Covid inquiry: Johnson’s No 10 was ‘unbelievably bullish’ UK would sail through

Former senior civil servant Helen MacNamara said there was ‘laughing at the Italians’ early in the pandemic.

Sam Blewett
Wednesday 01 November 2023 11:36 GMT
Boris Johnson is facing more criticism at the Covid inquiry (Andrew Boyers/PA)
Boris Johnson is facing more criticism at the Covid inquiry (Andrew Boyers/PA) (PA Wire)

Boris Johnson’s Downing Street displayed an “unbelievably bullish” and dismissive approach to coronavirus early in the pandemic, a former senior civil servant has said.

Helen MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary during the pandemic, said there was “laughing at the Italians” as the then-prime minister expressed a “breezy confidence”.

She told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday that her “injections of caution” in January and February 2020 “did not register” with Mr Johnson.

Ms MacNamara is the latest official to give evidence after two days of hearings that portrayed dysfunction, indecision and dithering inside Mr Johnson’s government.

She criticised a “macho” culture, a day after “misogynistic” messages about her written by Dominic Cummings were shown to the inquiry.

In her written statement, she said that the UK was “already on the back foot” from Brexit when the pandemic struck.

She said there was also no clear “business as usual” pattern of working under Mr Johnson, and that Whitehall had “developed some unhealthy habits” in a “low trust environment”.

Ms MacNamara said in early Cabinet meetings Mr Johnson was “very confident that the UK would sail through” and that they should be “careful of over-correcting”.

She told the west London hearing that “hostile briefings” hit the Civil Service and criticised the “monomaniacal” way Mr Johnson’s team focused on Brexit and then the 2019 election.

Ms MacNamara said there had been a “jovial tone” and that “sitting there and saying it was great and sort of laughing at the Italians was just … it felt how it sounds”.

“I would say that undoubtedly the sort of unbelievably bullish, we’re going to be great at everything approach is not a smart mentality to have inside a government meeting,” she said.

Ms MacNamara gave a long list of the systemic problems she saw as hindering the Covid response, including a “general lack of knowledge” of the state operations.

She criticised an “over-ideological” approach to decision-making and an “absence of humanity”.

Ms MacNamara also told how her struggles obtaining evidence from the Cabinet Office to provide to the inquiry made her feel like her “own forensic archaeologist”.

Having played a key role in the coronavirus response, she left the Civil Service in 2021 before taking up a senior role at the Premier League.

She also made headlines for providing a karaoke machine for a lockdown event in Downing Street and was fined for her part in the leaving do, which she called an “error of judgment”.

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