Martin Reynolds: Cabinet Office failed to get on top of Covid crisis in early 2020

Boris Johnson's ex- PPS also admits to setting messages in key WhatsApp group to delete after seven days
Martin Reynolds gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry

The Cabinet Office failed to get on top of the Covid crisis in early 2020, Boris Johnson’s former principal private secretary has said.

Giving evidence at a sometimes-tense Covid Inquiry hearing this morning, Martin Reynolds said neither individual government departments, nor the mechanisms to coordinate their efforts, were sufficiently prepared to deal with the crisis.

He also flagged internal divisions within No10 as a factor hampering the crisis response, saying that in early 2020 "it was increasingly clear that the prime minister's and Dominic Cummings’s agendas were not overlapping – or were overlapping in part but quite different".

Describing the government's initial response to the Covid pandemic, Reynolds said: “I think that the machine was not properly prepared for the scale of the crisis it was about to face."

He compared the initial Covid response to other crises such as the evacuation from Afghanistan in 2021, which involved a small number of departments. “The machine is equipped to deal with that and I think it deals with it relatively efficiently, even if there are always bound to be ways of improving,” he said.

But as Covid spread, many departments were “not properly prepared” to deal with their responsibilities in the response, and the Cabinet Office’s structures “were not designed to manage a whole-of-government crisis in that nature”, he said.

He said problems with the government’s crisis response “became very manifest” in March and April 2020.

He detailed a number of “organisational challenges” within the Cabinet Office, and said it “didn't have the plans and processes in place to move from the early stage through to the crisis stage and manage it in the way a normal crisis will be managed”.

“If you have a very big pandemic, a once-in-a-generation crisis, and you don't have the right plans in place, then of course, the machinery starts to find it very, very difficult to function,” he said.

Asked outright if the department “failed to get on top of this problem”, he responded: “Correct.”

Conflicting agendas and 'unease'

Reynolds also described how tensions in No.10 had created additional distractions while government was ramping up the crisis response around February 2020.

"The other thing I would say within Downing Street specifically was we were getting used to a slightly divergent internal politics because it was increasingly clear that the prime minister's and Dominic Cummings’s agendas were not overlapping – or were overlapping in part but quite different,” he said.

As well as tensions between the PM and his chief of staff, Reynolds said there was some “unease with some of the messaging, and actions taking place” within No.10.

He nodded to Cummings’s agenda to bring “weirdos and misfits” into Downing Street – including the short-lived adviser Andrew Sabisky, who he described as having “unusual views on eugenics” and who resigned within three days.

He said other officials’ time was taken up with a proposal to move the prime minister’s office to a different part of the building; 

Meanwhile, the “shit list” of permanent secretaries whose jobs were believed to be at risk was creating “quite a bit of unease in the civil service”, he said.

“I think it is fair to say… there were quite a lot of other things taking place, which meant that quite a bit of senior energy and attention was focusing on other things,” he said.

WhatsApp messages set to delete

During this morning’s hearing, it was revealed that Reynolds had turned on a vanishing-messages function in a WhatsApp group that included Johnson and a number of his most senior advisers just weeks before the inquiry was announced.

Reynolds changed the "PM updates" group’s settings on 15 April 2021 so messages would be automatically deleted after seven days. The inquiry was then announced on 12 May.

Asked why he had done so, he said: “I can speculate, but I cannot recall exactly why I did so.”

He said much of the material shared in the group was recorded elsewhere either as physical documents or in emails – saying he had copied and pasted from emails into the WhatsApp group as a means of sharing up-to-date information with the PM.

“I don't believe it was intended to prevent the inquiry from having sight of this,” he said. “It could, for example, have been because I was worried [about] someone screenshotting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them.”

Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, quoted a message sent to Reynolds by cabinet secretary Simon Case in December 2021, which read: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.”

According to Case’s statement to the inquiry, No.10 published a policy on WhatsApp messages in March 2021. Asked if he recalled the policy being established, he said he did not, adding: “I would have been aware of the policy statement, I'm sure, but I cannot remember the substance.”

“I imagine our policy on WhatsApps, certainly throughout this period, was… the same as our policy on other material which was around retention of WhatsApp for messages which are important for the decision making process, but not the ephemeral side of things.”

Keith pressed Reynolds on the distinction between “ephemeral” WhatsApps and those he regarded to be “important for the decision making process”.

He said there had been a huge increase in the number of WhatsApp messages being sent early in the pandemic “reflecting the shift to remote working and the pace of some of the activities going on with people in different locations”.

“A lot of the WhatsApps you are seeing, it seems to me, are exchanges which people could have been doing previously by telephone, or in corridors, or things like that. They're now just recorded in WhatsApp but are ephemeral in nature,” he said.

“In the same way as if there was a conversation about a policy matter before people go into a substantive discussion in the corridor, where someone might say something to me or to others, we're not necessarily recording all of that because it's ephemeral in nature, where the decision takes place and the process leading to that decision are recorded in a normal way.”

Pressed further, Reynolds said the messages were “relevant to the Covid inquiry”, but suggested civil servants’ obligation to record these exchanges formally was “a bit different” than for other materials.

In an extended line of questioning, Reynolds defended his view that the “vast majority” of WhatsApp messages being exchanged were “ephemeral in nature”.

“In any decision, there is all sorts of ephemeral discussions around a policy. Not all of those discussions are recorded in full even in the main meetings themselves,” he said.

Apparently unsatisfied with this answer, Keith responded: “But, Mr Reynolds, they're all relevant, are they not, to the state of mind of the sender, and indirectly, the recipient? They are all relevant to the debate about Covid. And the decisions which were then being taken, are they not?”

Reynolds said he agreed and had saved all of his messages – aside from those that had been auto-deleted – for that reason.

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