‘The complexity of the problem is the thing that first hit me’: cabinet secretary Simon Case on Covid, his return to No.10, and working with Dominic Cummings

After two years at the royal household, Simon Case returned to government this summer to head up its coronavirus response. Now cabinet secretary, he tells Beckie Smith and Richard Johnstone what it’s been like steering the civil service through a pandemic

In offices across Whitehall and the corridors of parliament, at kitchen tables and in spare bedrooms across the country, people are breathing a sigh of relief. Simon Case will not be writing a memoir. 

Even before Case returned to government this summer after a two-year hiatus at the royal household, some politicians would surely have been glad of that fact. Reflecting on some of the more memorable episodes of his career to date, the former principal private secretary to prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May says: “Safe to say there are moments in reshuffles, where accidentally the wrong person has been put on the line and you realise that you’re about to offer the wrong person the job.” 

Of course, as the nation’s highest-ranking civil servant, Case can’t name names. But when CSW suggests the truth may out later, he is adamant there will never be a memoir. “No such thing. No, not having that,” he says. 

“There are moments in reshuffles where the wrong person has been put on the line and you realise you’re about to offer the wrong person the job” 

There can be little doubt that Case’s autobiography would be fascinating. His appointment as No.10 permanent secretary in June, then as cabinet secretary in September, came as the government was tackling two national crises – Covid and the fraught negotiations at the end of the Brexit transition period – and with No.10 apparently in the throes of a power struggle. For every minister who will be relieved at the news, there will surely be a frustrated historian of government wishing they had Case’s reflections on this period to look forward to. 

A career civil servant until he left to become Prince William’s private secretary in 2018, Case has dealt with his share of crises. Before leaving for Kensington Palace, he was the lead civil servant tasked with finding a solution to the Irish border issue after Brexit, and had a key Brexit-focused role at the UK Representation to the EU before that. 

So it would be tempting to think his return to government might have felt like a return to familiar ground – after two years in that other-worldly realm of the royal family. But listening to him recount his experience of the last few months, it is as though his arrival at Downing Street was when he stepped through the looking glass. 

“We often talk about how time in Covid-land is a very different thing to previous experiences of time,” he says. It is just six months since Boris Johnson called Case back to No.10 to head up the government’s Covid response, but he says it feels like much longer. 

That’s happened before, he says: “It's always the case when dealing with crises that weeks feel like months and days feel like weeks.” But this time was different – the enormity of the coronavirus crisis was unlike anything Case had experienced before. “To be very candid, the complexity of the problem was the thing that first hit me.” 

“There wasn't a single bit of government that felt like it hadn't been mobilised in response to Covid” 

“There wasn't a single bit of government... that felt like it hadn't been mobilised in response to Covid. And every day a new aspect came along.” Government needed to get to grips with the medical understanding of a totally novel virus, the health messaging for the public, and all the economic and societal consequences of both the pandemic and its own measures to tackle it. 

“There is some really impressive stuff that I have seen the civil service come up with in response,” he adds, highlighting the “phenomenally complicated, multidisciplinary services being set up at short notice” to run projects like the furlough scheme, or to develop the shielding programme from scratch. 

But alongside those successes, there has been huge criticism of the way the government has responded to coronavirus. Many experts argue the UK should have adopted lockdown measures earlier; the test and trace system was slow to get going and has failed to reach many of those who have come into contact with someone who has contracted the virus; and many self-employed people have been left without government support while their incomes have taken a hit. 

What are the things Case thinks have not gone well? “You have to look at the numbers. The tragic level of deaths that we've experienced tells us that probably in every area, if we'd gone further, faster we might have saved more lives... I mean, these things are really difficult to know. Remember the context, what we're dealing with: a totally novel virus. At the start of this, we didn't understand the level of asymptomatic carriers that there would be... We know that at the start we weren't doing enough testing, but we rapidly scaled that up.” 

He goes on: “So there will come a time when we look at all of these lessons, I think, in every area, we’ll say to ourselves, could we have further, faster in some of those areas? I'm sure the answer will be yes.” 

He says government has got better, during the pandemic, at using so-called ‘red teams’ of officials specifically formed to provide extra challenge to policy choices, and improving analysis to understand the impact of the measures it has taken. Ahead of England’s second lockdown – the reason CSW is joining Case virtually, rather than physically, in the Cabinet Office – ministers and civil servants had been able to look at what did and didn’t work the first time around, and were armed with better data about where the virus was spreading, he says. 

“The tragic level of deaths tells us that probably in every area, if we'd gone further faster we might have saved more lives”

“For me, it’s just as important that we learn the lessons as we go as it is that in the years ahead. No doubt, we'll look back at this in some grand way about those lessons.” 

Does the enormity of the task in front of Case weigh on him? “That's a very good question. And I can't do anything other than answer it honestly. I think the weight on the shoulders of the prime minister and his ministerial team, and political leaders across the devolved administrations and frankly across the world, is unbelievable at the moment. There is huge pressure on everybody. And as one of the people appointed to advise them – yeah, that burden is one that is not always especially easy to carry.” 

His conversations with counterparts around the world are a comfort, he says; they are all dealing with the same challenges. “At the heart [of those conversations] – in a way that perhaps I haven't felt for quite a long time, if ever – is that all the decisions we're taking in work have such a direct impact on the people around us.” 

Another thing he says makes “a very big difference” is that he is surrounded by “some quite phenomenal colleagues”. In the Cabinet Office, in departments and in the Covid task force that helps formulate coronavirus measures, are “some of the finest people I've ever worked with, who are just working themselves so hard in service of their countries”. 

“It's deeply inspirational, actually. So as always, when you're under pressure and you think ‘How do I cope with this?’, the quality of the people around you is a big factor in that.” 

Case is deeply aware that while few of the staff he is now responsible for can relate to the pressure of directly advising the PM, all are affected by coronavirus. On a personal level, he says, the pandemic “has been very hard”. 

"The weight on the shoulders of the prime minister and his ministerial team is unbelievable. As one of the people advising them, that burden is not always easy to carry” 

“The reality is there's 450,000-odd of us in the civil service who are deeply motivated to serve the public... but we aren't machines. We've all got families and lives of our own to lead outside work and you can't fail to have been affected… As parents and family members and friends to others, it's a hell of a thing that we're all going through together.” 

He says the civil service, now more than ever, must be a “compassionate employer”. 

That is something he’s been thinking about a lot over the last couple of years. “One of the things that the generation of the family that I worked for focused enormously on was mental health,” he says. Earlier this year, his former boss appeared in the BBC documentary Prince William, Football and Mental Health, which followed the duke as he tried to get men to open up about mental-health issues. 

Says Case: “I profoundly believe that all organisations – we need to help our staff look after themselves, especially when we’re all working under this pressure. I think that the civil service, like many employers all around the country, has made real strides forwards on helping people learn to talk about their mental health, understand and be comfortable talking about the pressure they're under, and think about any help that they might need. An important part of what you need to get through such a broad crisis is helping and understanding the challenges that our staff are going through in their daily lives. It's vital.” 

* * *

The task Case and others are facing has been further complicated by some high-profile staffing changes. He is speaking to CSW just days after Boris Johnson’s chief political aide Dominic Cummings and head of communications Lee Cain announced they would be leaving Downing Street – shortly after it was reported that Cain was to be made Johnson’s chief of staff. 

It has been widely reported that the dual departures followed a bitter power struggle over a chaotic and divided No.10. But Case says the centre had not become distracted from the task at hand. “Whilst I recognise there's a lot of media interest in some of what's going on in Downing Street, actually, the vast majority of what the PM and his team have been focused on is the same big issues that we've been working on for the last few months – ie Covid,” he says. 

The departures came only a couple of months into Case’s appointment as cabinet secretary, and it was reported that he had approached Cain about the chief of staff job. 

Asked about his role in the discussions, Case says he talked Johnson through the options – but “on the specifics, of course these are political appointments so the involvement of officials on all of this is relatively little”. Special advisers are appointed by ministers and are not subject to public appointment rules. 

But he did weigh in on the formation of the job – a title last held by Gavin Barwell under Theresa May, before Cummings effectively took over many of the responsibilities when he became chief adviser to Johnson. “I see it as my job, just as those who've come before me, to help the PM think through how best to get the right structures in place to support him,” Case says. 

“So alongside other advice that I've given the PM, I’m very happy to talk him through how Downing Street has worked in the past, and helping him understand what the various roles have been. I've been lucky enough to see various iterations of Downing Street through the years... [and] how I've seen Downing Street work under different guises. So that's what I've been talking to him about.” 

Johnson is the third prime minister Case has worked for in No.10. Asked later to reflect on the proudest moments of his career, he recalls the aftermath of David Cameron’s resignation following the 2016 EU referendum. “It's very easy to take for granted the smooth handover of power in our system, but actually, managing the transition from David Cameron to Theresa May and being part of how our democracy works – those are things that make me proud.” 

* * *

If the papers are to be believed, there are many who will be glad to see the back of Cummings. CSW has heard from senior officials who have butted heads with the tech enthusiast. Case’s predecessor, Sir Mark Sedwill, by all accounts had his fair share of run-ins with the chief spad. 

"I think people will be surprised about how much of an advocate for talent in the civil service Dominic Cummings has been"

But Case says his experience working with Cummings has been “quite different to the media portrayal”. He adds: “Actually, quite a lot of the feedback that I get from many of the civil servants who work closely with him is [such that] I think people will be surprised about how much of an advocate for talent in the civil service Dom and many other people really have been.” 

With Cummings gone, many are wondering whether his ideas will also vanish from government. 

Does Case think any of the eccentric spad’s ideas are worth keeping? He has called the permanent civil service an “idea for the history books” and said its HR practices reward mediocrity – and had also been pushing for major changes to recruitment and reward rules. 

It is at this point that Case’s research background becomes apparent – before joining the Ministry of Defence as a policy adviser in 2006, he completed a doctorate in political history under Peter Hennessy, the respected historian of government. 

Case doesn’t address the now ex-special adviser’s more inflammatory criticisms directly, saying he “hasn’t read or studied all of the Cummings critique”. But he notes that some of his ideas have “been around for decades”. Among the less contentious of Cummings’s gripes was that the civil service is too bureaucratic and has insufficient scientific, management and other specialist skills – something Case notes came up in the 1968 Fulton report on civil service reform. 

“And actually, we hear civil servants telling us that our processes aren't agile enough, that we can be too bureaucratic,” he adds. A recent survey by civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm on the subject hammered that home, he says, adding: “I think that's probably right. I think each of us could look around us every day and find a bit of process that we'd like to do differently. My message to civil servants is, when you see those things, have the courage to challenge them and change them.” 

Does Case think the fact that he is citing a report from half a century ago demonstrate that the civil service is difficult to change? “The answer to that is yes and no. Changing large organisations is inherently complicated – and especially one that's hundreds of thousands [of people]. They are more oil tankers, usually, than they are speedboats, when it comes to turning circles.” 

“Changing large organisations is inherently complicated. They are more oil tankers than speedboats” 

He goes back further to the 1918 Haldane report into the machinery of government, saying some of its critique is still relevant today. “And also the challenges that Churchill was trying to deal with during the war with his wartime temporaries – they’re the same themes. But the context keeps changing, and it's all about: how does governing adapt to the internal and external context? And so it's not really surprising it's the same themes coming up. How do you get more expertise in? How do we move faster? Well, the pace at which you have to move in the 21st century is even greater than it was in 1967, 1968.” 

Coronavirus has forced officials to confront some of these problems, and Case says the “smarter, more agile delivery of public services and policy development” that has emerged during the pandemic could make government more effective in the longer term. 

Another potential breakthrough is the way civil servants have worked across departments and fields of expertise to develop coronavirus schemes – which could finally be an answer to government’s tendency to work in silos. 

And Case says he has been impressed by how officials have mobilised data and analysis to give ministers a picture of what is happening in the health service and, as he puts it, “out on the streets”. 

“There were quite a lot of new data streams [as well as] existing streams within departments being pulled together into a single, cross-government dashboard, so that all ministers and all officials have access to the same picture, which I think is probably a great thing.” 

“I'm pretty determined that we hold on to some of this,” Case says, casting around for the words to describe the last few months. “For me, the period of Covid has given us a lot of signposts... it’s been an accelerator or something transformational. 

“You know, it's a bloody difficult time for the country, and enormous numbers of people have suffered in terrible ways. And through that, government has had to adapt and change in the sorts of ways that I’ve talked about. And I think that tells us a lot about how we should govern. 

“It’s the context that's forced us to do this big, complex policy thinking and then rapid design and delivery of frontline services. Those are the lessons we need to hold on to” 

“It’s the context that's forced us to do this big, complex policy thinking and then rapid design and delivery of frontline services for the public. One day we will be out of the immediate period of Covid, but those are the lessons that I think that we as government, and especially as the civil service, need to hold on to.” 

Another lesson he hopes will be taken from this period is one that another cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, wanted to see realised. Heywood, whom Case worked with as a PPS, wanted officials to engage more with policy development overseas. The International Comparators Joint Unit – a team of officials set up between the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office to analyse and assess global responses to Covid – is a “phenomenal example” of how that can work, the cab sec says. 

“Something that in the past government hasn't done enough of is learning lessons from around the world and genuinely being open to looking at what other countries are doing,” he says. 

It is another example of where the work of government has been changed by its coronavirus response. It is a period that will be studied by historians for decades to come – even without Case’s memoirs to help them. 

This interview was conducted in November

Read the most recent articles written by Beckie Smith and Richard Johnstone - Where Dominic Cummings is right, and more: seven things we learned in Mark Sedwill’s CSW exit interview

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