Cummings vs MacNamara: the backstage clash at the heart of the UK’s Covid response

The Covid inquiry is scheduled, unfathomably, to have three more years to run. But already one thing seems clear: there will be no more compelling or instructive evidence than that given last Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dominic Cummings and Helen MacNamara, who appeared on successive days, will be for ever linked in the proceedings by the hideous WhatsApp message Cummings sent about his former colleague to the prime minister, demanding her removal from the building “in handcuffs” if necessary: “We cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that cunt.” Though that toxic message provided easy headlines, it was MacNamara, quietly upstaging her nemesis, who had the last word.

In style, the pair of them could hardly have been more different. Cummings is a man set perpetually in 3am Twitter mode, cast in permanent screen-lit outrage. The inquiry stenographer could not keep up with the pace of his trolling. “Slow down, Mr Cummings,” his urbane interrogator, Hugo Keith KC, repeatedly admonished.

MacNamara, the career civil servant, was, by contrast, self-effacing and human – and among the few clearly determined to speak truth to power. In this spirit, she delivered a devastating assessment of the “macho and heroic” tone of the government response to the pandemic, which clearly contributed to the scale of death and damage.

Watching the proceedings and reading the novella-length witness statements that both Cummings and MacNamara had provided – statements that will be critical documents for anyone interested in the practice of government in the future – was to be transported back to those early weeks and months of 2020, in which Johnson’s government repeatedly failed to make coherent decisions about the coming crisis. It was not a comfortable place to be.

Dominic Cummings arriving in a taxi last Tuesday to give evidence.
Dominic Cummings arriving last Tuesday to give evidence. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

For all their temperamental differences, it was striking how often Cummings and MacNamara agreed about the nature of the problems that had occurred. They both recognised that the nerve centres of the Cabinet Office and No 10 were chaotic and slow; that data was unreliable and inadequate; that scientific literacy was lacking; and that planning was scandalously neglected.

They shared, too, in different registers, a withering assessment of the two principals in this existential drama: Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock were both catastrophically ill suited to their roles. (It is Cummings’s theory that Johnson – whom he had helped to elect – was determined to keep Hancock in place, even then, as “the sacrifice for the inquiry”.)

These shared misgivings came to a head on the evening of Friday 13 March 2020. On that day it became clear to both that the policy of delaying the peak of the pandemic to the summer was hopelessly out of date – there were already thousands of independent outbreaks of the disease across the country – and that there was no preparation of any kind to protect care homes, or for shielding vulnerable people, or for PPE procurement, or for the wider implications of an inevitable lockdown. Both Cummings and MacNamara had heard Hancock promise “again and again” that detailed plans for every eventuality were in place. On that Friday evening, when it suddenly dawned that this was not the case, MacNamara let herself through the linking door between the Cabinet Office and No 10. “I have come through to tell you all that I think we are absolutely fucked,” she said.

In the absence of any plan, Cummings was already sketching contingencies on a whiteboard – “Who not to save?” “Who looks after the people who can’t survive alone??” The inquiry heard how over that weekend he wheeled his scrappy whiteboard “like Theseus’s ship” from meeting to meeting as he tried to convince the prime minister that lockdown was now necessary to save the NHS from collapse and prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths. He was proud enough of it to include a picture in his evidence. MacNamara, who had seen the volumes upon volumes of contingencies for say, the collapse of the euro, or a no-deal Brexit, knew that it did not remotely resemble a strategy that might save the nation from terrible harm.

If they were in agreement at that point about the depth of the crisis, their contrasting analyses of the before and after of that moment explained much that subsequently unfolded. MacNamara painted a picture of a senior civil service that was, at the beginning of that year, “bent out of shape” by the shifting imperatives of Brexit, and demoralised by the arrival of a government that had voiced contempt for all of the institutions of state and was high on its own recent triumph. “We need a modern culture of organised collaboration, not a superhero bunfight” where “everything was contaminated by ego”, she wrote in a report in May 2020.

That February, MacNamara said, she had become increasingly concerned about the confidence of the tone of any discussion of the virus. “There was a disconnect between the nervousness I felt and experienced in my … community at home and seeing what was happening abroad, when contrasted with the confidence expressed by others when I was at work,” she recalled. Efforts to address that dissonance in meetings were brushed aside. The talk was all about data and “world-beating” plans, rather than vulnerable families and children. “Thinking about how people will be impacted and planning to minimise harm is a professional skill that is chronically undervalued in the machinery of government,” she writes in her statement. The trenchant phrase that was the title of Bishop James Jones’s report on the Hillsborough tragedy kept rebounding in her head: “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power.”

As the crisis deepened, she witnessed an increasingly narrow group of men, often led by Cummings, making decisions on behalf of all of us. Women became “invisible overnight” in decision making, she writes in her witness statement – mute on Zoom calls or sitting at the back of the room. One result, she believes, was that a full range of real-world impacts was not considered. She bought copies of Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women and handed them out.

At the centre of all of this was the flawed philosophy, she notes, that “it was easier to think about building new things than trying to make what was there work”. The “governing mindset” in No 10 was that “everything had to be built from scratch and governed centrally”. While Cummings fantasised about recreating Darpa, the body tasked with developing technologies for use by the US military, MacNamara tried to interest anyone who would listen in the 1875 Public Health Act, the basis for nationwide structures of healthcare still in place: “The fact there was already an existing network of public health directors across the country who had extensive powers did not [even] register,” she notes.

Then health secretary Matt Hancock (centre, front) at the opening of the NHS Nightingale hospital at the ExCel centre in London in April 2020.
Then health secretary Matt Hancock at the opening of the NHS Nightingale hospital at the ExCel centre in London in April 2020. Photograph: PA/Alamy

Proof of that analysis had been widely available in the inquiry room the previous day. Cummings had begun his evidence by first dismissing all of the nation’s democratic institutions. The cabinet was “largely irrelevant”, “not a place for serious discussion” and “another problem to manage”; the Cabinet Office was “a bomb site” and “a dumpster fire”. Local government, the devolved administrations, Public Health England and the hierarchies of the NHS hardly merited mention in his witness statement, except as intransigent obstacles to his move-fast-and-break-things vision.

Was there any part of the government machine in which you did not find fault, he was asked by the barrister. He replied, without irony, that he had once had a good meeting with special forces.

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This active hostility to the existing machinery of state reflected the attitude of the prime minister. In late February, when the rest of the world was watching the disease advance out of China, Johnson was at his country residence, allegedly trying to cobble together an unreadable book about Shakespeare and finalise the divorce settlement with his wife (who had spent the previous year undergoing a series of operations for cervical cancer) so he could announce his girlfriend’s pregnancy. There was consternation at the time that he had attended none of the Cobra meetings assessing the threat of Covid. “Many argue that had he gone, preparations would have been better,” Cummings said. “I think the opposite is true.”

In support of that damning judgment, Cummings noted that when he tried to counsel Johnson to warn people against shaking hands, in March, “he immediately went on TV and explained how he shook everyone’s hand in hospital”; on the day before the whiteboard plan was created, Cummings reports, Johnson was exercised about a story featuring Dilyn the dog in the Times.

It was MacNamara’s job throughout this period to prepare briefs for the PM for cabinet meetings; this was, in common practice, the way that the collective wisdom of the civil service could be brought to bear on government priorities. Throughout the early part of the year, MacNamara carefully included “injections of caution about the uncertainty of the picture” on Covid but those tonal imperatives did not even register – “he rarely [even] referred to the brief”.

In place of those practised systems of governance, MacNamara observes in her witness statement, there was a desire [from Cummings] to create a Nasa-style mission control system. “I appreciate,” she notes drily, “it would have been preferable … to have had cabinet ministers that [Johnson] and his team trusted to get on with it … and to make the best of the unique and important qualities that the civil service can bring when it is allowed to be its best self.”

Johnson clearly had no interest in such an idea. The tribal impulse that had seen him remove all dissenting voices from the parliamentary Tory party was extended, under Cummings’s sway, to the civil service. Checks and balances on executive power were obstacles to be removed. MacNamara’s explanation of the circumstances that had occasioned Cummings’s vicious WhatsApp message was illuminating of that wider culture. The “stilettos” to which Cummings referred were two: first, MacNamara’s refusal to accept the imposition of David Frost, a divisive political figure, in the politically neutral and highly sensitive role of national security adviser; and, second, an insistence that Cummings must attend an industrial tribunal to account for his behaviour towards Sonia Khan, a young political adviser whom he had sacked and had escorted out of Downing Street by a police officer.

MacNamara – who resigned later that year – said the revelation of Cummings’s message had been upsetting on two levels: first, “that it was disappointing to me that the PM did not pick him up on that violent and misogynistic language”, and, second, that it “revealed exactly the wrong attitude to the civil service”.

No doubt there are stark lessons in both MacNamara’s and Cummings’s evidence on how that service might be far more effective and accountable in times of grave crisis, but the overriding message in last week’s hearings was this: don’t elect politicians who are far more concerned with their own advancement than their citizens’ wellbeing.

MacNamara’s last word on the subject, witnessed by some of the Covid-bereaved families in the inquiry room, might yet stand as an epitaph for that whole disastrous period: “It was miles away from what is right or proper or decent or what the country deserves.”

The Guardian