Boris Johnson displayed 'breezy' overconfidence as Covid disaster loomed, inquiry hears

'I think we are going to kill thousands of people,' former senior civil servant Helen MacNamara warned

Helen MacNamara has told the UK Covid Inquiry that Boris Johnson was dismissive of early warnings about the seriousness of the pandemic. AFP
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Two of the most senior members of the government displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence as the coronavirus loomed, the UK Covid inquiry was told on Wednesday.

Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, then one of the country’s highest-ranking civil servants, said there was a “lack of humanity” at the heart of government actions.

Boris Johnson, prime minister at the time, displayed a “breezy” air that the UK would handle the pandemic well, even as the seriousness of the crisis and the lack of planning was becoming clear, one of the country’s senior civil servants said.

Matt Hancock – who was health secretary at the time – when asked if he needed help, pretended to be a batsman at the crease, batting away the pressures of the job, the inquiry heard.

Ms MacNamara said she had warned that the UK was “heading for a disaster” in which thousands of people would die, 10 days before the first coronavirus lockdown was ordered.

But often the mood inside the cabinet failed to recognise the seriousness of Covid, she said.

On March 13, 2020, she warned of looming tragedy after being told by Department for Health official Mark Sweeney that there were no government plans for a pandemic.

“I think the country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people,” she recalled saying in the prime minister’s study at a meeting with Mr Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings and others. Mr Johnson had not been present.

Ms MacNamara said there was a “pattern” of “being reassured that something was absolutely fine” by Mr Hancock before discovering it was “very, very far from fine”.

Mr Hancock has “time and time again”, without “any ambiguity”, told the cabinet that plans were in place during the pandemic, which did not turn out to be the case.

In Ms MacNamara's witness statement, she described asking Mr Hancock if he needed any extra support.

“He reassured me that he was 'loving responsibility' and to demonstrate this took up a batsman's stance outside the cabinet room and said 'they bowl them at me, I knock them away',” the statement read.

The batsman incident demonstrated “nuclear levels” of overconfidence in government during the pandemic, the inquiry heard.

Mr Johnson was dismissive of early warnings early about the seriousness of the pandemic, she told the inquiry.

In January and February 2020, Ms MacMamara said her “injections of caution” about the uncertainty of the situation surrounding Covid-19 “did not register with Mr Johnson”.

“In those early Cabinet meetings in particular Mr Johnson was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should all be careful of over-correcting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact and for which – in any case – we were well prepared.”

She said Mr Johnson's “breezy confidence” jarred with her.

“It was the day on which there was a question about whether the Prime Minister should shake hands with people on a visit to the hospital and there was a jokey discussion about alternative greetings to handshakes,” she said in a witness statement.

“The Prime Minister felt – not unreasonably – that it was a bit ridiculous for him to suggest alternative greetings.

“But the jovial tone, the view that in implementing containment measures and suspending work and schooling, the Italians were overreacting, and the breezy confidence that we would do better than others had jarred with me.

“I remember saying that I thought that all people wanted to know was what was the right thing to do – and that was not clear.”

The official inquiry aims to learn lessons from Britain's response to the pandemic.

Earlier this week, Mr Cummings and Lee Cain, two former political staffers who worked inside the Prime Minister’s office, gave evidence.

Mr Cummings, who left government after a lockdown-breaching cross-country drive, said Mr Johnson believed Covid-19 was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

Mr Johnson will give a “full account” of his actions during the pandemic to the Covid inquiry, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said.

“What I think you are seeing there is very partial, one piece of evidence among many others. I am quite sure that when the former prime minister gives evidence he will give a full account of himself, the cabinet office has given a very full account of how we conducted ourselves,” the minister said.

Updated: November 01, 2023, 3:17 PM