Simon Case won't appear at Covid Inquiry this year

Baroness Hallet approves request for cabinet secretary to postpone giving oral evidence as concerns grow over temporary setup in his absence
Simon Case. ZUMA Press, Inc/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

27 Nov 2023

Simon Case has been excused from appearing at the Covid Inquiry in 2023.

The cabinet secretary, who has been off work on medical leave since late October, had asked to be excused from giving oral evidence during the 2023 Module 2 inquiry hearings, which began on 3 October and continue until 14 December, due to ill health. 

Heather Hallett, the Covid Inquiry chair, approved Case’s application but said he will still be asked to give evidence to the inquiry at a later date. 

The cabinet secretary has also informed colleagues that he is too ill to return to his job before the start of next year, according to reports. 

Before taking time off, Case recommended to Rishi Sunak that he should formally authorise pre-election talks between the civil service and Labour, which was rebuffed by Sunak, a report in The Times suggests

Inquiry plans ‘special hearing’ 

Before deciding on the cab sec’s application, the inquiry provided core participants with a short summary of Case’s medical report – under a restriction order to keep the information confidential – and invited them to make written submissions in response. No submissions were received, however. 

Explaining her decision to approve the application, Baroness Hallett said: “I have carefully considered the importance of Mr Case’s evidence to the issues being investigated in Module 2, as well as the information I have been provided with about the health and wellbeing of Mr Case. 

“Having reviewed the application and medical report, and having allowed core participants to make submissions in response, I am satisfied that Mr Case should be excused from giving oral evidence at the Module 2 hearings in 2023. However, it very much remains my intention that Mr Case should give oral evidence to the Inquiry.”

Baroness Hallett has asked Case’s lawyers at the Government Legal Department to provide the inquiry with an updated report on his “ability to give oral evidence at the end of January 2024 or upon Mr Case’s return to work, whichever is the sooner”.

“Core participants will be kept appraised of the position and in due course I expect to convene a special hearing for Module 2, for the purpose of hearing oral evidence from Mr Case,” she added.

Module 2 is looking at core political and administrative governance and decision-making for the UK, including the initial response, central government decision making, political and civil service performance.

Case would have likely been questioned on WhatsApp messages published in October which revealed his frustrations during the pandemic. One Whitehall source suggested to The Times that Case might be reluctant to give evidence while he is in his current role. “He is obviously going to have to give evidence at some point but it is much more difficult if he’s still in post. I’m just not sure he’d want to put himself through that,” they said.

However, FDA general secretary Dave Penman told Times Radio Case “would want to be” at the Covid Inquiry now, giving evidence, so as to avoid such speculation. 

‘Crucial part of government missing‘

Several permanent secretaries are temporarily taking on each of Case's responsibilities as cab sec and head of the civil service during his time off, rather than a single official standing in for him as cab sec.

Sir Alex Chisholm, the civil service chief operating officer and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, is taking charge of up the civil service management and reform elements of the role, although he is due to leave his role in the spring.

Emma Churchill, the head of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat, has stepped in to lead cabinet minute-taking and sit alongside the prime minister at the cabinet table.

Additionally, Sir Chris Wormald, the most senior official at the Department of Health and currently the longest-serving perm sec, is chairing the weekly meeting of departmental heads, while Sarah Healey, perm sec in the Department for Levelling Up, has taken on some of the cab sec’s HR responsibilities.

The IfG’s programme director Alex Thomas said the current situation is “sub-optimal” and “unless Case returns soon more sustainable arrangements need to be made”. 

“The current parcelling out of responsibilities obviously leaves a gap, because there is no substitute for a well-deployed cabinet secretary,” he said. 

Thomas said a cabinet secretary “would have had the clout to step in, calm tensions and broker solutions” when a row broke out between the then-home secretary Suella Braverman and the Met Commissioner over Remembrance weekend marches and counter-protests. 

He said the cabinet secretary also provides useful perspective during reshuffles, major fiscal events and crises overseas, all of which have occurred in recent weeks. 

“The senior role allows them to step back, not purely speaking for the prime minister, but representing the interests of government as a whole,” Thomas said. “That opens up conversations and the ability to deploy authority in ways others in No.10 and across departments cannot. At its best the cabinet secretary’s office is part of the connective tissue that solves crises and makes government function. A crucial part of Sunak’s government is missing.”

FDA general secretary Dave Penman suggested the government would be wise to reconsider the setup in the early new year if Case is still unable to return at that point.

“I think we’ve got to give him a little bit of time and space and then, probably when we get past Christmas, a decision a based on what the situation is at that time,” he said.

 

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