Mark Sedwill, the UK’s most senior civil servant at the start of Covid, viewed Boris Johnson’s government as “brutal and useless” and did not trust Matt Hancock, then health secretary, to be truthful, the inquiry into the pandemic has been told.
In testimony that shines yet more unforgiving light on Johnson’s Downing Street, Sedwill agreed that the PM had veered wildly in his opinions and seemed unable to manage a team, saying it was his job as cabinet secretary to help “force a decision”.
Sedwill also said he concurred with earlier testimony about Hancock not being routinely honest, saying he would regularly double-check things with others “to make sure he wasn’t over-promising”.
Sedwill, who was Johnson’s cabinet secretary until September 2020 and is now a crossbench peer, did not dispute an August 2020 diary entry by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, quoting Sedwill as saying “this administration is brutal and useless”.
“I can’t actually recall what might have prompted it but … I don’t doubt Sir Patrick’s memory,” Sedwill said.
He also did not dispute earlier evidence from Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, and Lee Cain, his former communications chief, which described the prime minister as poorly suited for the Covid crisis, liable to oscillate between different views, and unable to manage a cohesive team.
Asked by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry chair, if he agreed, Sedwill said: “I recognise them but I wouldn’t express them that way myself.”
Sedwill said while it was not his job to judge the suitability for office of a democratically elected leader, he had sought to put in place a system to help “force a decision”, one in which cabinet ministers had a voice. He added: “It’s exhausting for the people in his [Johnson’s] inner circle.”
The hearing was shown extracts of messages between Sedwill and his eventual successor as permanent secretary, Simon Case, in which Case, at the time the head civil servant at No 10, wrote: “It is like taming wild animals. Nothing in my past experience has prepared me for this madness. The PM and the people he chooses to surround himself with are basically feral.”
Sedwill said in reply: “I have the bite marks.”
In another message to Case, Sedwill said he had sought the dismissal of Hancock as health secretary to “save lives and protect the NHS”, a play on a Covid-era health slogan which Sedwill called “gallows humour”.
Around the same time, Sedwill said, he spoke to Johnson about Hancock’s role. While his role meant he would not have explicitly told the PM to sack his health secretary, Johnson “would have been under no illusions about what would have been best”, Sedwill added.
In a further message to Case shown to the hearing, Sedwill wrote: “Hancock so far up BJ’s [Boris Johnson’s] arse his ankles are brown.”
Earlier in his evidence, Sedwill apologised for suggesting in a meeting in March 2020 that people could hold “chickenpox parties” to spread the virus so children and others could catch Covid and help the country reach herd immunity.
Sedwill said this was suggested in the context of the plan at the time to try to mitigate the peak of Covid, and that his idea was for people less susceptible to Covid to catch it and acquire immunity while those more vulnerable could quarantine.
He added: “These were private exchanges and I certainly had not expected for this to become public. I understand how, in particular, the interpretation that has been put on it, it must have come across as someone in my role was both heartless and thoughtless about this, and I genuinely am neither. But I do understand the distress that must have caused and I apologise for that.”
Earlier evidence has heard that both Johnson and Cummings viewed Sedwill as being “off the pace” over Covid, and too slow to respond to the scale of the threat.
Asked by Keith if this was true, Sedwill argued it was in part because of his role: “It is possible. It is also possible I might have created that impression. I felt I had to provide leadership for a system that was on the edge of panic then. I did not have the luxury of saying, even in private, ‘We are doomed.’”