Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, has given more damning evidence to the Covid inquiry about misogyny, over-confidence, and lack of planning and humanity in the government’s response to the pandemic. Here are some of the key passages from her evidence.
MacNamara was disappointed that Boris Johnson failed to stop misogynistic attacks on her by Dominic Cummings
Messages showed to the inquiry on Monday showed that Cummings wanted to sack MacNamara, accusing No 10 of “dodging stilettos from that cunt”. Responding to the remarks, MacNamara said: “It was disappointing that the prime minister did not pick him up on that violent and misogynist language.” She said that language was “miles away from what is right or proper or decent, or what the country deserves”.
In her written evidence MacNamara said: “Women working in No 10 and the Cabinet Office were experiencing very obvious sexist treatment. This was their experience, and it was impacting on their work as they were finding this distressing and frustrating on top of an already distressing and frustrating situation. The dominant culture was macho and heroic. Neither are the preserve of men (women can be macho and heroic too) but the culture was problematic because it meant debate and discussion was limited, junior people were talked over and it felt that everything was contaminated by ego. It was positively unhelpful when the country needed thoughtful and reflective decision making.”
She told the inquiry she had frequently requested counselling for the stress involved, without success.
In an email to staff she said: “Am concerned about the impact that recent months have had on our teams. And in particular that we are not providing enough support for those who worked during the intense period on C-19, What do I have to do to get a counsellor available that we can point people to? I have had a number of people break down in tears on me this week so this is urgent.”
In response Katharine Hammond, the director of the civil contingencies secretariat, said in an email in April 2020: “Sadly I 100% agree this is an issue. Other things I thought might help:
– having more female professional voices in the room: chief nursing officer, commissioner, head of NCA all amazing women
– frankly there are one or two men at DG [director general] level who just need to be told their behaviours are driving this and to stop it.
– trying to make sure we don’t have a room full of men and all [the] women on zoom (it’s harder to be part of the conversation)
– putting more women in the chair”
No 10 had to make plans for what would happen if the PM became incapacitated by Covid.
MacNamara said she had to “make it up” as she was going along because no plans were in place to deal with the “dystopian nightmare” that was unfolding. When the prime minister became ill with Covid in March 2020, she outlined constitutional concerns. In a note to colleagues she wrote: “What if the PM gets worse? God knows what we say here. I suppose the brutal truth here is if we get to the stage where the PM can no longer fulfil his role, that will become apparent within a few days based on how the disease seems to play out. At that point we’re into scenario C or a variant (i.c. long term incapacitation). I don’t think there’s a world in which that level of uncertainty will stretch out in a way that is constitutionally unsustainable.”
The government was already ‘on the back foot’ in January 2020 because of Brexit
In her evidence to the inquiry, MacNamara said: “When Covid arose as a concern in January 2020 the UK government was already on the back foot from another once-in-a-generation event. Key parts of the system were either subject to change or might have been and were awaiting clarification. Many ministers, senior civil servants and special advisers were uncertain in their role. There was no clear business as usual pattern of working with Mr Johnson. The Cabinet Office and Whitehall had developed some unhealthy habits in terms of ways of working, and it was a low trust environment in terms of relationships between the civil service and the prime minister and his political team. Some of this lack of trust is normal around an election which is why it is a heightened period of risk for all kinds of decision making in government. In February 2020, following the reshuffle, we had one week of normal government before the crisis took.”
Following the science was ‘a bit of a cop out’
MacNamara had serious doubts about the government’s mantra at the time of “following the science”. She said she could see its communication value, but it was “a bit of a cop out”. She said it would be “laughable to say we are following the economics”. In her written evidence she said: “I remember conversations in late January/early February where those of us working together in No 10/Cabinet Office at one step removed from the handing of the response expressed doubt about the argument that we should ‘follow the science’ … The concern about ‘following the science’ was not because we did not have faith in the particular scientists … I felt there was a risk of appearing to delegate responsibility for huge decisions on the health of the population to a small group of scientists and medics. I did not think this was fair or right in terms of democracy. My view – then and now – was that the decision-making apparatus as it stood and was being used and relied on – was not sufficient for the problem we would face: we could not wait for ‘science’ to decide the answer. This is particularly true of the role that SAGE played … They were the right people to make the best estimate of how particular interventions would impact on the spread of the disease. The questions about how to respond to Covid-19 were – in my mind – huge political, ethical, moral, social and economic questions that went to the heart of the kind of country we were or wanted to be, alongside a whole set of relentlessly practical operational issues like supply of food and medical equipment. There would be hard choices and they should be made by elected Ministers.”
In an email at the time she wrote: “btw apart from my mini-rant about the masculine tone i have some VIEWS about the way we are treating ‘science’ like it is the word of God. We don’t always go where the science leads us … Chris W[hitty] is exceptional btw so this is not a pop at him but the answer isn’t just what is rational.”
Matt Hancock repeatedly assured the cabinet there was a Covid plan, when there was not
In her written evidence, MacNamara said: “The Cabinet was told time and time again by the Health Secretary that we had plans in place. At the time I thought that his confidence was on the basis that he had seen the plans and assured himself. I do not remember anyone expressing any doubt or hesitancy that there might be a problem with the plans not being sufficient. The first person I remember doing so was Mark Sweeney, one of the DGs in the Cabinet Office who was responsible for coordinating domestic policy and who took the lead with Jonathan Black in the initial stages of the Covid response. In working through the pandemic legislation he had established that there had not been any thinking done beyond the Department of Health about how ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)’ would work in practice.”
Johnson’s jovial tone and complacency hampered response
MacNamara said that during the early stages of the pandemic, Johnson was “very confident” that the UK would “sail through”. She wrote: “Minister were (politely) worked through. In practice in this case the tone of the Cabinet briefs on the Coronavirus, and in particular the injections of caution I made about the uncertainty of the picture, did not register with Mr Johnson – he rarely referred to the brief. In those early Cabinet meetings in particular Mr Johnson was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should all be careful of over-correcting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact and for which – in any case – we were well prepared …
“I remember on one particular day – it would have been early March – going into the meeting on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary as he was away. It was the day on which there was a question about whether the Prime Minister should shake hands with people on a visit to the hospital and there was a jokey discussion about alternative greetings to handshakes. The Prime Minister felt – not unreasonably – that it was a bit ridiculous for him to suggest alternative greetings. But the jovial tone, the view that in implementing containment measures and suspending work and schooling, the Italians were overreacting, and the breezy confidence that we would do better than others had jarred with me. I remember saying that I thought that all people wanted to know was what was the right thing to do – and that was not clear. I mentioned the reasonable questions people were asking on my children’s school WhatsApp groups and what I believed to be a widespread desire to do the right thing – not just to protect themselves but their communities.”
MacNamara was concerned about ‘absence of humanity’ being feature of government’s response to Covid
In her written evidence she said: “In retrospect many of the systemic problems that caused substantial issues in managing the response were visible in this moment: i) the sucking into No 10 of too much of the decision making by the political machine and this compounding a narrowed perspective, ii) a general lack of knowledge or understanding of how large parts of the state operate, iii) an over-ideological (in my view) approach to individual decisions, iv) an absence of the accountable people in departments being involved or sufficiently involving themselves in decision making, Cabinet government not serving its usual purpose, vi) the unreasonable pressure on the No 10 private office and vii) an absence of humanity.”