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Senior Civil Servant Warned Government Had No Plan For Covid-19 And Could "Kill Thousands"

Helen MacNamara arriving at the Covid inquiry on Wednesday (Alamy)

6 min read

Helen MacNamara, the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary, has told the Covid inquiry she was extremely concerned the Government did not have an adequate plan to deal with Covid-19 prior to a nationwide lockdown called in March 2020.

The former senior civil servant gave evidence at the Covid inquiry on Wednesday. Her testimony follows that of key former Downing Street aides Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings on Wednesday, as part of an examination of the handling of the pandemic at the heart of government. 

While working as Deputy Cabinet Secretary in the Cabinet office MacNamara recalled events from the 13 March 2020, shortly before a lockdown was formally called, when she walked in to No. 10 and told a group of senior advisers, including Cummings, that she believed that there was not a an adequate plan for tackling the crisis, and said the country was “absolutely fucked” and heading for a disaster.

In a statement she presented to the inquiry, MacNamara had recalled saying: "I have just been talking to the official Mark Sweeney, who is in charge of coordinating with the Department for Health. He said I have been told for years that there is a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We are in huge trouble.

"I have come through here to the Prime Minister's Office to tell you all I think we're absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we're going to kill thousands of people."

MacNamara said there was an “increasing concern” in March 2020 that the Government was in the “wrong place” to deal with a pandemic. 

“It was a sense of foreboding. I hope nobody sitting in that office has that again. It was a very, very scary experience,” she said.

The former civil servant said there was “no doubt” in her mind that the country was heading for a “total disaster”.

Three days after the meeting recalled by MacNamara at today's hearing, on 16 March, Boris Johnson, who was prime minister during the Covid-19 pandemic, called for a nationwide lockdown. 

On Tuesday Cummings, who was Johnson’s chief of staff during the pandemic, told the inquiry that he believed the Cabinet Office was a “bomb site” prior to the first lockdown, and claimed it operated "inconsistent data and facts".

He described the Cabinet Office, which MacNamara worked in, as having "many fundamental problems".

MacNamara also told Wednesday's hearing she thought it was odd the Government continued to say it was "following the science" during the pandemic. Johnson repeatedly said his government was being “led by the science”.

Johnson claimed decisions to call for a nationwide lockdown, which included shutting down schools, retail and hospitality businesses, was supported by scientific evidence.

MacNamara said she believed that Government do not normally “blindly” follow advice from scientists and medical experts without further scrutiny by experts, and had been concerned about this approach. 

“More significantly, I didn't understand what the science was, and thought it felt like… a bit of a cop out," she said.

She said it felt like the Government was not "making any decisions" and just "following the science". 

The former senior civil servant also said at the time she did not believe Government could not have locked down the country any faster in a safe way. 

“It’s sort of inconceivable that you would, in fact, do what we then went on to do,” she said

“I've heard a little bit about 'should have locked down earlier'. We could not have gone any faster in a safe way," she said.

But she still felt that Government preparations before the pandemic could have been different beforehand, despite there being no “manual” or “playbook” to instruct the Government on how to lockdown and open up the country.

Cain, who was Johnson’s communications director, told the inquiry on Tuesday he believed that Government was constantly "playing catch up" as it lacked "strategic direction" in the early stages of the pandemic. He recalled that Johnson had been keen to prevent the government being “swept up in a media hysteria”.

“[Johnson] was alive to the fact that previous health issues that had taken hold had proved to be not as first as anticipated," Cain said.

MacNamara was also at the heart of criticism that there was a culture of misogyny in Downing Street on Tuesday after WhatsApp messages from Dominic Cummings showed he had called her a “cunt” and promised to personally handcuff her and drag her out of the building.

In messages sent to Johnson and No.10 10 aides, Cummings said he did not "care how it is done but that woman [MacNamara] must be out of our hair - we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that cunt”.

She said the messages were "horrible to read" but claimed they were both "surprising" and "not surprising" to her. 

"I was doing my job as a civil servant. I'm confident about that, " she said. "The way in which it was considered appropriate to describe what happened to me - yes as a woman [and] as a civil servant - it's disappointing to me that the Prime Minister didn't pick [Cummings] up on the use of some of that violent and misogynistic language," she said. 

MacNamara said Cummings's behaviour was "miles away from what is right or proper or decent or what the country deserves."

MacNamara told the inquiry she believed the culture in Number 10 was "macho" and reported many women felt like they were being excluded from key decisions. 

She claimed when meetings were held by senior politicians and advisers, there were "hardly any women there". MacNamara added that when women were present they often had their screens "turned off" or were sitting on the "back row". 

“Not only were there numerous examples of women being ignored, excluded and not listened to or talked over, it was also clear that the female perspective was being missed in advice and decision making," she said.

Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary to the prime minister during the key stages of the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, told the inquiry on Monday there was a lack of discipline, chaos and "significant degree of misogyny" within government at the time and that the "treatment of women" remained an "ongoing cultural issue which I think we could have done more to address".

The former private secretary had co-signed a document in 2020 with MacNamara which detailed how women were being talked over and people shouted at each other in meetings.

MacNamara said she was unsure whether you could describe there ever being a “normal pattern” of working for Johnson.

She also claimed she could not name "one day" where Covid regulations were properly adhered to inside Downing Street. 

"I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were actually followed properly inside that building [Number 10]," she said.

"I know that because, as I've said in my statement, there was one meeting where we absolutely adhered to the guidance. To the letter. 

"That was the Cabinet meeting, and everybody moaned about it made, and tried to change repeatedly.

"So I know how exceptional it was to really, really, really properly follow the guidance," she said. 

MacNamara claimed she never partied in Number 10, and said during the pandemic she was either at work or at home. 

It was reported that during lockdown parties were held in Number 10 during lockdown and strict social distancing restrictions. 

Sue Gray, a former civil servant, who conducted the report into Partygate, wrote in 2022 that the gatherings she investigated were "not in line with Covid guidance at the time”. 

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