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Helen MacNamara quietly delivered the deadliest assessment of No 10’s Covid chaos

3 min read

The language was appalling, the revelations plentiful and the dysfunction at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government on full display. 

The Covid-19 inquiry, where key players in Johnson’s No10 and senior civil servants faced questions, gave evidence and shared real insight into how decisions were made (or put off) during one of the most high-pressured periods in recent British political history, has been a gripping watch.

Martin Reynolds’ testimony lacked the fireworks of what would follow, but the former principal private secretary to the prime minister began to reveal the problems at the top of government throughout 2020. 

Whatsapp messages revealed just how frustrating officials found Johnson’s approach. Cabinet secretary Simon Case complained that Johnson changed strategic direction every day, while Reynolds himself admitted that Johnson would “blow hot and cold on some issues”.

Dominic Cummings used a rather different form of words when he criticised how the top of government worked during his time as the prime minister’s chief adviser. His words to describe Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, were shocking, and Cummings’s attacks – and a determination to see many of his government colleagues removed from their jobs – would have created a destabilising, distracting and toxic atmosphere in No10 at a time when the opposite was needed. 

Cummings also argued that Cobra meetings were not a useful way to discuss high priority issues, complained that ministers were not always able to get hold of the latest data and analysis, and described No10 as being “almost entirely unsuited” to responding to a crisis: “Physically in terms of the layout, the lack of proper rooms you would have for a crisis centre, in terms of the personnel, in terms of the power.” Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications, echoed his ex- colleague’s view, complaining that “the point was nobody quite knew who was the point person who should be driving this machine. If you asked me now who was supposed to be doing that... I couldn’t tell you.” 

But it was the calm, thoughtful comprehensive evidence provided by Helen MacNamara which was the most damning. The woman who Cummings had misogynistically dismissed in one message to Johnson, revealed the macho behaviour that undermined policy-making, particularly in the early months of the government’s pandemic response. Her most powerful point was to describe a centre of government cut off from the experiences and worries of the people they were there to serve. As someone deeply experienced in the operation of government, MacNamara was able to give a far more persuasive account of what didn’t work as it should.  

From pointing out that PPE was not suited to female bodies, to raising issues of domestic violence, childbirth and childcare, MacNamara’s evidence and her role in the pandemic showed how fundamentally lacking female perspectives were in policy-making. She spoke of a culture that saw Johnson deride Italy’s experience of the Covid outbreak as a joke, a health secretary who persisted in talking up his department’s plan as if sheer bravado could fix the problem, and a group of policy-makers who failed to understand the basics of how most of the country lived and the information and advice they needed from government. 

The noisy chaos and lurid language  may come to define a team that swept to power – and almost as quickly fell from grace. But it is the critiques that go deeper into the system – the failures of culture, a disconnection between those who wield power and those they serve  – that tell us most about what must change.

Emma Norris is deputy director of the Institute for Government

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