Covid inquiry: are ex-officials using evidence to score points against former bosses?

Misogyny claim: Helen MacNamara.

The Covid-19 Inquiry seems to have degenerated into a slanging match between Tory ministers, together with their cronies, and civil servants – which is not to say that any of the information is untrue.

Latest to enter the fray was Helen MacNamara, former Deputy Cabinet Secretary – and therefore the UK’s second most senior official at the time of the pandemic – with a flurry of accusations about sexism among Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and their Tory buddies.

It is all-too-believable in a post-Partygate world.

The list of claims assembled in the BBC’s report is lengthy. Let’s have a look:

Helen MacNamara told the Covid inquiry a “toxic” environment affected decision-making during the crisis.

She said that female experts were ignored, and women were “looked over”.

She also accused Boris Johnson of failing to tackle “misogynistic language” used by Dominic Cummings.

Ms MacNamara described a “macho, confident” environment within government when Covid struck in early 2020, with an “unbelievably bullish” approach about the UK’s ability to respond.

She expressed concern that the lack of a “female perspective” on the crisis in a number of policy areas.

This included a “lack of thought” about childcare during school closures, the impact of restrictions on victims of domestic violence, and a lack of guidance for pregnant women.

She also wrote that a “disproportionate amount of attention” was given to the impact of lockdown on “male pursuits”, citing football, hunting, shooting and fishing.

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In an email sent to female staffers from April 2020, read out at the inquiry, she described the “egotistical and macho” culture as “demoralising to work in,” noting that women had only spoken for “10-15 minutes” in over five hours of meetings earlier that month.

She told the inquiry she had found the lack of female participation “striking”, with women turning their screens off during Zoom calls or “sitting in the back row” during meetings.

The Royal College of Nursing’s chief nurse, Nicola Ranger, said senior men in government “relied on nursing staff to deliver care to the highest standard, whilst failing to meet basic professional standards themselves”.

“As a 90% female profession, nursing staff will find today’s reminders painful,” Ms Ranger said. “These cavalier and misogynistic attitudes left nursing staff, especially women, at even greater risk and with deadly consequences.”

In other evidence heard by the inquiry:

  • Ms MacNamara said she would struggle to “pick one day” when Covid regulations were followed properly inside Downing Street
  • She also accused Downing Street of “lying” about parties, in its initial response to the Partygate scandal
  • She criticised an over-reliance on following advice from scientists, calling it a “cop out” from ministers and unfair on the scientific experts
  • In one email, she said there was a tendency to treat the advice of scientists like “the word of God”
  • She also said former health secretary Matt Hancock displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence, but had a habit of making assurances that turned out not to be true
  • She described a “jarring” episode where he imitated a cricket batsman, before saying “they bowl them at me, I knock them away”
  • She also said she had failed to retrieve messages on her work phone after leaving the Civil Service, but the Cabinet Office had deleted them

Elsewhere in her evidence, she described a “lack of care” for government staff, which she added proved “damaging in all sorts of ways”.

She recalled that it was over seven months into the pandemic before a hand sanitizing station was placed near a link bridge between the Cabinet Office and No 10 with a Pin pad regularly used by officials.

She also said she repeatedly requested but failed to receive “psychological support” for civil servants working on on the Covid response, adding “I don’t really understand why we couldn’t do that”.

She told the inquiry the government’s response in a number of areas showed an “absence of humanity,” adding in her testimony that the reaction to the Covid situation in prisons “felt very cold”.

She’s another one who claimed to have had problems with messages on her phone – but at least her excuse was different. She said she had “extraordinary” problems providing evidence to the inquiry because after she left, the Cabinet Office wiped her work phone.

Again (This Site has covered this issue several times now), this seems unlikely if they were WhatsApps because the messages are kept in a “cloud” – separate from individual phones, meaning they should be retrievable.

The report added:

Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said the evidence coming from the inquiry was “worse” than feared.

He said the evidence showed “special advisors from privileged backgrounds” were not interested in “how their decisions would impact the disabled, low-income households, at-risk children and others who weren’t like them”.

We are building up a picture of a Westminster government that was using Covid-19 as a means to achieve the aims of its individual members, without the slightest interest in the well-being of the UK as a whole.

This fits with what reporters like This Site were saying at the time, when we were commenting on failures to provide for the most vulnerable in society, coinciding with the provision of huge amounts of money to Conservative friends and donors in Covid-related business contracts that were granted using the illegal “fast-track” process.

Here‘s a prime example: Cummings has claimed that Johnson thought people could kill Covid-19 by using a “special hair dryer” up their nose:

He said Mr Johnson shared the Youtube clip – since deleted – in a WhatsApp group with Sir Chris, England’s chief medical officer (CMO), and Sir Patrick, then the government’s chief scientific adviser (CSA).

He then “asked the CSA and CMO what they thought”, he added. The statement does not detail what response – if any – was given by the advisers.

Cummings also said Johnson asked him to find a “dead cat” (a story that would distract the news media) to draw attention away from Covid-19 in late 2020:

In the summer of that year, he wrote, Mr Johnson “wanted to declare Covid ‘over’ even though this would obviously backfire”.

“At one point in autumn he told me to ‘put your campaign head back on and figure out how we dead-cat Covid, I’m sick of Covid, I want it off the front pages,'” Mr Cummings added.

“I said that no campaign could ‘dead-cat Covid’ and I would not spend my time on such a project,” he added.

Others, like the devolved government in Wales, were doing the right thing but were attacked for it by the Westminster elite, the inquiry heard.

Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s former head of communications, praised Mark Drakeford’s Labour-run Welsh government for correctly imposing a three-week “firebreak” lockdown in October 2020:

During it people were told to stay at home and pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops had to shut.

Gatherings, indoors and out, with those not in your household were also banned.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford called it a “short, sharp, shock to turn back the clock, slow down the virus and buy us more time”.

The Welsh lockdown, which would eventually be mirrored in England two weeks later, led to a clash with the UK Treasury.

Make a note of this because it concerns the current prime minister:

It saw then Chancellor Rishi Sunak decline to bring forward the new Job Support Scheme (JSS) to replace the furlough in time to top up Welsh wages, leaving many employees fearing redundancy.

In a letter to Mr Drakeford he rejected implementing JSS – which would have covered 67% of wages – a month sooner because of “limitations in HMRC delivery timescales”.

So Sunak had a tantrum and threw his toys out of his pram – and Welsh employees had to suffer for it.

In his witness statement to the inquiry, Mr Cain said a meeting in the Cabinet room in Westminster on 21 September 2020 heard “overwhelming expert opinion that if the (UK) government did not take action in the form of a circuit breaker, Covid would once again spread rampantly across the UK”.

“That would leave no other option than a longer more restrictive lockdown in the months ahead,” he said.

The statement then went on to say that “by late October Covid rates had continued to rise and were at risk of getting out of control.”

Eventually then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown for England, which began on November 5, 2020 and lasted for a month.

It was chaos, wasn’t it?

With these idiots in charge, it’s a wonder we weren’t all dead by November 5, 2020.

Martin Kettle in The Guardian reckons the problem lay with the whole UK system of government, saying it needs to change.

But there’s a big problem.

The lunatics are still in charge, and are only likely to be replaced by another gang of lunatics at the next general election. How are we going to achieve change when our only electoral options are people who won’t implement it?

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  1. John November 2, 2023 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Slanging match is what I thought after listening to Cummings.

  2. Hecuba November 2, 2023 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    ‘We are building up a picture of a Westminster government that was using Covid-19 as a means to achieve the aims of its individual members, without the slightest interest in the well-being of the UK as a whole.’

    And this supposedly how ‘democracy’ operates wherein the big boys in political power exploit it to increase their individual wealth and those of their fascist bros! Nothing will change because if the fake labour party wins next election then I predict those boys will also ‘be engaged in enriching themselves at our expense!’

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