Transcript of Module 2 Public Hearing on 30 October 2023

(10.30 am)

Lady Hallett: Good morning, everyone.

May I just start this week’s hearings by saying this: there have been several press reports in the last few days, including this morning, suggesting that materials confidential to the Inquiry and the core participants have been shared with the media.

In consultation with Counsel to the Inquiry and core participants, it is for me to decide which witnesses to call, which documents to put into evidence and publish. I do so bearing in mind my obligations to fulfil my terms of reference fully, fairly, independently and openly.

I wish to remind all those involved in the Inquiry as core participants and witnesses of the need to maintain the confidentiality of the materials with which they have been provided unless and until they are used in the Inquiry proceedings. Fairness to witnesses and to those named in the documents requires that the materials are deployed and published in a logical order, and allowing the witness to whom the materials relate an appropriate opportunity to comment.

I have promised to conduct the Inquiry as openly as possible, and I am doing so, publishing large quantities of previously confidential information about decision-making during the pandemic on the Inquiry website. This material and these proceedings give the media much on which to report. It only assists those who, unlike the Inquiry which investigates independently, have an agenda to pursue for this material to be shared before the Inquiry has published it.

I am conscious that we’ll start hearing from high profile and important witnesses in the coming days and there will be much understandable speculation about what these witnesses will say. I ask all core participants and witnesses with access to such material to continue to respect the terms on which it has been shared with them, so that we can all hear what they say at the same time and fully without gloss, partiality and in a proper context.

Thank you.

Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: My Lady, the first witness this morning is Martin Reynolds. Could he be sworn, please.

Mr Martin Reynolds


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you commence your evidence to this Inquiry, please, by giving us your full name.

Mr Martin Reynolds: It’s Martin Alexander Baillie Reynolds.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, you were the former principal private secretary to the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, were you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I was, yes.

Lead Inquiry: You have provided a witness statement dated 22 May 2023, a copy of which is on the screen, and I think you have signed that statement with the usual declaration on the last page, page 23. Thank you for your assistance in providing that to us.

You joined the civil service in the late 1990s, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I did, yes.

Lead Inquiry: I think you had worked before as a lawyer in a City law firm. Did you begin your civil service career at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I did, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Before December 2014 and January 2018 were you the principal private secretary, the PPS, to the then Foreign Secretary, initially Philip Hammond, and then, from July 2016, Boris Johnson?

Mr Martin Reynolds: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: When Mr Johnson was appointed Prime Minister in July 2019, did he request you to return to London in order to be a private secretary or principal private secretary to him?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, he did.

Lead Inquiry: Therefore did you work with him from July 2019 onwards?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, I did.

Lead Inquiry: When did you become principal private secretary?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I believe it was in either October or November of the same year.

Lead Inquiry: Did you remain Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary until mid-February 2022?

Mr Martin Reynolds: That is correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: I’d like to start your evidence, Mr Reynolds, please, with some questions about the retention of emails and WhatsApps, given your role as the principal private secretary.

Do you recall whether there was a policy in Downing Street in or around the first half of 2021 concerning whether emails should be retained, how they should be accumulated, how they should be archived and so on?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, I believe that emails relating – or non-ephemeral emails relating to decision-making processes were retained.

Lead Inquiry: For the purposes of this Inquiry, were you therefore given access to emails which you sent and received in the course of your work in Downing Street which were then put onto a laptop, allowing you to review them?

Mr Martin Reynolds: That is correct, although I think – because of the nature of the IT systems, I think I only mainly saw emails which I had sent, so I don’t think I saw the full comprehensive set of emails.

Lead Inquiry: In his witness statement, Mr Cummings – and you’re obviously aware who Mr Cummings is – says that in the spring of 2020, so at some point after the commencement of the pandemic, he’d asked the Cabinet Office to ensure that Number 10 email accounts were saved for a future lessons learnt exercise. Do you recall anything about that and whether or not there was a debate about saving emails for a lessons learned exercise?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I don’t, but I believe emails were retained in the normal way under our normal policies.

Lead Inquiry: Simon Case, who was Cabinet Secretary and remains Cabinet Secretary, says in his statement that in March 2021 a Number 10 policy on WhatsApps was established. Do you recall anything to do with such a policy?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, I don’t.

Lead Inquiry: As the principal private secretary, is that a matter with which you would have been concerned?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I would have been aware of the policy statement, I’m sure, but I cannot remember the substance, and I imagine our policy on WhatsApps, certainly throughout this period, was, in a sense, the same as our policy on other material, which was around retention of WhatsApps or messages which were important for the decision-making process, but not the ephemeral side of things.

Lead Inquiry: Could you just go a little bit slower, please, Mr Reynolds, whilst you give evidence. It’s very hard for our stenographer to keep up –

Mr Martin Reynolds: Sorry.

Lead Inquiry: – with the speed of your evidence.

So you say there was material relating to decision-making, and WhatsApp material relating to more ephemeral matters. What do you mean by that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think in – in this period I think there is a significant shift in the volume of WhatsApps which were used for discussions reflecting the shift to remote working and the pace of some of the activities going on with people in different locations. So certainly my experience was WhatsApp became more – more extensive in its usage than certainly I had experienced previously.

Lead Inquiry: But that is to do with the volume. What is this distinction that you draw between WhatsApps relating to decision-making and more “ephemeral” WhatsApps? What are ephemeral WhatsApps?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think certainly from my experience of the WhatsApps that I have seen, the vast majority of those WhatsApps were of an ephemeral nature and that decisions when they took place were taking place in the normal way and recorded in the normal way. And a lot of the WhatsApps you are seeing, it seems to me, are exchanges which people could have been doing previously by telephone or in corridors or things like that, they are now just recorded in WhatsApp, but are ephemeral in nature in the same way as if there was a conversation about a policy matter before people go into a substantive discussion, in the corridor, where someone might say something to me or to others. We’re not necessarily recording all of that because it’s ephemeral in nature, where where the decision takes place and the process leading to that decision are recorded in the normal way.

Lead Inquiry: You’re not suggesting, are you, that the vast majority of these Covid-related WhatsApps are irrelevant?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, I think they are relevant to the Covid Inquiry, but in terms of the decision-making process and the obligation on civil servants to record formally steps in the decision-making process, it’s a bit different.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, I’m not following. Why aren’t they part of the decision-making process?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Because in any – I suppose in any decision there is all sorts of ephemeral discussions around a policy; not all of those discussions are recorded in full, even in the main meetings themselves.

Mr Keith: But, Mr Reynolds, they are all relevant, are they not, to the state of mind of the sender and, indirectly, the recipient?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: They are all relevant to the debate about Covid and the decisions which were then being taken, are they not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: That is correct, and that is why I retained all of my WhatsApps and I’ve – I handed over my WhatsApps to the Inquiry in – well, in full.

Lead Inquiry: That presumably was because you were aware from a very early stage that your WhatsApps would be relevant to any Inquiry that might thereafter take place, as well as to, perhaps, lessons learned exercises, as well as providing a contemporaneous understanding of the thinking of the persons who sent and received WhatsApps?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: You were aware, were you not, that the WhatsApps from the core decision-makers and advisers would all become relevant in due course?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000265619, page 68, please.

This is a WhatsApp message between yourself and Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, in December 2021, so later this year, where, after a debate about the general mood and the way in which matters are progressing, particularly on the Omicron front, because this is December 2021, towards the bottom of the page, Simon Case:

“PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.

“Martin Reynolds [that is of course you]: Agree – thanks for your help.”

What was the battle about, Mr Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I cannot recall, but I imagine that the Prime Minister – I’m afraid I can only – I can only speculate, but I imagine that he hadn’t realised that all of his WhatsApps would become public via the Covid Inquiry.

Lead Inquiry: Because of course, as the then Prime Minister, his WhatsApps would form a vital part of a full, transparent examination of the decision-making at the time?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: As yours would?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. When was it first understood in Number 10 Downing Street that there might be a public inquiry?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m afraid I cannot recall, but I think in certainly the early stages I and others were not thinking in those terms. Certainly in the very sort of pressured period of early 2020 I don’t think I was really reflecting on whether there would be a public inquiry, I was much more focused on dealing with the day-to-day challenges at that time. So I would have thought it would be after that, but how far after that, I cannot comment.

Lead Inquiry: You will know from the disclosure, Mr Reynolds, that Sir Patrick Vallance’s evening notes, his dairies, as well as some other notebooks and emails disclosed to the Inquiry show that the notion of there being a public inquiry first appeared in the general discourse around about the end of 2020, in the beginning of 2021. Does that sound right to you?

Mr Martin Reynolds: That sounds entirely plausible.

Lead Inquiry: We have already seen an entry in the notes of Sir Patrick Vallance in which he records the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, as saying that any inquiry “should go on for a decade or more [want] someone like Saville to chair it and keep it going forever”, and that’s dated 3 November 2020.

Did you take any part in debate about the nature or the extent or the time of an Inquiry?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I was involved in the discussions which the Prime Minister had about the nature of an inquiry, but I cannot, I don’t think, comment on that particular exchange.

Lead Inquiry: The then Prime Minister made an announcement to Parliament on 12 May 2021. Could we have that, please, on the screen, INQ000273904.

Then to the second page, please.

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will update the House on our response to Covid.”

Then if you could scroll through, please, to the next page:

“… the State has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future, which is why I have always said that when the time is right there should be a full and independent Inquiry.”

He announces, does he not, therefore, the institution of that inquiry, and then, further down the page, a reference to consulting with the devolved administrations.

Then – over one more page, please – he refers to “the exercise of identifying and disclosing all relevant information”, the burden that that will place on the participants, and then – further down the page and over the page – he says this, in the bottom six entries:

“… this Inquiry must be able to look at the events of the last year in the cold light of day – and identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future. Free to scrutinise every document …”

As the principal private secretary, presumably you had a hand in advising the Prime Minister and assisting in the process by which the Prime Minister decided that there would be a public inquiry and that it would be announced in Parliament. Do you recall that process, Mr Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think the process was actually on the basis of advice from the Cabinet Office and discussions with the Cabinet Office team, so I was present for that discussion, or may well have been present for elements of that discussion, but I was not responsible for the advice and the process through which it came to that conclusion.

Lead Inquiry: You knew, did you not, that the Prime Minister was considering instituting a public inquiry, and that that would be announced at Parliament?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: If yes, please –

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. And presumably that process by which the announcement was drafted and by which the decision was made to have a public inquiry took a matter of weeks? Presumably these decisions aren’t just made on the spot?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, it was probably longer than weeks.

Lead Inquiry: So at least before April of that year, if this was May 2021, at least a month?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: You were party to a WhatsApp group called “PM Updates”, were you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000265631:

“PM Updates from Martin Reynolds phone.”

It’s a group that was formed on 16 November 2020, was it not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “You created group ‘PM Updates’.”

Is “You” you, Martin Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: It is indeed, yes.

Lead Inquiry: At 20.17 on that day, you said:

“I have created a new group to focus on updates, diary etc from the outer office.”

I think in that group were the Prime Minister, yourself, Cleo Watson, Stuart Glassborow, Henry Cook and Dan Rosenfield, all the Prime Minister’s closest advisers?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: This was no doubt a hugely important WhatsApp group?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm, if I can explain the PM update system, that might sort of give you a better sense of actually its importance, which is that we had throughout most of this time a system of updating, of giving the Prime Minister updates on factual developments, on quick decisions he might need to be taking, and that was done initially in paper copy. The “PM Updates” group essentially translated that paper copy into WhatsApp, but it remained, unlike almost any other WhatsApp group, basically on email and hard copy. So what you had was, as it were, parallel structures where what I would do is I was sent an email with the updates for the day on, I would put it onto a WhatsApp, and send it to the Prime Minister, and then I would take it back from the Prime Minister and send an email out with his record on it.

And so, unlike the other WhatsApp groups we have been talking – we will no doubt want to talk about, it was actually a mechanistic way of delivering to the Prime Minister unclassified material which he could look at, as it were, at an appropriate time each evening, and it was done on a daily basis, but actually the chain of record-keeping was all done through email or hard copy and back out again. So essentially what you’re seeing here is the central bit in the process where something goes to the Prime Minister by WhatsApp and is sent back again. And so what I was doing there was, as it were, acting as a way of transmitting that to the Prime Minister. But in terms of the substance of the decisions, some were fairly low level, and some were quite mechanistic, as – could be questions about who he wanted to see or things like that.

Lead Inquiry: You’re not suggesting that this WhatsApp group was anything other than highly relevant to the information that the Prime Minister was receiving? It deals with matters such as Parliamentary business and the dealing with the Covid pandemic, how the DHSC would respond, Cabinet affairs, we can see from this page, shielding, clinically extremely vulnerable, MPs. This was hugely important information; you were telling the Prime Minister daily, hourly, by minute, information he needed to know.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: And you’re not suggesting that it replicated exactly other written material, written emails or notes, you wouldn’t surely have just been replicating word for word everything that was being sent by email?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think I was certainly taking the responses from the Prime Minister, which were typically very short, and relaying them back into email, back out to the same – to a wider circulation list.

Lead Inquiry: There is information in this WhatsApp group, which runs to 115 pages, that is not elsewhere to be found in notes in his red box, notes to the Prime Minister or emails, is there?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m surprised by that. I think if we checked the Number 10 record you would find that there are emails coming in and out, since, as I say, the content of the WhatsApps was all delivered to me by email and I transferred it into a WhatsApp and sent it to the Prime Minister and then back again.

Lead Inquiry: The general topics were, of course, the subject of debate in email, face-to-face conversations as well as multiple WhatsApp groups, but the detail was not replicated elsewhere, you weren’t cut and pasting other documents into this WhatsApp group, were you?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I was, yes.

Lead Inquiry: In entirety?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes. And I was then responding by email. And that’s why it’s different from the other WhatsApp groups I’m in, so you can see at least – yes, I mean, I’m not typing these texts into the WhatsApp itself, I’m literally receiving it onto my phone, cutting and pasting it, sending it to the Prime Minister and then taking his response and sending it out again.

Lead Inquiry: Why would you need to cut and paste everything from an email into a separate WhatsApp group?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I mean, in a sense it’s something we had – it’s something actually I introduced with Philip Hammond. It’s a way of distilling paperwork to a minister, reducing and boiling it down in a way which means it is readily comprehensible. So rather than lots and lots of separate box returns or billet-doux or whatever, what you do is you distill it into one document, normally of two or three sides, and then the minister can read through quite quickly every day a whole bunch of updates and other things so it can be updated in an efficient way. This is, as it were, an evolution of that which I think reflected the Prime Minister’s desire to receive it on WhatsApp rather than in hard copy, so he could get that information and respond at whatever time was convenient for him, overnight or early in the morning or whenever it might be. So it’s a bit different from a normal WhatsApp where I might be typing in a message.

Lead Inquiry: Well, let’s have a look at page 16 and 17, pages 16 and 17, which are good indications of the sort of information that you were providing. In the middle of the page:

“Jenrick speaking to Starmer re Liverpool. Ben, Ed and I all think a good idea but just tba.”

To be advised, is it?

Mr Martin Reynolds: To be aware.

Lead Inquiry: To be aware.

“Netanyahu asked for an urgent call re vaccines – we have declined …”

You then talk about the commercial evictions moratorium.

Over the page, 17, vaccine deployment, Parliamentary affairs, information about the ECB.

Are you saying all this was cut and pasted from other emails which you –

Mr Martin Reynolds: I would need to check the – but I did not type all of those in as WhatsApps, no. No. Some of those emails – some of those messages, you are right, may have been things I’d added in, but if you look at the majority of that you’re looking at, that is all stuff which has been cut and pasted, so, for example, on the screen:

“The Cabinet Secretary has signed off the following agenda …”

That is literally cut and pasted from a document I had been sent. Similarly, the ECB announcement, that’s literally cut and pasted. So what – essentially it’s a transmission mechanism. It’s different from most other WhatsApps. That isn’t to say that some of the responses on there might have been typed in manually, but I would – I mean, looking at this list, the vast majority, if not all, have been cut and pasted.

And there will be documents in Number 10 which will literally have “daily update 10 December” with all of these things in and there will be an email to me with it, an email out with it, where I explain the Prime Minister has noted all these issues.

Lead Inquiry: But not all of it, you would agree, Mr Reynolds? Some of the information appears only in these WhatsApp threads; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think some, possibly, but I would need to check it off. And I think the other thing I would say is it comes back to my point about ephemeral and non-ephemeral. What’s actually been recorded here is the flow of update material in to the Prime Minister which is read out again by email.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, all this material is directly relevant, is it not, to the management of the Covid pandemic, whether it’s to do with his business in Parliament or in government or in Number 10 or Downing Street or how the government generally is responding, it’s all to do with Covid, isn’t it, the material that we have not redacted on the basis it’s irrelevant and sensitive; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right. Could we have page 114, please. On 15 April of 2021, so just a matter of a few weeks before Mr Johnson announced the public inquiry to Parliament, you turned on the disappearing message function in this WhatsApp group:

“New messages will disappear from this chat 7 days after they’re sent.”

If we look at the bottom of the page, August 2021, and then over the page to 115, it’s obvious from the people who joined and left that the WhatsApp group continued.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Until you left on 20 March 2022. So you were plainly discussing Covid-related matters between the moment you turned the disappearing function on to March 2022, when you left; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Why did you turn on the disappearing message function around the time that the Prime Minister announced a public inquiry into the Covid pandemic?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I cannot – I can guess or I can speculate, but I cannot recall exactly why I did so. But, as I say, my explanation is this – this WhatsApp group was very different from any other WhatsApp group on my phone, in that it was essentially funneling information in to the Prime Minister and out, and all of that was recorded separately in hard copy or in email form, including the Prime Minister’s comments, so that flow of information of updating him on developments was recorded properly on our systems.

Now, I cannot – I can speculate as to why I might have done it. As I said at the start, I have kept all my other WhatsApps for the relevant period and handed them over, so I don’t believe it was intended to prevent the Inquiry from having sight of this. It could, for example, have been because I was worried of someone screenshotting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them.

Lead Inquiry: These were your closest colleagues and you had obviously been engaging with them in this WhatsApp group for many, many months, in fact from 16 November 2020 until April 2021; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, correct.

Lead Inquiry: There was no change in the Number 10 system whereby emails were being sent to the Prime Minister and notes were being put into his red box, were there, around April?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No.

Lead Inquiry: So it wasn’t that the system had changed requiring you to no longer engage in this WhatsApp communication, you just turned on the disappearing function?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct, but I didn’t – I mean, again, you know, I see what you’re pushing at, but I didn’t put disappearing function any of my other WhatsApps and it – you know, the rationale for doing this is unclear to me and I cannot remember that far out, but as I say, the “PM Updates” WhatsApp group was based on a formal sort of flow of paperwork, and so, arguably, the – all of that material is still available to the Inquiry.

Lead Inquiry: This WhatsApp group is not available because the disappearing function was turned on by you in April 2021?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Could we now then look, please, for a moment at the structure in Number 10 and your role as the principal private secretary.

You were in essence the director general of Downing Street, were you not? You were essentially the head of the private office and responsible for the management of Number 10, as a corporate entity?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct. Would it be helpful if I just explained the different elements in Number 10 and tried to show how Number 10 worked in its sort of slightly strange hybrid political and civil service way?

Lead Inquiry: Would you mind terribly, Mr Reynolds, if I just asked the questions, and if you feel that there is evidence you wish to give about the role of 10 Downing Street then you can answer appropriately.

In Downing Street there were obviously a number of very important but different moving parts. There’s yourself as the principal private secretary, there is the civil service element, there are other private secretaries.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: There is the Cabinet Secretary, who is of course, as it says on the tin, the secretary to the Cabinet, a member of the civil service. But also advisers to the Prime Minister who were not themselves civil servants; is that correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: And, for example, they included Mr Dominic Cummings?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: To what extent, Mr Reynolds, were you, as the head of the private office, as the principal private secretary, responsible for keeping the Prime Minister informed as to what was going on? Was it a function that you exclusively held or was it a function held alongside other civil servants, or was it a divided function, that is to say between the civil service and Mr Cummings and his group of advisers?

Mr Martin Reynolds: The role of the private office, which is a team of about 20 people, it essentially manages the Prime Minister’s day-to-day professional existence. So its role is to manage the flow of papers between the government machine and the Prime Minister, to organise the meetings which people are requesting and trying to put those in the diary at the right time, right, you know, period of time, and all of those sorts of issues. So it is a – it’s a running the professional existence of the Prime Minister and the linking back into the government machine, both in the Cabinet Office, where the Cabinet Secretary is the lead official, and out into departments. So it is acting, as it were, as connective tissue between the government machine and the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Was there anybody higher than you in terms of civil service appointment? Did you answer to anybody, for example the Cabinet Secretary, or are you the senior official in Downing Street?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I am the senior DG in Downing Street, but the Cabinet Secretary is my line manager, and he – in fact, both Mark Sedwill and Simon Case are in Downing Street the whole time, and so there is a – it’s a slightly fluid sort of interplay between the Cabinet Secretary and Downing Street.

Lead Inquiry: I think you attended all the important meetings in relation to those areas of policy for which you were primarily responsible. Is that because there were areas of policy that you particularly focused on as opposed to your other private secretaries, the other private secretaries in Downing Street?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I mean, I – I didn’t really have a core policy responsibility, so – I mean, I think different private secretaries manage their relationship differently. Some principal private secretaries would have a policy responsibility, but I only dealt with, I suppose, as a core policy responsibility, some of the most sensitive intelligence issues which didn’t go to other people. And you have a team of private secretaries who are covering each of the policy areas, and so for the purposes of Covid you have Imran Shafi, who I think you are seeing after me, and his role was covering the public services, so he would cover all the policy issues in his area, and would be the person who would be, as it were, managing the flow of papers in that area, managing updates, keeping the Prime Minister abreast of things. I had a slightly broader remit, where I was essentially leading the private office as a collective entity, managing the relationship with the Cabinet Office. I also did a number of sort of way more bespoke things like managing the relationship with the Palace, and I also oversaw the overall administration of the building, which in the Covid period becomes much more significant.

Lead Inquiry: Of course.

Mr Martin Reynolds: So I have a wider set of responsibilities. I look across the full set of policy issues, but the individual private secretaries, who are each extremely talented and tend to have a background in the issues they are working on, were the people who were leading the issue within Downing Street and basically acting as that connective tissue, even if I was then in some of the meetings.

Lead Inquiry: The material shows, Mr Reynolds, that you debated Covid at great length in the WhatsApp groups of which you were a member, that you attended a huge number of meetings with the Prime Minister in relation to Covid, you were privy to the debates before COBR, the debate in Cabinet about Covid; you essentially tracked what was going on, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: In reality, I think Stuart Glassborow and Imran Shafi were much more into the detail of exactly what was happening on Covid; and I was indeed present for many of the discussions, but that was to get a broad overview of what is going on. The decision-making processes, the detail of what is happening, was being tracked in much more detail by Stuart and Imran.

Lead Inquiry: You must have debated the vital decisions that were being taken in the course of the Covid pandemic with the Prime Minister and his closest advisers; you were his principal private secretary, were you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: The closest decisions – I mean, it seems to me on Covid you had world experts who were advising on how to handle issues. My job was to try to make sure that the civil service – sorry, the private office machine was underpinning – well, making sure that the decisions which needed to go to the Prime Minister, the meetings, and all the sort of arrangements around the processes, were there to enable the Prime Minister to get the best possible advice from the real experts on Covid and to hear from his ministers or other political advisers some of the political dynamics around those decisions. I was not – if that is what you are suggesting – there to give the Prime Minister advice on Covid, and would have felt very uncomfortable to be someone who was, as it were, taking a position against the expert advice of Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance or indeed the Cabinet Secretary or some of the other figures there.

So it’s a very – you know, you have a lot of key players who were providing advice to the Prime Minister. The role of the private office very often is around choreography and making sure the right people are there at the right time, managing the processes around the Prime Minister, so preparing for press conferences, preparing for Parliamentary statements. So it’s the organisational underpinning for what is going on, but the actual advice to the Prime Minister came from others.

Lead Inquiry: You sent notes to the Prime Minister which were put into his red box concerning developments in relation to the Covid pandemic, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Did you send emails to the Prime Minister and others expressing your views as to what should be done about the many complex features of the Covid pandemic?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I don’t recall. I mean, I don’t recall giving advice on the substance of Covid. Now, the role of the private secretary is to enable the flow of information from the department or from the Cabinet Office or from other parts of the government system to the Prime Minister and out again, to make sure that that moves quickly and that to some extent there is an efficient process for managing that. In terms of expressing my views on Covid, I don’t believe I did on a regular basis, and I certainly wouldn’t have done so formally. I think what we are doing – I mean, I imagine we’ll want to come back to the different phases in the pandemic, but a lot of what I was doing certainly in the sort of crisis phase is making sure that the private secretaries are structured and able to pick up the various strands of activity coming out of meetings, to drive that through the system and to bring it back to the Prime Minister and to others for meetings.

Lead Inquiry: Imran Shafi, who was a private secretary, and you were his line manager, because you’re the principal private secretary, he of course gave advice to the Prime Minister regularly, repeatedly, in relation to aspects of Covid?

Mr Martin Reynolds: He is regularly giving, exactly, steers, but I was not leading on Covid, I was not – I was making sure that the overall machine and the processes were working, and I was not in the detail and so not able to give advice in the same way as Imran, or indeed Stuart.

Lead Inquiry: Stuart Glassborow?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Stuart Glassborow, yes.

Lead Inquiry: You are aware that Mr Cummings in his statement to this Inquiry suggests that you were too deferential to the Prime Minister and shied away from confronting him with hard issues. What do you say to that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think – well, I imagine as part of our evidence we’ll come back to the departure arrangements for Mark Sedwill. I think on a number of occasions, where I felt it was necessary and I needed to step in, I gave the Prime Minister very clear advice when I disagreed with him. But those were on issues where I felt it was my role as the principal private secretary to step in and give that advice, and I can – I can identify three or four such examples if that would be helpful.

Lead Inquiry: Your position is that those all related, however, to the organisational aspects of Number 10, to the role by which advice was given by others, how the system worked to support the Prime Minister, in essence?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Tell us, then, please, whether there is any basis to the suggestion, also made by Mr Cummings, that in February and March of 2020 there was an untoward degree of optimism bias on the part of the Prime Minister, a sense of, well, the worst is not going to happen, we may be overreacting here, it could be swine flu, there’s nothing to see here or not too much to see here.

Is there any basis for that suggestion?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think if you look at the paperwork through from January, February, March, well, actually until late February, while there are clearly reports coming in identifying some of the risks and challenges around Covid, the tone of those communications, which I imagine we may want to come back to, was very much that the system was tracking this very carefully, the right processes were in place to manage that, and that whilst there were potentially large challenges ahead, that in a sense the plans and the preparations were broadly in place, and I think there was a sort of reassuring message coming up into Number 10 during that period.

Now, in terms of the Prime Minister’s perspective, I think he is instinctively optimistic, but I also think that he instinctively believes that as a leader it’s important to project confidence and ability to deal with things. But I think that the suggestion you’re making is one which is shared not just, as it were, by the Prime Minister but across the centre of government more generally, that in a sense this was a worrying pandemic in China, it was being tracked quite closely, and the preparations were in place to deal with it if necessary.

Lead Inquiry: The secret’s in the word “bias”. The suggestion is that there was a degree of optimism bias, that is to say that the sunny outlook adopted by the Prime Minister and perhaps by others in government was not justified by the developing reality, by the objective state of facts.

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think your Inquiry will be better able to verify that than I can.

Lead Inquiry: You were Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, you must have formed a view in February and March as to whether or not the government was getting on top of the problem with sufficient alacrity, sufficient speed and attention to detail?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think – well, from the paperwork certainly I have here at the end of February there is a note to the Prime Minister setting out, as it were, the assessment of the challenges that Covid presented, and that note is produced by a group of the most senior advisers on the issue, plus the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, and that note I can see does seem to be pretty – I wouldn’t say reassuring, but gives the sense that the system is gripping the challenge in an appropriate way.

And I recognise that after that, and within about two or three weeks’ period, the government is looking at very fundamental interventions, but I would just observe that many of those interventions were not highlighted or identified in the note at the end of February.

So, I mean, I agree that, you know, with the benefit of hindsight, it does appear that we should have been far more vigorously looking and testing our arrangements for what was coming, and that would arguably have made a big difference when the crisis hit.

Lead Inquiry: You’re referring to a note to the Prime Minister on 20 February, and we’ll come back to that in due course.

What about before the end of February, though, Mr Reynolds? And putting aside hindsight, it was apparent, wasn’t it, by the middle of February, that there was sustained human-to-human transmission in the community in the United Kingdom; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: It was obvious because SAGE and – through the CMO and the CSA, the government – SAGE advised, and through the CMO and the CSA the government was aware, that the ability of the state to be able to control the spread of the virus was very much weakened, it was plain that there would be very real difficulties in controlling the spread of the virus; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I defer to your judgement.

Lead Inquiry: Well …

Mr Martin Reynolds: I mean, I haven’t got the record in front of me, but –

Lead Inquiry: Do you recall that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I recall the flow of information highlighting the – highlighting the growing problem of Covid. In terms of, you know, actually the assessment of what that means and what the reality means in terms of the UK Government response, that in a sense is not the responsibility of the PPS. That was – you would expect advice to be coming in saying, as we found out two or three weeks later, that we’re not prepared to deal with X, Y or Z and we need to address it very quickly.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, you sat in on those meetings with the Prime Minister in middle, early, middle and late February, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: You sent emails about Covid and received emails about Covid in the early, middle and late part of February, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: So you must have formed a view as to what the level of the crisis was and whether or not in fact the absence of means to control the virus, the fact that it had already started to spread in the United Kingdom, presented the government with an alarming conundrum, with a terrible prospect; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: So why was it, to use your words, only at the end of February that the government machine, to paraphrase your evidence, proceeded to deal with this crisis, to deal with the problem, which was already then apparent?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, as I say, I mean, I think the – you know, the evidence, from what you’re saying, seems to suggest that we should have been assessing the situation differently and moving more quickly, but that certainly, from the – from the – as I say, from the note at the end of February, the overall sense was the relevant parts of government were already, as it were, looking over exactly what needed to be done in preparations, and the overall message was that, while there are some difficult decisions or there will be some difficult decisions to be taken, the government machine is prepared for that eventuality.

Lead Inquiry: You have a great deal of experience, of course, in the civil service with the management of government. It’s what you do. To what extent was Mr Johnson’s administration in January and February of 2020 an inexperienced one or a new one or one that might, because of the novelty – and of course the general election had only taken place a few months before – that perhaps it was unable, structurally, to be able to cope with a crisis of this magnitude?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think it is fair to say that the dynamics in January, February, March of 2020 were very different to the dynamics before the election. Obviously the majority was very different, but there had been a very big shift in overall focus pre-election on Brexit and the Brexit negotiations, and that had been pretty … well, it had been the overriding focus of that entire period for three or four months, and that had been concluded, the election had happened, and it did feel like there was a significant, as it were, turning of the page because, with a majority of 80 or whatever it was, there was a sense that the government had a five or ten-year time horizon to look at and there was a really strong focus on the forward agenda.

So at the beginning of January there was an away day in Chequers, which I attended. There was some work around what I would view as being sort of completing Brexit, not masses, but it was around closing down the Department for Exiting the European Union. There were some very big decisions around HS2, big decisions around 5G and the roll-out of 5G technology across the UK. And so there was, as it were, a very different feel to Downing Street, a very different feel to the centre of government, as we were trying to get used to what this new political reality meant.

Lead Inquiry: And –

Mr Martin Reynolds: If I may continue, the other thing I would say within Downing Street specifically was we were getting used to a slightly divergent internal politics, because it was increasingly clear that the Prime Minister’s and Dominic Cummings’ agendas were not overlapping, or were overlapped in part but were quite different, and that, in that period, meant that we were starting to try to work out: what are the priorities, how do we deliver this, and what are we – you know, in a sense, what are we trying to achieve as a collective? And that dynamic I think was starting to become more prominent.

The other dynamic I would say during this period is a sort of unease with some of the messaging and actions taking place. So it was during this period that we were talking about the appointment of various – and I use quotes here – “weirdos and misfits” and bringing in very different people into Downing Street, and we had the case of Mr Sabisky, who you’ll remember is an adviser brought in who had unusual views on eugenics and after three days he had – he resigned.

There was a lot of work going on around a possible reorganisation of Number 10, because we were considering relocating the Prime Minister’s office to a different part of the building. So a lot of work was going on on that. And there was, I think, quite a bit of unease in the civil service around, and excuse my language, the so-called “shit list” of people who were thought to be at risk in what was perceived to be a potentially more muscular approach to the civil service.

So I think it is fair to say, in the period you’re talking about, there were quite a lot of other things taking place which meant that quite a bit of senior energy and attention was focusing on other things –

Lead Inquiry: I’m just going to pause you there, please, Mr Reynolds, that’s a very long answer.

The dynamic between Mr Cummings and the Prime Minister, of course, changed during the course of the year, did it not, and in the end Mr Cummings left at the end of 2020? But that dynamic, was that a major feature of any instability in Downing Street in that early period, January/February, which is what I’m concerned about?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think the dynamic – I mean, there is an unusual dynamic around Dominic Cummings, in that in many ways, in my view, he was the most empowered chief of staff Downing Street has seen, and was the person whose writ ruled and was able to drive things through the machine in a way I suspect few other chiefs of staff have done.

But what I would also say is that the Prime Minister at the time did not work exclusively on the basis of advice of his chief of staff, and that if you look at many of the policy debates going on, he was looking to other advisers within Number 10 to express their views, and he liked, as it were, a multiplicity of different arguments and advice which – from which he could choose. And I think a particularly important political adviser in this context was Ed Lister, who would often give a very different assessment or perspective on many of the core issues reflecting his role – or his previous roles in local government and in – and in business.

So whilst you’re right there is a sort of very clear political direction, there are the two bits of confusion I would add to that: one is that Dominic Cummings isn’t, like most previous chiefs of staff, always pursuing the same agenda as the Prime Minister; and that the Prime Minister himself is looking to hear divergent views. And HS2 is a good example of that.

Lead Inquiry: All right, Mr Reynolds, I’m going to pull you back from a debate about HS2.

My question asked you what the position was in Downing Street in January and February. The dynamic between Mr Cummings and the Prime Minister did not begin to deteriorate until later in the year, the reorganisation in particular the introduction of a new director general, a permanent secretary in Number 10 and the setting up of Covid-S and Covid-O and Lord Sedwill’s departure was all later in the year, predominantly from May onwards, and the other matters of which you’ve spoken, with the exception of Mr Cummings’ appeal for “weirdos and misfits” were all later in the year.

I want to ask you: what was the state of play, the ability of Number 10 to function efficiently in February, when these momentous decisions had to be – started to be taken?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I mean, I think it’s what I’m saying, we were in a process of bedding into a new reality, and whilst – I mean, you’re right that the relationship between Dominic Cummings and the Prime Minister was very good at this stage, but I do think it’s relevant as to how he operates even when the relationship is very good, and the – as it were, the approach which relies on multiple sources of debate and information, and the fact that you have a misalignment between the Prime Minister and the chief of staff in terms of what they’re trying to achieve.

Lead Inquiry: But it wasn’t just Mr Cummings, was it, Mr Reynolds? I mean, it’s not – are you suggesting that any lack of efficiency or efficacy in Downing Street was solely the responsibility of Mr Cummings and –

Mr Martin Reynolds: Not at all, no, and I wouldn’t wish to be suggesting that at all, but what I’m trying to suggest is that in this period we’re getting used to a different type of working arrangement to what we were experiencing, as it were, before the general election. And I’m not saying that – you know, I’m not looking to, as it were, to blame or – I’m just trying to give a sense of a bedding down of a new operation where people are trying to work out how this new reality works, what the priorities are, how we manage the different personalities and all of those sorts of things, and I think it does have an impact into the mood and the nature of Number 10 at this early period.

Lead Inquiry: You are aware, of course, that Sir Patrick Vallance, who played an extraordinarily important part in the response to the pandemic and was the liaison, of course, along with Professor Sir Chris Whitty, between SAGE and the government, has described the position in Number 10. On one occasion, on 5 April, he says:

“No 10 chaos as usual …”

In June his notes refer to the fact that:

“… no one in no 10 or [the Cabinet Office] had really read or taken time to understand the science advice …”

He says it’s:

“Quite extraordinary.”

And he remarks, albeit later in the year, that Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, had reported to him that “No 10 [was] at war with itself”.

Would you agree that there was an unusual degree of chaos, dysfunctionality, lack of efficiency, in Number 10 during those early important months?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think – I think that in the early months there is a bedding down of a new working arrangement. So if we’re talking about January, February and probably the early bit of March, we are, in my view, bedding down new arrangements, the – but the flow of information into Number 10, which you will no doubt hear from Imran Shafi and others, the actual work process and so forth are, I think, managing in the normal way.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Martin Reynolds: What I would like, if I may, at some point, my Lady, is just to talk you through what happens when we go into crisis, because I notice that the comment you ascribe to Patrick Vallance was in early April, and I think it’s important, as I’m sure you do – but it might be helpful to you if I explain what happens when an organisation like Downing Street – or at least when the government goes into crisis and how that impacts on our operations.

Lead Inquiry: If I may venture to speak for my Lady, we will be getting there, Mr Reynolds.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Fine, okay.

Lead Inquiry: The Cabinet Office, it is plain, formed an absolutely crucial part of the government’s response, because the crisis machinery geographically, institutionally is within the Cabinet Office, and plainly there has to be the closest of working relationships between the Cabinet Office and Number 10 in order to respond properly to a crisis; would you agree?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: There is evidence, both from Mr Alex Thomas, who gave evidence to this Inquiry, and from Mr Cummings’ statement, and of course we’ll be hearing from him tomorrow, that the Cabinet Office had huge numbers of unnecessary staff. It was bloated, he says, particularly at senior level, with poor responsibility, there was a lack of clarity around the decision-making processes, it couldn’t drive priorities or fix problems with departments, that in essence it failed to be able to drive the crisis machinery forward, again in those crucial early months; would you agree?

Mr Martin Reynolds: In a sense, Mr Keith, that’s the same – the same point I would make about the shift from – I mean, it seems to me you’ve got a period, probably January/February, where it’s normal activity, as it were, and you have a – crisis machinery are tracking a crisis in China, and they are feeding that information into Number 10, and that is, as it were, the process under way at that stage. And as you’ve highlighted, you can argue, and I think I would agree, that we were not sufficiently quick at identifying the scale of the problem and of road testing the plans and preparations we had in place. But I think that is a different question to what then happens when we shift into crisis, and I think some of the criticisms you’re alleging of the Cabinet Office are – relate really to that period when we go into crisis.

Lead Inquiry: But they are systemic issues, are they not? And whether or not there is a – whether or not it’s appropriate to divide up a chronology or a reaction or a response by way of evidence gathering stage, response stage, do something stage, what is suggested by Mr Cummings and others is that the system in the Cabinet Office was not working well, its staffing levels and organisation were inefficient, it was unable systemically to be able to drive priorities or solve problems between lead government departments – other government departments, it was incapable functionally of responding well to a crisis. That is the suggestion. Do you agree?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think there are organisational challenges in – within the Cabinet Office and I do think that there are many things which could have been done differently, but I think – again, I think the real challenge for the Cabinet Office at this stage, in my view, is that it didn’t have the plans and processes in place to move from the early stage through to the crisis stage and manage it in the way a normal crisis would be managed. And of course the flip side of that is the scale of Covid is so big that if you put a – if you have a very big pandemic, once in a generation crisis, and you don’t have the right plans in place, then of course the machinery starts to find it very, very difficult to function. But I think your underlying question is: are there, on top of that, additional inefficiencies in the Cabinet Office? And the answer is yes.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, I’d invite you to speak plainly, if I may be so bold. If the plans and processes were not there within the department that is responsible for crisis machinery, if it’s not good enough, the way in which it responded, if there were many challenges, organisationally, then the Cabinet Office essentially failed to do what it was required to do in the face of the pandemic?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think it goes – I mean, in terms of the plans and procedures, it’s why, in a sense, I think it is worth looking at the whole crisis response. It seems to me the plans and procedures were not in place at the departmental level. It seems to me you have to look at every single level of crisis planning. In a normal crisis the department is the department which leads the crisis and the plans were manifestly not sufficiently developed at the departmental level. That then leads into the Cabinet Office level, where I agree with you that there are not the sufficient plans and processes in place. And so at every level, I agree with you, there are – there are challenges.

Lead Inquiry: The other government departments failed perhaps in other different ways, but the Cabinet Office, whose prime responsibility is to broker between departments, to pursue the whole-government approach, to operate the crisis machinery, failed to get on top of this problem, did it not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Right. And the problems with the Cabinet Office continued, did they not, after February/March, because, as you know, again, very well, WhatsApps between Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson, and emails in fact between you and Helen MacNamara and Tom Shinner and others make absolutely plain that the Cabinet Office “doesn’t work for anyone – it’s high friction, low trust … low performance”, that there was “institutional friction” between Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, and, to use Mr Johnson’s words, the Cabinet Secretary was “miles off pace”.

Those were all problems that continued after February/March, did they not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I would almost, with the greatest of – I would almost flip that. The problems become very manifest in March/April, because essentially a government machine which is configured for certain types of crisis is confronting a crisis of a magnitude larger, and the processes at the departmental level, at the – and at the Cabinet Office level are inadequate to deal with them. So the challenges in the crisis response become much more evident at that stage.

Lead Inquiry: So the failures, if that is what my Lady concludes they were, were manifest across the board because there was a failure of the government departments to produce plans and to get on top of the problems for which they were responsible, and a failure by the Cabinet Office to manage the crisis at the core of government?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, that is why I do wonder whether it might be helpful to set out how I think a crisis works and how the different strands fit together.

Lead Inquiry: Forgive me, I’m going to show you your own emails just in a moment, Mr Reynolds. You’ll have to restrain yourself until we see them.

The very experienced civil servant, Helen MacNamara, who of course you know, has said in her statement that there were collective concerns that wrong people were in the room and so the Prime Minister was not being given sufficiently expert policy advice. Would you agree?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, at times.

Lead Inquiry: Were there concerns between Number 10 and the Cabinet Office regarding the clarity about who was leading in which areas?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Was it clear that structures across government were struggling to cope with the demands that they faced, both inside the Cabinet Office and across the centre of government?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So we may be clear, then, Mr Reynolds, that was the position, structurally, within Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, on the cusp of the pandemic and when you all collectively first became aware of the problem emanating from China?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m not sure in terms of the timing of that. I think, as I say, there is a difference between the period before the crisis and the shift into crisis where the situation gets dramatically worse. So some of the elements you may be talking about, about participation in meetings and so forth, may well be correct throughout the January/February period. But where the machine really struggles is when we shift into full crisis mode, where the fact we haven’t got, as it were, plans means that the – and, you know, I can talk you through some of the responses, but the situation becomes extremely complicated and very high friction indeed, and that clearly makes management of the crisis very difficult.

Lead Inquiry: Are you essentially saying the machine was poor structurally, but it became even worse as the weeks passed?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think that the machine was not properly prepared for the scale of the crisis it was about to face, and that whereas the machine would have been prepared to deal with the sort of crises it had dealt with previously – and if you look at, I don’t know – you know, I’m from the Foreign Office, so if you a look at an evacuation from Afghanistan or from Lebanon or – those sorts of, as it were, segmented crises, which involve a relatively small number of government departments, the machine is equipped to deal with that, and I think it deals with it relatively efficiently, even if there are always bound to be ways you can improve it. The difference in this case is, rather than a segmented crisis which is covering four or five different government departments, you’ve got a whole-of-government crisis, which means every government department is dealing with a major departmental set of issues for which many of them were not properly prepared. That then feeds into a Cabinet Office set of structures which were not designed to manage a whole-of-government crisis in that nature, and that is what I think you’re seeing in early March through to, indeed, the piece of work that Helen MacNamara and I produced, I think it was in May.

Mr Keith: It was.

My Lady, is that a convenient moment?

Lady Hallett: Certainly. I shall return at midday.

(11.43 am)

(A short break)

(12.00 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: On 23 January, Mr Reynolds, there was an email chain to which you were party, INQ000136729, which concerned reports that I think two people had been admitted to hospital in Glasgow with suspected coronavirus. We will see at the bottom of the page a media report, or at least a monitoring of media:

“Two people have been admitted to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow …”

Then if we can scroll back out, we can see that you received an email saying:

“Given this I think we should def go ahead and with the Cobr.

“Martin [that’s you] – do you want to check with PM? Or would you like me to do a quick note.”

You then replied saying:

“Thanks. Let me know and I’ll get back to cvs.”

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm –

Lead Inquiry: Sorry, that’s an email to you, not from you.

“Thanks. Let me know and I’ll get back to cvs.”

Then further up the page you say:

“He is content with it.”

Mr Martin Reynolds: Fine.

Lead Inquiry: So this is an example of you being informed of an important event in relation to the Covid crisis on 23 January. The Prime Minister didn’t chair that COBR, the Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP, did. But it was the Prime Minister’s view that there should be a COBR.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Can you recall why the Prime Minister himself didn’t decide to chair the COBR?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, I cannot.

Lead Inquiry: There is guidance for COBR as to whether or not it should be the Prime Minister who chairs it or the Secretary of State for a lead government department, or indeed an official. Is that not something that the principal private secretary would debate with the Prime Minister?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Normally I would rely on the advice of the Cabinet Secretary or the NSA on the – on the person to be chairing an event. So normally the request would come in to me saying “We recommend this”, I would check with the political team whether they agreed or disagreed, and I would put that advice to the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: But here the Prime Minister told you he thought there should be a COBR?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So presumably as part of that conversation you would have discussed who should chair the COBR?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I might have just simply said to him, “Prime Minister, there’s a recommendation that Matt Hancock chairs the COBR, given XYZ has happened, are you content with that?” And I think, you know, the speed with which that information is relayed suggests to me it was that type of exchange.

Lead Inquiry: If you had discussed with the Prime Minister whether there should be a COBR, to what extent did you seek to inform yourself about events on the world stage concerning the spread of the virus by that point, 23 January?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I would have – I would have assumed and relied on the fact that Imran and others were tracking this very closely. In fact in this case I think – and I haven’t got the document up any more but I believe the email seems to have come from the foreign affairs assistant private secretary and I would have –

Lead Inquiry: Well, it’s been deleted.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Oh, has it?

Lead Inquiry: That’s sensitive and irrelevant. But in any event, that’s the part of the government it came from?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: But, Mr Reynolds, you understood that there was an incipient crisis concerning – or at least a risk that a viral pandemic would reach the United Kingdom, it required a COBR to be instituted –

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – you debated with the Prime Minister whether there should be one, and perhaps whether it should be him or somebody else who chaired it. Were you aware by that date, 23 January, of the number of deaths outside China or the extent to which the virus had spread and therefore to what extent COBR should urgently be looking at this issue?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m sure I was aware of some elements of that. In terms of who actually chairs a meeting, I mean, I would certainly be involved in that consideration, but normally the recommendation would be coming in from the relevant part of Cabinet Office, and potentially the Cabinet Secretary, as I say, and they would be giving a steer as to what they felt was appropriate at the time, given their assessment of what was going on. Now, I can disagree with that and I can argue for something different or I could argue against a COBR entirely, but the people who are actually making the assessment there will tend to be the Cabinet Office people dealing with the situation and who have a much better and more comprehensive assessment of what is happening than I do. I will talk to the political advisers and they may give a case for why it makes sense for the Prime Minister to chair the meeting. But in many cases you can have quite a significant international or other crisis being chaired by a Cabinet Minister.

Lead Inquiry: When you talked to them, did you ask them or did you debate to what extent this new novel virus was already a self-sustaining virus transmitted human to human? Did you ask? Did you know?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I – as I say, I think my picture of events at that stage would have been incomplete. The advice coming in would give a very clear sense of what was deemed sensible and appropriate in response to the situation at the time, and I can challenge that or I can second-guess it if I have a very strong view, but in this situation I – it looks from the email chain as I simply relayed the request and suggestion and checked it with the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Did you take any steps yourself in advance of speaking to the Prime Minister to inform yourself about other aspects of the virus, its fatality rate, how it was spreading, whether it would spread to the United Kingdom, what the consequences might be? Or did you just relay the administrative request for a COBR?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think that – I mean, that is a lot of the – within the government there are people who are doing all of the things you are talking about, and they’re producing advice into Downing Street as to what the appropriate response is. Now, I can – I can second-guess or contradict what’s coming in, but actually in this type of situation if a request comes in of this nature from the private secretary who is tracking that issue and probably, and again I haven’t seen the document, the other private secretary who is looking at the issue from a domestic preparedness perspective, if they’re all broadly in agreement I would normally check with the political team that they agreed in terms of the political salience, and relay that request to the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, as the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister, did you not think it formed part of your functions to educate yourself on what the position was, what the risks that were emerging here were, and take part in this debate?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm, well, I think the – I think – as I say, the nature of a private office is the flow of information between the machinery in to the Prime Minister, and yes, on a range of issues I can challenge and test and do all of that sort of thing, and it’s certainly perfectly possible for me to have done – done so in this situation. But it’s not self-evident to me that having the Health Secretary chair a COBR on this issue was an inappropriate response to the challenge at that time. I don’t know what other pressures there were, I don’t know what other advice there was. But that I think is, you know, from what I can see, that advice seems reasonable and proportionate.

Lead Inquiry: I have not suggested that it was inappropriate for Matt Hancock to chair the COBR. My question was: why didn’t you ask some basic questions about what this issue was concerning this emerging viral pandemic?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, from the email chain it’s impossible for me to confirm whether I did or didn’t ask those questions.

Lead Inquiry: Well, let’s have INQ000056226, please, which is minutes from a COBR on 29 January.

We can see the ministers who attended on the first page. It was chaired by the “Rt Hon Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care”.

The second page, please.

My Lady will see that a number of ministers from the devolved administrations dialled in. That goes to a question that you asked a few weeks ago.

Then amongst the officials we can see an unnamed or at least deleted official from Number 10, but the permanent secretary from the DHSC, the CMO, the GCSA and so on and so forth, so a number of officials.

Over the page, some officials dialled in, including the CMO for the Welsh Government and the CMO for Northern Ireland Executive.

Then if we could go to page 5, please, the current situation update demonstrates that the chair invited the CMO and Public Health England to update the committee, COBR, on the global situation. The GCSA gave a read-out of a meeting of SAGE.

Then at 3:

“The CMO said that the UK planning assumptions were based on the reasonable worst case scenario. There were two scenarios to be considered. The first was that the spread was confined within China, the second was that the spread was not limited to China and there would be a pandemic like scenario … The second scenario was plausible but it may take weeks to months.”

Then in 4, the reasonable worst-case scenario was said to be similar to that for pandemic influenza:

“… there was a 10% likelihood of the [reasonable worst-case scenario] happening, but this figure had not been agreed by SAGE.”

Do you recall being given the product of this COBR meeting, Mr Reynolds? Do you recall yourself taking part in any debate thereafter about the import of this minute to the effect that there was a 10% likelihood of the reasonable worst-case scenario coming to pass?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No.

Lead Inquiry: You were, though, responsible, were you not, for providing regular updates to the Prime Minister after this meeting? So, I think, from 28 January through to 14 February. Do you recall?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think the regular updates would have been provided by either the foreign affairs assistant private secretary or Imran Shafi.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Well, let’s have a very quick look at how the Prime Minister was informed about the outcome of this meeting.


It’s an email from the private office support team to you and to a number of other officials, but including the Prime Minister, referring to a box return. What is a box return?

Mr Martin Reynolds: It’s – it is the – it’s the amendment the Prime Minister will make to the document.

Lead Inquiry: So –

Mr Martin Reynolds: So my guess would be that the duty clerks or PM post, which is essential by the same thing, will have cut and pasted the note from PM onwards and put it on a card, and attached here – I can’t see what is attached, but my guess would be that –

Lead Inquiry: A note?

Mr Martin Reynolds: – there will be a note back with the Prime Minister’s manuscript comments on it or just simply acknowledging it.

Lead Inquiry: Right. INQ000136737, please.


“A brief update on Coronavirus and evacuations of British nationals …”

The note appears – and it’s dated 30 January, it appears to be concerned exclusively with the repatriation of United Kingdom nationals from the Hubei Province or at least China; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So as you recall it, at the end of January, what the government was focusing on, certainly insofar as the Prime Minister was concerned, was the position in China and the repatriation of UK nationals?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, although if I may, I mean –

Lead Inquiry: Please.

Mr Martin Reynolds: – the person who has produced this note is the Foreign Affairs private secretary, so we also have a private secretary. Imran Shafi, who is I believe, at this stage, as it were, working in tandem with the Foreign Affairs private secretary to make sure that we’re tracking the domestic implications, and that’s why I assume this note is focused on the international dimension. But you’re right that this is – at that stage we are focused on the international dimension.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000136732. There is a read-out from, I think, a meeting from the Prime Minister in which he expresses his view that – or rather he’s advised that he should spend more time with his ministers discussing these issues.

If you could scroll in on the top half of the page, please, there is an email from you on 31 January at 11.25:

“Mark, many thanks for this – I understand that Matt Hancock is keen to proceed with this but that we will cover Coronavirus at the start of the meeting … It also helps deliver on the PM’s strong desire … to be spending more time discussing the issues with his ministers.”

So you debated with the Prime Minister, presumably, what was happening, the fact that there were COBRs being instituted, and that there was an incipient crisis coming?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Either I would have been doing so, as I say, or one of the private secretaries, who may well have been talking to the Prime Minister at this period, but here I think the question was whether – whether we want to proceed with a meeting on health, which I think we agreed to do so.

Lead Inquiry: In your evidence earlier, Mr Reynolds, you gave, if I may say so, the distinct impression that you processed papers, you made sure the system was working to provide the Prime Minister with material, with information and so on. This email from you would appear to indicate that you spoke to the key players about what was happening, that the issues which were arising were debated with you.

Mr Martin Reynolds: I didn’t say I was – no, I think what I’m trying to say was I’m not someone who is giving, as it were, strong advice on how to respond to the Covid pandemic. I am present in meetings and I’m aware, as we can see from this text, that the Prime Minister is keen to spend more time discussing this issue with his ministers.

Now, how he expressed that to me, whether that was in a small group or in a meeting or whatever, I cannot recall.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000136733, please, is an update from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat dated 3 February. We’re aware, of course, of what the CCS is, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, but it provides an update on the outbreak of novel coronavirus. If we can just scroll through 1 and 2, it’s largely concerned with British nationals in China, repatriation and communications.

Then at the bottom of that page, second page:

“Cross-Government Meetings.”

There was:

“A SAGE meeting … held [on] … 3 February. [It] focused on … future travel advice …”

There was a reference then to a “cross government meeting to discuss plans for a possible ministerial table-top exercise”, and then the CCS would “chair a cross government meeting to test preparedness of excess deaths policy and plans”, and there would be another COBR.

To what extent were you sighted on the decisions to have a ministerial tabletop exercise, a cross-government meeting and so on?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I doubt I was involved. I mean, I think a lot of this looks like the normal crisis response being co-ordinated at the Cabinet Office level with all sorts of activities taking place. I am copied in and so – I assume I’m copied in, although I haven’t got the list, but the officials which will be tracking this most closely will be the foreign affairs private secretary and Imran Shafi. And that – I suppose what I’m trying to say is during this initial phase the machinery is running things and the private secretary is moving back and forth relaying information up and transmitting sort of guidance down. That is sort of what’s happening here. And I think – so it’s possible that they had views on some of these elements, but I certainly would not have been involved, I don’t think.

Lead Inquiry: At INQ000136740, there is an email dated 8 February containing an update for the Prime Minister from, indeed, Imran Shafi. So dealing with the health part, if you like, of the private secretary system:

“A further update on developments regarding Coronavirus.”

There is a reference to the Princess Diamond cruise ship. On the domestic side emergency regulations will be laid.

If you could scroll back out, we will see that you were one of the persons copied in to the email from Imran Shafi, because it goes to Edward Lister, Dominic Cummings, yourself, Stuart Glassborow and another unnamed person in Number 10.

Did you take any view as to whether or not, within this part of the private secretary system, the health part of it, sufficient attention was being paid to not just the repatriation of individuals and to the Princess Diamond cruise ship, but on the risks of the virus coming to the United Kingdom?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, if I can just start on the process, every –

Lead Inquiry: No –

Mr Martin Reynolds: – every piece of paper which goes in to the Prime Minister will be copied to –

Lead Inquiry: You?

Mr Martin Reynolds: – the copy. So I will see absolutely everything.

Lead Inquiry: I see.

Mr Martin Reynolds: And to some extent my confidence on reflecting on whether I need to be doing any further action will depend on my confidence on the private secretaries, and I was confident that if they felt there was a problem they would have told me, and if they felt the machinery wasn’t delivering. But I don’t – I don’t recall whether I had conversations with Imran or indeed the foreign affairs private secretary at this stage about whether we were sufficiently prepared.

Lead Inquiry: Forgive me, what was the point of emailing you in, copying you into this abundance of correspondence if your position was “It’s not my bag, this isn’t part of my responsibility, I’m not going to engage in it”?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, I think what you’ve got is a funnel of work coming through. So it’s – it’s almost how the private secretaries work. There is a massive amount of information going to the Prime Minister on a whole range of sensitive issues and each private secretary is running, as it were, the issues they’re leading on, they’re very experienced in it, and particularly you know, if you’ve got one of the senior private secretaries like Imran leading on it, that private secretary will be the person who is managing the private secretarial role on that issue.

I have, as it were, got an overview of everything everybody’s doing, as has Stuart, and yes, we can pick up things if we feel that balls are being dropped, but actually it’s more that this is a sort of information flow in between the system and the Prime Minister.

And, as I say, in a sort of standard crisis situation the private secretaries sit on top of a machine which is doing all the analysis and doing all the assessments of what needs to be done, and it is essentially putting – ensuring there’s a – regular updates to the Prime Minister and regular information from the Prime Minister down again.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, what could have been more important in terms of the obligation on you to pick things up than being informed of the early part of a fatal viral epidemic?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think in a sense it probably misunderstands the nature of my role. The nature of my role is to manage the organisation of the operation around the Prime Minister and to ensure he’s getting a good service from the private secretaries in terms of being updated on what is going on, being asked for decisions, being consulted on things. It’s all that side of things. And you’re right that I could and clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, should have focused a lot more of my energy on just tracking coronavirus, but that really isn’t the nature of – it isn’t the fundamental nature of the private office role, which is trying to manage, as it were, an operation, and sitting on top of another operation which is doing far more detailed analysis of, you know, the scale of the problems we’re facing, the state of our preparedness and things like that.

Lead Inquiry: May we take it from that, therefore, that although there were scientific papers being prepared around this time, and put before SAGE, and another committee called SPI-M-O, to the effect that the overall case fatality rate was 1% and that the feasibility of controlling the virus was very low indeed, that sort of information didn’t come your way?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I wouldn’t have been – I don’t recall – proactively seeking out papers on this to read. I would have relied on briefings from Imran or maybe Stuart or the assistant private secretary, and relied on them to be tracking things. But even that information, the people who should really be processing that were the health experts and the people in Cabinet Office. The private secretaries are not running the Covid crisis response, although, as I say, when we come back to the crisis period I’ll say their role slightly changes.

Lead Inquiry: The matter was debated in Cabinet on 14 February, and there was a debate about whether or not the United Kingdom should plan for the reasonable worst-case scenario. Did you know that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I was – I would probably have been in Cabinet.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Then around about 24 February, in an email chain to which I think you may have been party, Mr Shafi says:

“I’d like to start exposing the [Prime Minister] to the potential decisions he might have to take …”

So this comes back to your evidence to the effect that Mr Shafi would be responsible primarily for guiding the Prime Minister as to what might need to be done and for informing him.

Could we have INQ000146563.

You were copied in on this. This is an email from, at the top of the page, the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat:

“Just to add – we’re working at the moment on a whole sequence of decisions that would be needed in the event that we concluded a pandemic was the most likely scenarios which should also be useful in exposing some of those concrete points …”

Then towards the bottom of the page we can see the email from Mr Shafi saying:

“I’d like to start exposing the PM to the potential decisions …”

When you read this email, Mr Reynolds, did you ask yourself: why do we need to wait to see whether a pandemic is the most likely scenario before we start taking practical steps to control the spread of the virus?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm, I can’t recall whether I did. I think what I will have done was taken two things from this. One is that across government the relevant people, in the form of Katharine Hammond but also copied into the email chain seem to be Chris Whitty, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, and various others, I would have taken reassurance from the fact that the work is under way across government to prepare for what could be a reasonable worst-case scenario. And Imran is asking me if they can brief the Prime Minister on this, and I seem to recollect we briefed the Prime Minister the following day. So I’m taking it as a serious issue which needed the attention of the Prime Minister, but I’m not second-guessing the preparedness or the concerns or the understanding, as it were, of the experts leading on this issue, notably Katharine Hammond and the core scientific health people.

Lead Inquiry: The material shows that there were no box notes, notes for the Prime Minister sent to him between 14 February and the 24th, at least in relation to coronavirus. There were no COBRs dealing at least with coronavirus during that time, there was no Cabinet, and we’re unable to see much by way of emails to the Prime Minister during that ten-day period.

As the principal private secretary, can you venture a suggestion as to why that might have been?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think decisions on COBRs would have been – as I say, it would have been a question for the people working on COBRs in Cabinet Office to make a decision and make a recommendation.

Lead Inquiry: I’m very sorry is to interrupt, Mr Reynolds. The question was very clear. There were no communications by email, by COBR, by box notes with the Prime Minister during that ten-day period on coronavirus. Why do you think that might have been?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Can I clarify the COBR communication? I don’t understand –

Lead Inquiry: Well, there was no COBR meeting and therefore nothing to put to the Prime Minister –

Mr Martin Reynolds: Oh, okay.

Lead Inquiry: – as a result of a COBR meeting.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Fine.

Lead Inquiry: There were no emails. There were no notes put in his red box. You don’t appear to have been in touch with him about coronavirus, or anybody else?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I can’t – I cannot recall –

Lead Inquiry: Why –

Mr Martin Reynolds: – why and whether there was any urgent business to transact over that period with the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Was it half term, Mr Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm, I – I’m happy to accept it was half term, if that is your – you’ll know more than me.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, do you or do you not know that February half term fell around that period in February of 2020?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm –

Lead Inquiry: Did you know that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I didn’t when you asked me, but it makes sense when you now clarify it in that way.

Lead Inquiry: To what extent as the principal private secretary do you ask yourself: we’ve got COBR meetings, we’ve got Cabinet meetings, we’ve got emails about a viral pandemic coming our way – why is nothing being done in terms of keeping the Prime Minister in the loop for those ten days?

Mr Martin Reynolds: And I probably should have done so. Equally, I think there are many others who would have – who would normally have said, “We just need to keep the Prime Minister updated, can we update him with X, Y or Z”.

Lead Inquiry: Before the end of half term SPI-M-O had confirmed sustained transmission, SAGE had noted that Public Health England could only cope with five coronavirus cases per week, and of course the United Kingdom became aware of lockdowns in ten municipalities in Italy. When you heard of the fact that a lockdown had begun in Italy, what was your reaction?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think we were very concerned, and I seem to recall that Imran Shafi was – asked Katharine Hammond as to how we would respond in a similar situation in the UK.

Lead Inquiry: Did you say, “We have a major problem here, we’ve got to get in touch with the Prime Minister, we must raise the issue of whether or not there are urgent steps we are required to take straightaway”?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No.

Lead Inquiry: On 25 February, following half term, there was a meeting between the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the CMO, the CSA and others, where the issue of borders, amongst other issues, were discussed.


At the bottom of the page, “Domestic preparedness”, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat was asked to provide a four to five-page note for the Prime Minister, signed off by a number of people, including the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, that:

“… highlights the most significant choices should a pandemic occur in the [United Kingdom].”

Could we please have this put to the Prime Minister by 11 am on Friday so that he could read over the weekend.

So a few days hence, three or four days hence.

You were copied in on this email correspondence, we can see your name at the top of the page. Did you address with anybody the issue of whether or not these steps, concerned with communications, repatriation, international taskforce, and asking the CCS for a paper, would be enough?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, but, I mean, the actions seemed to have come out of a meeting with the Health Secretary, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientific Adviser and others, and I would have thought they would have been better placed than me to make that judgement.

Lead Inquiry: On the 27th the Prime Minister stated that he was keen to step up activity on Covid.

Could we have, please, INQ000136747.

An email went to Stuart Glassborow, yourself and the private office support team for the Prime Minister, called POST. At the bottom of the page we can see an email, it’s addressed in fact to the PM.

If we could go over the page, it came after an earlier email, again copied to you:

“Thanks Stuart – will do.

“Imran – let’s discuss.”

And an email at the bottom of the page from Stuart Glassborow:

“In [the] margins of another meeting PM just said he’s keen to really step up activity on Coronavirus – I think both in sense of what we are doing and how that is presented. More frequent Cobras, that sort of thing. PM leading them.”

It was developing into a national crisis, was it not, Mr Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: Was that an issue or were these issues which by 27 February you were discussing with the Prime Minister?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think we all – I assume those discussions would have been happening. Stuart is my deputy and so what he’s saying will have been – you know, will have been important and directive for people. So what he seems to be saying here is very sensible.

Lead Inquiry: As his PPS why had you not already asked him to step up activity on coronavirus?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Erm … Well, I think that he had a range of other advisers who would have been saying – you know, I mean, again, as I say, it sort of seems a slightly – it’s a mischaracterisation of my role that I’m there to, as it were, second-guess the advice of the medical, health, crisis and other advisers going to him, and it seems to me that what we see from – has been happening is he is getting good advice on that. So I’m pretty reassured by the fact that Imran’s talking – sorry, Stuart is talking it through with him, and indeed that – in the previous slide you had the key advisers talking to the Prime Minister and walking him through the challenges he might face.

Lead Inquiry: Well, no, they asked for a paper to be provided three days hence as to what options he might face.

Mr Martin Reynolds: And that is walking him through the options he’s got.

Lead Inquiry: No, the paper hadn’t yet been prepared, Mr Reynolds, had it?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Fine, okay. But I mean – but I suppose my point is he is speaking to the people who are the experts in how to handle a pandemic and – and the state of the pandemic at that stage, and they’re producing further advice, and that is getting to him very quickly, and he is responding to Stuart or Imran or others as to how he wants to handle it. So he’s aware of the growing situation too. So it feels to me as if actually there isn’t that much of a disconnect between what the senior Covid advisers are saying and what the Prime Minister is believing.

Lead Inquiry: What was his reaction at this stage, the beginning of March, to what he was being told?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I – I think you would have to ask Imran or Stuart as to the reaction to that. I can’t – beyond what I’ve got in front of me, I cannot recall.

Lead Inquiry: This is fast developing into the largest crisis the United Kingdom has faced possibly since the Second World War. Did you discuss with him what his general view was and what should be done or how we should respond?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think he was having – I mean, as we saw previously, he’s having meetings with ministers, senior advisers on this, and those are, I’m sure, the content of the discussions going on.

Lead Inquiry: Did he think it was a big deal?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes. I mean – well, from the papers I can recall, at every – every time he’s asked to deal with something he deals with it very quickly, and at various points he’s saying, “I’m always happy to do more”. So the impression I get is he is reassured by the fact that the machine is actually working on these issues and he is offering to do more. But equally, the Prime Minister doesn’t always have to do everything personally and can delegate to ministers, can delegate to machinery, and – if – if there is a sense that everything is under control.

Lead Inquiry: Did he think or express a view to you along the lines that this pandemic, if it turned into a pandemic, wasn’t a big deal, it might be like swine flu, and that his greatest concern was talking the economy into a slump?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I can’t remember words to that effect, but I can – I do believe that he was concerned that if we – if we reacted in a – in certain ways we could actually generate a sense of panic and concern which would be counterproductive.

Lead Inquiry: You don’t appear to have been engaged or rather you were engaged less than you had been hitherto between 2 and 10 March. There is very little by way of emails to and from your email account.

By 10 March, 11 March – so the week ending in Friday 13 March – do you recall whether or not your understanding of the pandemic, its sustained transmission in the United Kingdom, the now evident lack of control and the number of deaths which had started, being brought to your attention?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think that was the week when there were real problems emerging in Lombardy and people were all realising that the nature of the pandemic is far more significant than we had anticipated, and I think it was at the end of that week that there was a session in the Prime Minister’s office, without the Prime Minister, with Dominic Cummings and Helen MacNamara, trying to revisit – I mean, I believe that’s the timing but – if that is the case –

Lead Inquiry: That is.

Mr Martin Reynolds: So I think, in a sense, everyone is starting to see what’s happening in Italy, northern Italy from memory, and everyone knows that the health system in northern Italy is actually very sophisticated and good, and we are seeing it failing to respond to the crisis in a way which is very striking. And so I think that is certainly part of the reason: actually seeing what is happening. I believe also, and I don’t think I was directly involved myself, some of those looking at the modelling and some of the thinking behind this are starting to realise that that may not be quite as robust as we’d anticipated. And I think people are also starting to think through whether our plans were in an appropriate place.

So it’s – I agree it’s happening quite late, but that is what’s happening, I believe, that week. My role in that I cannot recall.

Lead Inquiry: Since you have expressed a view on the possible lateness, do you accept that there was indeed an untoward delay of weeks between the middle of February and Friday 13 March, during which time the virus has of course reached the United Kingdom, has spread, is out of control, and, relatively speaking, little has been done?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I agree. I think the problem, or at least the thing which we didn’t do and should have done, had we had, as it were, more notice, was to actually properly test our plans. So the challenge from my perspective would be that for a period of a month we had been assuming a certain number of things, including that plans were in place, whereas if you had had a month to prepare I think it would have been possible to deal with some of the issues which we then confronted in a slightly more orderly way.

Lady Hallett: Plans for what?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Plans for dealing with the crisis. I mean, I think –

Lady Hallett: What do you mean? Committee structures, working – what do you mean?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think – I think both. I mean, I think that it comes back to my sort of explanation of how a crisis works, is you need the departments to be ready to deal with the issues they’re confronting.

And so, for example if – you know, again speaking about the department I know best, the Foreign Office knows how to deal with an evacuation, and so in Covid actually its job is relatively straightforward, it has all of these very large-scale and complicated – but it has a playbook for dealing with what it’s going to have to deal with.

And I think some of the other government departments are properly prepared for what they’re going to have to deal with and perform pretty well, and the obvious ones I guess would be the Treasury and DWP, and – but if you look round, as it were, all the government departments, my impression, and I have to say it’s only an impression, is that they were not crisis ready. And that meant – crisis ready in two things: one is they didn’t have a playbook; and the second is they hadn’t really thought through how they’re going to deliver that playbook.

And I would view – I mean, when we talk about plans, I don’t – I think a pandemic as complex and challenging as Covid, you can’t have a sort of meticulously organised plan, but you need to know, it seems to me, the parameters of what you’re trying to achieve and what your strategic direction is. And I think the fact that – my impression – again, it’s a very impressionistic thing, from the centre – that none of that was really – well, not all of that was in place meant that you’re playing catch-up in a large number of different areas. And then if you look into the centre and how the centre performs, if you look at how a centre normally operates in a crisis, it’s essentially there to give strategic direction and to broker compromises between departments.

The problem when you haven’t got plans at the outer ring is that you are then expecting the centre to come up with strategic direction and broker all these different things at the same time, and so you’ve got far too much being overloaded into the centre when actually in an ideal world some of those decisions and preparations would already have been in place and you would be able to take some of that stress off the system.

Lady Hallett: But you were suggesting, I thought, that the centre wasn’t prepared either.

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, and I think that’s the flip side, is – in a sense what happens in a normal crisis is you have a co-ordinating function between, let’s say, four or five departments. So if you talk about an evacuation you would have four or five departments going into crisis, so they’ve got crisis centres about as big as this room, with 80 to 100 people in there. They’re working through the practical arrangements for dealing with that crisis. And you have that in four or five different departments. And you will have the Cabinet Office, as it were, acting as the department which brings it all together in the overall strategy but also is sorting out differences between departments which are almost inevitable in any crisis. So, I don’t know, for an example deployment of a military asset in support of an evacuation might be something you’d need to discuss at a Cabinet Office level. And you’ve got your structures in place for, as it were, a normal crisis. The problem here is if you view it as a segment of a circle, that’s one segment, and that can be quite a big crisis, and even in a big crisis the pressure into Number 10 is quite limited, so you would have two or three private secretaries probably working it.

What you’ve got with Covid is you’ve got a full circle of crisis, every single department is basically in a crisis, and therefore co-ordinating that at the centre is immensely challenging. And what happens, my sort of assessment of that, is quite logically at the time the team involved say, “Well, okay, this is four times as big as a normal crisis, we’ll have four ministerial groups who will look at different segments of the circle”, as it were. And that has a sort of logic and coherence to it. But the problem with having four separate committees is they almost certainly involve the same people for every government department, so you’re quadrupling the amount of co-ordination going on, and the interdependencies are very hard to manage, so you can’t operate, as it were, as one single committee, you have to say, “Well, we can do this, but we’d like to think what X committee thinks over there”, and so you haven’t got the co-ordinating function which you need for a crisis of this scale.

And so I think those two mean that you have a mixed performance at the departmental level, the Cabinet Office machine starts to gum up very seriously – and if you’re happy I can continue and continue to explain.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, I think it’s quite a long answer really.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Sorry.

Lady Hallett: I think Mr Keith will get you back on track.

Mr Keith: Mr Reynolds.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yeah, sorry.

Lead Inquiry: Please may we put aside the administrative explanation of how systems of government work. The reality at the beginning of March, after four or five weeks of warnings, was it became apparent that there was no plan in the form of the NHS or the DHSC for dealing with a coronavirus pandemic; yes or no?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m not sure I can – I think the plan wasn’t sophisticated enough to deal with the crisis it was facing. I don’t think I can answer whether there was no plan, because –

Lead Inquiry: There was no plan for coronavirus, was there, Mr Reynolds? You know there wasn’t. You know that as a matter of strategy there had never been any debate about a coronavirus. The United Kingdom strategy was based expressly upon a pandemic influenza. Do you agree there was no plan for coronavirus?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m not sufficiently expert –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Martin Reynolds: – to say whether the plans which were pre-existing were replicable for the nature of the crisis we’re doing and to what extent.

Lead Inquiry: In Number 10, there was an appreciation at the beginning of March that there were no plans to bring together the activities of the other government departments; yes or no?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, we had the existing structures and they were inadequate for what we were dealing with –

Lead Inquiry: Did you have plans to deal with the crisis which had broken upon the United Kingdom Government in the first week in March?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I mean, as I say, there is a standard set of protocols which are actually Cabinet Office protocols for dealing with crisis. Where I agree with you is they were inadequate to deal with the crisis which we were confronted with.

Lead Inquiry: And the Cabinet Office failed in its prime obligation of coordinating the position, including other government departments, to ensure that there were plans and a proper strategy in place; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: And Number 10 failed to get on top of the Cabinet Office and to ensure that there were plans before that time; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Actually, on the email traffic I saw, Dominic Cummings, to his credit, was asking to see the plans about a week or ten days previously.

Lead Inquiry: And what was the answer, Mr Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I – I don’t know, I’d have to ask Imran.

Lead Inquiry: You know that he asked repeatedly for plans and there were none, as far as he could tell. You’re nodding. Is that a yes or –

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m acknowledging that’s what you’re saying. As I say, I think you would need to check with both Dominic Cummings and Imran and others.

Lead Inquiry: What did you make of the plans for quarantining, for shielding, for scaled-up test and trace and potentially lockdown that you looked at in the course of these days in early March in Number 10?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I wasn’t reviewing the plans but what I would say is it was very clear once the crisis started the plans were inadequate, to the extent they existed. And so what essentially is happening in that early period of the early crisis is everybody is having to operate without a proper playbook.

Lead Inquiry: Do you mean a plan by “playbook”?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, I think – but I think there is a difference between a playbook and a plan, in the sense that a playbook gives you the framework to operate, and I suppose maybe it’s a point for me rather than – you know, maybe it’s to – but I think – given the nature of Covid, it seems to me to have a fully worked up plan across every single eventuality is unlikely to be as successful as targeting the key areas and making sure you have really clear plans in place in those specific areas.

Lead Inquiry: Regardless of whether it’s a playbook or a rulebook or a plan or anything, whatever there was, Mr Reynolds, was grossly deficient?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I agree.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Mr Martin Reynolds: I agree.

Lead Inquiry: Then on Friday 13 March, Helen MacNamara, Dominic Cummings, Ben Warner and some others who were increasingly concerned about what the data were showing – putting aside modelling, the infection fatality rate, which had been known for weeks, the hospitalisation rate, which had been known for weeks, indicated that the NHS would be overwhelmed; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: You attended that meeting with Mr Cummings and Mr Warner and Ms MacNamara, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: At least in part, I believe.

Lead Inquiry: Do you recall the outcome of that meeting?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, the outcome I think was a series of meetings the following day with the Prime Minister and others.

Lead Inquiry: Did you say to your colleagues: how could we possibly have dropped the ball in this way? How could we possibly not have seen that with an infection fatality rate of 1% and no means of controlling the virus, overwhelming of the NHS was inevitable?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think everyone would have felt that at that time. I mean, that evening, when the scale of the issues confronting us looked enormous, I think everyone will have been thinking: how did we get to this position?

Lead Inquiry: But you had known for days, if not weeks, how many beds there are in the NHS, had you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Again, I think I would look back at – you know, you have very serious and senior experts in the NHS, in the Cabinet Office and all of those things, all of those different parts of government, and the points you’re making are equally valid to them. I agree I could have identified the issues myself, but fundamentally the fact we’d got into that position is a result of a systemic failure and a failure of the people who are really tracking the situation most closely.

Lead Inquiry: Are you suggesting that it was other people’s fault –

Mr Martin Reynolds: No, I’m suggesting there are other people for who – who it was actually the focus of their efforts and energies, and my job as the principal private secretary was to make sure that the overall operation of Downing Street was supporting the Prime Minister and ensuring he got the right balance of advice. And during this period he was getting support from a range of private secretaries linking into the machine but also having regular contact with the experts.

And on the following day he’s got Helen MacNamara and, you know, others walking him through the issues as identified.

Lead Inquiry: There was a general understanding that much more stringent measures were required, and of course more stringent measures were put in place at the beginning of the following week; correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Cummings and others say that during the course of that week, however, the Prime Minister oscillated between going further and pursuing a lockdown, which had by that stage already come up for debate, or relying upon the less stringent measures which had already been put into place. Were you aware of that oscillation?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I imagine so, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Well, you couldn’t have forgotten, Mr Reynolds, could you?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, that’s what I’m saying, yes.

Lead Inquiry: So you do remember?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: When the Prime Minister said to you one day, “I’m going to go for the lockdown because of the crisis in the NHS”, and then the next day he backed and veered and said, “I’m not sure about this”, what did you say?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m not advising him on how to respond to the Covid pandemic. He has got advice from a whole range of other leading experts on how to manage, and he’s confronting a very, very difficult decision. I don’t think it’s my job to tell him what the answer is in a given situation. My job is to make sure he gets the right advice so he can reach the appropriate decision.

Lead Inquiry: But unless you tell him what that advice is, where it’s coming from, what its cogency is, whether it’s good advice, how can he rely upon his principal private secretary to guide him through this nightmare scenario?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m not – with the greatest of respect, I’m not sure I’m the person who’s guiding him through.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m making sure he’s working with the key advisers, be it Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance or whoever it might be, that the flow of information is appropriate and that he is getting the necessary support he needs from Imran or from Stuart Glassborow or whoever else, but in this period I’m not his primary adviser on Covid.

Lead Inquiry: Did you know what he was doing day to day?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000226185, please, page 68. This is an extract from the Prime Minister’s diary.

On the Wednesday evening, so at the height of the ten-day crisis between the change in strategy on Friday 13 March, and the imposition of lockdown on Monday, 23 March, at 19.42 he had a phone call with Evgeny Lebedev, and on the following page, page 69, please, he took further time to meet with him, although I now can’t see – yes.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yeah, it is –

Lead Inquiry: 17.56, private meeting with Evgeny Lebedev, and Ben Gascoigne and Lee Cain.

Was that to do with Covid, Mr Reynolds, do you know?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I don’t.

Lead Inquiry: Do you know what it was about?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I don’t. I wasn’t present in it. There’s no civil servant present, so …

Lead Inquiry: Do you have access to the Prime Minister’s diary?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Did you know he was seeing Mr Lebedev?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I would have done, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Did you ask him what he was seeing him about?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I wouldn’t normally – if it was a non-civil service meeting, I wouldn’t normally ask him for the contents of his discussions, so in that meeting he is being accompanied both by the director of comms and a political secretary, both of whom are political.

Lead Inquiry: At the height of the crisis he goes for a private meeting with, I think, Lord Lebedev. Did you not ask him, “Why are you spending time on this, Prime Minister? We’ve got rather more urgent matters to deal with”?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I can’t recall whether I did or didn’t, but ultimately, I mean, it’s for the Prime Minister to decide his use of time, and if he decided that was important, it’s for him to decide. I may have said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”, but – or indeed others may have done the same.

Lead Inquiry: The lockdown was of course imposed. Shortly after, on 27 March, the Prime Minister contracted Covid. Your witness statement makes plain that a number of people became infected in Downing Street. The physical layout, the rabbit warren nature of the building, no doubt contributed to that.

What impact did the illness of the Prime Minister and a number of other senior officials have on the ability of the government to respond to the crisis?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think operationally – and actually I would also add that a number of senior officials in Cabinet Office were also ill, and I think the rotation of staff through – as it were, through different teams over this period made it complicated.

I mean, I think that and the shift to remote working meant that managing the crisis was far harder than it would have been otherwise. In terms of the Prime Minister’s illness, my recollection is he was ill after the lockdown had been announced and after a lot of the key decisions had been taken, so I don’t think it had such a dramatic impact, although I guess it is possible to suggest that had he not been ill, we would have started moving forward with some of the activities around reorganisation and so forth slightly sooner. But it’s very hard to predict. And actually the period with Dominic Raab, as it were, deputising for him, it seemed to me we worked pretty effectively and got a lot of stuff done.

Lead Inquiry: You say in your statement that Mr Raab had a “different working style from the Prime Minister”. What did you mean by that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: The nature of a private office is you need to –

Lead Inquiry: Just could you please answer the question. What were the differences in working style of the Prime Minister and Dominic Raab?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, the – Dominic Raab liked a very structured private office operation, with very clear preparations on, you know, meeting agendas, very structured existence, everything delivered to him very early in the morning, I think 6 o’clock in the morning, and it was a very different operation to what I suppose I would describe as a slightly more fluid arrangement with the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: What is a “slightly more fluid arrangement”, Mr Reynolds?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, with the Prime Minister it was possible to adapt much more easily to changes during the day. So if you had information coming in and you needed to change the diary or amend, you needed someone to go into his office for five minutes to talk him through something, he was much more amenable to that type of flexibility than Dominic Raab, who wanted a much more structured existence where he knew from the outset of the day exactly what meetings he was going into, what papers he needed to read, and all of that. Which – and both approaches have their benefits and challenges in a crisis, where things are moving quite quickly.

Lead Inquiry: Were they the same in terms of their consistency to approach – of approach to decision-making, making decisions and sticking to them?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think they’re very different people, and I think that – you know, I was working for Dominic Raab essentially for three weeks, so it’s – it’s hard to compare and contrast.

Lead Inquiry: There is a great deal of material from WhatsApps, Mr Cummings’ statement, Patrick Vallance’s dairies, WhatsApps, showing that following his return from his illness the Prime Minister again oscillated in terms of what should be done. He wondered whether he should be regarded as the mayor in the Jaws film, shutting the beaches, and then within hours or days he would take a contrary position. And this was noted by Mr Cummings, Mr Case, Sir Patrick Vallance and others.

Did you notice that?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think it’s – it’s fair to say that the Prime Minister did, as it were, blow hot and cold on some issues.

Lead Inquiry: On the most vital issues which his government faced?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, but also the most difficult choices the country was facing, which – both of which had very difficult consequences.

Mr Keith: My Lady, is that a convenient moment?

Lady Hallett: It is. How much longer do you think?

Mr Keith: We’re not there yet, but not a lot longer is, I’m afraid to say, the most I can say at this moment.

Lady Hallett: I’m sorry we have to ask you to come back this afternoon, Mr Reynolds.

I shall return at 2 o’clock.

(1.01 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(2.00 pm)

Lady Hallett: Yes, Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Before lunch, Mr Reynolds, you were giving evidence about the nature of the intensely difficult decisions that were before the Prime Minister, and I was asking you about the changes of strategic direction which appear to be apparent both in the week leading up to the lockdown of 23 March but also in the period between April and September, when the system had opened up again.

I just want you, please, to look at a number of observations made by Mr Cummings and Mr Case and Sir Patrick Vallance about the changes in strategic direction and ask you whether you broadly agree with what they say.

You’ll appreciate that, with the WhatsApps, as you rightly pointed out this morning, it’s difficult sometimes to see whether or not there is a degree of hyperbole or exaggeration.

So starting with Mr Cummings, INQ000048313, and a letter from him to this Inquiry at page 52. At the bottom:

“I would appreciate your help in getting him back to some sense. He does seem to just want to declare that we are over Covid and that it is going to just all be fine. He says he wants to get everything open in the Autumn and end social distancing. This is in danger of becoming Trump/Bolsonaro level mad and dangerous.”

Page 53, Simon Case responds, if you could scroll in a little bit further, please:

“At every stage of masks we in the United Kingdom have been slow …”

And I think we may have – I’m afraid I can’t read that. Thank you.

A long message about masks.

Then if you could scroll back out, please, I think at the bottom of the page – yes, that’s the one:

“After this morning’s FT driven performance by BJ [Boris Johnson] I am at end of my tether. He changes strategic direction every day … today we were in ‘let it rip’ mode cos the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower … He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach. The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day. The team can’t deliver anything under these circumstances. A weak team … definitely cannot succeed in these [circumstances]. IT HAS TO STOP! Decide and set direction – deliver – explain. Gov’t isn’t actually that hard, but this guy is really making it impossible.”

Then the response from Mr Cummings:

“Am … getting … despairing messages from people in [meetings] … [he’s careering] around on whatsapp as usual creating chaos and undermining everybody.”

These are WhatsApps, of course, between two of his most senior advisers – well, his Cabinet Secretary and his chief adviser. Do you agree with those sentiments? Was that what was happening at this time?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think it’s – thank you, I think it’s as I said before lunch, that he does – he did in this period face difficult decisions and blew, as it were, hot and cold on some of them, and that did make it difficult at times for the machine to know which direction it should be moving in.

Lead Inquiry: 54.

“This is embarrassing.”

That’s Lee Cain, and this is a WhatsApp group between Simon Case, Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings.

“By the weekend …”

Says Dominic Cummings:

“… he’ll be saying ‘6 is untenable a total disaster we’ve got to get everybody back to work’.”


“Full [trolley] mode.”

And then:

“it didn’t take till weekend!”

Simon Case:

“Spectacular today …”

And he’s obviously mimicking Mr Johnson:

“… we want to open up the economy ASAP, forget the bloody virus.”

Page 56, at the bottom of the page, at the bottom of the WhatsApp screenshot:

“We look like a terrible, tragic joke … that decision was needed weeks ago. I cannot cope with this.”

And then a trolley emoji.

Sir Patrick Vallance, document INQ000273901, page 584:

“PM … Simon Case taking 1 day at a time. PM is simply not consistent (as he wasn’t at the beginning).

“The ridiculous flip-flopping is getting worse – maybe as he recovers?”

13 July.

28 July, page 101 – I’m not sure that’s the right reference. In any event, 178. 14 September:

“Simon Case from a couple of days ago – ‘[Prime Minister] not exactly a consistent interlocutor’.”

19 September, page 188:

“He is all over the place and completely inconsistent. You can see why it was so difficult to get agreement to lockdown 1st time.”

Page 252.

“we have a weak indecisive [Prime Minister].”

In the face of a viral pandemic, if those views are right, that was a deeply unfortunate position to be in, was it not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Er, yes.

Lead Inquiry: You took steps in May of 2020 to recommend significant changes to the operation at the heart of government?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Mm-hm.

Lead Inquiry: Lord Sedwill, Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, had sent a note to the Prime Minister dated 10 May, called “C19 Campaign Next Phase”, INQ000136756, in which he points out there in paragraph 1:

“… we should reflect now on how well the state coped with the initial phases as we prepare for the next.”

Page 2, paragraphs 3 to 6, he sets out the problems with the government in relation to health and care, essentially Public Health England, the DHSC, the fragmented social care system not being able to bear the weight.

Page 4, paragraphs 12 to 14, he makes suggestions about how meetings should be held. He suggests something called the ministerial implementation groups. And essentially trying to set clearer lines of ministerial and official accountability.

Was that report sent because there was a general understanding that the system was not working, fundamentally, and required significant reform?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, I think by that stage in the pandemic we all recognised that the way we had gone into it and the way we had managed the challenges had been suboptimal, and this is an opportunity at this stage to try and, as it were, reconfigure.

Lead Inquiry: You co-signed a report about two weeks later, together with Helen MacNamara, did you not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000136755.

This report has already been seen in evidence, but your signature – or your name appears at the end of it, together with Helen MacNamara.

It addresses in very trenchant terms, does it not, how meetings aren’t working, how people aren’t disciplined, there’s a bad culture, a culture of chaos, people are exhausted and stressed, people are at war with themselves, Number 10 is at war with someone.

And if we could go over the page –

Lady Hallett: Could you remind me of the date of this, please?

Mr Keith: Yes. We think, my Lady, that this first draft was before 17 May, because that’s when the final draft was prepared.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Keith: We don’t have a date for this particular document.

Does that chronology sound right to you?

Mr Martin Reynolds: That sounds right, yes.

Lead Inquiry: The report showed, did it not, dysfunctionality, lack of discipline, chaos, and a significant degree of misogyny?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I agree.

Lead Inquiry: Women were talked over, people shouted at each other, there were too many people in meetings.

Did you talk the Prime Minister through this report?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes, I believe I did. If I may –

Lead Inquiry: Please.

Mr Martin Reynolds: – give a little more background in terms of the report.

As I – I think I said earlier in terms of the crisis response, we weren’t ready for the crisis and so we ended up having to respond in a way which was very ad hoc at every single level, and what we did as part of that process is, I suppose, we created structures which were extremely complicated and brought in people at every level to deal with immediate problems. So if you look at the Cabinet Office, Mark Sedwill brought in a very large number of directors general, the most senior people, to deal with problems. And in a sense entirely logically. If you have so many problems and you’re trying to work out how to deal with them, you bring in people and you appoint them to take them on.

In Downing Street, Dominic Cummings did pretty much the same thing, and so he brought in Tom Shinner. He brought in a lot of data people, dealing with some of the problems we were identifying then, but creating a very high level of complexity. And the Prime Minister himself had a very similar sort of reaction, which he – when he lost confidence in the government system, he reached for different people, Lord Deighton or Kate Bingham or whoever – Lady Bingham, or whoever it might be.

So you have a situation during the crisis, because everything was so pressured, you have created a complexity and a series of competing structures which means that actually by this stage the government machine is facing serious problems.

And this piece of work by Helen MacNamara and I was designed to shine a light on that and to try to enable us to press reset and get ourselves better placed for the next phase of Covid. And I suppose what it’s doing is looking at working practices, shifting the committee structure away from MIGs to a Covid-O, Covid-S, creating a new Covid unit rather than a whole group of separate different entities, as it were, headed by DGs. Underpinning the Covid unit was a proper analytical unit and delivery unit. And then trying to get people out of Number 10.

One of the challenges we faced in Number 10 at this phase of the crisis was everybody – because in a sense the crisis structures hadn’t worked in the Cabinet Office, everything had gravitated to Number 10. So by this stage in the crisis you had far too much activity in Number 10, far too many people, and far too little clarity as to who exactly is responsible for what.

So this report is really designed to try to press a reset and is very, very stark in the challenges we’re facing, because that’s the best way Helen and I thought to get people to really acknowledge that we needed a different approach.

Lead Inquiry: The outcome of this review, Mr Reynolds, was, as you say, that there was a difference in the – a change in the methodology, so Covid-S and Covid-O were instituted, there was a Covid Taskforce, but much of your report and Helen MacNamara’s report was about discipline, wasn’t it? It was about people talking over each other, macho behaviour, misogyny, rudeness, people taking charge in meetings, not listening to others. None of that was going to be changed by a change in the committee structure. What was done in terms of the personnel and the disciplinary problem that was apparent?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think some of the changes in structure were going to help with that, with respect, because what it’s about is getting people out of Downing Street.

I mean, part of the challenge in the Covid crisis is normally – in a normal crisis situation you have, as it were, decision-making structures outside Number 10 and you have a limited number of people moving back and forth into Number 10 to talk through the Prime Minister. What was happening –

Lady Hallett: Just slow down. I should have asked you to many hours ago.

Mr Martin Reynolds: Sorry.

With …

Lady Hallett: Sorry, I interrupted you.

You have a limited number of people moving back and forth into Number 10 to talk through the Prime Minister what was happening.

Mr Martin Reynolds: So what happens in Covid is a lot of the activity actually moves into Number 10, and that injects tremendous stress into the organisation, and the number of people there are much greater. So part of the solution to this is to actually go back to, as it were, more traditional, more normal ways of working.

The other thing, and the reason I wanted to discuss it with the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, Cabinet Secretary and Helen MacNamara, is you needed the top team of senior figures to agree this is a genuine problem and to drive that change. That’s not something that I as PPS can drive, you need to get collective buy-in. And the challenge we faced then is, in a sense, because there were interpersonal issues which emerged at that stage, it became very difficult to have that conversation.

Mr Keith: Was there a notable reduction in the misogyny, the superhero culture, the interpersonal problems thereafter?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think the – there was a significant change in the reduction of directors general in the building, and that reduced the superhero culture to an extent we’re talking about, yes. I think in terms of the diversity of decision-making, in terms of the treatment of women, I agree, I think that remained an ongoing cultural issue which I think we could have done more to address.

Lead Inquiry: Because the personnel did not fundamentally change other than Mr Case came on board and became, I think, a director general, or a permanent secretary, in Number 10 or the Cabinet Office, Lord Sedwill left his post – Mark Sedwill left his post around about 15 May but stayed on until the autumn, but the rest of the personnel remained the same, did they not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes. And I think – but I think also, as I say, you know, if we wanted to drive that change all the senior leaders needed to sit down together and actually talk it through.

I think in terms of the diversity, and this is not the primary driver of this, but had someone like Helen MacNamara been appointed into the role as permanent sec Covid, I think that would have both sent a very powerful signal but I think it would have helped change some of that dimension, although I recognise that to drive fundamental change you need everybody to come in behind it.

Lead Inquiry: But there wasn’t a meeting, was there, at which everybody sat down and thrashed out the problems that were there –

Mr Martin Reynolds: No.

Lead Inquiry: – in terms of personnel? You had recommended Helen MacNamara as a candidate for permanent secretary but that didn’t happen?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No.

Lead Inquiry: And Lord Sedwill, Mark Sedwill, had a meeting with the Prime Minister, as a result of which you became aware, from a subsequent debriefing, that essentially the Prime Minister had lost confidence in him; is that correct?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000265620, page 2.

These are WhatsApp messages between you and Mark Sedwill, dated 15 May. In the middle of the page – I’m sorry, I’ve lost my bearings, if you could scroll back out.

About a third of the way down the page, Mark Sedwill:

“[Working from home]. And will be on a train … I don’t want another conversation about myself before the weekend. Any news on that?”


“That is what I suspect he wants to discuss so shall I say you are willing to discuss on Monday.”


“I presume from this that sense is not prevailing.”

Mark Sedwill:

“If he’s going to try to scapegoat me he can do so face to face.”

What was the sense that Mark Sedwill said was not prevailing?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I assume that was about going back on the suggestion that he might move on from his role.

Lead Inquiry: What happened was at that meeting essentially he was sacked, he was told that the Prime Minister had no confidence in him, and he would leave in the autumn.

Mr Martin Reynolds: I don’t think it was that clear. I think the – I mean, I think you’d have to speak to the Prime Minister and Mark Sedwill as to exactly what was discussed in that meeting. And that’s why in my witness statement I talk about losing confidence. But I think the detail and the precise – precise meanings were unclear and that’s why I had a meeting with the Prime Minister to try to dissuade him of this course but also to try to understand exactly what the plan was.

Lead Inquiry: Were you able to understand what the plan was meant to be and what it was the Prime Minister had meant to have in his mind?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I think the outcome – at least – I mean, again, of my meeting with the Prime Minister on, I think it was the Thursday or the Friday of that week, was that Simon Case was to come in as the permanent secretary for Covid, that Mark Sedwill would move on at some point in the autumn, and that there would also be a new NSA appointed, so you would un – this was a double-hatted role under Mark Sedwill, so you would create a new NSA role over that period too.

Lead Inquiry: Just pause there. NSA, do you mean national security –

Mr Martin Reynolds: National security adviser, sorry.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Why does Mark Sedwill say in the WhatsApp to you, “If he’s going to try to scapegoat me he can do so face to face”? What do you understand that reference to “scapegoat” to mean?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I mean, I believe, you know, he was concerned that he was being blamed for the shortcomings of the first phase of Covid and felt, as a result, that that would be, as it were, scapegoating.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Now, Barnard Castle, please, and events in Downing Street.

Could we have, please, INQ000265620 on the screen, page 4. These are WhatsApps between you and Mark Sedwill on 4 May 2020. If I can find the right passage …

In the middle of the page, at 16.50, Mark Sedwill says:

“Difficult for them if they’re asked if he breached the guidance.”

You, about an hour later:

“Seemed to go OK.”

Mark Sedwill:

“Not sure how well outside the bubble. Let’s see if it’s still on the front pages tomorrow.”

Martin Reynolds:

“It is bound to be.”

Mark Sedwill:

“Yes. But how? PM has put his own and Govt credibility on the line. People are genuinely angry. This isn’t just a bubble story.”

Were you discussing the Barnard Castle affair and Mr Cummings and the press conference which he held in the event on 25 May in the rose garden in Downing Street?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Is it the 25th or 24th? Sorry, I’m confused.

Lead Inquiry: I think the press conference is on the 25th, but you and Mark Sedwill are talking about a conversation somebody has had with Cummings about whether or not he had breached the guidance. But it is all to do, is it not, with Mr Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle on Easter Sunday, 12 April 2020?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I agree. I just – I wonder whether on the 24th there was actually a press conference with the Prime Minister, so in a sense on the 24th we’re talking about the Prime Minister’s press conference –

Lead Inquiry: Ah, it might already have emerged at that press conference the day before?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yeah, I think – I think that’s what – I think, sorry, that’s why I’m slightly confused, because I think there were two events: one is the press conference and then there is Dominic Cummings’ statement in the rose garden.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Now, in Sir Patrick Vallance’s dairies for 25 May, INQ000273901, page 67, he says that he and Professor Sir Chris Whitty were asked to do the press conference, so that may be a reference to the Prime Ministerial press conference, and he says, INQ000273901, page 67:

“CW [Chris Whitty] and I very reluctant to do the press conference. It is highly political and will be focused on [Dominic Cummings]. PM seems very bullish and wants to have everything released sooner and more extremely than we would. Wants to divert from the [Dominic Cummings] fiasco (caught have gone to Durham – clearly against the rules). All very worrying. Cabinet all upbeat and ‘breezy confidence’ – incredibly alarming.”

In his dairies, Sir Patrick suggests that you along with others, to use his word, strong-armed him and Sir Chris Whitty to attend the press conference. Did you?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I think the first thing I should say on this is I spoke to the Prime Minister at the time and questioned whether it was sensible for him to support Dominic Cummings in the way he was doing. So I had a private conversation with him, I believe, and then I did speak to, I think, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty and suggest that they might – you know, that it was important for public confidence for them to appear alongside the Prime Minister at this press conference. I don’t view that as strong-arming.

I – then I think it was actually Chris Whitty said to me and explained why it was inappropriate for him to stand alongside the Prime Minister while he was justifying this behaviour. And since I agreed with his analysis, and obviously deferred to his analysis, I then backed off. But I don’t believe I was strong-arming him in that sense.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have page 583:

“The apparatchiks tried to strong arm us (Lee [Cain], James …”

James Bowler, perhaps?

Mr Martin Reynolds: James Slack, if I were to guess.

Lead Inquiry: James, sorry?

Mr Martin Reynolds: James Slack, I would guess.

Lead Inquiry: James Slack.

“… and even Martin his PPS).”

Mr Martin Reynolds: Fine. But, I mean, I think that’s still – in terms of my perception in terms of what I was doing is I was suggesting to him. I’m not sure that I would describe that as strong-arming. And certainly my impression I have to say is that both Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty are more than capable of telling me when they disagree with what I’m suggesting.

Lead Inquiry: The apparent – I say apparent because the police have not at any time spoken formally to Mr Cummings about it, and no steps have been taken in relation to the allegation, but the apparent breach of the rules by him was extremely damaging, was it not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: It was obvious to you and everybody else in Downing Street how important observance to the rules was, setting an example was of prime importance?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: On 20 May, so around this time, you sent an email about how nice it would be to “make the most of this lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the garden this evening … bring your own booze”. I don’t intend to ask you whether you received a fixed penalty notice, you may or may not have done, and it’s not fair to invite you to say whether you did, and it forms no part of this Inquiry to rule on or determine liability, civilly or criminally. But do you accept that the sending of that email and the events which ensued were again deeply damaging to trust in the government and damaging to public compliance?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Well, I would – I mean, I think I would first like to say how deeply sorry I am for my part in those events, and for the email message which went out that day, and I would like to apologise unreservedly to the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused.

In terms of the coverage of this event in the garden, it actually broke into the news about 15 months later, so while I totally accept (a) that I was totally wrong in the way I sent the email round and for the event, I think the impact on public confidence, although obviously now, in terms of public confidence more generally, it has a serious impact, in terms of the pandemic at that time it was less – it had less impact.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Reynolds, the news broke of these goings on in Downing Street in December 2021, whilst we were still in the middle of the pandemic, were we not?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Then on 12 June, you sent messages by WhatsApp to Lee Cain.

Could we have INQ000265621.

In the middle of the page, Lee Cain:

“I’m not sure it works at all to be honest, which would be shame. I don’t see how we can have some kind of party though.”

Martin Reynolds:

“So you are saying nothing for her?”

“I think it’s your decision my friend, not [mine]! But it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks!”

Then later, at the end of June, there are further WhatsApps in relation to another event in the garden.

So the first matter, the first issue which I’ve put to you, which is the bring your own booze event in the garden was not a solitary event, was it?

Mr Martin Reynolds: No.

Lead Inquiry: No.

Mr Martin Reynolds: And I apologise unreservedly again for these events.

Lead Inquiry: And you realise, of course, that for the public whose loved ones were dying in their droves, this caused incredible offence and added to their immeasurable pain?

Mr Martin Reynolds: Yes. And, as I say, I’m deeply sorry for that.

Mr Keith: I have no further questions.

Lady Hallett: I don’t think there are any Rule 10 questions.

Mr Keith: My Lady, it may be there is one area that I have failed to explore in relation to which we’ve indicated that CTI would ask a question.

Did, Mr Reynolds, the Prime Minister make disparaging remarks about the existence or severity of Long Covid to your understanding, to your knowledge?

Mr Martin Reynolds: I’m afraid I can’t remember or recall.

Mr Keith: Those are all the questions then.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Mr Reynolds.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Mr Keith: My Lady, the next witness is Imran Shafi.

Mr Imran Shafi

MR IMRAN SHAFI (affirmed).

Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you give the Inquiry, please, your full name.

Mr Imran Shafi: Imran Faisal Shafi.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Shafi, you have been good enough to provide a statement at INQ000215035, which you signed as being true on 13 June 2023. I hesitate because I can’t see page 38, but I think we can see the date on the top right-hand corner – there we are, 19 June 2023. So thank you for your assistance in providing that statement.

You were the private secretary to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for public services; is that correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: And you were so from March 2018, from which we deduce that you must have been a private secretary before Mr Johnson became Prime Minister, to March of 2021, so approximately a year after the pandemic started?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: I think before that you had been a management consultant at McKinsey, and you had also worked for some time in the Treasury as a policy adviser?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: We’ve just been hearing evidence about the role of private secretaries, and it may be that you’ve seen the evidence from Martin Reynolds, Mr Shafi, whilst you were waiting. You were responsible as a private secretary for a particular portfolio. What portfolio was that?

Mr Imran Shafi: It changed during my time at Number 10. When the pandemic started my portfolio was everything to do with the Department of Health, everything to do with the Department for Education, everything –

Lead Inquiry: I’m going to ask you just to go a bit slower, please.

Mr Imran Shafi: Sorry. Everything to do with the Department of Health.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Imran Shafi: The Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Lead Inquiry: In that role, was it part of your functions to deal with the Prime Minister?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Submit written advice?

Mr Imran Shafi: On behalf of others, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Relay his comments or decisions to others for action?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Arrange and attend meetings with him?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: It’s apparent from the material that much of the heavy lifting is done in advance of meetings with the Prime Minister?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Conclusions are drafted, information is conveyed, the general steer or course of what is to be decided is laid out for him or her to decide what need to be done?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s often the case, yes.

Lead Inquiry: That’s not?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s often the case, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Often the case?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: How well did the system of private secretaries work, in your opinion, in terms of putting the right information in front of the Prime Minister, providing for clear lines of accountability, and for providing that the best decisions were reached on the information available?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think overall, broadly, well. There are obviously through the pandemic many times where the whole system was under huge stress, but in general I think the system works.

Lead Inquiry: To what extent was Mr Reynolds concerned in the substantive issues in relation to your portfolio areas, so public services, health, education and so on?

Mr Imran Shafi: In normal times, very little, because a lot of the areas that I worked on had quite a strong public spending angle, and so rather than Martin Reynolds being the – sort of my supervisor on that, Stuart Glassborow, who was the deputy principal private secretary, who was more connected to the Treasury, was closer to the work that I was doing.

Lead Inquiry: And in abnormal times?

Mr Imran Shafi: In the early periods of Covid, you’ve heard from Martin about the role that he played in the early days.

Lead Inquiry: Was he engaged, perhaps to a lesser extent but engaged nevertheless, in the substantive debate that was going on about Covid and commenced, as far as the private secretaries appeared to be concerned, late January onwards?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think so.

Lead Inquiry: You must recall so?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes. Yes. But “substantively” sort of stretches in terms of how –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Imran Shafi: – how far that goes.

Lead Inquiry: My Lady, the Cabinet Office disclosed to us very late on Friday or at the end of last week a WhatsApp group thread between Mr Case, Simon Case, and Mr Shafi, and because of the shortness of time we’ve not been able to disclose that document to the core participants or indeed, I think, the witness. I’m therefore going to read out the relevant part.

On 13 September 2000(sic), so the same year, at 12.30, Simon Case WhatsApped you to say:

“This is all a bit of a farce to be honest. I’m not sure why we don’t just operate a normal private office system which involved the lead private secretary engaging the boss on an issue on behalf of everyone.”

So in light of that WhatsApp, were there times in the course of the first year of the pandemic where the system of information coming up to the boss, the Prime Minister, from the private secretary did not work terribly well?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I’ve just had a chance to look at that exchange this morning. I think that is a reference to some questions that the Prime Minister was asking, and the Prime Minister put those questions on a WhatsApp group with a certain number of individuals – I wasn’t on that group – with individuals. I think – although you’d need to check with the Cabinet Secretary what his meaning was, but I think his meaning is: I wish that the Prime Minister was asking the lead person the question rather than this other group.

Lead Inquiry: But it’s the Cabinet Secretary who describes the private secretary system as all a bit of a farce: Why don’t we have a normal private office system?

So –

Mr Imran Shafi: Again, I don’t have the exchange in front of me –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Imran Shafi: – but I think what he’s describing as a farce is the way questions are being asked.

Lead Inquiry: In the same WhatsApp group, in July, so two months before, at 11.03 on 31 July, on a related issue Simon Case says:

“These No 10 WhatsApp groups make everyone get more wound up, not less.”

And you reply “Yes”.

I want to ask you, therefore, what do you make – what did you make of the fact that there were so many communications being made by WhatsApp?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think given the need to move at speed with a lot of people working from home, it played an important role in having quick communication. Again, I’ve only just had the chance to review that thread. I think, again, the point there is there were lots and lots of people making comments about policy who might not necessarily have been that close to the policy making, but were part of the wider Number 10 machine, and who were raising questions about the approach. And I think, again, you’d need to check with the Cabinet Secretary what his meaning was, but if I was going to guess it would be: we don’t want to keep on opening up debates once we’ve closed them down.

Lead Inquiry: Would you agree that there are very real problems with any kind of use of WhatsApp for the purposes of governance?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think there are long-term lessons to be learnt about how we use electronic messaging, yes.

Lead Inquiry: There are issues concerning transparency, of course?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Things are said in the heat of the moment which may simply not be true or accurate or reflect the course of the debate?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, in the same way that people might have comments in normal times outside of meetings which aren’t recorded.

Lead Inquiry: But they’re a good indication, are they not, of the state of mind perhaps of the interlocutor?

Mr Imran Shafi: They can be.

Lead Inquiry: Were there quite complicated management lines in Number 10? So you’ve got, obviously, the Cabinet Secretary, you’ve got the civil service structure, you’ve got the advisers, you’ve got private secretaries, the principal private secretary, it seems to have made for quite a complex system of advice giving to the Prime Minister; would you agree?

Mr Imran Shafi: It is not a completely hierarchical organisation in the way that other organisations might be. So, for instance, in the army, you know, everybody reports up to one person –

Lead Inquiry: Mr Shafi, you must go slower.

Mr Imran Shafi: Sorry.

Lead Inquiry: So in the army, everyone reports up?

Mr Imran Shafi: You said there might be more clear hierarchy in other organisations. In Number 10, because there is a mix of political staff and civil service staff, the hierarchy isn’t always as clear.

Lead Inquiry: Perhaps it’s the nature of the field, high politics, high governance, the material may suggest that there were a number of competing power sources in Downing Street, personality clashes, and we can see, and you’re aware of it, from Helen MacNamara and Martin Reynolds’ report, a high degree of dysfunctionality in terms of dealing with the Prime Minister; would you agree?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: None of that lent itself well to the best sort of decision-making, did it?

Mr Imran Shafi: No.

Lead Inquiry: When in late January and February Downing Street generally first became aware of the problem of the repatriation of UK nationals from China and the emergence of the virus, what was the general response on the part of the Prime Minister? Was it a big deal? Was it something to be watched out for? Was it to be dismissed like swine flu? What was the position?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think he thought it was a big deal at that time. He had a briefing with the Chief Medical Officer on 4 February, I believe, where some of the potential implications were set out. So I would characterise it as something to keep an eye out on, but also he clearly and repeatedly stressed the need to avoid overreaction, which appears through various meetings in that time.

Lead Inquiry: So there was an email string on 29 January – INQ000146557 – and we’ll start with page 1.

We can see from the top of the page that Sir Patrick Vallance emails Number 10 with minutes of a SAGE meeting which had taken place on 28 January in relation to which Sir Chris Whitty had prepared a summary; is that correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: At the bottom of the page we can see that summary where Sir Chris is addressing a member of Downing Street, William Warr. Is a he private secretary?

Mr Imran Shafi: He was a special adviser.

Lead Inquiry: “Dear Will

“Sorry for the delay I have been back to back. I am ccing Patrick Vallance, and some of the key people here so they are aware of what I’ve sent. This is written informally for you … but can be turned into a more formal note for Ministers …”

So he is telling Downing Street what his take is on the SAGE meeting.

“We are working on 4 scenarios, but in practice only 2 are probably worth considering for planning at this point.”

Number 1 is:

“China has a major outbreak but brings it under control … cases [are] seeded …”

That is to say there are infections in small numbers to other countries. But it doesn’t take off.

“The other …”

At 2, at the bottom of the page:

“… is the opposite end of the risk scale and is our reasonable worst case scenario for which plans are also being developed. With R [reproduction rate] of 2-3 …”

So one person infects two to three people in an unimmunised population:

“… mortality of maybe 2% … a doubling time of … maybe 3-5 days and an incubation period of mean 5 [days] this could within the next few weeks become widespread and turn into a significant pandemic relatively quickly.”

Then he addresses who would be most affected: older people or those with pre-existing health conditions. And essentially he says to Number 10 there is, to use his wonderful words:

“… a difficult dichotomous decision in that the economic consequences of overcalling can be substantial, but the mortality and social consequences of under-calling are even more substantial.”

I want to ask you, therefore, what did your team, you’re responsible for this portfolio area as a private secretary, and the Prime Minister make of this warning? Was it something that caused you to think a great deal more carefully about whether or not the reasonable worst-case scenario might ensue or did you take from this that there was a risk in overreaction? Was it something that wasn’t going to go away and you absolutely had to be on top of this to make sure that you knew what might happen? What was the response generally in Number 10?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think I read this as a very serious email and something that required due attention. That’s part of the reason why we got the Chief Medical Officer to brief the Prime Minister on this issue a few days later.

Lead Inquiry: There was a note put into his prime ministerial box, was there not, on 30 January, INQ000136737.

“Prime Minister,

“A brief update on coronavirus and evacuations of British nationals and dependents from Hubei.”

You say – or rather it is said at the bottom:

“A COBR ministerial meeting chaired by Matt Hancock will take place tomorrow.”

The material around this time, Mr Shafi, appears to focus on the evacuation, the repatriation of UK nationals, as opposed to addressing in detail the likelihood of the risk that the virus would spread to the United Kingdom in an uncontrolled way.

Why was that focus on repatriation?

Mr Imran Shafi: It’s a good question. I think, erm – firstly, I think the meeting with the Prime Minister on 4 February does talk about a potential chance of the reasonable worst-case scenario. I think it’s about 10% the CMO said.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Imran Shafi: But I think you’re right that a lot of the focus at the centre was, “How do we make sure that this doesn’t come to the UK” or “We can contain it”, rather than getting into the difficult measures that you might have to take should you fail to contain.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000136733 is that update from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat on 3 February, where a situation update is given on the outbreak of novel coronavirus, Wuhan novel coronavirus, how many tests have been concluded, how many tests are positive, and so on and so forth.

Then, over the page, British nationals in China, communications, and then this: cross-government meetings, clear references to a SAGE meeting, the fact of a CCS cross-government meeting, further ad hoc cross-government officials’ meetings, CCS chairing a cross-government meeting, and then a COBR for ministers on 5 February.

So it looks as if, Mr Shafi, when the warning was received, a lot was done in terms of setting up the meetings, the structures, the debate; would you agree?

Mr Imran Shafi: How do you mean by the debate?

Lead Inquiry: The novel coronavirus, it’s apparent that it’s in China, it’s beginning to leak (there have been cases outside China), and because of the information that’s been received in the heart of the UK Government, these SAGE meetings, CCS meetings, COBR meetings are all beginning to be held; is that a fair summary?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: On 4 February, there was a DHSC departmental meeting, INQ000146558, and this letter from Downing Street to, I think, a private secretary in the DHSC, said:

“The Prime Minister met your Secretary of State … colleagues from the centre for his first DHSC Departmental Performance meeting …

“We began with a short update on coronavirus … the Prime Minister stressed the need to continue to explain our stance to maintain public confidence …”

Then there is a debate about travel restrictions, and then the letter goes on to deal with objectives for the NHS.

To what extent had the coronavirus issue made its way to the centre of government concern or government action in the first week in February?

Mr Imran Shafi: It had, but probably not to the extent that it ought to have had. So –

Lead Inquiry: Just pause there. Why not to the extent that it ought to have done?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I think this meeting is a good example of that. So it was a meeting with the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister. It had reached Number 10 because the first part of that meeting was focused on coronavirus, but then the rest of the meeting, the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary wanted to discuss progress on building 40 hospitals or recruiting 50,000 nurses or the other manifesto commitments that were very important to the government.

Lead Inquiry: To what extent should Number 10 have stepped in and said to the DHSC, “Forget the NHS and long-term objectives, we want to know what you’re doing about coronavirus”, as opposed to the DHSC saying to Number 10, “Forget talking about NHS objectives, we’ve got a serious problem here relating to coronavirus”?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think we’re the experts on that, so we need to be guided by the department to tell us what the important issues are.

Lead Inquiry: There were – it’s obvious that coronavirus as an issue was put before the Prime Minister repeatedly in February.

We can have perhaps INQ000136739, which is an extract from his diary for, if we can go forward, 14 February – no, I think I’ve got the wrong reference. Friday 14 February, there is between 10.00 and 10.45, or there should be, an entry for a coronavirus meeting.

The matter was discussed repeatedly in COBR meetings, was it not?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So there are a series of COBR meetings chaired by Mr Hancock MP beginning on 24 February(sic) and a further four meetings, 29 January, 5 February, 18 February and 26 February; is that correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: The first one on 24 January is at INQ00056214. Page 1 shows us who was present. Page 2 shows us that from Number 10 you attended, the bottom right-hand corner.

Page 3, at paragraph 2 – it will be over one more page I think then – information is given in paragraph 2 about the number of confirmed cases, confirmed deaths:

“… the true number was likely higher with modelling indicating between 1,000 and 10,000 cases. There was no clear evidence of sustained transmission … outside of Wuhan.”

What did Number 10 make of the fact that the CMO had reported there was no clear evidence of sustained transmission as opposed to saying there was no sustained transmission?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think we appreciated that nuance at the time. And I think throughout February there wasn’t a clear call on whether there was sustained community transmission in the UK, for instance.

Lead Inquiry: Was Number 10 aware of this issue, of course, and the need to ensure that they understood whether there was sustained transmission?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think, yes, we were – we knew that at the point at which in the UK we could evidence sustained community transmission it was very likely that contain approaches would fail.

Lead Inquiry: And you began to understand that there was sustained transmission and that control would likely fail during the course of middle to late February?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think more late than middle.

Lead Inquiry: But well before, of course, the change of strategy on 13 March, about which of course – to which we’ll come.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: It was understood, wasn’t it, that there was sustained transmission and that if the virus got a grip, got a hold in the United Kingdom, there was no effective means of controlling it thereafter?

Mr Imran Shafi: There were means to mitigate, and the plan through late February and early March was to mitigate the epidemic rather than suppress.

Lead Inquiry: But that wasn’t the question. Was it understood that there was no means of controlling the virus, stopping it from spreading throughout the community?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, yes, I think that’s right.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

That was, you say, mid, more late –

Mr Imran Shafi: I think more late rather than mid.

Lead Inquiry: All right. On 29 January, COBR – INQ000056226 – you weren’t, I think, an attendee at this COBR. If we go to the second page, a person whose name has been redacted attended on behalf of Number 10.

If you go to page 3, we can see a number of chief medical officers dialled in. If we go to page 5, the CMO and the CSA updated the meeting. Paragraph 3:

“… UK planning assumptions were based on the reasonable worst case scenario. There were two scenarios to be considered.”

The second one, which was that there would be a pandemic, was “plausible but it may take weeks to months”.

It obviously didn’t take months. When did you begin to realise that it would be sooner than had been foretold at that 29 January meeting of COBR?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think the outbreak in Italy was a big wake-up call to everybody.

Lead Inquiry: So the last week of February?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: 21 February?

Mr Imran Shafi: Around then, 21st/22nd.

Lead Inquiry: On 5 February, another COBR took place.


If we go to page 2, we can see the official attendees. For Number 10, you attended, along with Sir Ed Lister, as he then was; correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Page 3, we can see the CMOs attended.

Page 5, “Current Situation Update”. More information about incubation period, latent period. Paragraph 3, the Minister of State of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives an update.

4, the permanent secretary for the Department of Health and Social Care, Sir Christopher Wormald, talks about arrangements for isolation.

If you could scroll back out, please. Thank you.

Then at 6:

“The Chair invited the CMO to summarise the latest scientific advice on limiting the transmission of the novel coronavirus into the UK. The CMO said that the latest advice from … (SAGE) estimated that if the UK reduced imported infections by 50 per cent, it was expected that the onset of any epidemic in the UK would be delayed by about five days; if this was increased to 75 per cent it would be delayed by ten days; to 90 per cent 15 days and 95 per cent plus delayed for potentially a month.”

Number 10 understood, therefore, from 5 February that restrictions on borders would have to be very, very stringent indeed in order to be able to delay the spread of the virus, and even then it would only buy a limited amount of time?

Mr Imran Shafi: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Number 10 also understood from as early as 5 February that once the virus breached our borders and couldn’t be controlled by a sophisticated test and trace system, it would then be rampant in the community?

Mr Imran Shafi: No, I think there’s a difference between breaching the borders and sustained community transmission. So you could have people visiting from Wuhan or their families having infections in the UK; I think that’s different from sustained person-to-person transmission in the UK.

Lead Inquiry: So what did you find out when you asked: well, how many cases of inbound travellers can we manage and check, trace, contact, to make sure that it doesn’t get a hold in the community?

Mr Imran Shafi: Erm, I don’t recall that specific discussion.

Lead Inquiry: You were told, were you not, in late February that Public Health England could only manage five coronavirus cases a week with all the contacts that those five cases would give rise to?

Mr Imran Shafi: Could well have been, yes.

Lead Inquiry: So what was your reaction when you realised that you couldn’t stop the virus coming in for any length of time, and there were very, very distinct limits on the amount of index cases that could be tested, traced, contacted, isolated?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think, from late February, increasing concern as to how the UK would manage this pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: What was the solution?

Mr Imran Shafi: I’m not the expert on the solution, but I sought to press the system to provide updates and proposals to the Prime Minister on what they thought the system – what they thought the solution ought to be.

Lead Inquiry: On 18 February, COBR sat again.


Page 1, we can see 18 February, and the ministerial attendees.

Page 2, from Number 10, Ed Lister, again.

Then over the page, page 3, CMOs.

Page 5, paragraph 2:

“… the CMO updated on the global risk … the risk to Japan was primarily from domestic transmission. Both escalation to a global pandemic, and the isolation of the majority of cases to China remained realistic possibilities.”

Then if you could scroll back out, please, I think over the page, there are references to planning for legislation:

“The CHAIR said that any Bill would only be employed in a Reasonable Worst Case Scenario …”

Then over the page, “Planning for a Reasonable Worst Case Scenario (RWCS) - next phase”: “The DIRECTOR OF THE CIVIL CONTINGENCIES SECRETARIAT [Katharine Hammond] said that there was work to be done to create a clear plan of activity (across the UK Government) from the moment of sustained transmission to its estimated peak, which was likely to be a period of three months. That a detailed agenda of decisions and actions required over a period of twelve weeks was required.”

Presumably this COBR was reported back to you as being the private secretary in charge of this portfolio in Downing Street?

Mr Imran Shafi: There were two private secretaries working on the issue, so I think the redacted name is the other private secretary, but yes, we probably would have discussed –

Lead Inquiry: [name redacted]

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Did you therefore understand from this minute and the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat that, as at 18 February, work had yet to be done to create a clear plan of activity? Whatever that means.

Mr Imran Shafi: It’s a fair reading of the minute, I think. Well, I mean, you’d have to ask the person who actually said the comment, but I suspect what they meant was some work had been done and a lot more work was yet to do.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Cummings, the Inquiry is aware, called for plans to be provided to Downing Street.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: You’re aware of that?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In fact, he made repeated requests. It became apparent, didn’t it, that there was no clear plan setting out how the government might respond to a viral pandemic with these characteristics?

Mr Imran Shafi: I agree with that. I think there are two parts to it. There’s the strategic plan of: is this something that we can mitigate whilst protecting the NHS or do we need to suppress? And then there’s the question of operational plans, of do we have enough PPE, do we have enough ventilators, what’s – how are we doing hospital discharge?

So I think on both of those areas the plans could have been more detailed. But – so saying there is a single plan, there are lots of facets to that, I think.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Let’s have a look at the strategy first. In your statement, you say that the initial approach, the broad approach, envisaged what is called or what was called a one-peak strategy?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So that we can understand what was meant by this, is this the position: viruses go in waves, and the danger of suppressing a first wave, pushing it down so that the reproduction rate is lower than 1, so as to stop exponential growth, is that it recoils back up as soon as the suppression has lifted; correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: When it does so, because you’ve suppressed the first wave, the virus hasn’t been allowed to spread widely, so people haven’t become infected by and large and therefore they haven’t got immunity?

Mr Imran Shafi: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: So the thinking was this: if the first wave is just reduced rather than suppressed, so mitigated, then because the overall size of the first wave of the epidemic is reduced, fewer people will become ill or die?

Mr Imran Shafi: Correct – or at any given point in time.

Lead Inquiry: A byproduct of that approach, the mitigation approach, is because you’re not suppressing the wave completely, large numbers of the population will become infected?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Is that what herd immunity was thought to mean?

Mr Imran Shafi: I would add a final point to that, which – yes to all of that, and then a final point, which is: at a certain proportion of the population – and I’m not an epidemiologist, so this is just my understanding – at a certain point of the population being infected there are not enough new people for the virus to infect, and that’s sort of the technical herd immunity –

Lead Inquiry: Yes. Herd immunity can either take place when the population is sufficiently vaccinated –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – or it’s become sufficiently infected that the virus has got nowhere else to go in terms of infecting new people?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Correct.

So, and obviously there is an issue about herd immunity, because herd immunity denotes that large numbers of people may still become infected and may die; correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, in a one-peak strategy, many people will die.

Lead Inquiry: And the healthcare system may still be overrun?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And some people may not be immune or get immunity, may be reinfected.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, we didn’t know what the longevity of immunity was at that point.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

There are other issues, aren’t there, about how effective it is, or how possible it is to hermetically seal parts of the population anyway whilst you allow the virus to continue its approach through the rest?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: Why, Mr Shafi, did the government, so Number 10, the Cabinet Office, SAGE, SPI-M, spend so much time worrying about the strategic issue: shall we suppress and risk a spring back, an uncoiling of the spring, or shall we mitigate? As opposed to asking itself the question: whichever way you cut it, the loss of life and illness is going to be massive and we must take steps to deal with that?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I don’t think there was a proper discussion in February about suppress or mitigate. I think the system, Number 10 included, defaulted into accepting that the pandemic flu pan approach, which is more of a mitigate approach rather than a suppress approach, was the right way forward. In hindsight there should have been advice with different options presented to ministers on: you can go this way and the costs and benefits are as such, and you can go this way, the costs and benefits are as such.

And even at a point where lots of things were uncertain, I think, given that some other countries took an alternative approach, I think it’s a reasonable question to ask why we didn’t frame the choice in that way to ministers.

Lead Inquiry: In essence, give them practical options: this is the problem, we are going to be overrun, what can be done to control it or to regain control or to deal with the death and illness? As opposed to this doctrinal or strategic debate?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I don’t think there was a strategic debate.

Lead Inquiry: There are many, many emails, WhatsApps, from the Prime Minister saying, “Have we won the argument on herd immunity? Is it suppression or mitigation? Reports” –

Mr Imran Shafi: But that’s in the middle of March. So what I’m saying is I don’t think there was that strategic debate in February.

Lead Inquiry: My mistake. There was a debate in March, it just wasn’t in February?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Why, when the virus, it was plain, had already come to these shores at the beginning of March, was time spent on this doctrinal or strategic debate, which of course culminates in a realisation on 13 March, “We’re doomed”?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think large parts of the system thought there was no alternative to the current plan in the first week of March.

Lead Inquiry: No alternative to …?

Mr Imran Shafi: The current plan, the plan to mitigate.

Lead Inquiry: Was time spent debating reasonable worst-case scenario, mitigation, supression, herd immunity, behavioural fatigue? Because governments like plans, they want to be able to say “This is our plan, this is our strategy, this is what we’re doing”.

Mr Imran Shafi: Erm … I think people genuinely thought in the system as a whole, the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office, in the first week of March, that the plan as published on 3 March was the correct approach.

Lead Inquiry: Is that the action plan –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – contain, delay –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Do you accept that, as it happened, control had already been lost by 3 March?

Mr Imran Shafi: When you look at the facts now, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. But that was just an action plan, although described by some of your colleagues as a communication paper, which said, “This is what we’ll do, we’ll control it and then if we can’t control it we’ll delay it, and if we can’t delay it we’ll mitigate the consequences”?

Why was this debate about mitigation or suppression still going on?

Mr Imran Shafi: Because delay means mitigate, and so the plan as set out on the 3rd is a mitigation plan, and everything in the language is about delaying the peak. Suppression brings forward and curtails the peak. So the approach was very much the delay approach until it was shifted.

Lead Inquiry: Let me put it bluntly to you: a great deal of time and energy appears to have been devoted to drawing up the action plan, talking about delay and mitigation and suppression and, in the event, behavioural fatigue and herd immunity, whilst all the time it was known that the infection fatality rate was 1%, the hospitalisation rate was 6%, and you knew there was no means of controlling the virus’s entry into the United Kingdom. Why was the focus not on that stark reality, rather than debating the whys and wherefores of herd immunity?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think that’s a very good question, and I think it’s one to put to the senior experts on the pandemic.

I think one of the things that we were missing in the early parts of March was just even a simple, “Here is the path of the infection and here is NHS capacity”, and putting those two lines together. Now, you could say you should have been able to just work that out with a pen and paper, and when you reflect back you probably should have.

Lead Inquiry: You didn’t need models to know –

Mr Imran Shafi: Exactly.

Lead Inquiry: – that the NHS would be overrun.

Mr Imran Shafi: But it was only once we started to see just how stark the gap was between the likely path of the pandemic, even with mitigation, and how many beds were available, that I think it became clear to people in Number 10, including me, just how unprotected the NHS would be and just how many people would die under a mitigation approach.

Lead Inquiry: As at that COBR on 18 February, the COBR we’ve just looked at, there is a debate about a draft Bill, a corona –

Lady Hallett: Are you moving on to a different topic?

Mr Keith: Yes, my Lady, by all means.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, we have to break.

For those who were planning to attend or listen in or watch for Lee Cain, I think we’ve decided we can’t reach him today, sadly.

Mr Keith: My Lady, yes.

Lady Hallett: Very well.

Just so everyone knows, Mr Cain will be called tomorrow?

Mr Keith: Tomorrow morning.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Sorry about this, we have to take a break every so often. I shall return at half past.

(3.17 pm)

(A short break)

(3.30 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Mr Shafi, we were looking at the COBR minutes of 18 February, and I’d shown you really only part of it, but it was the observation from the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat to the effect that there was work to be done to create a clear plan of activity.

That COBR focuses on a number of issues: repatriation, which is still an ongoing issue; a draft Bill dealing with the legality of forcing people to isolate if they have been picked up on the border as having Covid; the testing of local resilience fora, forums; and there is also a reference to a ministerial exercise, a tabletop exercise which was due to take place.

Can you think why COBR was focused on those particular issues rather than getting to grips with the likelihood of spread and the absence of control measures?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know. I think one of the reflections that I have is that there was a very – focus on the immediate and now rather than what’s going to happen in a month’s time, which arguably there ought to have been of. And secondly, I think the lead department model has many strengths, one of the challenges of the lead department model is that issues that sit very squarely within that department don’t often get surfaced in sort of wide ministerial meetings as much as they might have, say, if the chair of COBR had been from central government.

Lead Inquiry: So a couple of points from that. The Inquiry has heard evidence that COBR is best designed to deal with immediate acute crises rather than trying to plan for a long-running crisis requiring it to look further into the future; would you agree with that?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Secondly, in relation to the lead government department model, this was a cross-government whole-government crisis, but because the DHSC was in the driving seat practically, to a large extent, as the lead government department, other parts of government, including the Cabinet Office in particular, had less control over what the DHSC was doing and less visibility over what it was thinking?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think that’s right, yeah.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Because there was no debate at that COBR about the possibility of control measures, test and trace, PPE, non-pharmaceutical interventions or what the impact might be on the hospital and care sector, none of the areas which we now know were at the heart of the response are debated at all, are they?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, I think I would break that down into two parts. There is the things that we needed to work on as part of any strategy, so a mitigate strategy as well as suppress, so things like PPE, ventilators, are relevant on all of those issues.

In terms of, you know, setting up a test and trace system, that becomes a lot more relevant in a suppress scenario, where you need an effective test and trace system to help you come out of the suppression, so when you lift the measures you don’t just create a second wave.

So it’s perhaps natural, once we’d gone down the mitigate approach, that you don’t spend as much time on that, but I can’t explain why COBR didn’t spend lots of time on issues like PPE and ventilators in February.

Lead Inquiry: Just on test and trace, are you saying that one of the reasons why there was inadequate focus on scaling up a test, trace, contact, isolate system was because it was thought at the heart of government: well, if we’re going to mitigate, we’re just going to reduce the top level of the viral spread, squash the sombrero, but let the virus run otherwise, we don’t need to test and trace people?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think there was a significant focus on testing capacity, and the recognition that the UK had far too little testing capacity and we needed to scale that up. That’s slightly separate from coming up with a new test and trace system that could be used for the rest of the year, which is I think something that could have been done – we could have paid – put more focus onto that in the early stage, if we’d thought suppression was a viable strategy at that point.

Lady Hallett: Can I just ask a question? I’m sorry to interrupt, Mr Keith.

You agreed with Mr Keith that there hadn’t been a focus on the aspects he put to you, PPE, ventilators and the like, but they’re all aspects that might come within the remit of DHSC, so that’s not – if there was a failing there, that can’t be attributed to the lead government department model, because they were all matters or most of them were matters that would come within the remit of Health, weren’t they?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, so they do come within the remit of Health. I guess my question is: was there appropriate scrutiny from the centre as to the depth and robustness of those plans? If you look in March, the Prime Minister was having to spend quite a lot of his own time doing manufacturing calls to arms for ventilators and trying to, like, inspire people to create PPE. I think a reasonable question that I would have is: could we have deployed the centre earlier to help solve some of these enormous problems?

Mr Keith: Just to finish test and trace, test and trace is not very effective for flu, is it, because you show symptoms when you become infected and you don’t need, therefore, to be tested? But you had to have, did you not, test and trace for coronavirus, whether it was mitigation or suppression, because it’s the only way of knowing how far the virus has spread in your population?

Mr Imran Shafi: Erm … I … potentially, although again I’m not an expert on this issue, so this is just me thinking it through, I suspect there was a feeling that by the time the first wave had worked through the population, we wouldn’t have been able to scale up sufficient tests in time to sort of respond to that need. So in that strategy we would be slightly blind as to sort of like the true state of the virus in March/April.

Lead Inquiry: So you’re saying it was a strategy of failure? We don’t need to have a test and trace because we’re going to suppress the virus, or we’re going to mitigate it, in which case we’ll allow half the population to be infected anyway?

Mr Imran Shafi: No, what I was saying was if you’re going to suppress the virus you do need test and trace, because it’s an important part of the arsenal as you come out of suppression.

Lead Inquiry: To stop the uncoiling of the spring –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – you’d need to be able to –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – test it out of –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – operation?

Mr Imran Shafi: And that was a large part of the debate in May, in terms of how low had we got incidence and would that be sufficiently low in order to allow test and trace to work effectively.

Lead Inquiry: But the suppression/mitigation dichotomy debate was resolved around about 13/14 March: when you realised the NHS would be overwhelmed you had to suppress. So why wasn’t test and trace ramped up at that stage?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think there were a number of people, including within Number 10, who were pushing for that. I don’t know the answer to why it wasn’t.

Lead Inquiry: But you know that it didn’t happen. There was no ramping up, was there, in March or April?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think there was a push to ramp up testing capacity. Whether there was an equal focus on pushing up the wider infrastructure around it, I’m less clear on.

Lead Inquiry: Community testing was stopped on 12 March, was it not?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, and I think my understanding of that is that that was a function of just a lack of tests –

Lead Inquiry: There weren’t enough to go round?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: They had to be preserved for hospitals?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So there was no community testing?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And until May it never restarted, did it?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know.

Lead Inquiry: No.

COBR, on 26 February, INQ000056216, at page 5, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, says:

“… official data from China shows that case numbers continued to increase. Internationally case numbers in South Korea, Iran and Italy highlighted clear person to person transmission …”

Including in Italy. And of course in Italy by this stage, the 26th, there had been a lockdown of ten municipalities and near collapse of its healthcare structure in the Lombardy area.

“Sustained human to human transmission in Italy – which receives a high number of travellers to and from the UK.”

On that occasion, on this – in this COBR on 26 February, if we just scroll forward we can see that COBR was concerned with “Health advice for travellers and schools”, “International response”. Under “HMG preparedness”, even though the reasonable worst-case planning assumption looked close to becoming the reasonable planning assumption, a debate took place on the Covid-19 legislative policy, excess death management, and there is a recognition there that, on the reasonable worst-case scenario for pandemic influenza, 800,000 deaths, being the reasonable worst-case scenario, would greatly exceed ordinary capacity.

So there all the links are joined up, are they not? There is human-to-human sustained transmission in Italy, where lockdowns have been imposed. There are links to the United Kingdom. It’s coming, there’s no means of control. Excess deaths under the reasonable worst-case scenario – which is now looking more and more like it’s going to be the outcome – is 800,000. And the debate focuses on excess death management and legislative policies?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah, so I think on the previous page it said it’s still unsure whether – if it will come to the UK in great scale, so I think there was still a level of uncertainty there. But I think you’re absolutely right that alarm bells should have been ringing at this point that had – did we have the detailed plans in place to sort of respond to this were it to come into the UK. And as you say, the medical advice was that it was becoming increasingly likely that it was going to be a pandemic. And that’s one of the things that I was trying to push to get sort of more detailed plans for the Prime Minister on, what happens in that scenario.

Lead Inquiry: And you personally do push, I make that absolutely plain, but the government as a whole was in the position, was it not, in which the alarm bells were not being rung loudly enough, there were no real plans, it was bogged down in a doctrinal debate about suppression and mitigation, and there was no focus on what would happen?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think there was too much focus on excess death management and not enough focus on preventing those deaths in the first place.

Lead Inquiry: Quite.

In an email or a WhatsApp with Simon Case on 18 September 2020, you say or rather Mr Case says and you agreed:

“The fetishisation of COBR is so tiresome.”

What did you mean by that?

Mr Imran Shafi: I can’t recall exactly, but I think probably by that point we had a much more sophisticated approach of engaging with local government. I think this is a response to a request from the Mayor of London for a COBR. I think the point was probably there are quicker ways of taking action rather than having to call a big formal COBR meeting. If we need to take action in a local area, we could do that through other fora, direct conversations with the Health Secretary, et cetera.

Lead Inquiry: So, generally speaking, COBR continued long after the crisis had become chronic rather than acute?

Mr Imran Shafi: It did, but at much more infrequent –

Lead Inquiry: At a slower rate?

Mr Imran Shafi: At a slower rate, yes.

Lead Inquiry: And it was an important forum because it allowed the devolved administrations to participate?

Mr Imran Shafi: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: On 24 February, INQ000146563, you sent an email to Sir Patrick Vallance, Katharine Hammond, Martin Reynolds, Ed Lister, Stuart Glassborow and others in which you said:

“… I’d like to start exposing the [Prime Minister] to the potential decisions he might have to take in short order on this …”

So you’re raising the alarm through your email, are you not? We can see the reference in the bottom half of the page, your email on 24 February.

At the top of the page, Ms Hammond, the director of the CCS, responds in this way:

“… we’re working at the moment on a whole sequence of decisions that would be needed in the event that we concluded a pandemic was the most likely scenario which should be also be useful in exposing some of those concrete points … It’s taken a few different approaches to get what we need but there are workshops running today and tomorrow to bring it together.”

What did you make of that response?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t remember my exact emotions at the time. I think this is all part of a wider growing concern within Number 10 as to whether the plans were detailed enough to take the UK through March and April.

Lead Inquiry: Bluntly, the CCS is saying, “We’re working at the moment on a whole sequence of decisions, we’re trying to draw something up, we’re going to plan something for you in Number 10”?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s what the email looks like, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right. But you were saying – because of course you were aware of what was occurring in COBR – that there was sustained human-to-human transmission, no means of control, it was spreading, and there would be no debate on measures?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, I mean – again, I mean, the Deputy CMO says “if there is transmission”, and Katharine’s email here says, “in the event that we concluded a pandemic was the most likely scenario”. So at this point the system hadn’t said that was the most likely scenario, but what I was concerned about was: were that to be the most likely scenario, what are the interventions that we would want to bring in? What does it actually mean for real people in terms of individual isolation, household isolation, what became known as shielding? Had we done the detailed work to really both work out all the kinks in those approaches and then think about how we explain that to the public?

Lead Inquiry: There were cases in the United Kingdom by 24 February.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah, so I’m not denying that there weren’t cases, I think what I’m saying is that the …

Lead Inquiry: May I assist?

Mr Imran Shafi: – advice wasn’t that that was going to be a – definitely turn into a pandemic in the UK at that point.

Lead Inquiry: Although there were cases in the United Kingdom –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yep.

Lead Inquiry: – and the government was aware of the explosion of the virus in northern Italy –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – and the fact that lockdowns had been deployed, and that people were dying and the healthcare system was likely to be overrun there, there was a degree, systemically, in the heart of the government, a degree of optimism bias that “It’s not coming here, this virus won’t come to our shores or, if it does, using the methods that we don’t have to control it, it won’t go any further”; is that the nub of it?

Mr Imran Shafi: I’m – because I’m not an epidemiologist, I don’t want to, like, give a firm view on one –

Lead Inquiry: You –

Mr Imran Shafi: – or the other.

Lead Inquiry: You sent this email, Mr Shafi:

“… I’d like to start exposing the PM to the potential decisions he might have to take …”

Did you seriously doubt that the virus was going to come, and to come and overwhelm the United Kingdom?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think at that point I thought there’s a strong enough chance that it might come that we need to be very much further ahead in terms of the detailed planning that we have in that case.

Lead Inquiry: Because you were aware of the precautionary principle, which is if there is a reasonable chance of this fatal viral pandemic reaching us, we’d better be ready, we’d better take precautions?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: All right. But, generally speaking, insufficient precautions had been taken by the United Kingdom Government by this stage?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think … at this point I don’t think I knew that for sure. All the detailed work might have been happening elsewhere and we just hadn’t seen it, and the question was: can we bring some of that detail to the Prime Minister? I think it was in the course of asking for the detail and then not seeing a huge amount of detail, that’s when I think –

Lead Inquiry: The penny dropped?

Mr Imran Shafi: – myself and colleagues in Number 10 sort of realised that maybe the detail of the planning wasn’t as deep as others had thought, and I think that those are the comments that Helen MacNamara and Mark Sweeney also sort of refer to in, sort of, later in March.

Lead Inquiry: We’re going to look at the meeting on 25 February after the half term in a moment. It’s clear that there were a number of emails and minutes and notes sent to Mr Johnson in the first half of February, but there was no COBR from 18 February to 26 February, no Cabinet meeting on coronavirus between the 14th and the week of the 25th, it doesn’t appear as if indeed there were any emails or any notes to the Prime Minister between 14 and 24 February concerning this fatal viral epidemic. Why was that?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know for sure, I mean, the Prime Minister was on leave for a part of that time. If there had been anything that was urgent and the Cabinet Office or the Department of Health had flagged to us as critical that we inform the Prime Minister, in my job as a private secretary I would of course have forwarded it on to the Prime Minister, but I don’t think I received anything in that period flagged in that way.

Lead Inquiry: COBR had been sitting regularly, SAGE, SPI-M, SPI-B, all these scientific committees, you were asking everyone for plans, the penny had dropped.

Mr Imran Shafi: So I was asking for plans on the 23rd, sort of immediately after seeing what had happened in Italy, and that was I believe for a morning discussion with the Prime Minister the next day.

Lead Inquiry: Do you accept that, given that this was a crisis – or we were on the edge of a crisis – concerning a fatal viral pandemic, that the lack of communication with the Prime Minister for those ten days, a bare month before the lockdown, was in hindsight rather unfortunate?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know what conversations he had with other people. I think that’s something you’d need to ask him. I think, in hindsight I think it’s unfortunate that we didn’t spend every day in February focused on all the detailed operational plans.

Lead Inquiry: On 25 February there was a meeting, an important meeting, INQ000146565, in which reference is made to the domestic preparedness, at the bottom of the page, and the CCS was asked to provide a four to five-page note for the PM.

Was that a note that was asked for immediately, or did a further few days elapse before the CCS was obligated to provide a note on options?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think the note hadn’t been drafted at that point, so whenever you’re in private office there’s always a balance between getting a note quickly and getting a good note, and you need to give people a little bit of time to write it and then, as you can see, we requested that it was cleared through a number of different people. If you ask for something immediately, it won’t be as high quality as if you give people a couple of days to put something together.

Lead Inquiry: But a further three to four days elapsed, and then he would read that note over the weekend, and then we would be in another week?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, although this was off the back of a conversation here on the 25th with all of the key people, as far as I can see, in terms of the attendance of the meeting. So the PM would have had an update in this meeting. I think the sense would have been: he needs a further update, which is why the note was requested, and then a few days elapsed before that further update is provided.

Lead Inquiry: But that 25 February was, I think, a Monday or a Tuesday?

Mr Imran Shafi: I can’t remember.

Lead Inquiry: He wasn’t going to get the note til Friday, he was going to review it over the weekend, we would then be a further week further forward, and of course that was the beginning of March.

Mr Imran Shafi: My understanding is that there were – I can’t remember exactly the dates, but there were further calls the following weekend.

Lead Inquiry: On 28 February a briefing was circulated by the CCS, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. INQ000146569, page 1. You can see in the top right-hand corner you wrote:

“[Prime Minister], this is a short update paper on domestic plans on coronavirus. Attached is the full action plan …”

Was that action plan what became the action plan of 2 March –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – contain, delay, mitigate?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “… Matt [Matt Hancock] wants to publish on Tuesday [and] which COBRA will review Monday.”

So that’s Monday 1 March, or Tuesday 2 March I suppose?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: If you could scroll back out, you can see that the CCS say in the first paragraph:

“Covid-19 looks increasingly likely to become a global pandemic, although this is not yet certain.”

In paragraph 2:

“Based on existing assumptions for a severe pandemic flu outbreak, in a reasonable worst case scenario about half of the UK’s population would become ill … and up to 520,000 people could die … [but this] advice is to use these numbers for planning – they are not a prediction …”

But the COBR meeting the week before had shown that the reasonable worst-case scenario was increasingly likely to be the scenario, was it not?

Mr Imran Shafi: Increasingly likely but not – not probable, is my reading of those minutes. But again, this note was agreed between CCS, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Health Secretary, so this was their joint assessment of the situation, and I think you need to ask them on the precise wording of this.

Lead Inquiry: If there was no realistic control, if the virus was coming and it had a 1% fatality rate, infection fatality rate, these numbers weren’t just numbers for planning; the reasonable worst-case scenario envisaged these numbers of deaths, did they not?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In paragraph 3, the CCS said:

“Preparations are well underway, COBR is meeting regularly and our best scientists are advising on when this step … will be needed.”

Paragraphs 7 and 9. 7:

“Our strategy is to protect lives, maintain normal life, limit economic and social impacts … we are preparing for the reasonable worst case scenario.”

And 9:

“We need to strike a balance between taking precautionary steps and overreacting.”

To what extent did you think that the appeal to or the appeal against overreacting was a valid point to make on that day, 28 February?

Mr Imran Shafi: In hindsight, a lot less valid than it might have seemed at the time.

Lead Inquiry: Following the meeting, INQ000136750, you wrote around with an update on coronavirus at the bottom of the page, the CMO and the Health Secretary gave a general update.

And then over the page:

“We need a major ramp-up of [other government department] activity on domestic preparedness …

“The PM agreed with … an action plan …”

So the primary decision made by the Prime Minister was to agree the action plan, that document, “contain, delay”, which was then published the following week; correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: It looks like it, yes.

Lead Inquiry: And he agreed the need for early emergency legislation?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Where was the decision-making in relation to control measures, or quarantining, or self-isolation, or analysis of the spread of the virus, or how far it had extended into the United Kingdom?

Mr Imran Shafi: As I said earlier, I think we should have been looking at those issues at that time, and we weren’t.

Lead Inquiry: You kept a notebook with your thoughts and your recollections, but in large part a contemporaneous note of some of the meetings that you attended.

INQ000146636, page 21. At the top of that page it says:

“PM [meeting] 28/”

Which we think is 28 February?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “PM – what’s the strategy.

“- when are we going to take big decisions, of what evidence.

“- biggest damage done by overreaction.”

So in that meeting, Mr Shafi, was the primary concern, “This virus is coming, it’s going to kill and maim” or “We mustn’t overreact”?

Mr Imran Shafi: A bit of both.

Lead Inquiry: If you could scroll back out, there was a reference – there is a reference to the Prime Minister being “sceptical that our interventions will do anything”.

I think it’s probably on the next page. No, it’s on this page. If you could scroll in the bottom fifth, thank you:

“PM – sceptical that our interventions will do anything.”

What was that a reference to?

Mr Imran Shafi: I can’t remember for sure. I think this was perhaps more around the hand washing campaign and the other sort of very non-intrusive measures that had been put in place and promoted at that time.

Lead Inquiry: So where is the debate that further more stringent measures might be required?

Mr Imran Shafi: Again, it’s not here.

Lead Inquiry: On 4 March, INQ000056158, a paper was circulated called “Potential impact of behavioural and social interventions on [an] … epidemic”. So during this week, so the week that the coronavirus action paper was published, the action plan, on the Monday or the Tuesday, the 2nd or the 3rd, this potential impact of social interventions paper was published. And did this – who did this come from?

Mr Imran Shafi: I’m not sure. It looks at the bottom like it’s from the SAGE secretariat, but it may have gone from them, from the Department of Health, or the Cabinet Office. I don’t know.

Lead Inquiry: Now, in paragraph 2, there are these words:

“SAGE has not provided a recommendation of which interventions or package of interventions … that Government may choose to apply. Any decision must consider the impacts these interventions may have on society, on individuals, the workforce and businesses, and the operation of Government and public services.”

Were you surprised in Number 10, as the private secretary with responsibility for this area, that the government had not received a recommendation from SAGE as to what you should do?


Mr Imran Shafi: I think at this point – what date was this again, sorry?

Lead Inquiry: This is 4 March.

Mr Imran Shafi: 4 March. I think at this point everybody had a sense of the sort of three lead interventions of individual isolation, household isolation and shielding, cocooning, being sort of the lead measures that we would consider. So I think there was a broad sense from the Department of Health that was the recommended approach.

So I think it’s correct that, you know, SAGE can’t consider the impacts on society, on individuals, the workforce and business; that’s for government to provide an overall assessment on, because there are lots and lots of different harms of all these measures. Some of them are Covid harms, and some of them are non-Covid.

Lead Inquiry: That’s the second part of the equation, if you like, what might be the social or economic consequences of an intervention. But SAGE was not even recommending an epidemiological intervention, was it?

Mr Imran Shafi: Erm … I think at this point it was trying to articulate what the impact of each intervention would be rather than say “Do this one over that one”.

Lead Inquiry: Even though the Lombardy area of Italy had been subject to a lockdown now two weeks prior, there was no debate, was there, at this stage about the possible need for lockdown?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I think if you look a little bit further on this in document, social distancing is one of the measures that’s looked at.

Lead Inquiry: Yes, page 5.

Mr Imran Shafi: What’s – on reading this document in the last week, what I found interesting was social distancing there just implies a 25% reduction in workforce contacts. Non-essential retail is not closed, there’s no stay-at-home measure. So even social distancing, as referenced here, I don’t think was the lockdown that we ended up with on 23 March. I think this is more akin to the 16 March measure that we took.

Lead Inquiry: There was no debate of a mandatory style stay-at-home order of whole-society isolation?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think this goes back to our earlier conversation about: was there a debate about mitigation versus suppression? And because the approach in the UK was very much along one of those tracks, it was judged that the actions taken in other countries weren’t appropriate in the UK.

Lead Inquiry: Was there debate in Downing Street, perhaps with the CMO and CSA, about the need for timing, so that if the government were to apply the most stringent measures, because they can’t easily be undone and they can have significant consequences, they shouldn’t be applied too soon?

Mr Imran Shafi: There was very significant debate about that, yes.

Lead Inquiry: And to what extent was there push-back, if any, from Number 10, saying, “Well, if the NHS is going to be overrun, if the deaths and the illnesses are on this magnitude, the reasonable worst-case scenario magnitude, we can’t wait”?

Mr Imran Shafi: So, again I think that goes back to the overall strategy. In a mitigate scenario, timing becomes really important because you do want to time it along with a peak. In a suppress scenario – and if you look at the debates in the autumn and the sort of reflections of the Chief Scientific Adviser that it’s always better to go early, that was not the advice in the spring, but I think that was a lesson that was learnt over the – over the course of the year.

Lead Inquiry: Your notebook of a meeting on 11 March at a pre-briefing says, or records the Prime Minister as saying, “People won’t sustain a long period of seclusion, every week of seclusion will damage people, we need to delay seclusion to align with peak”.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So by September it was realised that to save lives, to prevent collapse, you need to go and you need to go early?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In that first ten days of March, as part of this doctrinal debate about mitigation and suppression, time was spent arguing about whether or not going early would be an effective measure.

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think that was a debate. I think that was –

Lead Inquiry: It was just assumed?

Mr Imran Shafi: – that was assumed, that was the plan.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Analysis began to emerge from 9 March that the NHS would not be able to manage the level of demand; correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And I think you received a note from the DHSC on 9 March, INQ000146571. Those two charts at the bottom of the page – on the basis of 81% infected, with no mitigation – showed that the number of people normally requiring a hospital bed or intensive care massively exceeded capacity.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Was any more needed to raise the alarm?

Mr Imran Shafi: In hindsight, no.

Lead Inquiry: But did the government pull the alarm cord on 9 March?

Mr Imran Shafi: It did not.

Lead Inquiry: You yourself said in an email following this chart, following this document:

“Should we put this into COBR for Thursday? It’s frightening that even if we pull all levers we are still overwhelmed.”

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So you knew, and you told others, that given the death rate, given the hospitalisation rate, whatever you did, the system would be overwhelmed on the current plan for mitigation and for the limited measures which were being debated?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, I think this was the time at which I was becoming increasingly concerned about the approach that we were taking. It’s then another thing, as a relatively junior official, to question the entire approach that we’ve been taking, and so this was a thing that I continued to think about and debate with others in Number 10 over the next coming days, ahead of the whiteboard strategy meeting on the 13th.

Lead Inquiry: There was a meeting in Downing Street with Lord Stevens of the NHS on 12 March –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – where this issue about demand was debated and how it would be excessively – it would be exceeded. Slides were given to the Prime Minister showing how, even if all the current measures which were contemplated were imposed, there would still be a massive shortfall of hundreds of thousands of beds; yes?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And then on Friday 13 March there was a Prime Ministerial meeting. The Prime Minister wanted to see scientists out there developing an action plan, “get it going this weekend”, this is from your note of that meeting, and there was still a debate about herd immunity, wasn’t there?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: On that Friday night, there was a meeting between Mr Cummings, Mr Warner, Mr Glassborow, yourself and Helen MacNamara –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – correct? And that is the meeting at which Mr Cummings puts up his whiteboard, INQ000196060, which says:

“To stop the NHS collapse, we will probably have to ‘lockdown’.”

If we could scroll in, we’ll remind ourselves, number 2:

“Must avoid NHS collapse [and] collapse is non-linear. If happens, not 1% but 2% [will] die in [reasonable case] …”

It’s meant to be reasonable worst-case scenario, but:

“… [reasonable case worst].

“3. To stop NHS collapse, we will probably have to ‘lockdown’.”

This led to a meeting on Saturday 14 March attended by the Prime Minister, the Chief Scientific Adviser, the CMO and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and there was a debate, was there not, about what needed to be done?

Mr Imran Shafi: So this didn’t actually lead to that meeting because that meeting had already been in the diary –

Lead Inquiry: Ah, right.

Mr Imran Shafi: – before we had this. Because this session was very late at night on the 13th. The meeting with all the other ministers was on the 14th. So we had a debate about whether to scrap that meeting and then have a private internal conversation with the Prime Minister first, or go ahead with that meeting and then do an internal session. So we decided, given the plans were already in place for that discussion, to proceed with that conversation on the morning of the 14th, but that wasn’t a direct consequence of the meeting on the 13th.

Lead Inquiry: After the meeting, you itemised a list of things to be done?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000136751. You can see at the bottom of the page:

“We require a cross-Government signed-off package on shielding the vulnerable and elderly by Wednesday lunchtime …”

You need more information about who the vulnerable groups are, you need advice, the Prime Minister wanted advice on what we do on mass gatherings.

Mass gatherings had not yet been prohibited, had they?

Mr Imran Shafi: No.

Lead Inquiry: “How we could implement further social distancing …

“The near-finalised approach on household isolation for announcement by Monday …”

Despite the meeting with Mr Cummings on Friday night, and despite the recognisation that the NHS would be overwhelmed if there was to be no lockdown, the government at this meeting on Saturday 14 March did not decide to impose a lockdown, did it?

Mr Imran Shafi: No.

Lead Inquiry: In your notebook, INQ000146636, at page 64, your notebook shows that one of the matters being discussed was the possibility of planning – or the need to plan for a lockdown in London, because London was ahead of the epidemiological curve, was it not?

Mr Imran Shafi: I can’t – oh, yeah, right at the bottom. Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So probably about a third of the way up the page, or a quarter of the way up the page.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: “… need to do in next 72 hours to avoid NHS lockdown.”

Who is that?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s Dom.

Lead Inquiry: “Matt [Hancock] – explain plan into Sunday.

“… everyone should stop unnecessary social activity.”

So they’re at odds as to what should be done.

PM Johnson, “PMJ”?

Mr Imran Shafi: Sorry, that’s “PM” and a squiggle, just to –

Lead Inquiry: Oh, it’s just a squiggle.

Mr Imran Shafi: – to mark …

Lead Inquiry: “… Government must define vulnerable. We are on war footing now. We need detail of what mean …”

Mr Imran Shafi: “… what mean by social distancing.”

Lead Inquiry: “… what mean by social distancing.”

Then if you could scroll back out. So if you could go back one page, I was just going to read out the bottom of the page.

Ben Warner?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: “… need plan to lock down London on Saturday.”

And then this:


Who is that?

Mr Imran Shafi: Michael Gove.

Lead Inquiry: “… why not tomorrow?”

Over the page, at the top of the page, the next page:

“[Dom Cummings] – tell the media today – SAGE for the …”

Work, week?

Mr Imran Shafi: SAGE thinks we’re further than we thought.

Lead Inquiry: Oh, “further”?

Mr Imran Shafi: It’s a new situation, accelerating through the plan, where this is going over the next seven days.

Lead Inquiry: “Gove: Go now!”

Exclamation mark, underlined. He said it with some degree of force, did he not?

Mr Imran Shafi: He did.

Lead Inquiry: But the meeting did not decide that there should be a lockdown, let alone for London, and what was imposed the following week was a further ratcheting up of the social distancing mitigation measures?

Mr Imran Shafi: So if you look back at the whiteboard, that wasn’t necessarily saying “Immediately on Monday move to the 23 March position”, it was to say: we need to bring in all of the measures we have been discussing ASAP, and then lockdown probably within a week. And ministers obviously wanted to impose the minimum amount of restrictions consistent with getting the virus under control, because all of the restrictions have horrible effects too.

I think the advice from SAGE, from 16 to 18 March, was that the measures including the school closures, if properly implemented, should be enough and I think ministers probably took – were hoping that the measures from the 16th to the 18th would be enough, and …

Lead Inquiry: In the event they were not?

Mr Imran Shafi: In the end, they decided they couldn’t take the risk that they were not. I think we don’t actually know for sure because there was a lot of behavioural change at the time, and I think the issue was: by the time we worked out whether they would be enough or not, it would have been too late, because we’d only have lagging indicators, sort of hospital admissions and deaths, so we wouldn’t know if we’d done enough until it was too late.

Lead Inquiry: The precautionary principle?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: But during the course of the week there was a debate about the need to plan for a London lockdown?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: There was an agreement that an announcement would be made between the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: But that press conference was called off, was it not?

Mr Imran Shafi: It was.

Lead Inquiry: It became apparent that even if a lockdown were called for, the arrangements for shielding were not yet sufficiently developed?

Mr Imran Shafi: They weren’t on that week of the 15th, no.

Lead Inquiry: By the end of that week, the Prime Minister was still taking the view, was he not, that the measures announced, if properly implemented, would be enough?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think that was the Prime Minister. I think that was the scientific advice that he was getting.

Lead Inquiry: What was the Prime Minister’s view?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think he’d have his own independent view of the impact of the measures. I think he – that was … at every stage I think he was hopeful that each measure would be effective, and if you read the minutes of SAGE through that week, they don’t say that the measures of 16 March are not enough.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister actively resisted, did he not, a decision to impose a lockdown? He didn’t want a lockdown?

Mr Imran Shafi: He definitely didn’t want a lockdown, no.

Lead Inquiry: And even though the evidence was mounting that the NHS would be overwhelmed, it’s what you had been debating for a week or ten days, against hope – or in hope against expectation, perhaps – it was thought these measures, the measures of 16 March, would do the trick, they would suffice?

Mr Imran Shafi: That was the advice that the Prime Minister was getting from the scientific community, if the measures were properly implemented, and the “if” is the key element there, and through the course of that week we got increasing amounts of data on the level of reduction in social contact, for instance, and the realisation that the measures weren’t enough, because there wasn’t sufficient population change to be sure that we would bring R below 1.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister didn’t want a lockdown because he believed, at least in part, that the consequences would be so damaging that, given that large numbers of people would die anyway, there was no point?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t recognise that. I think he was extremely concerned about the other harms that would be caused with a lockdown in terms of –

Lead Inquiry: There was a –

Mr Imran Shafi: – non-Covid health, sort of people – deprivation, education, all of these sort of incredibly important issues, alongside the incredibly important issues of protecting people from Covid.

Lead Inquiry: And the no less important issue of death and harm?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, and I think – I can’t remember exactly when the Chief Medical Officer started to sort of categorise it, but he has quite a clear way of sort of demonstrating how death and harm can be caused through lots of different routes, of which direct Covid deaths is just one of those routes that you need to worry about.

Lead Inquiry: On 19 and 20 March, the Prime Minister met the Chancellor of the Exchequer on at least two occasions. Perhaps they were meetings or phone calls, but …

Mr Imran Shafi: Probably. I don’t have the full record.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000146636, please. This is your diary, your notebook, at page 92, halfway down the page we can see “CX bilat”. Is that a reference to a bilateral meeting between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr Imran Shafi: It is, yes.

Lead Inquiry: In quotes:

“… ‘we’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour’.

“- large ppl …”

Numbers of people?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: “… who will die – why are we destroying [everything] for people who will die anyway soon.”

Mr Imran Shafi: I think that says “economy”. Sorry, it’s my own handwriting.

Lead Inquiry: Sorry, “[destroy] the economy for people who will die anyway soon.”

Mr Shafi, who said those words?

Mr Imran Shafi: I can’t say for sure. I think it was the former Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: And people in hospital, the elderly or the infirm or the ill, were described as “bed blockers”?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think that was a term that was also widely used in DHSC and the NHS of people who didn’t need to be in hospital.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister did not decide to proceed with a London-specific lockdown; the press conference, as you’ve said, was cancelled; and there matters remained until over the weekend he became concerned, the Prime Minister became concerned by reports of continued social mixing.

Mr Imran Shafi: No, so I think he didn’t proceed with the London lockdown. Again, lockdown at that point wasn’t necessarily like the stay-at-home message that we ended up with on the 23rd. There were two reasons why I think he didn’t go for the London measures. The first was: would there be confusion between London and the rest of the country? And the second was: the following day the Treasury was preparing an exceptional support package for the economy, and it was felt that it was better to go nationally rather than regionally, and also to announce the economic package that we were providing to businesses and people at the same time as closing down hospitality, clubs, bars, restaurants. And so I think that was done before the weekend.

Lead Inquiry: In your statement, you accept that it’s reasonable to ask whether, knowing what the government knew at the time, the full lockdown could or should have been announced ahead of 23 March. And you agree, do you not, that there were very real – as is obvious – difficulties faced by the government? The costs of the lockdown were of course enormous, and understood to be so; there was a genuine scientific debate about whether the measures of 16 March would suffice; and SAGE had itself not called for, not called clearly for, a lockdown.

But why, Mr Shafi, were the insights, the understanding of that week, or maybe the week before, the week of 2 March onwards – that control had been lost, that there would be a massive effect on the NHS, that nothing short of a lockdown would suffice – why was that understanding, that insight not understood earlier?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think I understood it. I think a lot – quite a few people understood it. It took it a while to get through the system.

Lead Inquiry: You referred to a collective mindset. What did you mean by that?

Mr Imran Shafi: Could you … could you give a bit more context to –

Lead Inquiry: Yes, of course. Paragraph 99 of your statement:

“… it is possible to see how this collective mindset emerged.”

This is in the context of:

“… I am sure Ministers across the whole of Government would have wanted to spend more [time] … stress-testing implementation plans … ramping up testing capabilities … preparing more detailed plans …”

The action plan was published.

“… it [just was] felt that the … tools that the Government had developed would suffice. The scientific advice did not demur … Given the [consequences of a lockdown or] … overreaction … it is possible to see how this collective mindset emerged.”

Mr Imran Shafi: I think I’m referring there to the mindset that the only approach was mitigation rather than more draconian measures, and that wasn’t really challenged in February in the way that I think, in hindsight, it ought to have been.

Lead Inquiry: Now just some final questions, please.

In relation to care homes, the issue of care homes and the care home sector and the impact on the care sector is for another day and another module, but could you just please tell us: to what degree was Number 10 involved in the discussions about discharge plans from the hospital sector to the care sector and on concerns that may have been raised at the time about the impact? Was it something that was the focus of specific debate in Number 10, or was this a DHSC/COBR issue?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I – as of sort of the second half, second third of March, my responsibilities were split out across a number of people. So I wasn’t looking at the care homes issue post, I think, sort of 20 March. Before then, I believe it was raised in the meeting with Simon Stevens on 12 March, but very much in the sense of we needed to have generous discharge packages to allow people to move from hospital into care homes. The question of the risk of infections going from hospitals to care homes wasn’t really discussed at that meeting.

Lead Inquiry: Then – and I’m conscious of the time and also that this is an issue which, of course, has been put and will continue to be put to other witnesses – the consideration of the circuit breaker in September 2020.

Your own notes describe the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, in the words of somebody else, as “Eat out to help out the virus”. I think the Chief Medical Officer described the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to you as “Eat out to help out the virus”; is that right?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: There was obviously a high level of concern in government at the beginning of September as to the rise in the infection rate?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And a number of documents were prepared, a Covid-19 winter strategy document, there was a meeting on 20 September with the Prime Minister, a further meeting on 7 October and 8 October, a strategy meeting in Chequers on 25 October. But in general terms, although SAGE had recommended positively for more stringent action to be taken from September onwards, the Prime Minister resisted implementing the full effect of what was being suggested; there was a tier system, no circuit breaker, and then finally a belated lockdown. Is that a fair summary?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister decided that there had to be a lockdown eventually at the end of October, he received an advice from the Covid-19 Taskforce dated 28 October which made plain that the situation had continued to deteriorate; correct?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, if that’s what the advice says, yeah.

Lead Inquiry: But, as your statement recognises, the rise in infections and the risk to the NHS had in fact followed more or less the trajectory that the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser had warned about since at least 21 September 2020?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And there was a general understanding, was there not, that local restrictions would be unlikely to work but were worth trying, but it quickly became apparent that they weren’t working?

Mr Imran Shafi: Where do you get the reference that they were unlikely to work?

Lead Inquiry: From the chronology, from the imposition in October of the tier system and the fact that –

Mr Imran Shafi: So, but in September there was a debate about whether they could work or not. I think the – what October teaches us is that they didn’t work –

Lead Inquiry: They didn’t work, precisely.

Mr Imran Shafi: – to the effect that they should do, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have been made to work in September.

Lead Inquiry: But they were allowed to continue not working for the whole of October until the lockdown decision was made at the end?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Mr Keith: Thank you very much.

My Lady, there are a significant number of Rule 10 questions. I think there is one question which we indicated I would ask. May I put that question, with your permission?

In your statement, you say that one of the things that struck you was that how in the end the Prime Minister was often the only person in a position to balance the health, economic and other dimensions of pandemic decisions. You recall that I put to you that segment from the SAGE minutes, or at least the segment from COBR where SAGE openly recognised that over and above the epidemiological issues there are the health, economic and other dimensions of pandemic decisions.

Did you ever get the impression that the Prime Minister understood the differences – that is what is called, I think, a leading question – did you ever get the impression that the PM understood the differences between how lockdowns and social distancing restrictions impact adults and children?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think he did understand that, yes.

Lady Hallett: Right. Well, I have been asked to take a short break, so I shall just rise for three or four minutes and we will definitely – just so those who are asking questions know, we will definitely finish by 5.10, and we will complete your evidence this afternoon.

Thank you.

(4.33 pm)

(A short break)

(4.37 pm)

Lady Hallett: Right, I think it’s Ms Gowman. Where is she? There you are.

Questions From Ms Gowman

Ms Gowman: Thank you, my Lady. I’m here.

Lady Hallett: The usual place.

Ms Gowman: Thank you.

Mr Shafi, I ask questions on behalf of Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru. My questions centre on the UK Government’s engagement with the devolved administrations, and in particular the Welsh Government.

At paragraph 95 onwards of your statement, you discuss the Coronavirus Bill, and at paragraph 97 you state that the Prime Minister expressed that “it was important the Devolved Administrations were fully bound in with this”, this being the Coronavirus Bill.

What engagement had there been with the devolved administrations in respect of drafting and approval of the Bill?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know, because I think that would have largely been led out of either the Department of Health or the CCS. I wasn’t that involved in that, sorry.

Ms Gowman: It may be that you can assist with the next question. Why do you think it was so important for the Prime Minister that the devolved administrations were fully bound in the approach to the Coronavirus Bill?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think … you probably need to ask him about the specifics. If I was guessing, I think there were two – two reasons. The first is that there were some very contentious and exceptional measures in this, and so I think it was important to have as common an approach as possible on – in terms of, sort of, like, the political handling. And secondly, he very much wanted as much as possible to have a single UK approach through the pandemic.

Ms Gowman: By “contentious measures”, do you perceive that the Prime Minister felt that the devolved administrations, if not buying into the united front, may have seen the Bill as an attempt to water down their own respective powers?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think that was the angle that he was coming at, but again I think you’d need to check with him.

Ms Gowman: Can we pull up exhibit number INQ000146574, please. This is a Covid-19 emergency legislation advice note dated 9 March which discusses the Coronavirus Bill, and if we turn to page number 5, we see the Prime Minister’s comments on the advice note. We can see comment number 1 states:

“Make sure …

Then in capitals:

“… STURGEON [and] DAs [which I take to mean devolved administrations] stay locked in.”

As far as you’re aware, was there a concern held by the Prime Minister that the devolved administrations would not stay locked in?

Mr Imran Shafi: What date was this again?

Ms Gowman: So 9 March, as I understand it.

Mr Imran Shafi: I think the implication of that comment is that, yes, he was concerned. I think a reading of some of the COBR discussions around that time also – around issues like mass gatherings, there was a slightly different emphasis from different parts of the UK on the approach there. So I think that might have been in his mind.

Ms Gowman: With that in mind, what steps were taken to ensure that the devolved administrations were bound in with the approach, as far as you’re aware?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know. I think my involvement in this was to feed that back to the team, who I assume spoke to their counterparts in the four nations, and obviously this was something that was continually discussed at COBRs.

Ms Gowman: If we can pull up INQ000146570, this is an email dated 10 March 2020 that you sent indicating that the Prime Minister agreed with the proposed approach, ie the Coronavirus Bill, and had commented:

“We must make sure that the DAs are closely bound in on this.”

And at the bottom of that email we can see that you state:

“I’m sure that both of these are already in hand but good to reiterate those messages.”

Who did you think was taking forward those actions?

Mr Imran Shafi: Again, I think it would be some combination of the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health. I can’t remember exactly what was responsible for leading on the draft legislation, but it would have been in either of those two bodies, and they’re both copied in on this email.

Ms Gowman: Moving on to the next and final area of questioning, this relates to the UK Government’s engagement with devolved administrations, in particular the Welsh Government, more generally as the pandemic progressed.

What was the nature of the communication and co-ordination between the UK Government, in particular the Prime Minister, and the devolved administrations, particularly the Welsh Government?

Mr Imran Shafi: Erm, I think he … I don’t know the full extent of his conversations, because I know he spoke to people, the First Ministers of the devolved administrations regularly. I wasn’t the lead responsible official for that. He would certainly have engaged with them at COBR meetings where he and they were present, and Michael Gove, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was also responsible for a significant amount of engagement with the devolved administrations.

Ms Gowman: Just unpicking that a little bit, if I may, who would have been the person responsible for arranging the Prime Minister’s diary in respect of engagements with the First Ministers of the other devolved administrations?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know, sorry.

Ms Gowman: And insofar as the meetings are concerned, you’ve said in response to my question that there were regular meetings between the Prime Minister and the First Ministers for the devolved administrations; are you aware that certainly Mark Drakeford raised concerns that there was in fact an absence of regular meetings between the Prime Minister and the First Ministers for the devolved administrations?

Mr Imran Shafi: So, as I said, I assumed there would be. I’m not sure exactly how many meetings there were. I wasn’t aware of that comment, but if that’s something that the First Minister felt, then that’s an important point.

Ms Gowman: And you assumed that there would have been because that’s something that should have happened?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think, both through Covid and other means, politicians are talking all the time.

Ms Gowman: And similarly you’ve referred to COBR, but you also said in your evidence earlier that those COBR meetings became less frequent as the pandemic progressed; is that fair?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s fair.

Ms Gowman: And so as a mechanism for there to be dialogue between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, that was also reduced as the pandemic went on?

Mr Imran Shafi: Erm, there were other fora set up, including the sort of meetings with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to have that engagement. Those fora didn’t really exist in the early days. So I don’t think there was a lessening of overall engagement, it was just through slightly different avenues.

Ms Gowman: The meetings with Mr Gove, the Chancellor, were those meetings that were specifically requested by the devolved administrations or prompted by the UK Government?

Mr Imran Shafi: I wasn’t involved in arranging those meetings, so …

Lady Hallett: I think you’ve moved beyond the permitted questioning, Ms Gowman, I think probably with this witness. Maybe these questions are better directed to another witness.

Ms Gowman: Yes, certainly. My Lady, I only asked them in response to –

Mr Keith: I appreciate that.

Ms Gowman: – the witness’s answer, but I appreciate that it does go beyond the scope of my original questions.

It may be, Mr Shafi, that you can’t assist with my final question, but insofar as intergovernmental communication is concerned, between central government and the devolved administrations, do you think that there are any lessons that can be learnt moving forward?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think just stressing the importance of ongoing conversation and discussion, especially on issues where different parts of the UK have the legal right to take different approaches.

Ms Gowman: Thank you, Mr Shafi. I have no further questions.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Ms Gowman.

Mr Metzer.

Questions From Mr Metzer KC

Mr Metzer: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Shafi, I ask a small and indeed reduced number of questions on behalf of the Long Covid groups.

Please can we put up INQ000146628.

In the note dated 15 January 2021, you advised the Prime Minister on the choices ahead. I think we can see that at page 2, second paragraph. You referred to the long-term after-effects on younger people, and said you were getting objective clinical advice from Chris Whitty on the extent to which Long Covid is a reasonable policy consideration; yes?

Mr Imran Shafi: That’s correct.

Mr Metzer KC: Back on 13 October 2020, Sir Patrick had advised the Prime Minister and Cabinet these words:

“Another argument against shielding only the elderly was that many young people were being hospitalised with coronavirus or suffered from Long Covid.”

Then on 25 October 2020, at a meeting with the Prime Minister, you noted in your diary, “Long Covid is important,” at page 4. We don’t need to go to that.

The first question is: why was the risk of a significant number of young people suffering from Long Covid not confirmed as a reasonable policy consideration by January 2021, given that the Prime Minister had been advised that it was a policy consideration back in October 2020?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think it was, part of the way that the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser thought about these issues and sort of the impacts and harms of … of Long Covid. I certainly knew people who were suffering from it and it was something that I took very seriously. I think it is a matter of record, and I think something that the Inquiry’s already revealed, is that the then Prime Minister was more sceptical than most about the existence of Long Covid as a … as an actual thing.

Mr Metzer KC: So does it flow from that that there was a reason why you did not commission advice on Long Covid for the Prime Minister before January 2021 connected to the Prime Minister’s scepticism?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think I would have expected any advice to come up through the overall Covid Taskforce approach of looking at all of the various issues around measures, and that would have been one part of that consideration. I put a reference to it in this note, largely to sort of try to raise awareness again of the issue, and to try to create space for the Chief Medical Officer to further advise the PM.

Mr Metzer KC: Thank you.

On 21 Oct – sorry, can we put up a different INQ000072835, please.

Chris Whitty had prepared a written note on Long Covid, which was discussed in an email exchange on 18 February 2021 between you and the DHSC, suggesting that Mr Whitty thought a verbal update was better and would try to raise it in a meeting in the next weeks or add it to the agenda. We can see that from that exchange.

Can you help, please: why was the Prime Minister not provided the written note before this exchange?

Mr Imran Shafi: So a written note was drafted, as you can see at the end of that email, it was drafted I think by the Office of the CMO rather than the CMO himself. I think the judgement that both the CMO and I reached was that because we were aware that this was something that the PM was sceptical about, the method of communication to him might be more powerful if it’s a direct conversation with the Chief Medical Officer rather than a note from an anonymous bureaucrat.

Mr Metzer KC: I see. So did Mr Whitty explain why a verbal briefing was better?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think the PM held the CMO in the highest of regards, and I think for difficult messages or when you’re telling somebody something that they might not want to hear, a verbal discussion is sometimes better than a written discussion.

Mr Metzer KC: Right. So you had anticipated that this would not go down well, you and Mr Whitty?

Mr Imran Shafi: I judged the note as drafted risked getting a reaction from the Prime Minister that wouldn’t be helpful.

Mr Metzer KC: Thank you.

Last question: do you know why the suggestion that Mr Whitty had of a verbal briefing did not happen?

Mr Imran Shafi: So I don’t know whether it did happen or not. I know that it didn’t happen in any of the formal meetings that we had, because I think there’s an email from me a little bit later on saying, “We didn’t get the chance to have this conversation”. But the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer spoke all the time separately without me being there. I don’t know whether they covered this, and I think that would be something you’d want to ask them, whether that conversation happened.

Mr Metzer KC: Yes. I just want to press you a little bit, because the Prime Minister says in his witness statement he received a note on 1 June 2021 from Mr Whitty on Long Covid, which was – that note was dated 31 May 2021, which appears to be a different note to the one first signed back in February.

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes, so I left Number 10 in March 2021, so I don’t know to what extent there were verbal conversations between then and May/June. I think that’s something you’d probably need to pick up with the Chief Medical Officer or the PM.

Mr Metzer KC: Would you agree it looks unlikely that the verbal briefing took place?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know.

Mr Metzer: Thank you very much indeed.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Metzer.

Ms Morris.

Questions From Ms Morris KC

Ms Morris: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Shafi, I ask questions on behalf of the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice UK.

I’d like to ask you, please, about another entry in your notebook.

So that’s INQ000146636, and it’s page 18, please. Page 18, please. Thank you very much. Just at the top there, if we could zoom into the top two lines, please. Thank you.

This is an entry that I think, giving you some context, Mr Shafi, we can date between 7 February – which is noted on page 12 – and 28 February, which Mr Keith has already been to with you, on page 21, where he discussed with you the overreaction point. So it’s somewhere in February, just to locate you in time.

It says, I think:

“Trade-off – short sharp peak good [for] economy.”

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Ms Morris KC: “long flat … good for health system.”

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Ms Morris KC: Have I got that right?

Mr Imran Shafi: Yes.

Ms Morris KC: Thank you.

Does this note of a discussion indicate, using the words “trade off”, that there was a government view at that stage that the interests of the health system were in some way in opposition to that of the economy?

Mr Imran Shafi: I can’t remember who said this. It’s just me jotting down comments made in a meeting. I don’t think that was an overall government view, it was just probably the view of someone just thinking about the issues.

Ms Morris KC: Would you agree it’s a quite binary presentation of those two things, using the words “trade off”?

Mr Imran Shafi: I mean, the way it’s written down, yes. Although I think even when it says “long flat”, I think that’s the mitigation approach rather than the suppress approach. So even that is sort of contained within what the actual trade-offs were.

Ms Morris KC: Understood. Was there a sense at this time that there was this presentation of the economy on one side and public health on the other? Was that prevalent within Number 10 discussions?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t think so.

Ms Morris KC: Was there, by contrast, any appreciation for a more nuanced and complex interrelationship between the two, so in particular the reality that without good public health there is no prospects of a strong economy?

Mr Imran Shafi: I think that became increasingly part of the thinking around March –

Ms Morris KC: Okay.

Mr Imran Shafi: – and into the autumn.

Ms Morris KC: But before March, so in February, which is when we’re looking at –

Mr Imran Shafi: Yeah.

Ms Morris KC: – is it more likely, do you think, that there was this kind of binary trade-off mindset?

Mr Imran Shafi: No, because I don’t think it was seen in that way. If you look at some of the economic impacts from the – estimated economic impacts from Covid in late February, early March, the GDP impact is a lot smaller than what it actually came out to be. I don’t think people quite realised what the potential economic impacts would be in February.

Ms Morris KC: Was any independent advice sought or obtained by the government in respect of the potential economic aspects of the pandemic and interventions such as lockdown and NPIs?

Mr Imran Shafi: There was – when advice was put to the Prime Minister in March, and COBR, there was always, I believe, some assessment of the economic impact of measures in that – in that advice.

Ms Morris KC: Separate from the Treasury advice, was there anything outside Treasury advice?

Mr Imran Shafi: I don’t know, I think you’d need to ask the Treasury that.

Ms Morris: All right, thank you, that’s helpful.

Thank you, Mr Shafi.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Morris.

Anything further, Mr Keith?

Mr Keith: No, thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Shafi, I’m very grateful to you. I think you were here this morning, thinking you might be called this morning, so thank you very much for your patience with us.

Thank you for all your help.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Right. 10 o’clock tomorrow.

Mr Keith: Thank you.

(5.00 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Tuesday, 31 October 2023)