Patrick Vallance says advisers tried to "strong arm" him into post-Cummings scandal press briefing and Simon Case says he is "pissed off" over Partygate event
An explosive week for the Covid Inquiry began with evidence from former No.10 PPS Martin Reynolds, and continued with the publication of another revelatory tranche of written evidence. The WhatsApp messages, emails, notes and internal memos revealed widespread frustration with then-prime minister Boris Johnson; friction over staffing choices; and opinionated advisers butting heads over the Covid response and comms strategies.
Here are a few of the key revelations from yesterday's batch of evidence.
Simon Case was frustrated with the PM, ministers and perm secs
In a message to No.10 chief adviser Dominic Cummings and communications director Lee Cain, then-No.10 perm sec Simon Case said he was at the “end of my tether” with the then-prime minister, who he said "changes strategic direction every day".
"He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach," he said.
“A weak team… definitely cannot succeed in these [circumstances],” he said – listing health and education secretaries Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson, NHS Test and Trace boss Baroness Dido Harding, No.10, the Cabinet Office and permanent secretaries.
Vallance thought Boris Johnson “weak and indecisive”
A series of extracts from the diary of Sir Patrick Vallance throughout 2020 revealed his frustration with Johnson, who he described in a 28 October 2020 entry as a “weak, indecisive PM”.
On 9 July, he wrote that Johnson had cancelled a "big announcement” easing Covid restrictions in favour of a more cautious approach. “PM is simply not consistent (as he wasn’t at the beginning),” he wrote.
Four days later, he wrote: “This ridiculous flip-flopping is getting worse. Maybe as he recovers?”
On 19 September, shortly before new restrictions including a return to working from home were introduced, he wrote: “PM [...] He is all over the place and completely inconsistent. You can see why it was so difficult to get agreement to lockdown first time.”
Simon Case ‘pissed off’ about 'trivial' Partygate event
The cab sec said he was “pissed off” after it was revealed he had been at an event held by members of his private office on 17 December 2020 – while there were restrictions on indoor gatherings.
In a message to Martin Reynolds the following day, Case wrote: “It is really horrible. Dragged through the mud. Am flipping pissed off deep down (like the PM) that I am being attacked for something trivial which I wasn’t even involved in.”
Case stepped down from leading an inquiry into the Partygate scandal following media reports about the gathering. The Cabinet Office said at the time that he had merely walked through the office where the quiz was taking place and “played no part in the event”.
The cab sec added: “But this is the way the cookie crumbles – I have to carry the can as the boss. Just hope it all goes away quickly.”
Mark Sedwill feared becoming a ‘scapegoat’
In a WhatsApp exchange on 15 May 2020 – a few weeks before it was announced Sedwill was to step down – the then-cabinet secretary told Martin Reynolds he did not want to have a conversation with the prime minister.
“I don’t want to have another conversation about myself before the weekend,” he said, before asking: “Any news on that?”
“That is what I suspect he wants to discuss so shall I say you are willing to discuss on Monday?” Reynolds asked.
Sedwill replied: “I presume from this that sense is not prevailing. If he’s going to try to scapegoat me he can do so face to face.”
Asked what Sedwill had meant, Johnson's PPS Martin Reynolds told the inquiry yesterday: “I believe that he was concerned that he was being blamed for the shortcomings of the first phase of Covid and felt, as a result, that that would be scapegoating.”
Sedwill had ‘reservations’ about Johnson’s first pick for No.10 perm sec...
In a message to Sedwill, the PM said he had a “new solution for perm sec at No.10” in light of the cab sec’s “reservations” about his first pick – whose name was redacted from the evidence.
“This is to be Simon Case. He will run EDS, PET and Covid. Starting Monday am,” the message read.
He added that it was “time for Helen’s skills to be deployed in a department where she would be brilliant”.
...and Johnson wanted Helen MacNamara moved
In July, it was reported that Helen MacNamara – who had been promoted to deputy cabinet secretary in March 2020 – was to be moved to another department. Multiple sources told the Guardian she was to move to a “major delivery department”, but the move did not go ahead and MacNamara left the civil service the following year.
Reynolds organised leaving do for staffer in June 2020
In a WhatsApp conversation with No.10 comms director Lee Cain on 12 June 2020, Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds sought advice on a leaving do for a member of staff.
The messages, which came around a month after the now-infamous “BYOB” garden party at Downing Street that Reynolds organised, show the PPS asking Cain: “Is it safer to do a larger event indoors but with some people carrying on outside afterwards?”
Cain replied: “I’m not sure it works at all to be honest, which would be a shame. I don’t see how we can have some kind of party though.”
After Reynolds asked if Cain was suggesting “we do nothing for her”, the adviser said: “I think it’s your decision friend, not mind [sic]! But it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risk!”
The messages reveal the gathering went ahead, with Reynolds saying on 26 June that "two groups" of between six and nine people had "drinks in the garden until about 9.30pm.
Giving evidence to the inquiry yesterday, Reynolds apologised for both gatherings.
“I would first like to say how deeply sorry I am for my part in those events and for the email message, which went out that day,” Reynolds said, referring to a message that invited staff to enjoy the “lovely weather” and invited them to “bring your own booze”.
“And I would like to apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused,” he said.
Vallance and Whitty resisted appearing at post-Cummings scandal press conference
Further extracts from Vallance's diary revealed the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty were “very reluctant” to appear at a press conference following the revelation that Dominic Cummings had driven to Durham during lockdown – which Vallance said was “clearly against the rules”.
On 25 Mary 2020, Vallance wrote that they “tried to get out of it”, saying it would undermine their credibility, but that “the apparatchiks" – Lee Cain, James Slack and Martin Reynolds – "tried to strong arm us".
The chief scientist said he had “raised concerns with Simon Case re the tone of what is being proposed and with Chris and me being part of somehow a political message”.
He also said the PM “wants to divert from the DC fiasco” by lifting lockdown rules “sooner and more extremely than we would”.
“All very worrying. Cabinet all upbeat and ‘breezy confidence’ – incredibly alarming.”
Too-short deadlines were 'producing the same bad work repeatedly'
"Unnecessarily short deadlines" were "producing the same bad work repeatedly rather than taking proper time to prepare" according to Cabinet Office deputy permanent secretary Helen MacNamara.
A memo from MacNamara – part of which was published earlier this month and said No.10 was "always at war with someone" – said work being done on the Covid response was not "good enough".
Summing up the findings of conversations MacNamara had had with officials about how best to support the PM in the next phase of the respose, it went on: "Not clear who is calling out scrutinising or refereeing decisions to get to a factual position. Sometimes it seems everyone seems sometimes it seems everyone knows something is wrong or not true. But that's not brought to a head. 'We need to call out bullshit or deceit when we see it'," the note read.