29 May 2024

The Covid Inquiry has exposed Whitehall’s lack of grip


After a period on the margins of public attention, the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic has returned to the foreground with the delayed appearance of the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case. He had been due to give evidence to Baroness Hallett’s review last October, but had to take medical leave from his position and only returned to work in January this year.

Case’s role in the pandemic is critical. In May 2020, as the crisis unfolded, he was appointed Downing Street Permanent Secretary and tasked with ‘supporting the Prime Minister and Cabinet in developing and implementing the government’s coronavirus response’. A few months later, then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, was eased out of his role by Boris Johnson and to general astonishment, Case was appointed to replace him as Head of the Civil Service and the Prime Minister’s Principal Official Adviser. He was only 41, the youngest ever Cabinet Secretary, and had never run a Whitehall department.

The picture which emerges from Case’s private communications disclosed to the inquiry is now a familiar one. Whitehall was essentially dysfunctional and failing, with strained and often hostile relationships among ministers, officials and advisers. The demonic figure of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s Chief Adviser, stalked the landscape like a bogeyman and created what Case described as a ‘culture of fear’.

The Cabinet Secretary admitted to problems in many areas. The relationships between Cummings, Sir Edward Lister, Johnson’s Chief Strategic Adviser, and the two senior civil servants in the Prime Minister’s private office, Martin Reynolds and Stuart Glassborrow, were ‘very bad’, and ‘that did not help at all’. This toxic atmosphere had wider consequences for Downing Street staffing: a WhatsApp message from Case said ‘Good people [were] being put off… because it is such a rat’s nest’.

And there were institutional problems. Bodies known as ministerial implementation groups (MIGs) were constituted to co-ordinate policy on broad subject areas but proved ineffective. Case complained privately to Helen MacNamara, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary, ‘It is chaos. Too many programmes overlapping… no way to resolve things because the MIGs are being run as comms fora not decision-taking things’.

All of these criticisms are accurate and telling, but there is an important piece missing, and that is the competence and skills of civil servants. Case, understandably as head of the organisation, was quick to reassure the inquiry that ‘it’s not that people weren’t working very hard. They were very talented people’. That cannot, however, simply be taken as read.

Dominic Cummings has become an avatar for many of the failings of Boris Johnson’s premiership. When he gave evidence to the inquiry last October, however, he made several criticisms of the Civil Service which cannot simply be dismissed. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, he told Johnson that the Cabinet Office, which is supposed to be the co-ordinating brain of Whitehall, was ‘terrifyingly [expletive], no plans, totally behind on pace’.

The consistent charge levelled at the Civil Service is that it was sluggish and unreactive, with decisions either not being made or not being implemented. Cummings described a situation in which ‘we are days away from having to make a decision on what to do to stop this nightmare, but the official system and the Cabinet Office for dealing with this crisis doesn’t seem to understand this’. He was not alone. Lee Cain, Downing Street director of communications, admitted ‘Indecision probably was a theme of Covid that people did struggle with inside No 10’.

This is a lesson which cannot be allowed to be lost beneath the headlines of foul language, backbiting and ministerial incompetence. When the centre of government was faced with a fast-moving crisis situation, it proved unequal to the challenge. Civil servants failed to operate quickly and effectively within existing structures but were also ineffective at establishing new ones. Simon Case may wring his hands but he was at the top of the organisation and was not able to improve it.

Jeremy Heywood, Sedwill’s predecessor as Cabinet Secretary, was renowned for his ability to operate the machinery of government. A colleague remarked that ‘The five most terrifying words are Jeremy saying: ‘You need to grip this’’. Without diminishing any of the other problems in Whitehall, the Civil Service did not exhibit ‘grip’ during the pandemic. It must be an urgent task for the government, whatever its composition after July’s general election, to address and resolve two questions: why did its grip fail, and how is that remedied?

As a starting point, here are some basic things which need to be taken into consideration. The closure of the National School for Government in 2012 was a disastrous move, and there is a pressing need for better continuous professional development. The Government Campus is welcome but, even in this virtual age, there is no substitute for a physical base for learning, as anyone who was a student during the pandemic will attest. Labour promises a College of British Diplomacy, which would be a good Foreign Office analogue.

There must also be much more rigorous performance management. A recent survey of current employees found that 57% do not think the Civil Service takes performance management seriously, while 81% think it does not handle poor performance well. Officials who are failing need to be dealt with quickly and effectively rather than moved around Whitehall – this will have to be part of a wider review of professional culture, but there is something to be learned from the British Army’s long-standing policy of ‘up or out’.

It is not good enough to say indulgently that ‘very talented people’ were doing their best. In some cases, that standard was inadequate. Civil servants will have to face up to their share of responsibility for the way in which the pandemic was handled.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.