June 21, 2024

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‘Macho’ culture hit UK’s Covid response, says former senior civil servant

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Downing Street’s response to the Covid-19 crisis was hampered by a “macho” culture “contaminated by ego”, Britain’s former highest-ranking female civil servant has said, with Boris Johnson believing the country would “sail through” while delivering “handbrake turns” in policy.

Helen MacNamara told the Covid inquiry on Wednesday that senior UK officials “laugh[ed]” when Italy began imposing lockdowns in early 2020 and that the “de facto assumption” was “we were going to be great”.

MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary between 2020 and 2021, said there was an “absence of humanity” in the government’s approach and that Johnson, then prime minister, did not question the country’s preparedness. Instead, he was “very confident that the UK would sail through”.

Johnson “rarely accepted that to govern is to choose. He really did want it all and changed his mind often,” said McNamara, adding that civil servants had to “respond to any number of handbrake turns in policy”.

In written evidence, she wrote that “the dominant culture was macho and heroic” and “it felt like everything was contaminated by ego”.

MacNamara, who was fined for attending a party in Whitehall in 2020, also said the government’s own social distancing rules were never followed in Downing Street.

“I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were followed properly,” she said, adding that “hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers” had breached the guidance.

McNamara’s remarks add to the string of damaging revelations about Britain’s response to coronavirus under Johnson, who served as prime minister between 2019 and 2022.

Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Johnson, on Tuesday said the UK’s approach was marked by “widespread failure”, and that a “dysfunctional…

2023-11-01 13:30:12

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