Covid Inquiry: Ex-cab sec questioned over ‘at war’ No.10

Gus O’Donnell says he had “relatively easy time” compared with successors
Lord Gus O'Donnell gives evidence to the Covid 19 Inquiry

By Jim Dunton

10 Oct 2023

Former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell has told the Covid 19 Inquiry that the difficulties his successors faced during the early months of the pandemic made him thankful for his own relationship with No.10 during his time as the nation’s top civil servant.

Lord O’Donnell told the public inquiry that he had talked to current cab sec Simon Case about intense cabinet-level disagreements about the best course of action in relation to the pandemic during the autumn of 2020.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC read out an extract from the diaries of former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at today’s session. Dated 11 November 2020, it read: “Simon Case says No.10 at war with itself. A Carrie faction with Gove and another with spads… PM caught in the middle.

"He has spoken to all of his predecessors as cabinet secretary and no-one has seen anything like it.”

O’Donnell, who was cab sec from 2005 to 2011, confirmed he had spoken to Case at the time – when Covid infections were rising and tiered restrictions were being introduced.

The ex-cab sec said he believed Case’s motivation for levelling with Vallance would have been driven by chief scientific adviser's need to “understand how to operate” when “the top is not functioning as well as you would like it to”.

O’Donnell said the backdrop would have been ensuring that the best decisions were made for the country despite cabinet-level turmoil.

“That means that sometimes you have to be clear with the key officials, like Patrick Vallance [and chief medical officer] Chris Whitty, that there are problems with these relationships and that therefore things might not happen as quickly as you would like,” he said.

O’Donnell said the primary focus of the cabinet secretary’s role is to maintain relationships between No.10, the cabinet and departments, and ensure that decision-making is effectively supported.

“I look back on this and think I was blessed,” he said of his time as cab sec. “I actually had a relatively easy time. All of the prime ministers I worked with, I think there was that sense of mutual trust and respect and ability to get prime ministers to focus on the decisions that they needed to make and the information and evidence they needed.”

He said the evidence appeared to suggest that mutual trust, respect and focus “was clearly an issue” in No.10 during the pandemic.

O’Donnell said there were always disagreements in cabinet, but that Case faced an extreme situation when he became cabinet secretary in September 2020.

“Simon Case was dealing with a far, far more difficult situation than I ever had to face,” he said.

O’Donnell was also asked about his knowledge of the breakdown in relations between Case’s predecessor as cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, who resigned as cab sec in June 2020 and left the role in early autumn.

He said Sedwill had tried to make sure that the damage from a change of cabinet secretary at a time of crisis “was as small as possible, given the behaviour of other participants in it”.

“If a cabinet secretary and a prime minister ultimately can’t work together – and from what we’ve heard about the prime minister’s style from what other witnesses have said, I can understand why that might be very, very difficult – then, you can understand why there’s a decision for that cabinet secretary to go and for a new one to come in,” O’Donnell said.

“The other side of it is when prime ministers should go, which is either decided by a general election or their own party.”

O’Donnell added “that was done”, in an evident reference to Boris Johnson’s ousting from No.10 by his own MPs last year.

Civil service 'reflex to slowly manage ministers'

Lead counsel Keith read another extract from the Vallance diaries. It recorded that in December 2020, a permanent secretary had become annoyed that Vallance and Whitty had told the prime minister about a new variant of Covid.

The KC said Vallance wrote: “Sounds familiar. Really, we had no choice and he needs to know. The civil service reflex to slowly manage ministers is really awful.”

O’Donnell spoke in defence of senior civil servants managing the flow of information to ministers, particularly when advice on how they should proceed in light of the new data was not readily available.

“You need to work with what you’ve got in terms of ministers,” O’Donnell said. “And you need to understand how the machine can help those ministers make the right decisions, which may well mean that you often pause for a second before you give them some new piece of data.”

Elsewhere in today’s session, O’Donnell spoke of his belief that the UK government should create a National Security Council-type structure that that could sit above the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies in future medium- and long-term crises. 

“The people you will want around the table will depend on the nature of the crisis,” O’Donnell said.

“Each crisis I would want to sort out the structure but based on it being very clear strategic objectives of what we are trying to achieve and that feeds down to what committee structure you need, what experts you need around that table.”

The former cab sec said SAGE lacked clear strategic direction.

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