Covid Inquiry: No.10 was too slow to tackle negative working culture, Case says

Pressure of pandemic on staff was "amplified by some counterproductive ways of working", according to cabinet secretary
Case arriving to give evidence to the Covid Inquiry last week. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

Top officials and ministers failed to address the “negative working culture” at the centre of government early in the Covid pandemic, Simon Case has said.

The well-documented pressures on staff in No.10 and the Cabinet Office were “amplified by some counter-productive ways of working” that “sometimes made for a negative workplace culture, distracted attention onto internal matters and deterred some people from working in the centre”, the cabinet secretary told the Covid Inquiry.

He cited findings from an internal review of the working culture in No.10 by then-deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, which identified a “lack of trust and transparency between teams who need to work together”; excess “parallel” structures and a lack of clarity over who was making decisions; and an “alpha, macho and unpleasant” working culture.

Case, who was appointed No.10 permanent secretary in summer 2020 before becoming cab sec in September that year, detailed some of  the challenges being faced by leaders in his written evidence to the Covid Inquiry.

Case acknowledged: “With the benefit of hindsight and distance from the extraordinary pressures of the time, I think it took too long to address some negative aspects of the culture.”

Case said there was “greater join-up at the centre and a renewed sense of teamwork and collaboration” as the pandemic wore on, enabled by “changes in personnel” at No.10 and the Covid Taskforce, which was set up in June 2020, “settling into its role”.

Case did not name particular staff involved in the personnel changes, except to say that Henry Cook was “the highly effective lead special adviser for Covid-19 in No.10 for the majority of the relevant period”. Cook became the deputy chief of staff in No.10 in September 2020 – two months before Dominic Cummings left government – and later the lead spad to the prime minister on Covid.

Appearing before the inquiry last week, Case said Cummings, who was a senior political adviser to then-PM Boris Johnson and de facto chief of staff in No.10 in the early months of the pandemic, created a culture of fear that deterred people from working there.

While he said his own experience of working with Cummings was that his reputation was "worse than the reality", Case acknowleged there was an "actual culture of fear" related to the adviser.

Staff and structures 'under strain'

In his evidence, Case said he had been "struck by how difficult the atmosphere at the centre [of government] was".

“In the previous times I had worked in the centre of government, there had always been a sense of everybody being in it together. The camaraderie and teamwork enabled the centre to absorb a wide range of stresses and manage the many unexpected challenges which arise every day in government. This was only possible because the key figures worked well together – that was the essential starting point,” he wrote.

The cab sec noted that when he arrived in government, "staff and structures managing the crisis were under significant strain". The prime minister had just been hospitalised with Covid and staff were “working under immense professional and personal pressure”, he said.

He said he had encountered instances of “overlapping project management and data”, including work on protecting “non-shielded” vulnerable people. This caused him to write to then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, saying: “I do not want to find ourselves with parallel structures running, which is the present risk, with us and departments constantly being trapped in competing stock-takes with different bits of the central architecture.”

These processes “were limiting the time available to us to focus on delivery”, his witness statement said.

Case noted that many of the findings of MacNamara’s review were being echoed by other officials in government at the time.

He said that in a meeting with Chris Wormald in May 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care permanent secretary had told him work was being hindered by “random and multiple commissions” from the centre of government.

“There were lots of good people at the centre but they needed to be properly organised,” he added.

Wormald also underscored how a lack of coordination was making it harder to weigh up the benefits and downsides of policy interventions, Case said.

And he said the chief and deputy chief medical officers and government chief scientific advisers had written to him “along similar lines”, warning about the risks posed by a lack of oversight of the combination of small decisions taken in different areas of government.

"No individual department can see the totality of the changes made, and you and your team are central to leading in government and ensuring the whole package is coherent and safe," the letter, sent on 26 March 2020, read. 

Case said he felt at the time that a “strong central strategy and coordination function” was needed to lead the Covid response and ensure that officials in the Cabinet Office in No.10 were “working closely and productively with government departments and experts”.

This, along with a call in MacNamara's review for a new central unit to lead the Covid response, led Case to set up the Covid Taskforce, he said.

The inquiry continues.

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