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Britain’s former top civil servant apologises for suggesting chickenpox-style Covid parties

The former cabinet secretary acknowledged the remarks could seem ‘heartless and thoughtless’

Archie Mitchell
Wednesday 08 November 2023 14:16 GMT
Covid compared to chickenpox: ‘Terrifying’ advice from cabinet secretary during pandemic

Former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has apologised for suggesting Boris Johnson should encourage people to hold chickenpox-style parties during the pandemic.

The ex-national security adviser admitted making the suggestion but insisted he was only using it as a way of shielding the most vulnerable while others developed immunity.

He apologised to families of victims at the Covid inquiry on Wednesday and accepted his comments could have come across as “both heartless and thoughtless”.

Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser who often criticised Lord Sedwill, first made the claim that he had been “babbling about” chickenpox as Covid struck.

According to Mr Cummings, Lord Sedwill suggested to the then-prime minister that he should go on television and “explain that this is like the old days with chickenpox and people are going to have chickenpox parties”.

On Wednesday, Lord Sedwill told the inquiry: “These were private exchanges and I certainly had not expected for this to become public.

“I understand how, in particular the interpretation that has been put on it, it must have come across as someone in my role was both heartless and thoughtless about this and I genuinely am neither. But I do understand the distress that must have caused and I apologise for that.”

Lord Sedwill said the remarks were made before the mid-March 2020 meetings in which the government changed its approach to head towards a lockdown.

“I should say, at no point did I believe that coronavirus was only of the same seriousness as chickenpox, I knew it was a much more serious disease, that was not the point I was trying to make,” he said.

He said he stopped making the comparison when he realised the reaction of Downing Street’s Dr Ben Warner, a former special adviser, because he realised “that analogy was causing confusion”.

Messages from March 12, 2020 showed he had discussed chickenpox with Sir Christopher Wormald, the top civil servant at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

“Indeed presumably like chickenpox we want people to get it and develop herd immunity before the next wave,” Lord Sedwill wrote.

He went on to talk about his concerns about Mr Johnson’s “stamina” during his long recovery from coronavirus after he was treated in hospital in April 2020.

“It took him a long time to recover, he had a serious bout of this,” the peer told the west London inquiry.

“So I wasn’t concerned so much about his decision making style – separate question – it was about stamina really.”

Messages revealed how Lord Sedwill warned Mr Cummings in March 2020 that the government was not a “dictatorship”, over concerns the aide wanted Mr Johnson to take nationally significant decisions with no ministers or experts present.

Lord Sedwill also acknowledged he had delayed calling an emergency Cobra meeting early in the pandemic over concerns Matt Hancock was trying to “make a splash”.

He hesitated for two days over the then-health secretary’s request because he believed it may have been for “communications purposes”.

Lord Sedwill said he received a request on around January 21, 2020 from the DHSC for an emergency Cabinet Office meeting.

“I felt that a Cobra which might have been convened primarily for communications purposes wasn’t wise,” he said. “Two days later I was advised there was a genuine cross-government basis for it and I agreed.”

Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC asked him to be “plain” in his speaking.

“Were you concerned that the Cobra was being called by the DHSC for presentation purposes, that is to say to make a splash about the role of DHSC, perhaps its secretary of state, and that’s why you initially hesitated?” he asked.

Lord Sedwill said: “That is a fair summary of my thinking.”

Mr Johnson’s confidence in the early days of Covid-19, which has repeatedly been highlighted in the inquiry, was again under scrutiny.

Lord Sedwill’s minutes of a February 2020 cabinet meeting were shown to record that the then-prime minister said “confidence is contagious”.

Mr Johnson had agreed that often significant economic damage during a crisis comes from political overreaction rather than the problem itself.

Lord Sedwill, a former diplomat, was running the civil service when the pandemic struck but was forced out in September 2020.

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