As Italy took the drastic step of imposing a nationwide lockdown in early March 2020, senior officials in Downing Street sat “laughing” as Britain’s European neighbour desperately tried to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The revelation came as a series of damning testimonies to the UK’s official pandemic inquiry this week laid bare a “toxic” and “macho” culture at the heart of government that hampered Britain’s response to the health crisis.
In the weeks before the UK’s first lockdown, with the country unprepared for the pandemic, then prime minister Boris Johnson, other ministers and Whitehall mandarins went on holiday, the inquiry heard.
The “de facto assumption” was “we were going to be great”, Britain’s former highest-ranking female civil servant said on Wednesday.
Helen MacNamara, deputy cabinet secretary between 2020 and 2021, said Johnson believed the UK would “sail through” and told those around him to “be careful of overcorrecting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact”.
“Sitting there and saying it was great and sort of laughing at the Italians was just . . . it felt how it sounds,” she added.
The UK’s Covid public inquiry is examining the government’s response to the virus that shut swaths of the economy, upended social life and has killed more than 227,000 people in Britain and infected many millions more. It is due to run until the summer of 2026.
Like several independent commissions investigating the pandemic in other countries, the inquiry is assessing senior decision-making via written and oral evidence from former and current ministers and officials. It has also been given access to reams of private messages that they exchanged in the run-up to, and at the height of, the crisis.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, told the inquiry on Tuesday that the spread of the virus was not considered an “imminent crisis” in February 2020, even as overseas death tolls mounted.
Instead, officials took holiday during the school half-term that month, viewing Covid as “quite a distant problem”. “[Johnson] said he wanted to work on his Shakespeare book,” Cummings said, referring to a book that he was commissioned to write before he became prime minister. Johnson’s spokesperson this week denied the claim.
Lord Simon Stevens, former head of NHS England, on Thursday said ministers drew up a “reasonable worst-case scenario” on February 12, in which 840,000 would die by April as a result of Covid overwhelming the health service. He said the plan did not prompt a sudden shift in government thinking.
Finally, on March 2, Johnson chaired his first Covid-related meeting of Cobra, the emergency committee that helps co-ordinate a pan-Whitehall response to domestic and international crises.
In WhatsApp messages sent after the meeting, Lee Cain, then Downing Street’s head of communications, told Cummings that Johnson did not believe the virus was a “big deal” and thought “his main danger [was] talking [the] economy into a slump”.
Ten days later the mood had changed, with Cummings telling Johnson there were “big problems coming” because the Cabinet Office, the department that runs the machinery of government, was “terrifyingly shit”. There are “no plans”, he warned in messages.
That same day, March 12, the government took the decision to halt widespread community testing and concentrate scarce testing resources on hospitals.
MacNamara confirmed to the inquiry that, on March 13, she also warned senior officials in Downing Street there was “no plan”. “I think we are absolutely fucked . . . I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people,” she said.
A day later, Johnson’s most senior advisers told him that a full UK lockdown was “the only strategy which could suppress the spread of Covid-19, save the NHS from collapse and ultimately buy the government more time”, Cain told the inquiry.
It would be more than a week before Johnson locked the country down on March 23. On April 5, Johnson himself was admitted to hospital with Covid and spent time in intensive care. He was discharged on April 12.
Testimonies given this week painted a devastating picture of Johnson’s ability to make decisions of vital national importance during the pandemic, including when to impose curbs on the public’s movements.
As the crisis unfolded, Johnson “oscillated”, according to Cain, and civil servants grappled to respond to “handbrake turns” in policy, MacNamara said.
Cain said in evidence that the pandemic was the “wrong crisis” for Johnson’s “skillset”, in part because he would “take a decision from the last person in the room”.
As Johnson “melt[ed] down”, according to a message sent by Cummings to Cain, tensions between his aides and members of his own government frayed.
Johnson’s spokesperson said he would give oral evidence to the inquiry in due course.
On May 7, Cummings warned Johnson that the “incompetence” of Matt Hancock, then health secretary, was “killing” people. On August 23, Cummings suggested to his boss that he was “happy to have useless fuckpigs” in the cabinet.
Stevens told the inquiry that Hancock had wanted the right to decide “who should live and who should die” if hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. “Fortunately this horrible dilemma never crystallised,” he added.
A spokesperson for Hancock said: “Mr Hancock has supported the inquiry throughout and will respond to all questions when he gives his evidence.”
In autumn 2020, the UK’s lockdown measures had eased and case numbers were rising again.
Around that time, Britain’s top civil servant, Simon Case, claimed in private messages that his boss changed “strategic direction every day”. “He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach,” wrote the cabinet secretary.
As scientists argued for another strict shutdown, Johnson suggested in a WhatsApp message to Cain on October 15, 2020 that the government hold off imposing a second lockdown as data appeared to suggest “get COVID and live longer”. “Folks I think we may need to recalibrate,” he added, just over two weeks before announcing a new lockdown.
In one of this week’s most damning moments, the inquiry was shown a diary entry from December 2020 in which Sir Patrick Vallance, then the government’s chief scientific adviser, wrote: “He [Johnson] says his party ‘thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people — and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them’.”
In a separate entry read out to the inquiry on Thursday, Vallance described the Department of Health and Social Care as “ungovernable”. Flaws elsewhere were also highlighted by MacNamara, who said Downing Street was a place “contaminated with ego”. She called the culture in the centre of government “macho” and “toxic”.
The government’s own social distancing rules were never properly followed in the prime minister’s official residence, and female officials felt “as if they had become invisible overnight” when Covid struck, she added.
While Cain admitted that a lack of diversity in Johnson’s top team led to “blind spots” in policymaking, MacNamara said the “exclusion of a female perspective” led to “significant negative consequences”, including the death of domestic abuse victims during lockdowns.
Cummings agreed that vulnerable groups in society were “appallingly neglected” when the “dysfunctional system” of government considered imposing lockdown measures.
“Overall, it’s widespread failure,” he said, recalling that Johnson at one point “circulated a video of a guy blowing a special hair dryer up his nose ‘to kill Covid’” before asking Vallance and Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, “what they thought”.