Illustration: Bill Mcconkey

The chaos of Covid is now emerging

The inquiry into our handling of the pandemic is shining an unsparing light on the dysfunction of the British state
October 30, 2023

The Covid inquiry isn’t getting much attention. There’s plenty of other news; the pace is slow; there’s a lot of tedious legalese. Perhaps most importantly, there’s little demand for Covid coverage: it was not a happy period in most of our lives and it’s tempting to try and forget it happened.

It is, though, very much worthy of our attention, and not just because we badly need to prepare for the next pandemic, whenever it comes. The inquiry is also throwing up important—and widely applicable—lessons about the way the centre of government works. Or rather doesn’t. 

Heather Hallett, the retired judge leading the inquiry, has used her power to compel documents to considerable effect. She has collected thousands of WhatsApp messages from Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock and many others; personal diaries from key participants such as former government chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance; plus servers full of emails and official papers. 

Few of these have yet been publicly released but there is, already, a picture emerging of a staggeringly weak and chaotic centre that, faced with a genuine crisis, came perilously close to collapsing. This was partly because of who was in charge. We don’t need an inquiry to tell us that Johnson was a deeply unstrategic prime minister who veered all over the place. At one point, Vallance wrote in his diary “[Chris Whitty—chief medical officer] and I are both worried about the extreme inconsistency from the Prime Minister, lurching from open everything to panic.” Without leadership, the cabinet was split into warring factions. 

But the more worrying issue, now that Johnson’s premiership is consigned to history, is the failure of the wider system. The Cabinet Office is supposed to be the part of government that coordinates the response to cross-departmental crises, but it was underpowered and poorly led. Cummings texted on 12th March 2020, as the scale of the challenge became apparent, that “The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly shit. No plans. Totally behind the pace.” He may have a tendency towards hyperbole, but this was a view shared by more sober officials. Simon Case, then a senior civil servant and now cabinet secretary, wrote in a text on 29th April: “The Cabinet Office is a totally dysfunctional mess at present, so not a great place to be!” Vallance talked about “chaos as usual” in his diary. 

They were also poorly supported by the Department of Health (DHSC) and Public Health England, which failed to assert any control. In June, Vallance was still complaining about the “massive internal operational mess inside DHSC and PHE. Getting something done is almost impossible.” For Cummings, DHSC was a “smoking ruin”.

With the rest of government failing, the Number 10 private office ended up under far too much pressure, with a handful of fairly junior civil servants, working seven-day weeks, having to take life and death decisions. I have interviewed some of these young and inexperienced officials, who desperately tried to raise concerns about the lack of protective equipment or the risk to care homes, only to find emails unanswered and no functioning chain of command.

All of these problems, magnified by the scale of the pandemic, are a major cause of the wider failures of the British state. We have an executive with more power than its equivalents in any other western democracy. The British prime minister, with a parliamentary majority and the support of their party, can do almost anything. But we also have a low-capacity centre of government designed for a different, less complex age. By my reckoning, Sunak has a smaller team working for him in Number 10 than a regional mayor has. This is a catastrophic combination.

The very process by which pandemic decisions were being made is indicative of the problem. Without proper organisation or structures, people defaulted to WhatsApp groups, which often drifted into incoherence and/or macho abuse. I have been told that a senior female official in the Cabinet Office had to formally complain about the locker room atmosphere as a bunch of male ministers, advisers and civil servants jockeyed for position. 

Worse, this method of communication has now become embedded across Westminster, which only adds to the chaos by excluding—often unintentionally—key participants from decisions and leaving no proper paper trail. This inquiry may be the last time there’s even a cache of these messages for historians to look at. Most people in Westminster now set their WhatsApp to delete everything after seven days. 

We can only hope Labour is paying attention—and realising that, to have any hope of turning the country around, it will need to sort out our system of government.