Top Downing Street special adviser Dominic Cummings “undermined” the government’s messaging on coronavirus by flouting the rules with his lockdown trip in May, former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has said.
Lord Sedwill, who stepped down as cab sec and head of the civil service last week, said Cummings’s trip to Durham was a “difficult moment” for the government – but stopped short of saying the spad should have resigned.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether or not he should have quit. It was clearly a difficult moment for the government. It was a mistake – whether everyone should quit every time they make a mistake, I don't think is right,” he said.
“But it clearly undermined the government’s coherent narrative about people following the rules.”
Cummings refused to apologise or resign when it emerged he had taken the trip after his wife began showing symptoms of Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. The prime minister was heavily criticised at the time for not sacking Cummings, and a study later found the row had shaken public confidence in the government's ability to handle the crisis.
Speaking to the BBC in his first interview since leaving government, Sedwill also reiterated comments made to CSW this summer that there were “legitimate” questions to be asked about whether the government was prepared enough for the pandemic, and whether decisions were made quickly enough.
“Although we had exercised and prepared for pandemic threats, we didn't have in place the exact measures, and we hadn't rehearsed the exact measures' for the challenge Covid-19 presented,” he said.
“I think there is a genuine question about whether we could have been better prepared in the first place and that is obviously a very legitimate challenge.”
He said a future public inquiry would need to ask whether the “right decisions [were] taken at the right time”.
And he said it must also explore a second question: “What were the capabilities that the state had to deploy against this?”
Before leaving the job this summer, Sedwill told CSW that the public inquiry into the response would also need to ask: “Are there things we could have done better? Could we have had more preparations in place? Are there different decisions we could have taken? ”
Speaking to the BBC, Sedwill also echoed his previous comments about anonymous briefings against civil servants, saying they were “unfair”.
“It is damaging to good governance and those responsible should recognise the damage they're doing, even if they're indulging themselves in some short-term tactical ploy,” he said.
But he denied there had been a "campaign" to oust particular officials. Sedwill is one of seven permanent secretaries to leave government this year.
“Governments want people they have confidence in, of course. We go through periods of this kind when there’s perceived to be an attack on the underlying values of the civil service but, actually, those values and the institutions serving governments with impartiality have always prevailed and I’m confident they will continue to do so,” he said.
Sedwill has previously waved aside claims that the departure of so many perm secs shows the prime minister and Cummings are “politicising the civil service".
In September, he told Sky's Off the Record podcast: "This government, like others, wants to ensure there is proper political leadership of government. That doesn't mean politicising the civil service. No one's ever asked me, for example, which way I voted. I've never seen a desire to have a civil servant of a particular political affiliation."