This article contains language some readers may find offensive.
The recent hard-hitting Channel 4 docudrama Partygate, based on the Sue Gray report, highlighted the extent to which Downing Street staff were regularly breaking the Covid-19 rules on socialising while the rest of us were in lockdown.
Interspersed with heart-rending testimonies by those unable to visit dying loved ones during that time, it’s a harsh reminder of how we were all gaslighted by Boris Johnson and those closest to him. These events came to mind when watching the latest public hearings of the Covid Inquiry.
Chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge, five so-called ‘modules’ of the Inquiry are well underway: the first phase was completed in July 2023. With prominent former advisers such as Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain now giving evidence, the Inquiry is making headline news and the findings are not pretty. Inquiry hearings have revealed a “toxic culture of government incompetence, backstabbing and misogyny” at the heart of No 10.
“It’ll be like swine flu” and “people will die anyway”
A picture of complete chaos and unpreparedness during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 comes through the evidence and WhatsApp messages of former top advisers and civil servants. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson comes in for particular criticism for his lack of leadership and constant change of direction.
Johnson didn’t attend his first Cobra emergency committee meeting until 2 March 2020. At the time, he was negotiating a divorce and writing a book about Shakespeare. Dominic Cummings, then chief adviser, messaged Lee Cain, director of communications, that Johnson “doesn’t think it’s a big deal” and will “be like swine flu”.
A former aide, Imran Shafi, reported that Johnson had asked: “Why are we destroying the economy for people who will die anyway soon?” This apparent disregard for older people was summed up in the (later denied) claim by Cummings at the time that the government strategy was herd immunity, and “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”
“Shocking disregard” for families
Lack of concern for the old and vulnerable was exemplified by former health secretary Matt Hancock’s appalling decision in March 2020 to discharge untested patients from hospital into care homes, resulting in 20,000 excess Covid deaths. Hancock has come under immense criticism in the Inquiry, described by then top civil servant Simon Case as “weak”, by Cain as a “joker” who “has to go”, and by Cummings, who described him as “unfit for this job” and a “proven liar.”
The toxic, backstabbing culture at No 10 comes through strongly from these WhatsApp messages. Among other insults, Cummings described ministers as “morons” and “useless fuckpigs”. Cummings also claimed that former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill “hasn’t a scooby what’s going on” and that the Cabinet office was “terrifyingly shit”. Cain agreed that ministers were “embarrassing.”
Spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, Susie Flintham, commented on the Inquiry revelations:
“The nastiness, arrogance and misogyny at the heart of government during the pandemic is core to the awful decision-making that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths and tore families like mine apart. When you see that these figures had such a shocking disregard for each other, you can only imagine the disregard they had for families like mine.”
“I’ll personally handcuff her” – unchallenged misogyny
One of the most shocking aspects of the Inquiry is the open misogyny and abusive language of Cummings’ messages, directed especially towards former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara. Dismissing her concern for ethics as “bullshit”, he said: “I’ll personally handcuff her and escort her from the building” and referred to dealing with her questions as “dodging stilettos”, using highly offensive language. It was clear that he was trying to get her dismissed.
In her own evidence to the Inquiry, MacNamara said she was disappointed that PM Johnson did nothing to stop Cummings’ misogynistic attacks on her. She described the “macho culture” and sexism that women working at No 10 encountered, which gave rise to considerable stress in an already stressful situation: “Women became invisible overnight.”
In addition, MacNamara drew attention to the “institutional bias against women”, which led to a lack of awareness about the effects of lockdown on women, including childcare, pregnancy and domestic abuse. The “lack of gender diversity” among government decision-makers had serious, perhaps fatal results, she argued.
In one of my earliest articles for Sussex Bylines in 2020, I pointed out the under-representation of women in the SAGE advisory group and absence of women on the nightly podium. At the time, it certainly felt as if the years had rolled back and women had become invisible again, in stark contrast with the strong female leadership in countries such as New Zealand and Germany.
It must be remembered that most of those giving evidence to the Inquiry have themselves been under scrutiny for breaking Covid-19 rules – and most featured in the Partygate programme.
MacNamara was fined last year for attending a Cabinet Office party during lockdown and providing a karaoke machine for the event. She expressed “profound regret” to the Inquiry. Former adviser Martin Reynolds – nicknamed Party Marty – invited more than 100 Downing Street staff to a “bring your own booze” party during the first lockdown. He apologised for any distress caused by the event.
Last but not least, Dominic Cummings, who notoriously drove to Barnard Castle during lockdown, refused to apologise for this, claiming: “I acted entirely reasonably and legally, and did not break any rules.” He also denied that he was misogynistic, but did apologise to the Inquiry for his language.
Missing WhatsApp messages
The Inquiry has a long way to go, but a considerable amount of damning evidence against the government and individuals about their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has already emerged.
However, much important evidence is still missing. Reynolds was questioned about why he had turned on the ‘disappearing messages’ function on a WhatsApp group that included the PM and other aides, just weeks before the Inquiry was announced. His reply that he was concerned about possible leaks was disingenuous to say the least. Simon Case went on medical leave shortly after his WhatsApp messages became public.
Former PM Johnson says that he is unable to access messages between January and June 2020, the important early stages of the pandemic. Current PM Rishi Sunak claims he cannot access his messages while Chancellor because he had “failed to back them up.” These could be crucial to the Inquiry.
Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, argued that Johnson and Sunak should “face the full force of the law” if they don’t provide these messages:
“If half as much effort was put into learning from the mishandling of the pandemic as has been put into hiding critical evidence from the inquiry, we would be in a better position when the next pandemic comes.”