to repeatedly explain basic points about such matters as infection rates, modelling, and worst case scenarios.
Some of the most sobering and candid evidence to the inquiry came from Helen MacNamara, who was the Cabinet Office director general of propriety and ethics before she was promoted in spring 2020 to become deputy cabinet secretary, the second most senior civil servant in the country.2 In January and February 2020, as the covid crisis escalated, “Mr Johnson was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should all be careful of overcorrecting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact and for which, in any case, we were well prepared,” she said. The atmosphere in morning meetings was “confident and macho . . . we were going to be world beating at conquering covid-19 as well as everything else.” She recalled people “laughing at the Italians” over restrictions Italy had imposed to try to contain the virus.
On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. By 13 March MacNamara had grown alarmed that the government’s strategy of trying to contain the virus was not going to work and that the NHS would be overwhelmed. That day she marched into the prime minister’s study and announced, “I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people.”
MacNamara said she had realised that the Department of Health and Social Care had no plan in place to deal with the pandemic, despite repeated assurances from the health secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, that a plan existed. She said Hancock had displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence. Asked by a counsel to the inquiry, “Does it come back to the fact that Mr Hancock regularly was telling people things that they later discovered weren’t true?” she replied, “Yes.” She commented in her witness statement to the inquiry, “The usual systems of governance in Whitehall rely on people being truthful.”
“Absence of humanity”
It was another 10 days before the first national lockdown was announced, on 23 March. Cummings told the inquiry that there was “essentially no shielding plan at all” for people most at risk of severe disease.1 MacNamara described an “absence of humanity” in the government’s response, with a lack of consideration for vulnerable groups.
Vallance wrote in his diary in August 2020 that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going.” In December 2020 the diary noted that Johnson had said his party thought that covid was “just nature’s way of dealing with old people” and that he was not sure he disagreed.
Matt Fowler, cofounder of the organisation Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, described the evidence to the inquiry as “worse than what bereaved families feared was happening at the time.”
Senior officials lacked a scientific background, MacNamara said, and she did not remember anyone who was part of the conversation who had a detailed knowledge of the workings of the NHS. Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England until July 2021, told the inquiry that there was a “disconnect” between Whitehall and the realities of the NHS on the ground and that it was clear from two modelling papers on 3 March that the NHS would be overwhelmed if action was not taken to reduce the growth of covid.3
Stevens said that Hancock took the position that if it came to the point that hospitals were overwhelmed and a decision had to be taken about whom to prioritise for NHS care, “he, [Hancock] rather than say the medical profession or the public, should ultimately decide who should live and who should die.” Stevens said he believed that doctors in consultation with patients should take such decisions. “Fortunately, this horrible dilemma never crystallised.”
Phil Banfield, chair of BMA council, said in a statement responding to the evidence of Cain and Cummings, “We’ve heard disturbing testimony about dysfunction at the heart of government, a dismissiveness of expert advice, a failure to act quickly, and a callous disregard for people’s lives. From very early on we could see what colleagues in other parts of the world were dealing with, and all we could do was look on terrified and helpless, as the UK government failed to take this seriously and ignored expert public health advice.
“Amid the political infighting and point scoring, we must not lose sight of the fact that government decisions or lack thereof have had a lasting impact on the public and healthcare workers, many of whom continue to live with the trauma experienced during the pandemic,” said Banfield.
The Times, in a leader headed “Wrong People, Wrong Time,” opined this week that Britain “ran out of luck in the first three months of 2020,” with a prime minister “blinded by self belief” whose closest advisers were chosen purely on their success in managing campaigns, and a civil service distracted by Brexit and fearful of a radical shake up threatened by Cummings.4 In the event that never happened, and Cummings and Cain left Downing Street in November 2020 after a power struggle.
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