Covid Inquiry: Case quizzed on the Dominic Cummings 'culture of fear'

Cabinet secretary acknowledges pandemic response structures failed hard-working officials
Simon Case at the Covid Inquiry yesterday Photo: Covid Inquiry/YouTube

By Jim Dunton

24 May 2024

Cabinet secretary Simon Case has admitted that Dominic Cummings created a culture of fear in No.10 that was a barrier to some officials taking up key roles in the pandemic response.

Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry yesterday, Case said his experience of working with Cummings – who quit as chief adviser to then-prime minister Boris Johnson in November 2020 – was that his reputation was "worse than the reality".

Nevertheless, Case – who was permanent secretary of 10 Downing Street before he succeeded Sir Mark Sedwill as cab sec in September 2020 – acknowledged Cummings created a divisive and problematic atmosphere.

"He could be very challenging. He was particularly challenging to senior officials who he didn't think were, sort of, up to the mark," Case told the session.

Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, pointed to WhatsApp messages between Case and deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara that record an "actual culture of fear" related to Cummings.

"Yeah, there was," Case responded.

He added: "I think the really difficult thing was that in particular there were very bad relationships between Mr Cummings, Lord Lister, who you've heard from, Martin Reynolds, and Stuart Glassborow."

Ed Lister was a senior adviser to Johnson from 2019-2021; Reynolds was principal private secretary to Johnson from 2019-22; and Glassborrow was deputy PPS from 2019-22.

"Those were all the people who actually sat, by and large, outside the prime minister's office, directly. The desks outside the prime minister's door," Case said.

"In No.10, that group would have been seen as, sort of, the top of the shop. And the relationships between Mr Cummings and the other three were poor. That did not help at all."

Case accepted that the "culture of fear" at No.10 had practical consequences, such as people not speaking at meetings when they should have – out of concern about rebuke from Cummings – and others declining the opportunity to work in Downing Street.

Keith flagged another WhatsApp exchange in which an official – whose name was withheld – had passed on the opportunity to work in No.10 because the set-up was "too mad to touch".

He referred to a message from Case that said: "Good people [were] being put off ... because it is such a rat's nest."

"Yeah, that's all correct," Case responded.

Keith replied: "This is the permanent secretary in No.10 describing his own organisation as a 'rat's nest'?"

Case answered: "Yeah."

"It's chaos, too many programmes overlapping"

Thursday's session also saw Case admit that the centre of government had not been structured in a way that could properly respond to the demands of the pandemic in its initial weeks.

A series of frank exchanges with MacNamara on the workings of government underscore the pair's frustration over the effectiveness of short-lived "ministerial implementation groups" with responsibility for healthcare, general public services, economic and business, and international issues.

"It is chaos. Too many programmes overlapping... No way to resolve things because the MIGs are being run as comms fora not decision-taking things," Case wrote to MacNamara on 25 April 2020.

"Over all, in the space I am in, there is no direction. The No.10 problem is depts won't do what they say. Some of what they say is reasonable, some isn't.

"The real frustration is that Mark [Sedwill] keeps telling everyone that SROs are the answer and they have full authority etc... But of course they haven't for well-established constitutional reasons. No.10 people cross that it isn't happening like Mark told them it would."

Another WhatsApp message from Case to then-health secretary Matt Hancock described the Cabinet Office as "a totally dysfunctional mess".

Keith asked the cab sec whether, in hindsight, the government machinery was simply not efficient enough and that time had been required to "change the supertanker of government" in a more appropriate direction.

"Yes," Case replied. "It's not that people weren't working very hard. They were very talented people. Clearly, Helen and I were having a particularly down day when we were having this exchange."

He said that the Covid Taskforce, which launched in May 2020, had been created to replace the problematic MIGs.

Keith asked Case whether the hard wok of people in No.10 and the Cabinet Office had effectively been undone because of "the behaviour or the lack of ability of some individuals who were in a position to make a difference".

He went on: "You failed them. Is that a fair summary?"

Case answered: "Yeah... but these are collective problems. These [messages] are Helen and I whingeing about things that we also had a responsibility to fix. There's an easy version of this that this was all down to just a few people. But we were all in this together."

The inquiry continues.

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