Boris Johnson ‘can't lead’ and making Government ‘impossible’, top civil servant Simon Case said during Covid

 (PA Archive)
(PA Archive)

The UK’s top civil servant vented that Boris Johnson “cannot lead” amid pandemic-era frustration with the Prime Minister’s leadership, according to WhatsApp messages shared with the Covid-19 inquiry.

Simon Case, who remains Cabinet Secretary, told Mr Johnson’s then-chief adviser Dominic Cummings that the prime minister was making government “impossible”.

The private correspondence, which took place as the Government grappled with the spread of Covid, came during the appearance of former top aide Martin Reynolds at Lady Hallett’s probe.

Mr Case, who has temporarily stepped back from his role due to a “private medical matter”, told Mr Cummings that the PM “cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach”.

In the message, read at the hearing, Mr Case said: “I am at the end of my tether.

“He changes strategic direction every day (Monday we were all about fear of virus returning as per Europe, March etc – today we’re in ‘let it rip’ mode cos (sic) the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower etc).

“The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day.

“The team can’t deliver anything under these circumstances.

“Decide and set direction – deliver – explain.

“Gov’t isn’t actually that hard but this guy is really making it impossible.”

It is not the first time that private concerns by Mr Case have made public.

Recently disclosed WhatsApp messages saw him describe the Government as looking like a “terrible, tragic joke”, while Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie was “the real person in charge”.

Mr Case, who was made Cabinet Secretary in September 2020 having been permanent secretary in Number 10, had been expected to give evidence to the Covid inquiry in the coming weeks.

Mr Johnson’s handling of the early days of the pandemic came in for particular scrutiny, as the inquiry launched a major week of hearings that will see Mr Cummings and former Number 10 director of communications Lee Cain appear on Tuesday.

The then-leader, according to a note read from the diary of a former private secretary, asked why the economy was being destroyed “for people who will die anyway soon”, in the days before the country went into lockdown.

The diary note from Imran Shafi, which he attributed to Mr Johnson, stated: “We’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large ppl (taken to mean large numbers of people) who will die, why are we destroying economy for people who will die anyway soon.”

Elsewhere Mr Reynolds, dubbed “Party Marty” due to his role in the partygate scandal, said that Mr Johnson did “blow hot and cold” on various issues while at another he acknowledged concerns about “macho behaviour” and “misogyny” in the top-level management of the crisis.

The former principal private secretary also pointed to a “systemic failure” to prepare for the pandemic as he appeared to acknowledge that the realisation of the scale of the disaster had come “late”.

The fact we got into that position is a result of a systemic failure and a failure of the people who are really tracking the situation most closely

Martin Reynolds

Taking questions from Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, he was asked about a 10-day spell in February 2020 where there “were no communications by email, by Cobra, by boxed notes, with the prime minister during that 10-day period on coronavirus”.

Mr Reynolds, who initially said that he could not recall whether there was any “urgent business” during that period, was told by Mr Keith it was half-term.

The senior civil servant faced repeated questions about whether Downing Street and the Cabinet Office were slow to respond to the impending crisis, as scenes and reports of overwhelmed Italian hospitals began to be broadcast in the UK.

“The fact we got into that position is a result of a systemic failure and a failure of the people who are really tracking the situation most closely,” he said.

He accepted that Government protocols were “inadequate” and “grossly deficient”, while also pointing to the “unusual dynamic” in Downing Street during that period and the influence of Dominic Cummings.

Mr Reynolds offered a picture of a Government that, after Mr Johnson’s 2019 general election, was “very different” and acknowledged that there had been a “bedding down of new working arrangements”.

It also emerged that Mr Case, in a WhatsApp exchange with Mr Reynolds, said Mr Johnson was “mad” if he did not believe his private WhatsApp messages would become public as part of the Covid inquiry.

The extent and nature of decision-making through the messaging app has become a key plank of Baroness Heather Hallett’s probe, with the comments about Mr Johnson made in exchanges between Mr Case and Mr Reynolds.

It also emerged that Sir Patrick Vallance believed senior officials in Number 10 had tried to “strong arm” himself and Professor Sir Chris Whitty into appearing at a press conference around the time it was revealed Mr Cummings had gone to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown.

The former chief scientist’s notebooks also described Mr Cummings’ Downing Street rose garden statement to the media as a “car crash” and “rambling”, and said neither he nor Sir Chris wanted to do a press conference with Mr Johnson afterwards.

Mr Reynolds denied being involved in strong-arming the top health experts, while also using the hearing to acknowledge his own concerns about management at the top of Government.

He was asked about a report he and deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara helped write in May 2020, amid concerns about “discipline”, “macho behaviour” and “misogyny”.

Mr Reynolds agreed with counsel Mr Keith who said that the report showed “dysfunctionality, lack of discipline, chaos and a significant degree of misogyny”.

The then-senior official also suggested that he had turned on the “disappearing message function” on the WhatsApp group titled “PM Updates” on April 15 2021 because of concerns about potential leaks.

Downing Street on Monday said that the use of disappearing WhatsApp messages is permitted as civil servants and ministerial private offices are required to record and log official decisions for the official record.

Mr Shafi, in his afternoon evidence session, also said that be believed there was “too much focus on excess-death management and not enough focus on preventing those deaths in the first place”.

Campaigners from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group said it had been “hard to keep up with the number of horrific revelations” which emerged from Monday’s hearing.

Charlie Williams, spokesman for the group, said: “Whilst we were desperately doing everything we could to protect our loved ones, even if it meant not being with them at their final moments, the Government was failing to take decisive action and pretending everything was fine, repeating their many, many mistakes, partying and breaking their own lockdown rules.

“Like so many others, we’re left having to live with the devastation caused by their failures and chaos for the rest of our lives.”