Covid Inquiry: Simon Case admits decision-making was 'dysfunctional'

Cabinet secretary expresses regret over toxic culture and his "raw" WhatsApp messages
Simon Case gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry today Photo: Covid Inquiry/YouTube

By Jim Dunton

23 May 2024

Cabinet secretary Simon Case has delivered an emotional first-hand account of the "toxic" culture that emerged at the top of government in the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. He described decision-making at the heart of government as "definitely dysfunctional and difficult".

Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry today, Case made a point of paying tribute to those who lost their lives as a result of the pandemic – and saluting the work of civil servants and healthcare professionals who delivered the response.

In the first hour of the session, Case was quizzed about "toxic behaviours" among No.10 and Cabinet Office staff that he recorded in an April 2020 WhatsApp exchange with Helen MacNamara, who was then deputy cabinet secretary.

At the time, Case had returned to government to aid the pandemic response after a period of working for the Royal Household. He had yet to be promoted to cabinet secretary, and served initially as a director-general in the Cabinet Office. He gave a charged description of the culture he encountered during the pandemic response.

"I worked in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office for big chunks of my career before I went off to work for the Royal Household," he said. "As is always true at the centre of power, there are always pretty big egos and there are always things to manage.

"I worked in Downing Street through a whole range of crises – I should say nothing the size and scale of Covid. But through thick and thin, through egos which are always there, there was a real sense of team spirit. Trying to work efficiently, effectively."

However, Case said that experience was at odds with what he found in 2020.

"Good people were working incredibly hard in impossible circumstances with choices where it seemed there was never a right answer," he said. "But that lack of team spirit, the difficult atmosphere – trying to run everything from the centre of government, despite trying to run the response to a global pandemic. ... duplication of effort ... overlapping meetings... Good people were just being smashed to pieces. That's what I saw."

Case told the inquiry that re-reading oral and written evidence from MacNamara, who quit the civil service in 2021, and preparing his own witness statements in relation to the early days of the pandemic response had been an "emotionally difficult" experience.

Covid Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC suggested to Case that the decision-making at the time was dysfunctional, difficult and sclerotic. The cab sec agreed in part.

"It was definitely dysfunctional and difficult," he said. "Oddly enough, it wasn't sclerotic. If anything, the problem was it was almost too dynamic. It was difficult to settle on a course of action and be sure the course of action would be consistent. That's almost the opposite of sclerosis."

Earlier inquiry sessions have heard evidence of despairing and disparaging comments made by Case about the government's pandemic response to colleagues – particularly in relation to policy flip-flops overseen by Johnson.

Case told today's session he had not understood at the time how "personally difficult" imposing mass lockdowns and taking steps that harmed education had been for the then-prime minister. But he acknowledged that dealing with policy about-turns had been hard.

"I found it incredibly frustrating that on one day I thought 'Right, OK, we've got this. I can now safely talk to my colleagues and say this is the direction we're going in'. The following day it was somewhere else," the cab sec said.

"That was really difficult as a technocrat, as the gearbox trying to connect the prime minister with the system. I wish we'd had the decision on day one and we'd stuck to it. That's how people like me want the world to work. That isn't how the world works. All prime ministers have their own way of taking decisions."

Case said Johnson's "great clarity of thought" in areas like the vaccine rollout and the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine were evidence of his ability to take decisions on key issues.

Many of the choicer WhatsApp comments from Case have provided headlines from the Covid Inquiry. The cab sec made a point of expressing regret over some of the content.

"They are very raw, in-the-moment human expressions," he said. "They're not the whole story, but I recognise that they're part of the story. Many of them now require apology for – you know – things that I said. And the way that I expressed myself."

Nevertheless, Case recognised that the messages were important in giving the inquiry "context".

The session also heard that while the cabinet secretary had provided 600 pages of WhatsApp transcripts to the inquiry, representing some 30 chat strands, he had mistakenly deleted nine chat strands that had not been retrieved.

"I can only apologise for that. It is entirely my own error," he said. "It's my own idiocy and nothing else."

Case said he believed other witnesses who were party to the strands had been able to provide the missing transcripts.

Keith asked why Case had not tasked Cabinet Office IT experts to deal with his message transcripts for the inquiry.

"I was just trying to get this done as part of preparing my witness material," Case replied. "We have an IT department. Lesson learned, I should not ever try to do this stuff myself again."

The inquiry continues.

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