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Downing Street’s response to the Covid-19 crisis was hampered by a “macho” culture “contaminated by ego”, Britain’s former highest-ranking female civil servant has said, with Boris Johnson believing the country would “sail through” while delivering “handbrake turns” in policy.
Helen MacNamara told the Covid inquiry on Wednesday that senior UK officials “laugh[ed]” when Italy began imposing lockdowns in early 2020 and that the “de facto assumption” was “we were going to be great”.
MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary between 2020 and 2021, said there was an “absence of humanity” in the government’s approach and that Johnson, then prime minister, did not question the country’s preparedness. Instead, he was “very confident that the UK would sail through”.
Johnson “rarely accepted that to govern is to choose. He really did want it all and changed his mind often,” said McNamara, adding that civil servants had to “respond to any number of handbrake turns in policy”.
In written evidence, she wrote that “the dominant culture was macho and heroic” and “it felt like everything was contaminated by ego”.
MacNamara, who was fined for attending a party in Whitehall in 2020, also said the government’s own social distancing rules were never followed in Downing Street.
“I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were followed properly,” she said, adding that “hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers” had breached the guidance.
McNamara’s remarks add to the string of damaging revelations about Britain’s response to coronavirus under Johnson, who served as prime minister between 2019 and 2022.
Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Johnson, on Tuesday said the UK’s approach was marked by “widespread failure”, and that a “dysfunctional system” had led vulnerable groups to be “appallingly neglected”.
Meanwhile, in diary entries from 2020 that were seen by the inquiry, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, wrote that Johnson considered the virus to be “just nature’s way of dealing with old people”.
The inquiry is examining the government’s response to the pandemic, including the UK’s preparedness and senior decision-making, and is due to run until the summer of 2026.
In written evidence, MacNamara said that when Covid struck, the government was “already on the back foot” given the “monomaniacal” attention paid to Brexit arrangements in previous months.
On Wednesday, MacNamara confirmed an account that, on March 13 2020, she told senior officials in Downing Street there was “no plan”. “I think we are absolutely fucked,” she said. “I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people.”
The inquiry heard that Matt Hancock, who was health secretary when the pandemic began, displayed “nuclear levels of confidence” and would regularly tell the cabinet there were plans in place to deal with the virus when this was not the case.
MacNamara said a “pattern” developed in which Hancock would tell officials “something was absolutely fine” only for them to later discover “it was very, very far from fine”.
Asked if she was suggesting Hancock regularly said things that were not true, MacNamara said “yes”.
In written evidence, MacNamara recounted asking Hancock in early 2020 if he needed any extra support. “He reassured me that he was ‘loving responsibility’ and to demonstrate this took up a batsman’s stance outside the cabinet room, and said, ‘they bowl them at me, I knock them away’,” she wrote.
On Tuesday, the inquiry was shown messages in which Cummings vowed to “personally handcuff” MacNamara “and escort her from the building”.
In WhatsApp messages, Cummings wrote: “I don’t care how it’s done but that woman must be out of our hair — we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***.”
MacNamara said “there was definitely a toxic culture” in Downing Street and that she had been disappointed that Johnson did not challenge Cummings on his “violent and misogynistic language”.
In written evidence, she said “women who had worked in the Cabinet Office and Number 10 reported feeling as if they had become invisible overnight”.
McNamara said a lack of female and diverse perspectives among senior decision makers meant children and domestic abuse victims were not appropriately considered during the pandemic.
“It is very difficult to draw any conclusion other than women have died as a result,” she said in an email submitted to the inquiry, referring to a lack of provision for domestic abuse victims during the first lockdown.