The senior civil servant who was the subject of Dominic Cummings’ “violent and misogynistic” messages has said Boris Johnson let the country down by not tackling the “toxic” culture he presided over.
Helen MacNamara, who was one of the country’s highest ranking female officials, told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday that sexism in No 10 damaged the response to the pandemic.
She also said Matt Hancock displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence and a questionable record on the truth while a key figure in the Covid response as health secretary.
The public hearing was shown messages on Tuesday by Mr Cummings to the then-prime minister describing the then-deputy cabinet secretary as a “c***” who “must be out of our hair”.
Giving evidence on Wednesday, Ms MacNamara said the messages were “horrible to read”, but that in many ways she was not surprised by them considering the “toxic culture” that reigned.
“The way in which it was considered appropriate to describe what should happen to me, yes, as a woman, but, yes, as a civil servant, it is disappointing to me that the prime minister didn’t pick him up on some of that violent and misogynistic language,” she said.
Inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor KC said Mr Johnson was a participant in not just that WhatsApp group but “plenty of others where this sort of language, this sort of abuse, was used”.
Asked about Mr Johnson’s failure to stop the language, Ms MacNamara said: “It is just miles away from what is right or proper or decent, or what the country deserves.”
Mr Cummings, giving a running commentary online during her evidence, said his comments were “bad” but argued it is “mental” to focus on it over the actions of the Cabinet Office.
She also expressed “profound regret” for being one of the many officials fined after lockdown-breaching parties but hit out at the culture that preceded the rule-breaking.
Ms MacNamara wrote in her evidence that the “very obvious sexist treatment” that women in No 10 and the Cabinet Office experienced hindered their work.
“The dominant culture was macho and heroic,” she wrote. “It was positively unhelpful when the country needed thoughtful and reflective decision-making.”
Helen MacNamara (Former Deputy Cabinet Secretary) is giving evidence to the Inquiry today. You can view it on the live stream (and via playback) through our YouTube channel 📺now 👇https://t.co/okjTPwDYPc pic.twitter.com/bnCf8JqGQN
— UK Covid-19 Inquiry (@covidinquiryuk) November 1, 2023
She told the west London hearing that areas of policy to suffer as a result of the macho culture were issues including domestic abuse, carers and childcare and abortions during the pandemic.
The inquiry was shown a draft report on the chaos at the heart of government that she co-authored, containing claims of egotism and the bad behaviour of leaders being tolerated.
Too many were “behaving as if they have been parachuted in to save the day” and No 10 was “always at war with someone”.
“We need a modern culture of organised collaboration not superhero bunfight,” it was said by one person in the document destined for the prime minister.
Giving evidence on Tuesday, Mr Cummings insisted he was “certainly not” a misogynist despite the messages revealed by the inquiry.
In one WhatsApp, he wrote: “I don’t care how it’s done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***.”
Mr Cummings, who was Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, said that he would “personally handcuff her and escort her from the building”.
He accepted to the inquiry his language was “deplorable”, but added: “I was much ruder about men than I was about Helen.”
She also took aim at Mr Hancock, saying that he would suggest in meetings things were under control or would be sorted but then days or weeks later they “would discover that was not in fact the case”.
Ms MacNamara said that he was regularly telling colleagues things that they later discovered to be untrue.
She also shared an anecdote to demonstrate Mr Hancock’s “overconfidence”, saying that he adopted a cricket batsman’s position after trying to comfort him in April 2020.
He then told her “they bowl them at me, I knock them away”, according to Ms MacNamara.
Ms MacNamara, who provided a karaoke machine for a leaving do in June 2020, said “hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers” were liable to being fined.
“My profound regret is for the damage that’s been caused to so many people because of it, as well as just the mortifying experience of seeing what that looks like and how rightly offended everybody is in retrospect,” she said.
“I absolutely knew and thought it was actually important for there to be space for – particularly the private office – to be able to gather together and spend time together.
“That was entirely because of the kind of culture that they were working in and entirely because I was really worried about individuals breaking and suffering, and whether they were going to be OK, and how important their colleagues were to each other.”
In her full written statement released on Wednesday evening, Ms MacNamara recalled discussions about “herd immunity” and how to “squash the sombrero” – and make the peak smaller.
She said of Mr Johnson: “I have no definite recollection of him saying that he would be happy to be injected with the virus to reassure people, though it was the sort of dramatic gesture he might have made.
“Talking about ‘herd immunity’ instead of population immunity felt uncomfortable at the time — it was another part of the dehumanising/macho approach.”