Lee Cain: Comms professionals 'were shaping Covid policy because no one else was'

Former No.10 comms director tells inquiry the Covid pandemic was the "wrong crisis" for Boris Johnson’s "skill set"
Lee Cain gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry today

By Jim Dunton

31 Oct 2023

Former Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain has told the Covid Inquiry of his growing realisation that the government did not have a plan to deal with the escalating threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

Giving evidence to this morning’s session, Cain said the government lacked “clarity of purpose” and a “serious outline plan” to deal with Covid in the weeks before the first national lockdown was introduced in March 2020.  

“That was the core failure,” Cain said. “What were we supposed to do?”

Cain told the inquiry panel, chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, that while it was normal for communications professionals to be involved with “kicking the tyres” of policy proposals to find holes that could lead to plans unravelling, the profession had a much more significant role during the pandemic.

“I felt in Covid, more than anything, there were periods when a lot of the policy was having to be drafted by – or certainly shaped – by communications professionals because there wasn’t really anybody else doing it to any great level,” he said. “Which was a surprising thing to be dealing with from my side.“

He also told the session that he had been surprised by the use that was made of the government’s Covid Action Plan, which was published ahead of the first lockdown.

In a written submission to the inquiry, Cain described the document as a “swiftly prepared” paper that had been put together to provide context but which was “clearly only useful as a communications device”.

Cain said in his submission that many people, including senior officials and politicians, had repeatedly referred to the document as the “actual government plan to manage the pandemic”, despite its lack of detail.

Asked about the document today, the former comms chief said that while the creation of the document had been legitimate, the way it was used had been a warning sign.

“Anyone who reads the document will see that it’s not a plan to deal with Covid,” he said. “It is a very thin overview of how we may manage the virus if it progresses. The first element of it was containment, and by that point I think containment was really off the table.

“It just felt like a strange document for people to be referring to as an actual government plan at that particular time.

“That was an area when, you know, quite a few people in No.10 were starting to get concerned because if this is the plan then we clearly don’t have a plan.”

'I’m exhausted with him;

Cain, who quit his No.10 role in November 2020, said the pandemic had been “the wrong crisis” for then-PM Boris Johnson’s “skill set”, but said that the team around Johnson – including departmental leaders – should also have “done more” in the early weeks of the crisis.

Elsewhere, Cain was presented with a WhatsApp message exchange from 19 March 2020 in which former chief adviser Dominic Cummings berated Johnson for reverting “back to Jaws-mode wank” during a meeting with then-chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Cain explained that the ex-PM liked to compare himself to the mayor in Steven Spielberg’s 1970s horror film and that this had been a reference to concerns about the damaging implications of a lockdown to slow the spread of Covid that drew parallels with the plot of the film.

Cummings said in the exchange he was “exhausted” from the effort of having to deal with changes of tack on the part of the PM. “I’ve had to sit here for two hours just to stop him saying stupid shit,” he added.

Cain responded: “I’m exhausted with him.”

Shortly afterwards, Johnson hosted a press conference at which he said the UK would “turn the tide”  of Covid infections “within 12 weeks”, which Cain today explained had not been an agreed position in government.

After the press conference Cummings continued the WhatsApp conversation.

“What did I say?” he wrote. “It’s only a matter of time before his babbling exposes the fact he doesn’t know what to say.”

Cain told the inquiry that anyone who had worked with Johnson for a period of time would “become exhausted with him sometimes”.

“He can be quite a challenging character to work with, just because he will oscillate. He will take a decision from the last person in the room,” he said. “I think that’s pretty well documented from his style.”

Counsel to the inquiry Andrew O’Connor KC asked whether Johnson had been up to the job of being prime minister.

Cain said Johnson’s leadership style of delaying decisions and taking multiple soundings before acting had been successful in delivering Brexit

“It was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skill set,” Cain said of Covid. “Which is different from not being up to the job of prime minister.

“If you look at something like Covid, you need quick decisions and you need someone to hold the course.

“And have that strength of mind to do that over a sustained period of time. And not constantly unpick things, because that’s where the problems lie.”

The inquiry continues.

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