Covid rules were almost never followed in Downing Street, ex-aide tells inquiry

Helen MacNamara, who was the deputy Cabinet secretary in the key early stages of the pandemic, working in Boris Johnson’s government.

By Lucy Ashton

ITV News is reporting that Covid-19 regulations were almost never followed in Number 10 during the pandemic, a key aide in Boris Johnson‘s government has told the Covid-19 inquiry.

Helen MacNamara, who was the deputy Cabinet secretary in the key early stages of the pandemic, also commented on a lack of care taken about the spread of the virus in government and the former prime minister falling ill.

The former civil servant, who was fined by police for attending a gathering in Downing Street, told the inquiry she “would find it hard to pick one day the regulations were followed properly within that building”.

She said she is sure of that statement being true because she can recall “one meeting where we absolutely adhered to the guidance to the letter” – the Cabinet meeting – “and everybody moaned about it and tried to change repeatedly”.

Gatherings in Downing Street “should never have happened” and “we should have been following rules”, she said.

Mr Johnson is expected to appear at the inquiry before December 14, as is his successor Rishi Sunak and former health secretary Matt Hancock.

It has been a blockbuster week at the inquiry so far, with Mr Johnson’s most senior former advisers giving evidence, including ex-director of communications Lee Cain and former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

There was a ‘lack of care’ about coronavirus on Downing Street despite Johnson falling ill

A “lack of care” in government about the dangerous of the new virus troubled Ms MacNamara, given she, Mr Johnson then cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and health secretary Matt Hancock had all fallen ill in March and April 2020.

Exposing just how blasé people in government were about the guidance they’d been issuing, Ms MacNamara told the inquiry it took seven months after the beginning of the pandemic to get a hand sanitiser station by the door between No 10 and the Cabinet Office.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
The senior official was giving evidence after the inquiry was shown ‘misogynistic’ messages about her by Dominic Cummings.

This was despite there being a keypad there which “anyone who worked for the prime minister was constantly having to touch on their way through”.

Inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor KC suggested it was hardly surprising that so many people working in No 10 and the Cabinet Office contracted Covid, given that situation.

Ms MacNamara said: “It’s not surprising at all, and also is indicative of, of just a lack of care, actually, which I think was damaging in all sorts of ways.”

She also claimed the Covid-19 task-force operation was “cobbled together and operating on a shoe-string”, and “it is almost a point of pride that the civil service will just work in these conditions”.

Matt Hancock ‘regularly said things that turned out to be untrue’

Former health secretary Matt Hancock, who was forced to resign during the pandemic after being caught breaking Covid guidance by kissing an aide, reassured Cabinet “time and time again” that his department had a plan to deal with the pandemic, Ms MacNamara said.

This claim turned out to be untrue, she suggested, when people in government realised the plan had given no consideration to how non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns would work in practice.

But it eventually became clear to Ms MacNamara that there a “pattern” of “being reassured that something was absolutely fine” by Mr Hancock before discovering it was “very, very far from fine”.

The former deputy cabinet secretary said Mr Hancock had “time and time again” without “any ambiguity” told the Cabinet that plans were in place during the pandemic, which did not turn out to be the case.

Asked whether Mr Hancock was regularly telling people things that they later discovered weren’t true, Ms MacNamara said “yes”.

After he’d returned from illness, she asked if he needed any extra support.

Her written statement said “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 said it symobilised the “nuclear levels of confidence” being deployed in government, “which I do think is a problem”.

Realising the country is “absolutely f****d” was a “very, very scary experience”

Ms MacNamara talked in her testimony about a “very, very scary experience” when she realised thousands of people would die in the pandemic and did not feel reassured by what she heard from those in government.

She said she had been in meetings that day including in Downing Street and a briefing with the Opposition, which had “entirely valid” concerns and “clear and high” anxieties.

On the government side, she was “more alarmed than reassured” by what she heard, she said.

She confirmed testimony from Dominic Cummings that said on March 13, 2020, she went into Prime Minister Johnson’s office, where the PM was not, to warn a number of advisers there that the country is “absolutely f****d” and “heading for a disaster” in which thousands of people would die.

“It was a sense of foreboding, like I hope nobody sitting in that office ever has again actually. It was a very, very scary experience.

“I felt that it wasn’t in any doubt in my mind at that point that we were heading for a total disaster and what we had to do was do everything in our power to make it impact as little as possible in the time we had available in the circumstances we were in.”

Leaving the EU put the UK ‘on the back foot’ early in the pandemic

In her written submission to the inquiry, she 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 [Brexit].

“Key parts of the system were either subject to change or might have been and were awaiting clarification.”

Explaining this to the inquiry, she said the attitude within government was that “everything else could wait” until the UK’s exit from the European Union was sorted.

Boris Johnson’s ‘breezy confidence’ about Covid was jarring

Ms MacNamara also noted how Mr Johnson’s “jovial tone” about the threat of Covid in early March 2020 jarred with her.

In her witness statement, she said: “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.”

Cabinet Office made it “extraordinary difficult” to get information for inquiry

As Mr Cummings did, Ms MacNamara criticised the Cabinet Office in her testimony, saying the department had made it “extraordinary difficult to get even the most basic pieces of information” to help with her written submission.

This claim was backed up by Mr Cummings, who tweeted to say Cabinet Office had “failed to follow orders” to keep records of events during the coronavirus pandemic.

He also said there were “a lot of the wrong people in the wrong job” in the Cabinet Office when giving evidence on Tuesday, describing a culture there of “constantly classifying everything to hide mistakes”.

Ms MacNamara said she felt like a “forensic archaeologist” when trying to obtain information, which was made more difficult because the “Cabinet Office deleted my work mobile phone”.

Ms MacNamara said “the messages were all backed up” on her former work device but were no longer accessible when she asked for them.

Asked whether this was a “frustration”, she replied: “It is, yeah.”

Top picture: Number 10 Downing Street where “nuclear levels of confidence were being deployed in government”.

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