The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

03 Nov 2023

Constitution and governance

After an explosive week of public hearings, Jill Rutter argues that the Covid Inquiry must not miss the opportunity to draw wider lessons for the working of government.

The parade of officials and advisers at this week’s Covid Inquiry has been pretty unedifying for anyone who wants to believe that the UK is well governed.

On Monday, the principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds made clear he had the narrowest possible interpretation of the role – to facilitate Johnson’s ability to be an absent Prime Minister. His sole role was to let Boris be Boris, even when the nation needed something rather better from him.

All the hard yards beyond acting as a human shield for the PM were done by his juniors – in whose work he seemed to take minimal interest. But some of his insights into the realities of a Johnson premiership were jaw-dropping – the mundane stuff like the fact that private office had to cut and paste material into WhatsApp for the PM to consider, or the fact that Reynolds (who had also run Johnson’s private office as Foreign Secretary and was handpicked by him to perform the same function at No.10) seemed to think there was nothing odd about a Prime Minister who was effectively incommunicado for 10 days (something that would only otherwise happen if the PM was under anaesthetic or in a coma).

Cue one of the juniors – Imran Shafi. Shafi clearly felt like a second in a boxing match that was going horribly wrong, knowing that a change of direction was needed but unable as a relatively junior official to do anything about it. Disappointingly – and perhaps because his main aim is to build the evidence case against Boris Johnson – lead Counsel Hugo Keith failed to shed any light on how Shafi tried to escalate his concerns – to Reynolds, to Mark Sedwill the Cabinet Secretary or indeed to Cummings himself.

Day two brought us the people who were – at the time – the real powers in No.10 – communications director Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings. Much has focused on the self-admittedly “deplorable” and “appalling” language they used about colleagues, ministers and the Prime Minister, which must have made the centre of government a really hard place to have any sort of usefully constructive conversation. But they too showed some understandable frustrations.

Anyone who has worked at the centre of government will be familiar with the experience of being fobbed off by departments assuring you that everything is under control. That complacency was painfully visible to external observers in the early pandemic from the top of Public Health England.

Combine that with a boosterish and overconfident Secretary of State for Health and it is easy to see how hard it can be to penetrate into the detail of the plan. A consequence of those attitudes was a failure inside the health department to question whether their ‘world beating’ flu plan needed adapting for a virus that was not flu. Even more unforgivable was the assumption that the UK had nothing to learn from countries that had coped with SARS and would clearly never suffer the fate of Italy – for no other apparent reason than that we were not Italians.

But while Cummings can rightly claim credit for raising the alarm and forcing the switch from Plan A to Plan B, his testimony made clear why working relationships at the centre reached unprecedented levels of toxicity.

On day three, Helen Macnamara, former deputy Cabinet secretary gave a more distanced and dispassionate analysis of that dysfunction. She admitted that Cummings well-advertised hostility to the Cabinet Office and his war on the top of the civil service hampered the initial stages of preparation – the Cabinet office was unwilling to admit any shortcomings and top officials were distracted. February was the month the Prime Minister went AWOL for 10 days – but it was also the month that the Home Secretary was at war with her permanent secretary and advisers were briefing the press that other officials were on the “s**tlist”.

She also painted a picture of a hapless Cabinet Office at the centre – from confused lines of accountability to an organisation unable even to organise food in for staff working late, which took 7 months to organise a hand sanitiser on the door keypad between the CO and No.10.

Her and Cummings’ testimony also laid bare a fundamental difference in approach to government. Cummings’s view was that the response needed to be run out of No.10, on a diet of data processed by his tight blokey coterie of weirdos and misfits. Clear direction from No.10 was undoubtedly necessary for an effective response – but it became painfully clear from all the testimony so far that Boris Johnson was not the person to give it.

Macnamara made clear why that was not sufficient. She pointed to the lack of diversity in decision-making that led to issues being overlooked or being based on the wrong assumptions. Women’s voices were drowned out in the “superhero bunfight” leading to concerns being ignored or treated as afterthoughts. Differential impacts on poorer people or ethnic communities were accepted as inevitable. Data driven government meant a concentration on things, not people. There was an “absence of humanity”.

Other decisions ignored the reality of people’s lives. There is always a tendency inside government to “the illusion of similarity” – with the narrow range of critical decision-makers in government during the pandemic that illusion was life-threatening.

She noted that holes in the government approach surfaced when she, with the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, briefed the opposition who raised questions they could not answer. She noted the value of Cabinet discussions where the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey, with a science PhD, was unafraid to challenge the science. The shadow Cabinet was more routinely briefed than the Cabinet, such was the centralisation.

But she also pointed out that the centre is full of people who have worked on policy at the centre of government – economic policy, securocrats and diplomats. There was a lack of people there who understood how the NHS or the care system worked. You could add that the centralised approach meant that local government was on the receiving end, never viewed as a vital partner.

The danger with the Inquiry is that it turns into a blame game which too easily concludes, as Lee Cain said, that we had the wrong Prime Minister for this crisis and lets the approach to government off the hook. That would be a wasted opportunity.

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.


The direction of travel for English devolution – a matter of perspective

Public voice and economic policy

Unpacking the Supreme Court’s Rwanda decision

How the Foreign Office does crisis 

The enduring influence of Brexit on attitudes towards democracy

Recent Articles