Helen MacNamara: 'Extraordinarily difficult' to provide Covid inquiry evidence after Cabinet Office wiped work phone

Former deputy cabinet secretary also said government 'hadn't done any proper planning' just days before lockdown
Helen MacNamara at Covid Inquiry. Photo: Covid Inquiry/Youtube

By Tevye Markson

01 Nov 2023

The government “hadn’t done any of the planning” for a lockdown at the point when senior figures realised one would be necessary, former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara has told the Covid Inquiry.

Speaking to the Inquiry on Wednesday,  MacNamara also described how difficult it had been to provide evidence, revealing the Cabinet Office had deleted her work phone records from her time in government.

 MacNamara also said described a government in early Covid which had an “unbelievably bullish approach that everything is going to be great”. She also questioned the use of the phrase “following the science” during the pandemic.

The former deputy cabinet secretary said it had been "extraordinarily difficult to get even the most basic pieces of information to be able to serve the inquiry properly."

She said she has felt she has had to be a “forensic archaeologist” of her own time in government in 2020, made worse by the Cabinet Office deleting her work mobile phone, meaning she had no access to WhatsApp messages from the period. However, she added that most of her business was carried out by email and "most was captured in the public record" and so she does not think the Inquiry is missing out on a "huge amount of material".

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said:  "The government has complied, and will continue to comply, with its obligations to make relevant material available to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry team to help them develop their conclusions. This includes providing WhatsApp messages where requested.

"We have provided enormous quantities of material to the Inquiry so far and will continue to do so. To date, the Cabinet Office has submitted over 55,000 documents to the Inquiry. 

"We remain determined to provide any potentially relevant material that the chair requests so that we can learn the lessons from the pandemic."

‘We hadn’t done any planning’ for a lockdown

In evidence submitted by MacNamara to the inquiry, she recalled how on March 13, 2020 -  10 days before the UK went to lockdown for the first time - she had walked into No.10 and told a group of senior advisers, including Dominic Cummings: “I have just been talking to the official Mark Sweeney, who is in charge of coordinating with the Department for Health. He said I have been told for years that there is a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We are in huge trouble.

“I have come through here to the Prime Minister's Office to tell you all I think we're absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we're going to kill thousands of people."

MacNamara told the Inquiry she remembered "feeling this kind of explosion of all of the questions that we would need to be able to answer. And my fear that we wouldn't be able to answer them,” she said.

MacNamara said the government “just hadn’t done any of the planning” for “the worst case scenario, which worryingly was looking like something that might actually happen”.

“How are people going to get fed if they have to stay at home? What's going to happen to schools if people have to stay at home? That’s probably where my mind went more than anywhere else,” she added.

“The scale of what was going to have to happen…was just so outside of what anybody has thought might be necessary.”

Echoing criticisms expressed by Lee Cain on Monday, she described how the "shock" of finding only plan the government had in place at this point was the Covid Action Plan,  a "communications document".

“I, like Mr Cain, thought it was a communications document and underneath it there will be things that I would recognise as a plan, as in who’s doing what by when," she said.

MacNamara said finding out“that there wasn’t actually that sort of document” was the most shocking discovery among many during that period.

“There wasn't a manual or a playbook or anything,” she added.

MacNamara also said that Matt Hancock, the health secretary at the time, had repeatedly told Cabinet that there was a plan in place and she had “assumed he’d seen them and been through them and thought they were adequate”.

Because of the lack of planning, MacNamara says she does not believe it would have been possible to go into lockdown sooner than when the UK did, on March 23, 2020.

“I’ve heard a little bit about, should we have locked down earlier. We could not have gone any faster in a safe way, I don't believe, from that day.

“Could all sorts of other things been different beforehand? I'm pretty sure yes, of course. But the scale of the undertaking was absolutely enormous.”

Once senior leaders realised a lockdown was necessary, “we were in an unbelievably urgent hurry to get to where we needed to be as fast as possible,” she added.

Cain, who was Johnson’s communications director, told the inquiry on Tuesday he believed government was constantly "playing catch up" as it lacked "strategic direction" in the early stages of the pandemic.

MacNamara also described how, at the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020, Boris Johnson’s team had an “unbelievably bullish approach that everything is going to be great” and were “laughing at the Italians”.

“It was striking that something that I felt personally was obviously deeply worrying that the sort of de facto assumption that we were going to be great without any of the hesitancy or questioning or that sort of behind closed doors,” she said.

She also described the government’s use of the phrase “we’re following the science” as a “cop out”.

“I thought it was a very odd thing to day. It’s not what governments normally…to blindly decide they’re going to follow the advice from someone else,” she said. “I also didn’t understand what “the science” was. It felt like a cop out.”

MacNamara also detailed Johnson’s “monomaniacal focus” on Brexit from July 2019. “It was communicated to us that everything else could wait until after this question was settled” she said.



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