‘I cannot cope with this’: Covid Inquiry messages show cab sec’s despair at policy flip-flops

Simon Case WhatsApps say government “looks like a terrible, tragic joke” and PM’s partner “is real person in charge”
Simon Case gives evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in October 2020 Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

13 Oct 2023

WhatsApp messages between cabinet secretary Simon Case and senior No.10 advisers have shone new light on frustrations within Downing Street in the autumn of 2020, when Coronavirus infections began to rise for a second time.

Documents presented to the Covid Inquiry on Friday showed Case seemingly in despair in conversations with then director of communications at Downing Street, Lee Cain, and Dominic Cummings, who was chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson.

One exchange from October 2020, shortly after Case assumed the role of cabinet secretary, shows the UK’s most senior civil servant venting frustration following a conversation with then health-secretary Matt Hancock about plans for new regional Covid restrictions.

“I’m not sure I can cope with today. Might just go home,” Case writes. “Matt has just called, having spoken to PM. According to Matt (so aim off, obvs) PM has asked Matt to work up regional circuit breakers for the North (as per Northern Ireland) today – and to bring recommendations. I am going to scream.”

The messages go on to suggest that the change of policy is down to the influence of Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds, now Carrie Johnson.

Case writes: “I was always told that Dom was the secret PM. How wrong they are. I look forward to telling select committee – ‘Oh, fuck no, don’t worry about Dom. The real person in charge is Carrie’.”

Cummings responds: “So true.”

Cain writes: “I know. Also, she doesn’t know wtf she is talking about either. Jesus.”

“We look like a terrible, tragic joke”

Case’s contribution to the conversation, screenshots of which were contained in a submission to the inquiry from Cummings, laments the reputational damage of the policy change.

“This gov’t doesn’t have the credibility needed to be imposing stuff within only days of deciding not too [sic],” the cabinet secretary wrote.

“We look like a terrible, tragic joke. If we were going hard, that decision was needed weeks ago. I cannot cope with this.”

Cain posted a shopping trolley emoji in response – a reference to Johnson’s reputation for indecision and unexpected changes of direction.

An earlier WhatsApp discussion between Case, Cummings and Cain was also presented at Friday’s inquiry session.

It related to discussions about September 2020’s introduction of the “rule of six”, which was designed to limit the size of social gatherings in a bid to stem the resurgent spread of Covid.

The exchange showed Cummings and Cain making disparaging comments about ministers and Case – who was about to take up post as cabinet secretary at the time – agreeing with them.

Cummings complained of “moronic” discussions with ministers who were unable to “understand priorities” and did not understand what they were talking about for most of a meeting on 8 September that had just finished when the exchange took place.

Case responded: “Quite”. Cain said the situation was “embarrassing”.

Cummings predicted Johnson would have changed tack completely by the weekend – which was four days away –  and would have declared the rule of six “untenable” and a “total disaster” and begun calling for everyone to get back to work.

Two days later the conversation resumed with Cummings noting Johnson was in “full shopping trolley mode” and that the turnaround had taken even less time than anticipated.

Case wrote: “Spectacular today – we want to open up the economy ASAP, forget the bloody virus”.

Cain and Cummings both made disparaging comments about Hancock. Cain called him a “joker” who “has got to go”.

Cummings responded: “Yup. And liar.”  

Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas was the first witness at Friday’s inquiry hearing and was questioned about the September 2020 exchange.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Thomas – who is a former senior civil servant – how much it mattered that ministers appeared to have been held in such low regard by civil servants and political advisers.

Thomas said it was “regrettable” but pointed out that Cummings and Cain were responsible for the “least temperate” language in the exchange, not the cabinet secretary. Nevertheless he noted that the picture the exchanges painted of the quality of political leadership in Downing Street was particularly problematic.

“What it clearly speaks to is an environment among the prime minister’s closest and most senior advisers where they had – privately at least – entirely lost confidence in his ability to take consistent decisions,” Thomas said. “I think that’s the most regrettable thing.”

The inquiry continues.

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