Boris Johnson is joined by Rishi Sunak (middle) and Matt Hancock after a press conference on the Coronavirus inside No10 Downing Street. Boris Johnson is joined by Rishi Sunak (middle) and Matt Hancock after a press conference on the Coronavirus inside No10 Downing Street. Source: Andrew Parsons - Number 10 - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Terina Hine reports on the revelations of a dysfunctional and toxic government coming out of the Covid-19 Inquiry

Toxic, misogynist, dysfunctional and chaotic. That is how those at the heart of power have described the government at the peak of the Covid crisis. Admittedly this is hardly ground-breaking news, but the level of vitriol within and between the key operators revealed by the Covid Inquiry is quite something.

This week saw some central players from Boris Johnson’s government give evidence, witnesses included Martin Reynolds (Johnson’s principal private secretary), Simon Case (head of civil service and cabinet secretary), Lee Cain (No10’s director of communications until November 2020), Dominic Cummings (Boris Johnson’s chief adviser until November 2020) and Helen MacNamara (head of ethics and deputy cabinet secretary 2020-21). It has made for uncomfortable listening and some dramatic headlines, and not just because of Cummings’ expletives.

So what have we learned? That it was even worse than we had feared.

As Cummings said, people were killed through a mixture of incompetence and lies. As Boris Johnson said, his government was partaking in ‘a disgusting orgy of narcissism’ when it should have been focussed on the national crisis.

Clearly, Boris Johnson was the wrong man for the job; who knew? Simon Case told us Johnson ‘cannot lead’, that he wanted to ‘let it [Covid] rip’, and that he changed his approach daily. Hence the ‘trolly’ nickname given by Cummings was used by all.

Simon Case let us know how ideology and petulance dictated policy when he revealed how Johnson and the then education minister, Gavin Williamson, had refused to permit mask-wearing in schools because it was a union demand; they were in a ‘no surrender mode towards unions’.

We know from text messages between Cummings and Cain that advisers made it abundantly clear to Johnson on 14 March 2020 that the only strategy to deal with Covid was a full lockdown, but this was rejected because the PM believed the virus was just another swine flu, and that the main danger facing the country was not from the disease but from ‘taking the economy into a slump’. So the lockdown did not come into force for another twelve days.

We know from multiple witness reports that Johnson believed the old were expendable. Johnson’s reluctance to impose a second national lockdown was supported by his view that Covid was ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’. Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, recorded these views of Johnson’s in his diary. They have now been confirmed by Cummings in the WhatsApp messages. Johnson claimed his view was shared by many of his backbenchers.

Vallance also accused ministers and No10 of ‘cherry-picking’ from the scientific advice, so they could claim they were following the science when things became tricky. The scientists were used as shields for unpopular policies.

Helen MacNamara told how Matt Hancock, health secretary until summer of 2021, reassured officials time and again that there were plans in place for the pandemic, but the plans never materialised. She confirmed how lax Johnson’s response was, and said it took seven months before hand sanitisers were introduced into the Cabinet Office, even though access to the room required all to punch in a numerical code on a keypad. She told the inquiry, ‘it is not surprising at all’ that Covid spread like wildfire through Downing Street.

Both MacNamara and Cain spoke about the ‘lack of diversity’ in Downing Street and its negative impact on policy. According to MacNamara, the lack of a ‘female perspective’ in No10 led to gender-related issues being overlooked, it was ‘far too difficult’ to get No10 to focus on domestic violence, instead, the boys’ club focused more on shooting and football than domestic abuse or pregnancy.

Possibly the most shocking of all the revelations this week came from Simon Stevens, who was chief executive of NHS England until 2021. Stevens told the inquiry that Matt Hancock believed it was up to him to decide ‘who should live and who should die’ if the NHS was overwhelmed. Stevens had to ‘discourage the idea’ that such a decision should be made by a politician ‘rather than, say, the medical profession or the public’. Hancock’s hubris was off the scale.

Dr Death and the trolley

Given the incendiary nature of the many WhatsApp messages obtained by the inquiry, it is no wonder the government fought a long legal battle to try to prevent their release. Some senior politicians and civil servants switched on the disappearing function for their messages just before the inquiry was announced; they must sincerely regret not having done so earlier.

Of course, there are some who have ‘lost’ messages, or phones, or just refused to hand them over. For example, Rishi Sunak’s messages around the launch of eat-out-to-help-out have not been made available; and Johnson, who informed the inquiry he has no access to messages dated between 31 January 2020 and 7 June 2020, the critical first six months of the pandemic.

It is hard to imagine Johnson having a political comeback at this point in time, but Rishi Sunak still resides in Downing Street. The inquiry has revealed that Sunak was christened Dr Death by the government science advisers for his eat-out-to-help-out scheme. A scheme known to have enabled the spread of the virus more than it helped the economy, and which was implemented with no discussion with either epidemiologists or public health experts. This alone should end his political career. But now we have learned from Lee Cain that it was Sunak who prevented isolation payments from being introduced for low-income households. This act prevented many from following the advice to stay at home and inevitably led to an increase in the number of Covid cases and deaths.

Cummings was a star witness and appears to have kept little back. But for all his throwing the dirt, he shares considerable responsibility for the dysfunctional government in which he was a major player. Not only was Cummings central to putting Johnson into No10 in the first place, in full knowledge of Johnson’s very serious character flaws, but Cummings also played a key role in creating the chaos in Whitehall. His intention was always to disrupt. His only apologies have been for turning up late to his absurd rose-garden press conference and for the bad language in his messages; he has never apologised for his rule-breaking nor acknowledged his role in the scandalous failure of government during Covid.

It is abundantly clear Johnson’s constant changes of tack made decision-making almost impossible at a time when clarity and speed were essential, that the toxicity in Downing Street, the prevalent libertarian ideology, and the prioritisation of the economy over life, led the UK to have one of the highest excess-death rates of any comparable country.

The headlines from this blockbuster week at the inquiry are shocking. We may have learned little that is new, or suspected, but it is no bad thing for the messages to be repeated and additional evidence supplied. The entire episode has revealed a failure of government of criminal proportions. They cannot be allowed to get away with murder.

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