Boris Johnson’s chaotic ‘flip-flopping’ made it ‘impossible’ to tackle Covid, advisers’ messages reveal

Cabinet secretary warned that Johnson ‘cannot lead’ during crisis – as ex-No 10 aide admits he ‘disappeared’ WhatsApp messages

Adam Forrest,Archie Mitchell
Tuesday 31 October 2023 04:43 GMT
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Boris Johnson made Covid decisons ‘impossible’, advisors said in WhatsApp exchanges

Scathing WhatsApp messages sent between Boris Johnson’s top team accused the former PM of creating chaos during the Covid crisis – complaining that he “flip-flopped” every day on direction and made it “impossible” to tackle the pandemic.

A series of startling new revelations emerged at the Covid inquiry, as messages shared between cabinet secretary Simon Case, chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance and top adviser Dominic Cummings exposed the disdain they held for Mr Johnson.

It also emerged that Mr Johnson’s key aide Martin Reynolds set messages to “disappear” in a key Covid WhatsApp group only weeks after the ex-PM promised the Covid inquiry.

The ex-principal private secretary – dubbed “Party Marty” for his “bring your own booze” email during Partygate – said he was “deeply sorry” for his role in organising the infamous event and Mr Johnson’s birthday gathering at No 10.

Other bombshell inquiry developments included:

  • Chief medical officer Chris Whitty criticising Rishi Sunak’s restaurant scheme as “Eat out to help out the virus”
  • Mr Johnson is thought to have asked why the economy was ruined “for people who will die anyway soon”
  • Mr Reynolds revealing a “significant degree of misogyny” at the heart of No 10 during the Covid crisis
  • Mr Vallance describing Mr Cummings’ Barnard Castle lockdown trip as a “fiasco” and “clearly against the rules”
  • At the height of his frustration, the nation’s top civil servant said Mr Johnson “cannot lead”

In a day full of shocking revelations, Mr Reynolds was grilled about setting WhatsApp messages in the PM’s advisory group chat to be deleted in April 2021 – only weeks after Mr Johnson announced an inquiry in the Commons.

He told the inquiry he “cannot recall exactly why I did so”, before explaining that may have been worried about colleagues screenshotting the WhatsApp messages and “leaking” them to the media.

Yet Mr Reynolds and Mr Case were found to have discussed the likelihood WhatsApp messages would be demanded by the Covid inquiry. In one from December 2021, Mr Case told his colleague: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry.”

Martin Reynolds grilled at Covid Inquiry on disappearing messages

A series of searing WhatsApp messages sent between Mr Johnson’s top team were heard at the inquiry on Monday revealing that they thought it was “impossible” to tackle Covid because he changed direction every day.

Mr Case sent a message to Mr Cummings in September 2020 saying Mr Johnson “cannot lead” – saying he “changes strategic direction every day”. He added: “[Government] isn’t actually that hard but this guy is really making it impossible.”

At the time, Mr Johnson was said to favour a “let it rip” approach to the deadly virus. In response, the cabinet secretary said: “I am at the end of my tether. The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day … IT HAS TO STOP!”

Boris Johnson (right) with cabinet secretary Simon Case

Extracts of diary entries made by Sir Patrick, the chief scientific officer, said Mr Johnson was “all over the place” and “so completely inconsistent” on Covid policy.

Saying the then-PM’s “flip-flopping” was getting worse in July 2020, Mr Vallace later wrote in September: “We have a weak and indecisive prime minister.”

Imran Shafi, a former private secretary to the PM, told the inquiry there was a “high degree of dysfunctionality” whenever he was dealing with Mr Johnson.

The ex-No 10 aide said the then-PM “did not think Covid was a big deal” in the months leading up to the first lockdown. He also revealed a damning extract from his notebook from a March 2020 meeting involving Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak.

Someone at the meeting said: “Why are we destroying [the] economy for people who will die anyway soon?”. Mr Shafi said he thought Mr Johnson had made the remarks.

Prof Chris Whitty, Boris Johnson and Sir Patrick Vallance during Covid press conference

In an embarrassing detail for Mr Sunak, Mr Shafi said Prof Whitty, the chief medical officer, had criticised the then-chancellor’s “Eat out to help out” scheme in August 2020 – calling it “Eat out to help out the virus”.

And in another damning piece of evidence, Sir Patrick’s diary extract revealed that he had described Mr Cummings’ Barnard Castle lockdown trip as a “fiasco” and something that was “clearly against the rules”.

Sir Patrick said senior officials, including Mr Reynolds, had tried to “strong arm” him and Sir Chris into doing a press conference about the trip around that time. He described Mr Cummings’ No 10 rose garden statement to the media as a “car crash” and "ambling”.

In a group chat between communications chief Lee Cain – who will appear at the inquiry on Tuesday – Mr Case and Mr Cummings, the trio criticised health secretary Matt Hancock. Mr Cain called him a “joker”, while Mr Cummings referred to him as a “liar”, messages revealed.

Mr Reynolds said Mr Cummings brought an “unusual dynamic” to No 10 and created “unease” among officials. He said the strategist was “the person whose writ ruled” and referenced a so-called “s***list” reportedly drawn up by Mr Cummings on civil servants.

Mr Reynolds also revealed “misogyny” at the heart of Downing Street with a report he conducted with Helen MacNamara – deputy cabinet secretary at the Cabinet Office – in spring 2020, finding that women were regularly talked over at No 10 meetings.

Asked if the report found a “significant degree of misogyny”, Mr Reynolds said: “I agree,” adding that it did not improve even after he raised it with Mr Johnson.

The key aide to Mr Johnson also admitted the government’s readiness to tackle Covid was “grossly deficient”, and that officials were operating “without a proper playbook”.

When grilled about the BYOB party and birthday gathering for Mr Johnson, Mr Reynolds said he was sorry for “my part in those events” and said he wanted to “apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused”.

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