Britain’s COVID-19 inquiry exposes the rot at the heart of Whitehall

LONDON — Everyone knew the British state had problems. This week revealed just how deep the rot goes.

Britain’s public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic stepped up a gear this week, with a procession of key witnesses taking the stand who were at the heart of the U.K. government in 2020.

The punchy oral testimony — and sweary WhatsApp messages — of Dominic Cummings, the former No. 10 Downing Street adviser turned arch enemy of Boris Johnson, grabbed all the headlines, as he attacked his old boss while struggling to account for his own crude and abusive language.

But it was Cummings’ long, incisive written statement to the inquiry, along with the testimony of a former top civil servant, Helen MacNamara, which contained the starkest home truths for the British state.

“I think we are absolutely fucked. I think the country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands,” MacNamara was revealed to have told colleagues in March 2020, as coronavirus began to grip the U.K.

Those words, from the-then second most powerful civil servant in the country, came as she and other senior officials abruptly realized the U.K. government had no real plan to deal with a global pandemic of that nature — despite years of confident reassurances to the contrary.

“I have just been talking to the [U.K. government] official Mark Sweeney, who is in charge of coordinating with the Department for Health,” MacNamara recalled saying. “He said — ‘I have been told for years that there is a whole plan for this. There is no plan.’ We are in huge trouble.”

What followed that dawning realization was an intense period of chaos, as ministers and officials grappled with never-before-considered questions such as whether to ban people from meeting their loved ones, and whether to place Britain into a strict lockdown.

Fingers are now being pointed at both individuals and wider systems for all that went wrong.

The blame game

Unsurprisingly, Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken his fair share of criticism this week.

“It was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,” Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications, said in his evidence Tuesday. Others were less diplomatic — including Cain himself, in private WhatsApp messages handed to the inquiry by ex-colleagues.

In one such WhatsApp exchange, Cummings and Cain — old friends from the 2016 ‘Vote Leave’ campaign — detailed how they found Johnson “exhausting” to work with due to his lurches back and forth on key policy decisions.

“Pretty much everyone calls him ‘the trolley’,” Cummings told the inquiry, referring to a disparaging nickname he invented for Johnson due to the ex-PM’s inability to hold a clear line.

But beyond the Boris-bashing, Cummings and other ex-officials focused their ire on the broader state of Britain’s governing systems, rather than bungling individuals at its centre.

Cummings described the all-important Cabinet Office department — responsible for organizing the business of government and linking different departments together — as a “bombsite” and a “dumpster fire,” with a “huge problem of quality control … inconsistent data, inconsistent facts.”

This disorganization had consequences.

On March 16, 2020, Cummings said he received an email from a senior official warning that the Cabinet Office had yet to see any real plans for the pandemic from government departments — “never mind evaluated and fixed them,” he said. The virus had been in the U.K. for almost three months.

“[The Cabinet Office] cannot drive priorities or fix problems with departments,” Cummings wrote.

What became clear over the course of this week was that the British government was slow to take the virus seriously in early 2020 and even slower at figuring out a coherent and consistent plan to deal with it, jumping back and forth between early efforts aimed at pursuing herd immunity — until it became clear such an approach would be catastrophic.

“There are many signs that the way the Cabinet Office works was extremely ill-suited to this crisis,” Giles Wilkes, a former No. 10 adviser and senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, told POLITICO.

“It is very good for bringing together the people needed to avoid rows blowing up the government. In our system that is really valuable. But from [Cummings’] very compelling account, it was not brilliantly set up to be the body that focusses the PM and his power on a rapidly changing, dangerous situation,” Wilkes added.

‘Toxic’ culture

MacNamara, second in command in the Cabinet Office at the time, drew similarly damning conclusions.

She described how the British government “moved up the gears more slowly than the pace of the crisis,” and remained fixated on standard day-to-day government business as the pandemic began to rage.

She also lambasted the culture at the heart of government — arguing a “macho” and “toxic” environment fostered by a largely male leadership team hampered the broader response.

She said female experts were ignored, and senior women in government “looked over.” She pointed to a lack of consideration of childcare during school closures, and of the impact of lockdown restrictions upon victims of domestic violence, as examples of policy areas that suffered due to a lack of a “female perspective” inside government.

One result of that toxic environment saw MacNamara herself targeted by Cummings with misogynistic language in a WhatsApp message to a colleague revealed by the inquiry. She said she was “disappointed” Johnson didn’t do more to keep his top adviser in check.

Britain’s current top brass are pushing back, at least a little. Speaking Thursday, U.K. Science Secretary Michelle Donelan insisted she did not recognize MacNamara’s account of the culture inside government.

Coming attractions

Cummings has argued — including in multiple tweets since his evidence session ended — that observers should focus on his arguments about the broader failures of the system.

But it is the failings of one particular individual, Johnson, who was ultimately responsible for directing the government, which will continue to be scrutinized in the months ahead.

“If the PM at the heart of this is not a functional entity, cannot make a decision, has fundamentally poor judgment or lack of attention, then it doesn’t matter if the system around him is brilliant or rubbish. Things will go awry when they reach his desk,” Wilkes told POLITICO.

“The central role of the PM, and his rubbishness, cannot be evaded.”

Johnson’s former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also come under intense fire this week, for his role in the lack of apparent planning for a pandemic, his handling of testing targets, and the crisis in British care homes as COVID-19 hit.

Both MacNamara and Cummings accused Hancock of telling falsehoods during the pandemic — or, in MacNamara’s case, she agreed he had a habit of “regularly telling people things that they later discovered weren’t true.”

Johnson’s successor-but-one as prime minister, Rishi Sunak — who was U.K. chancellor during the pandemic — also has questions to answer. He will likely face particular scrutiny for his now-infamous “eat out to help out” scheme — a government-sponsored discount to encourage diners back into restaurants in the summer of 2020 — which some medical experts believe helped spread the virus.

Conveniently enough, all three men — Johnson, Sunak and Hancock — are slated to appear before the inquiry in the same week at the end of November, two people with knowledge of the inquiry told POLITICO.

All of Westminster is holding its breath.



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