It’s a wonder so many people did survive the pandemic. All week the Covid inquiry has been hearing from senior civil servants and special advisers whose descriptions of government from inside No 10 have been breathtaking. A prime minister who was totally out of his depth, more interested in shagging and going on holiday and unable to deal with the reality of the situation. A health secretary who lied even more than Boris Johnson. Journeymen and women more interested in fighting their own macho turf wars. All seemingly not that bothered their decisions were costing lives.
Here’s a thought. Almost any of us could have done a better job than those who were meant to be running the country. Hell, it would have been hard to do a worse one. Led by donkeys. Most of whom went to Oxbridge. Those universities have a lot of soul-searching to do. Even my dog could have done better. He didn’t put a foot wrong during Covid. Obeyed all the rules. Didn’t kill anyone. Didn’t get into fights. Only went for walks at set times. Never went to parties. And he can generally get through the day without calling his colleagues “fuckpigs” and “morons”. What more could you want?
On Wednesday it was the turn of the former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara to give evidence. After listening to Martin “Party Marty” Reynolds and the career sociopath Dominic Cummings over the previous two days, the counsel for the inquiry, Andrew O’Connor, couldn’t believe his luck. Here was a woman of some depth. Some seriousness. Prone to introspection and self-reflection. Capable of contrition. Well, almost. For a civil servant, this is probably as close as you get to warmth. A proper human being.
MacNamara began with an apology. She was sorry she hadn’t been able to hand over all of her WhatsApp messages to the inquiry. It was because she had handed her phone back to the Cabinet Office which now claimed to have destroyed it. Just one of those things. Who could ever have imagined it might be needed for an inquiry? But not to worry. She had conducted most of her business via email so most of the records were in tact.
What sort of state was the government in when she joined the Cabinet Office as Mark Sedwill’s deputy in January 2020? MacNamara didn’t hold back. Terrible. Johnson: unstable and unfit for office. The government had spent the previous six months so focused on Brexit – that went well – it wasn’t in any fit state to do the weekly shopping let alone deal with a global pandemic. There was no trust between government – only the dregs of the Tory party remained to fill ministerial posts – and the civil service and the country was at war with itself.
But even when Boris and the boys – it was mainly boys – belatedly woke up to the threat of Covid their response was totally useless. First they just thought it was something that would only affect foreigners. The virus would stop at Calais. Just like the Germans in 1940. Then the Italians were a bunch of moaning minnies. So weak they had talked themselves into dying. We in Britain would be far better than that. We would be world-beating. It was something out of the Trump playbook. Hell, most of us would have killed for something vaguely adequate.
Then there was Matt Hancock. He insisted he had a top quality plan. The best plan ever. A plan that was his and his alone. That belonged to him. Amazingly, no one – not Johnson, not even the relatively sane MacNamara thought to ask to see it. To check that it actually existed. Which it didn’t. It was just another of the health secretary’s pathetic fantasies. It’s not just his family that Door Matt let down. It was the country, too.
O’Connor trod gently throughout. Treating MacNamara as someone who might be suffering from PTSD after working with Johnson and Cummings. She might well be. By the middle of March she had concluded in an email: “We’re all fucked. We’re heading for a disaster.” She was about the only person who seemed remotely bothered about it. Dom was too busy conducting psycho turf wars on other members of staff. Boris was off on holiday. Party Marty was in an altered state.
The dysfunctionality of Downing Street was stripped bare. The macho culture. The rampant misogyny. Staff unable to cope. MacNamara had done her bit to try to improve things but had only been rewarded with yet more abuse from Dom. He had never forgiven her for blocking the totally useless David Frost from returning to the civil service. Hang him out to dry in the Lords instead. You can’t fault her judgment. Frost is the man who has spent a career rubbishing the Brexit deal he himself negotiated.
At a time when thousands were dying alone in hospitals and care homes, the government had lost its humanity. Unable to treat its own citizens with dignity and respect. Unaware of its obligations to the country. Or even to its own employees. Just posturing and ad-libbing its way through with macho abandon.
The one awkward moment came when the questioning turned to parties. Here O’Connor got almost shy, as if he were a bit in love with his witness and MacNamara became somewhat coy. A touch of the Princess Di’s “there were three of us in this relationship”. “I would never have gone to a party,” she said. It wasn’t her style. Well, maybe just a glass of wine at work at the end of the day. Except it was far more than that. Our Helen got a Fixed Penalty Notice for one of the more raucous parties at No 10. She even supplied the karaoke machine for it.
“Ah that,” she mumbled. Failing to make eye contact. Well, there had been that. And she was sorry. She didn’t want to make excuses but she wanted to make excuses. Her staff had been at their wits’ end. Breaking point. They had been on the frontline and needed some comic relief. So she had organised a party that wasn’t a party for them. Hell, she’d do it again. And almost every government minister thought they must have broken the rules at some time.
Really? Well, how very reassuring. Because I didn’t feel it was OK to break the rules during lockdown. Nor did millions of others. People working in far more stressful situations than civil servants in Downing Street. Doctors and nurses treating the sick and the dying on 24-hour shifts. They felt it was important to stick to the law. As a group collective. A service to each other. Because everyone else was doing it. Except they weren’t.
MacNamara may have more heart, more soul than many others in government. She may be worth a dozen Boris Johnsons, Party Martys and Dominic Cummings combined. But she was still a senior civil servant who thought the rules didn’t apply. When the chips were down, she wasn’t one of us.