'Too much was asked' of DHSC in early Covid response, Gove tells inquiry

Can-do spirit was "admirable" but more departments should have been brought into the Covid response sooner, Gove says
Gove arriving to give evidence to the Covid Inquiry this morning. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

“Too much was asked” of the Department for Health and Social Care in the early days of 2020 as Covid was emerging, and it should have brought other departments into the crisis response sooner than it did, Michael Gove has said.

Gove, who was Cabinet Office minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when the Covid pandemic began in 2020, told the Covid Inquiry this morning that the pandemic should have been considered a “whole-of-system crisis” earlier than it was.

Reflecting on the early months of 2020, when DHSC was the “lead department” taking charge of the government’s response to the novel virus, Gove said: “I have a very high opinion of the then-and-current permanent secretary at the department, Sir Chris Wormald… I also – I know not everyone testifying towards this inquiry has – I also have a high opinion of Matt Hancock as a minister.

“However, I believe that too much was asked of DHSC at that point... We should collectively have recognised that this was a whole-system crisis at an earlier point and taken on to other parts of government the responsibility for delivery that was being asked of DHSC at that time.”

He added: “I think with the benefit of hindsight, those within DHSC felt ‘We can do it. We can meet this.’ And I think that while that degree of commitment and leaning in is admirable in spirit, the truth is that at an earlier stage, we should have broadened responsibility.”

He said responsibility was later shared more widely, with the setting up of Ministerial Implementation Groups in mid-March and the Covid-19 Task Force in May 2020. “But I do believe that should have happened earlier,” he said.

Counsel for the inquiry Hugo Keith KC asked Gove if he agreed with Sir Patrick Vallance’s description, in the then-government chief scientific adviser’s diaries, of DHSC as an “operational mess”. Vallance also wrote that Hancock and Wormald had failed by not sharing responsibility for the Covid response earlier.

Gove said he agreed, but said he thought their actions were driven by “a desire to rise to the occasion".

“But there should have been, arguably, a greater degree of challenge at an earlier stage,” he said.

The levelling up secretary said that he and others had used Cobra meetings as well as emails and other messages “to try to ensure that the right questions are being asked and that DHSC, if it wasn't able to deliver in a particular area, sought the help of other government departments or had the oversight and scrutiny that other government departments could bring”.

Cabinet Office was 'dysfunctional'

Earlier in the hearing, Gove said he had been surprised when he became minister for the Cabinet Office in February 2020 – adding to his existing CDL brief – at how “dysfunctional” the department was.

“There were parts of the Cabinet Office that – perhaps rightly – considered themselves not to be accountable to me or anyone who was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or minister for the Cabinet Office,” he said.

“I used to refer to parts of the Cabinet Office as the dark side of the moon because they were obscured from my gaze,” he added.

He said there had been a "tendency among successive prime ministers to shove in responsibility into the Cabinet Office that does not fit in easily elsewhere", leading to responsibilities being given to the department "in a piecemeal and cumulative way".

He described the department as “not elastic”, meaning that it did not necessarily bounce back from these changes.

“And so the overall structure of the Cabinet Office was not such that it could perform as it should, as any government department should, when faced with a crisis.”

Keith questioned Gove on a memo written by then-deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara on problems within No.10 and the Cabinet Office during the early response to Covid.

MacNamara’s findings were based on a survey of officials, and revealed there were “fights over ownership” between factions in the Cabinet and No.10; that the Cabinet Office had “lost its way in making the Whitehall machine work for No.10”; and that relations within the two organisations were poor, with frequent power struggles and female officials being spoken over or ignored.

Presented with the memo, Gove said the behaviour it described was a “regrettable feature of one of our failures to effectively and at an early stage change the way in which the Cabinet Office worked”.

“Government was not configured as it should be,” he said.

Asked by Keith why he had not sought to correct any of these structural or behavioural failings when he became Cabinet Office minister, Gove said he had wanted to “familiarise” himself with “the shape and structure in greater detail before then making recommendations for change”.

“Normally, in previous cabinet roles, when I've arrived in departments and I believe that needed to be changed, I've taken a couple of months before instituting what some of the changes are because I wanted to make sure that I properly understood why things are the way they are,” he said.

He also noted that sometimes institutions or protocols may seem “irrational”.

“But before you remove it, you need to understand why it might have been put there.”

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