Covid Inquiry: Bereaved families call for transparent reviews of culture at heart of government

Lawyer for Covid bereaved families campaign says inquiry has "exposed shortfalls" of the UK’s system of governance, with Cummings given “almost unfettered power”
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice lawyer Anna Morris. Photo: Covid Inquiry/YouTube

By Tevye Markson

13 Dec 2023

There should be a transparent system for reviewing diversity and culture at the heart of government, the lawyer for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK has said.

Giving her closing statements for the Covid Inquiry’s second module on Core UK decision-making and political governance this morning, Anna Morris said the evidence over the last 11 weeks had demonstrated the pitfalls of the UK’s system of governance due to the “almost unfettered power” which adviser Dominic Cummings was able to wield.

Morris said Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s top adviser from July 2019 to November 2020, and others in Johnson’s “rotten to the core administration” were allowed to create a “toxic atmosphere” which scared off competent actors and bred dysfunction.

The lawyer also criticised the administration’s “culture of indifference to abiding by their own regulations”, as evidenced by the series of parties in No.10 during the pandemic  and Cummings’ much publicised Barnard Castle rule-breaking.

She said: "In terms of governance, the evidence exposes shortcomings of the workings of central government. Below the ministerial level, we've seen the interface of the political officials and civil servants. In many, perhaps most administrations, this may work perfectly well with clear demarcation of roles and due deference between them. However, we have witnessed what happens when that is absent with an avowed disruptor brought into the centre.

“He who Mr Johnson could not bring himself to name in evidence was given almost unfettered power and used it -  or more accurately misused it. Undeniably, Dominic Cummings and others around him were allowed to create a toxic atmosphere, white and male, which scared off competent others and created a dysfunctionality we have seen through countless messages."

She continued: "Add to that a culture of indifference to abiding by their own regulations, and the evidence exposes the Johnson administration to have been rotten to its core.”

Morris suggested that preventing such a culture from arising again would be more challenging than diagnosing the problems. She said professionalising the system of SPADs and political appointees would be “difficult, as it performs part of the democratic remit of governance”.

But she added that there are other “potential measures which the inquiry may consider” and made the suggestion for “a transparent system of reviewing diversity and culture at the heart of government”.

During the module, the inquiry has seen messages between Simon Case, who was No.10 permanent secretary for much of the first wave of the pandemic, and Mark Sedwill, who was cab sec until September 2020, where both raised concerns about behaviours in Downing Street, including Cummings’s “divide and rule” approach.

The evidence suggests Case was wary about taking on both the No.10 role and the cab sec role he later took over from Sedwill.

Cummings also came in for criticism from former health secretary Matt Hancock, who told the inquiry earlier this month that Cummings was a “malign actor” who exercised too much influence over Johnson’s decision-making ability. The former health secretary also said there was an “unhealthy toxic culture” at the centre of government in the early months of the pandemic.

Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, giving evidence in November, also raised concerns about a “toxic environment” in No.10, in which she said female civil servants had “become invisible overnight”.

Boris Johnson has rejected claims that Downing Street was a “toxic” place to work under his watch at the height of the Covid pandemic and argued he had "no difficulty recruiting the best possible people" despite claims people were deterred by the working environment. He did, however, admit that his team was too male-dominated.

Module 2 has considered the initial response to the pandemic, central government decision making, political and civil service performance, the effectiveness of relationships with governments in the devolved administrations and local and voluntary sectors, and decision-making about non-pharmaceutical measures and the factors that contributed to their implementation..

Morris is one of several lawyers for core participants giving closing statements today and tomorrow for the module and may also provide the inquiry with a written document of closing statements, which may contain more detail of the potential measures she alluded to.

Core participants have special rights in the inquiry process, such as suggesting questions, receiving extra evidence and giving closing statements. Other core participants include government departments, secretaries of state, bodies such as NHS England, trade unions, and charities.

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