Political inexperience and cabinet-level turmoil at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government were key reasons why the UK coped poorly with challenges brought by the pandemic compared with peer countries, the Covid inquiry has heard.
Giving evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday, the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell also said the breaching of Covid rules by those in power “destroyed the [public’s] trust”.
The government’s behaviour was “incredibly destructive” to its attempts to persuade the public to adhere to pandemic restrictions, said Lord O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011.
Johnson’s government had also “damaged the future ability of governments to get across behavioural issues” in any new crisis or epidemic, he added.
“This will cause serious problems because you need maximum trust in emergencies,” he said. “It’s vital because you can’t police the whole country: you need people to have maximum trust in the government so they choose to follow their advice.”
O’Donnell also said that the the “significant churn” of Johnson’s cabinet and in the top positions of the civil service had a lot to do with “the UK’s dismal response to Covid”.
The government had gone into the crisis with comparatively limited experience in positions of power: members had an average of just 19 months of cabinet-level experience. Fourteen of the 22-strong team had been in cabinet for less than a year, and only one – Michael Gove – was a veteran.
“There has been a period of comparative instability in the top ranks of the UK government since David Cameron’s resignation after the 2016 EU referendum,” said O’Donnell. “The impact of this inexperience would be impossible to measure but recognising this as a potential point of vulnerability may open up pathways to reform that mitigates the impact of political inexperience.”
That political inexperience could have been why the government did not use established communication structures, suggested O’Donnell – for example, by regularly briefing the public on policy decisions with major implications for the health service without giving notice to NHS leaders.
Frustration with government consultation and communication processes had ultimately led the senior leadership of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, to write to Matt Hancock to request the government adhere to established protocol.
O’Donnell also told the public inquiry that he had talked to the current cabinet secretary, Simon Case, about intense cabinet-level disagreements during the autumn of 2020.
During questioning, the lead counsel, Hugo Keith KC, read from the November 2020 diaries of the former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, which refer to Case, Gove and Johnson’s then fiancee, Carrie Symonds (now Johnson).
Written when Covid infections were rising and tiered restrictions were being introduced, the diaries revealed that: “Simon Case says No 10 at war with itself. A Carrie faction with Gove and another with spads [special advisers] … PM caught in the middle. He has spoken to all of his predecessors as cabinet secretary and no one has seen anything like it.”
O’Donnell said he believed Case had briefed Vallance because the chief scientific adviser needed to “understand how to operate” when “the top is not functioning as well as you would like it to” to “ensure that the best decisions were made for the country despite cabinet-level turmoil”.
O’Donnell also said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) lacked clear strategic direction. He called for a National Security Council-type structure that would “sift” Sage’s findings in any future medium- and long-term crises.
Source : The Guardian