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Michael Gove Says Cabinet Office Was Inherently "Dysfunctional" During Pandemic

Michael Gove gave evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

4 min read

The Cabinet Office was inherently “dysfunctional” and unprepared for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, according to former Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove.

Gove is now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and was previously the Minister for the Cabinet Office (CO) during the pandemic between 2020 and 2021 and former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster between 2019 and 2021.

He is the latest politician to give evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry, following multiple figures over the last few months, including regional mayors Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram on Monday.

Many previous evidence sessions have heard that various aspects of government operations and preparedness for Covid-19 had been flawed, and former adviser Cummings had told the Inquiry that the Cabinet Office was a “bombsite” that operated with "inconsistent data and facts" in the early months of the pandemic. 

Giving evidence on Tuesday, Gove reflected some of Cummings’ comments, arguing that it became clear to him after becoming a minister in the department in early 2020 that the Cabinet Office was dysfunctional.

“Government was not configured as it should be,” he said.

“It was only when I assumed full responsibility as MCO that it became clear to me quite how dysfunctional the structure of the organisation was. There were parts of the CO that considered themselves not to be accountable to me or anyone who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or Minister for the Cabinet Office.”

He highlighted a "tendency among successive prime ministers to shove in responsibility into the Cabinet Office that does not fit in easily elsewhere", leading to responsibilities being given to the department "in a piecemeal and cumulative way".

Gove described the CO as "a sort of Mary Poppins bag" where responsibilities were “shoved in”, and added that he saw some parts of the department as “the dark side of the moon” as they were “obscured from my gaze”.

A series of exchanges between Gove and former government adviser Dominic Cummings were shown to the Inquiry, which included a message from Gove saying "we are fucking up as a Government and missing golden opportunities".

Gove and Cummings messages
Texts between Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings were seen as evidence (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

Gove apologised for his language but said he was "concerned at that stage" about the Cabinet Office overall, not just with the handling of the pandemic.

The Covid Inquiry has also heard evidence that a number of “strong personalities” within the Cabinet Office and No10 had contributed to a “culture of misogyny” and a “lack of discipline” among staff.  

However, Gove defended the personalities that had led government at the time, arguing that strong personalities were “needed to be assertive in order to deal with some of the other challenges we faced” and had been instrumental in securing the Conservatives’ 2019 general election majority and negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Gove had previously given evidence to the Inquiry in the summer, when he said that government preparations for Brexit meant the UK was better placed to respond to crises posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Tuesday's evidence session, Gove recognised that some individuals’ behaviour was “irrational, cavalier, or foolish”, most of the flaws in decision making were a result of a combination of “systemic factors” and individual instincts and judgements that “with the benefit of hindsight was wrong”.

“You're never going to get a perfect team of personalities among whom there is perfect harmony,” he said.

The levelling up secretary also agreed with Helen MacNamara, the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary, who told the Covid inquiry the government had not had an adequate plan to deal with Covid-19.

He said that in the early months of the pandemic, he had “took on trust” that the country would be “relatively prepared”, but conceded that it later became clear that “we were not as well prepared as we should have been, ideally”.

However, he argued that as Covid was a “novel” virus it had presented a set of uniquely difficult challenges for the government to overcome, and even suggested that the possibility of the virus having been man made also could have complicated matters.

“A significant body of judgement that believes that the virus itself was manmade and that that presents a whole set of challenges as well,” he said, before being reprimanded by Hugo Keith KC for bringing up a “divisive issue” that is not within the scope of the Inquiry. 

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