'No.10 always at war with someone': Memo reveals officials' frustrations during Covid response

Helen MacNamara describes “explosions of new people causing chaos” and “fights over ownership” during pandemic
"Everyone wants to be in the room with the PM," MacNamara said. Photo: Mark Thomas/Alamy Stock Photo

An excess of meetings, squabbles over leadership and a lack of clear direction characterised the atmosphere in No.10 and the Cabinet Office at the height of the pandemic, an internal memo has revealed.

A memo written by Helen MacNamara, who was deputy cabinet secretary at the time, reveals a sense that “no one listens to anyone else” and an “almost universal sense of powerlessness to direct or fix” problems at the centre of government.

Published as part of the Covid Inquiry, the memo is a result of MacNamara speaking to more than 45 officials – mostly in the Cabinet Office and No.10, but also in other departments – to answer the question: “How can No.10 and the CO better support the PM in the next phase?”

While it was not a “perfect or comprehensive exercise”, MacNamara noted that it was “very striking how similar the problem diagnosis was whether we were talking to political advisers or civil servants who work on either side of the link door” between 70 Whitehall and 10 Downing Street.

Her survey revealed there were “fights over ownership” between factions in the Cabinet and No.10, with the two failing to work as one team.

Instead, there were “too many people behaving as if they have been parachuted in to save the day”, with “explosions of new people causing chaos”, she said.

“No.10 always at war with someone. Everyone wants to be in the room with the PM. Not enough trust,” she added.

There were divides between people working physically in the office and those working from home as Covid restrictions required, she said.

“‘Lots of senior people negotiating with each other rather than doing stuff’. Not sustainable. People are exhausted and stressed. Don't feel confident or empowered to take decisions, almost universal sense of powerlessness to direct or fix any of these problems,” she wrote in her summary.

“Trying to do too much so nothing is done well. No one listens to anyone else. Views ignored. Bad behaviours from senior leaders tolerated. Too much politics, (small p). ‘Elbowy’. Focus on grip at expense of collective leadership.”

The consensus among her interviewees was that then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s meetings “aren’t working”, she said – and that there were “far too many” of them.

“They are poorly structured and prepared. We are repeatedly having policy discussions about operational problems which is never going to resolve them. Plus without the right expertise in the room,” she wrote.

“There isn't enough time to prepare good papers and have the necessary pre-meets and gather the right expertise. When that is done it is disregarded. There are too many people in the room and people aren't disciplined about their contributions. Decisions are never final. We are trying to do too much and nothing is focused. We have 100 actions and no plan. The top two tiers of leadership spend all their time in the same meetings.”

MacNamara also suggested that changes were needed in the Cabinet Office team working on the Covid response, which she said had become “too big to be effective”. Meanwhile, the division of responsibilities between the department and No.10 were unclear, having “fallen out of shape”, she said.

This “compounded some pre-existing problems about ways of working” between Cabinet Office secretariat teams and No.10, according to MacNamara.

She said there were too many leaders in the Cabinet Office, “which means they can't take decisions without consulting others”, and that the department had “lost its way in making the Whitehall machine work for No.10”.

The memo is undated, but must have been written before MacNamara left government in early 2021. It is likely to have been sent during a transition in the government’s Covid response – such as the shift in governance that came with the introduction of ministerial implementation groups in mid-March 2020, or the publication of the PM’s initial plan to ease lockdown restrictions in May.

‘We were too slow to move at every point’

The inquiry also published an extract of MacNamara’s witness statement, which said “recognising the need to shift up into another gear” had presented a major challenge for the centre of government in spring 2020.

“We were too slow to move at every point,” she said.

“In early March, it felt like the crisis accelerated exponentially, and the system was always operating in too low a gear. In that first shift from Cobra to CO+, there was no time to plan and prepare for the nonexistent third gear: all of the focus was on sprinting to catch up with where we should have been.”

“This was made harder in that it was also important not to look like this was the case given the importance of maintaining public confidence,” she added.

“Looking back, I think it might have been better to share more widely within Whitehall how bad it looked to us. Other senior leaders may have been better placed to help more, although I never wanted to undermine the cabinet secretary.”

In the first two weeks of March 2020, when the spread of a novel coronavirus was front-page news across the UK, MacNamara said a lot of time “was being consumed by business as usual” at the centre of government.

“This looks odd in retrospect,” she said.

MacNamara herself was dealing with the fallout from Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam’s shock resignation in February, and investigations into the then-home secretary Priti Patel’s conduct, which Rutnam said had made his position untenable.

She was also working on civil service reform proposals; a plan to move the House of Lords to York; and the creation of One HMG Overseas. She said a “significant piece of work” had been commissioned on 6 March, soon after Alex Chisholm’s appointment as Cabinet Office perm sec, for then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on reform of the department. 

“There was no attempt to run at anything other than hot on other work,” MacNamara said.

The statement also shed more light on Johnson’s leadership of the pandemic response. MacNamara said government should have moved away from the Cobra decision-making structure earlier than it did.

“Mr Johnson has never warmed to Cobra – it did not suit his working style to come through to the basement of the Cabinet Office, away from his study and his political team. And unusually in my experience of prime ministers, he clearly felt it was not his territory,” she wrote.

“As the Covid-19 situation became more immediate it was not working and definitely would not work as the crisis worsened. It was not the right setup for the prime minister to be able to ask the right questions, and to have frank and full discussions."

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