Transcript of Module 2 Public Hearing on 1 November 2023

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr O’Connor.

Mr O’Connor: My Lady, our first witness this morning is Helen MacNamara.

Ms Helen MacNamara

MS HELEN MacNAMARA (affirmed).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Lady Hallett: Sorry about the coughing.

The Witness: Okay.

Mr O’Connor: Could you give us your full name, please.

Ms Helen MacNamara: It’s Helen MacNamara.

Counsel Inquiry: Ms MacNamara, you have prepared at the Inquiry’s request a witness statement, which is up on screen. I know that you are very familiar with the contents of that statement. I think you’ve got a copy of it with you. Let me ask you, first of all, are the contents of that statement true?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Ms MacNamara, you detail in some depth your civil service career in your witness statement. In summary, it’s right, isn’t it, that you joined the civil service in 2002, having worked in the private sector before that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: You then spent the first 11 or so years of your time in the civil service working at various grades in the DCMS?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, that is right.

Counsel Inquiry: After that, so from 2013, you then spent two spells in the Cabinet Office, both of about three years; so first of all 2013 to 2016, and then, as we’ll come to hear, 2018 to 2021, and between those two times you spent some time in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as it was then called?

Ms Helen MacNamara: That’s right.

Counsel Inquiry: When you joined the Cabinet Office in 2018, so for that last period, you were appointed initially to the post of director general of Propriety and Ethics in the Cabinet Office, but I think it’s right that, within a few weeks or a month of so of you starting that job, your role was expanded to become the Cabinet Secretary’s deputy?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, that’s right. So my late boss, Lord Heywood, had asked me to come back to the Cabinet Office initially to do that role but also to take on wider responsibilities and then, unfortunately, he went off sick very quickly after I got back to the Cabinet Office, so I then supported the temporary and then new permanent Cabinet Secretary, Lord Sedwill.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, and this role of yours, shortly after it became formalised and I think some time later you were promoted to permanent secretary level, but in effect that job of Deputy Cabinet Secretary was one that you then did until the time that you left the Cabinet Office?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, that’s right.

Counsel Inquiry: Including the period in 2020 which, as you’ll appreciate, is going to be the focus of my questions today. As you say, you supported, first of all, Mark Sedwill in his role as Cabinet Secretary and then, as we will hear, when he was replaced by Simon Case you supported him as well?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Those last three years that you spent in the Cabinet Office, 2018 to 2021, were a tumultuous period: Theresa May’s government, her efforts to secure a Brexit settlement, Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister in the middle of 2019, everything that happened in the tail end of that year, prorogation and so on, the general election at the end of 2019, and then of course the Covid pandemic. So an unusually busy time to be one of the leaders of the Cabinet Office?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, I think that’s fair. It felt like a lot longer than three years at the time.

Counsel Inquiry: As I say, I’m going to focus my questions on that period of 2020. Can you give us just a brief summary of what your job was then, your daily routine, the types of functions that you were performing. Of course we’ll come to hear that you had to do some extraordinary things, but what was your ordinary role at that time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Do you want me to take January 2020?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Is that the best place? So I was Mark Sedwill’s deputy. The main purpose of my job was to support him in his role as Cabinet Secretary, rather than head of the civil service. So I ran something called the Central Secretariat, which advised on all of the kind of heart of Cabinet government. So any advice on Cabinet committees or machinery of government change, which means the structures and shape of government departments, how Cabinet operates, all of the kind of managing of Cabinet meetings, Cabinet committee business, I did all of that. I also was responsible for a range of other things that aren’t probably as significant to the Inquiry.

Counsel Inquiry: And we’ve already heard a fair amount of evidence about the rhythm of work in the Cabinet Office: daily meetings with the Prime Minister, Cabinet meetings less frequent but still regular. Did you have an involvement in those meetings?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, absolutely, and I would say, although it might sound like an odd thing to say, and this is what I said in my statement, that in many ways January 2020 really felt like the beginning of the Johnson administration, even though he had been in office for some time before then. It was just after the election and it was kind of supposed to be the beginning of this, what we thought at the time was a decade of Johnson government.

Counsel Inquiry: And I’m going to ask you more about all of that in a moment. But before I do, I’ve mentioned your witness statement. It’s very long. It’s 100 or so pages, and it’s obvious to anyone who reads it, and we will be adducing it and publishing it in full, that you spent a very long time preparing it.

Can you give us some idea of, first of all, how long you did spend on it and, secondly, apart from assisting us, what you hope to achieve with your statement?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Well, I think public inquiries are important. I think they’re essential. I’ve had the misfortune at various other points in my career to be working in the civil service where things have gone wrong, and I’ve always found it both really important that there is a point for reflection and that you should yourself, in the civil service, always be asking questions about what’s happened and what you could have done better, but that also there is a very important part, I believe, in our settlement of government or way that we operate public administration that there needs to sometimes be something like this today, where we all have to come and explain and account for what we did on something this important and significant.

It has been – you know, it has been a real effort to put the statement together and to do the work, for lots of reasons, but it feels a lot like the least I could do in the circumstances, to be honest, and I hope that I’ve been able to give a fair and reasonable account of what happened and I hope that some things can be better as a result.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s clear, as we will work through it, that you refer to a number of documents, emails, papers that you drafted and so on. I think it’s right to say that you came across some obstacles in obtaining material that you needed for your witness statement. Could you tell us something about that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I did, and I want to be quite careful, because I think that – I mean, you will have heard already that it’s very easy to bash a government department, and I’m not, when I’m criticising the Cabinet Office, blaming particular individuals, I should say. Very much not. But it has been extraordinarily difficult to get even the most basic pieces of information to be able to serve the Inquiry properly.

So I feel like I’ve had to be my own forensic archaeologist of my time in 2020, and it’s been hard enough for me to work out what was happening when, and I was there, because of the difficulties with accessing documents, accessing the right information, and because unfortunately the Cabinet Office deleted my work mobile phone, so I’ve not had access to those records either.

Counsel Inquiry: And we’ll come to one or two parts of your evidence where you say you’re sure that there were relevant WhatsApp messages and so on that you sent, but you no longer have them because you returned your phone to the Cabinet Office when you left and they have been unable to provide it back to you, and I think they’ve told you that it’s – is it the phone itself that’s been destroyed or has the material been deleted?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I’m not entirely sure, although I definitely did ask, because I know that the messages were all backed up. I asked if they could provide a kind of – I’m going to use the wrong word, but like a simile of the phone so that I could at least see the messages and that wasn’t possible either.

I should reassure the Inquiry that most of my business, as you would expect, is on email and most of it is all captured in the public record, so I don’t worry that there’s a huge amount of material that you’re not seeing which is relevant to the work that I was doing.

Counsel Inquiry: But nonetheless a frustration that the phone messages weren’t available?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It is, yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s move on, Ms MacNamara, and I want to start, as you do in your statement, although I want to take this part reasonably briefly, with the question of how ready the government machine was for the pandemic which developed from the start of 2020.

What I’d like to do, if I may, is go to paragraph 23 of your statement on page 12, which is your summary at the end of this section of your witness statement, where you say this:

“In summary, then, when Covid arose as a concern in January 2020, the UK Government was already on the back foot from another once-in-a generation event. Key parts of the system were either subject to change or might have been and were awaiting clarification. Many ministers, senior civil servants and special advisers were uncertain in their role. There was no clear ‘business as usual’ pattern of working with Mr Johnson. The Cabinet Office and Whitehall had developed some unhealthy habits in terms of ways of working, and it was a low-trust environment in terms of relationships between the civil service and the Prime Minister and his political team.”

So just to pick up on a few of those points, first of all, the once-in-a-generation event that you refer to was Brexit?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Now, some other witnesses have made the point that, at least in some respects, the experience of Brexit, and in particular the preparations for an no-deal Brexit, were valuable as a precursor to the experience of the pandemic.

First of all, do you agree with that? And secondly, if so, what is the wider point you’re making about the, if you like, deficit of the Brexit experience?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I mean, first, yes, I absolutely agree that the no-deal preparations and the experience of doing the no-deal preparations was immensely valuable and actually, in retrospect, it’s one of the frustrations when I think about whether I should have been more reflective at the time, that we knew how hard that had been, how unnatural it had been for Whitehall to have to think across a whole system, and think about things we weren’t practised in doing, and work collectively across a huge range of operational and policy areas, and it had been very difficult to start off with. And then over that preceding year, and actually, to give them credit, to a large part when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister the team had really focused very hard and done an enormous amount of good work that did stand us in very good stead, but we sort of somehow hadn’t clocked that we were kind of two years previously on Covid, if I can use that as an example. So yes.

But the wider deficit, I think, is partly a – and I should make the point, this is nothing to do with whether the country decided to leave the EU or not, my point is entirely about the Whitehall and Westminster response, and particularly the Whitehall structures, had been bent out of shape by a series of things that had happened.

So the business-as-usual model of the Cabinet Office that lots of people who worked in the centre of government would recognise wasn’t really there for all sorts of reasons in January 2020.

There was also, when I talk about uncertainty, which might be the most useful point in here to highlight, there hadn’t been a significant Cabinet reshuffle after the 2019 election. The election had fallen right at the end of December, really, and the Prime Minister had wanted to take some time and to consider some quite substantial machinery of government changes potentially before deciding who to put in which Cabinet jobs.

So this period – and I think the reshuffle then came quite late into that February. It was just before – it was the Friday before the House rose for the half term recess.

So there were an awful lot of people who weren’t sure what jobs they had. There was particularly uncertainty on the political side, obviously, but also on the civil service given the potential for large amounts of machinery of government change, and I think it’s been mentioned before, but there was, you know, again a lot of hostile briefing about the civil service, which was making people feel uncomfortable, and at this time there was what was happening in the Home Office with the then Home Secretary and the permanent secretary.

Counsel Inquiry: That’s a reference to the falling out between Priti Patel and the permanent secretary, Mr Rutnam?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And that’s an issue that you yourself were asked to take some role in. You investigated allegations of bullying, and that was something that was going on at very much this time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You mentioned there also, you say there was no clear pattern of working with Mr Johnson – this is something we’ll come back to – but was that an extraordinary matter?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I mean, that’s a very good question, I’m not sure whether there would ever have been a normal pattern of working for Mr Johnson. But I do know that the kind of monomaniacal focus of him and his political team, for reasons which I’m sure that they would happily give, on just focusing on EU exit from July 2019 and then getting to the election, meant that they, at least in the way it was communicated to us, everything else could wait, everything else could wait till after this question was settled, and then there was going to come a very large amount of change, and we were just not sure what that change was ever going to be.

Counsel Inquiry: Just going back to the beginning of this paragraph, these are all matters that you say contributed to this sense of being on the back foot at the beginning of that year, and that was one of them, was it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Lastly, here, you talk about unhealthy habits that had developed in the Cabinet Office and Whitehall during the previous period. Was one of those the sense of bypassing Cabinet government?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I think I won’t ask you any more about that, I’m going to come back to that in due course.

Let’s move on, Ms MacNamara. I want to ask you then about those early months of 2020 and the emergence of the pandemic. The Inquiry has now heard a lot of evidence about what took place in January, February, March of that year, the developing understanding both of the scientists and people at the centre of government of the virus, SAGE meetings, COBR meetings, and so on.

Can you just give us an insight into how the pandemic impinged on your own work as you went about, no doubt, many other things in the Cabinet Office in that period.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Of course. So we were obviously aware that there was this emerging problem. Probably the most visibility I personally had of that was via the Cabinet Secretary’s Monday morning meetings. So, as I suspect is normal everywhere, he’d gather his top team together and we would cover what was happening, and so that was the place that, from very early in January, I remember first hearing about the response to the virus, which was very much framed as an international rather than a domestic problem at that point. And then I occasionally attended the morning meeting on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary, so this is the Prime Minister’s daily meeting, and I would have picked it up from there. And then obviously in the Cabinet. So as well as being somebody who could see what was happening in the world, but in the Cabinet Office that’s where I first understood what was happening.

Counsel Inquiry: And just to be clear about this, we’ve already established what your role was, you’ve told of us at least one other thing that was taking up your time during that period, the issue around Priti Patel and her permanent secretary, but we shouldn’t get the idea, should we, that it was part of your job to deal with Covid; you were at a higher level than that, overseeing the entire work of the Cabinet Office, is that a fair way of putting it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So there is – sorry, this is probably going too much into civil service structures – there is a separate Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office. What I was overseeing was the kind of old-fashioned operation of government. I wasn’t ever responsible for any of the teams who were preparing for or running crisis response or any of the – I had no direct line management over any of these teams, no.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. But, as you say, in the course of attending these meetings and no doubt simply being in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, you certainly became aware of the pandemic and the way in which it was being treated?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: I’d like to take you to just a couple of references in your statement about this.

First of all, if we may, paragraph 24 of your statement, which is on page 13.

Here you are discussing that part of your role which involved drafting briefs for the Cabinet, for the Prime Minister for his Cabinet meetings.

Picking it up towards the bottom of that paragraph, about six or seven lines up from the bottom, you say:

“In practice in this case the tone of the Cabinet briefs on the Coronavirus, and in particular the injections of caution I made about the uncertainty of the picture, did not register with Mr Johnson – he rarely referred to the brief. In those early Cabinet meetings in particular Mr Johnson was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should all be careful of over-correcting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact and for which – in any case – we were well prepared.”

Just to get the timing clear at the beginning of that paragraph, you say we’re talking now about January/February, and was that your experience of Mr Johnson’s early approach to the disease?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and it – I mean, we – it was a pretty confident climate in general, so it wasn’t unusual for the message that we were going to be great at it to be the kind of general overriding message of anything that was brought before the Cabinet.

Counsel Inquiry: Just pause there, because there’s another passage I wanted to ask you to look at, which is on page 15, it’s the last few lines of paragraph 27. I think this really picks up the point you were just making, Ms MacNamara, now you’re talking about being at, not the Cabinet meeting, but the early morning meetings, and you say:

“During this period [four lines from the bottom] the atmosphere and discussion in the morning meetings I attended was confident and macho. This in itself was not a new thing, but it seemed even more so than usual: we were going to be world-beating at conquering Covid-19 as well as everything else.”

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: What did you mean by that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Well, just that it was striking that something that I felt personally was obviously deeply worrying, that the – there was a sort of de facto assumption that we were going to be great without any of the hesitancy or questioning or that sort of behind closed doors bit of government, which isn’t about saying everything is smashing and going brilliantly but actually being a bit more reflective and checking that everything is going to be quite as great as we’d like it to be. And that tone, in my observation from these discussions, was just completely and utterly absent.

Counsel Inquiry: Just moving on further down this page at paragraph 29, you refer to one particular incident which obviously was one that you remembered. Now we’re in early March and, in fact, you’ve linked it to the day when there was an issue about the Prime Minister shaking hands at the hospital, which we know was 3 March, so you’re right, it’s early March.

Picking it up about five or six lines down, you refer to the “jovial tone”. You say:

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

Just carrying on, you describe raising at this meeting concerns that you’d essentially picked up at the school gate or sort of on your parents’ WhatsApps and saying surely we should just pause for a moment, and Chris Whitty supporting you. But then, to finish off, if we go over the page, you say that after that sort of moment:

“Shortly after, the conversation went back to the assertion that we were so well prepared … we should not panic.”

And you say you:

“… left the room even more concerned that we were in the wrong place tonally, feeling I had been patronised for raising the point and I was particularly bothered by the supreme confidence I had heard.”

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think – I mean, yes, and obviously that is accurate, I think that the thing I was most concerned about at the time is I really thought that people wanted to know the right thing to do. I wanted to know the right thing to do. You know, should we be keeping our children off school if they had a cough? Should we be seeing vulnerable people and grandparents?

It wasn’t – it really wasn’t clear, and I happen to have a great faith and confidence in that most of the time people will do the right thing and I felt it was that disconnect that I felt so strongly that actually, if we could just tell people when the right and kind and proper thing to do is, people would do that and sitting there and saying it was great and sort of laughing at the Italians, was just – it just felt completely – well, it felt how it sounds.

Counsel Inquiry: You may have answered in part my next question, because I wanted to ask you whether this was just sort of macho posturing or whether it actually had an effect on policy. Is it the case, then, do you think, that this approach you’re describing slowed down or even prevented the government from doing perhaps the messaging that it ought to have done?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think it will be quite hard for me to know, because there is a – you know, if you are in that sort of meeting with that sort of Prime Minister in that sort of environment, it’s quite hard to be the person who injects a note of caution or says, “I’m not really sure about this” or … so I can’t say that it wasn’t – you know, I can’t presume that because that’s what I heard that elsewhere there weren’t also people saying “Hang on a second”. I imagine that there were, actually. It’s whether they were heard or not that I think is the question, and I would say undoubtedly that the sort of unbelievably bullish “we’re going to be great at everything” approach is not a smart mentality to have inside a government meeting.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to just look at another part of your witness statement which relates to something that’s going on at the same time. It’s the question of your response to the way in which restrictions about football matches were addressed. It’s page 29, paragraph 52.

So you refer, in fact, to 2 March, so perhaps a day or two before that meeting that we were just discussing. You say then that you attended both the Prime Minister’s morning meeting and also a briefing for Opposition Frontbench politicians, which as we’ll come to see, that was another of your duties, was it not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You described that this was at a time when there was an issue as to whether attendance at football matches should be restricted, and the government’s policy was that it wasn’t necessary because everyone was outdoors, and you had concerns about this, which was in part prompted by a discussion with opposition politicians?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, that’s right, and probably it’s at this point that alarm bells start really ringing in my mind, and it might be a good point to say it’s actually quite important in terms of the operation of government that you don’t start interfering with other people’s day jobs, particularly when you’re senior. So I was quite careful at this period of time to try to understand what was happening rather than to kind of immediately go to marching about questioning and saying “this doesn’t feel right to me”.

So I felt that was the proper thing to do. I wish absolutely I had said more and done more and trusted my instincts much earlier. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s going to sit before you who isn’t going to say that about what happened in the February particularly.

But this was a good example of the opposition politicians who, throughout this period, were entirely reasonable in asking questions in private and not criticising the government in public, that, it was the shadow Health Secretary, as I say here, had said that – had asked a question about why going to the football was okay, given what he and I knew about going to the football, which, yes, of course, when you’re in the stadium shouting into the ground, that probably is low risk of transition(sic), but when you’re in the pub or on the train beforehand or on the concourses, you’re incredibly close to other people. I should say I spent a long time at the Premier League a long time after this trying to make going to football grounds safe in terms of Covid transition(sic).

I was worried that the kind of house view was that football games were okay showed – and this is not a criticism of the people, it’s a criticism of process, of other things – that nobody who was involved in that discussion had probably ever been to a football game in quite the way that most people go to football games, and it was that gap between what I knew to be how most people lived their lives and what was really happening in places, and this theoretical idea that standing outside singing was okay made me worry about what other disconnects there might be. It wasn’t just about football, it was that this seemed like a big problem if people were thinking that something was one thing when it was really something completely different.

Counsel Inquiry: So we’ve touched on the sort of macho culture, overconfidence, but this is another theme that we’ll come back to in your statement, won’t we, a concern about lack of real-world experience around the table amongst those who were taking these decisions?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Going back, though, if we may, to that question of overconfidence, one of the points that was made that you’ve referred to was this idea that there was a plan, not just a plan, but a very good plan, a world-beating plan.

If we can look, yes, at paragraph 30, thank you, on page 16, you say – you refer to the action plan that was published in March, early March, and you say:

“In retrospect this is an extraordinary document, given that so many of the assertions about how well prepared we were would turn out to be wrong only weeks later.”

But it goes, as you say in the statement, some way to explaining that level of confidence at the time, that there were plans in place.

Now, we heard Mr Cain yesterday giving his evidence about this plan, saying that when he read it he thought it was a sort of communications document, it had no substance to it. Did that strike you at the time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So of all of the things I had to go back and read, I found re-reading this document one of the hardest in retrospect, because it’s so far away from what the reality turned out to be. I – like Mr Cain, I thought it was a communications document and that underneath it there would be things that I would recognise as a plan, as in who’s doing what by when, what’s the strategy, some enormously laborious bureaucratic documents which I knew and loved at the time, and I thought that’s what was there was, and it was, of all of the shocking things at that period of time, discovering that there wasn’t actually that sort of document.

Counsel Inquiry: If we look at the next paragraph, paragraph 31, we see you do say that at around this time, in early March, you started asking for “the plans”, so-called, you’ve used inverted commas, so that you could dovetail the advice that you would be giving with the plans that you thought were about to be taken out of the drawer and implemented.

Did you ever find those plans?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think they existed?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I don’t know. They didn’t exist in a way that was usable or that exist – or that anybody. Had, and I think these are not – there is the Cabinet Office crisis response plan, but there is also – the pandemic readiness was the responsibility of the Department of Health, so the working assumption, incorrect, was that the Department of Health had a whole series of plans that were ready for this, and that there then was a sequential or related series of plans for the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate. But I don’t think anybody in the Cabinet Office thought that their beginning, middle and end of their whole job was responding to the pandemic, they were supposed to be co-ordinating the plans that other people had that had existed and were practised. I don’t think I saw a plan for that either, by the way, I’m not saying that both of these things existed, but it’s sort of a gap on a gap, rather than …

Counsel Inquiry: So we’re talking about plans that should have been drawn up in different places –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – but at least part of the problem, perhaps what you really wanted to see were those plans from the Department of Health focusing on this pandemic preparedness set of issues?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. And I don’t – I mean, I don’t know if it will be possible to – there might be very good reasons why you can’t publish these, but I attached to my witness statement the Eurozone contingency plans that we had in the Cabinet Office, and they go into whether(?) there’s an operations manual, there is a meetings manual, there’s a communications – there’s – it’s basically a lot of groundwork which you – even if there had been plans, they wouldn’t have been perfect for this time, I think it’s important to say that too, but that was the sort of thing that I thought existed, and/or something like the plans for no-deal exit, which were incredibly thorough and ready to – ready to go, in that it was perfectly possible to pick it up and see what meeting happened in what order.

And the thing that I thought I was doing was just taking all of that planning and then putting on top of it: this is how we will manage Cabinet and collective decision-making and these are the structures and way we should arrange ourselves in the Cabinet Office. I don’t think even at this time I really understood that that wasn’t in fact the – that wasn’t in fact the question.

Counsel Inquiry: That there was nothing for you to start with from the Department of Health?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No.

Counsel Inquiry: And you detail in your statement, Ms MacNamara, you say you have gone back and thought why, why you didn’t challenge this earlier, why you’d had this assumption, which, to be fair, we’ve heard you shared with many other people, that there were these plans in place, and you give a number of reasons, and I just want to pick up in fact on the last one.

So if we can go to page 20 of your statement, it’s the (vii) at the top, you make the point that:

“The Cabinet was told [in your words] time and time again by the Health Secretary that we had plans in place.”

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: In your hearing?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Was there any ambiguity, looking back?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Had you assumed that when he said that, he knew what he was talking about?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I assumed he’d seen them and been through them and thought they were adequate. I thought that’s what he was saying.

Counsel Inquiry: As it turned out, that really couldn’t have been the case, could it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I mean, you’d have to ask – ask him, but I would not understand a scenario where these plans did exist and yet we never got them.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I move on and ask you about just one other issue relating to this period, and that’s the so-called chickenpox parties. It’s page 32 of your statement, paragraph 59.

Again, we’re still talking about that early March period, and it’s been publicly discussed, has it not, this idea that your boss, the Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, was talking at this stage about chickenpox parties? Mr Cummings was asked about this yesterday, and his evidence was that he was sort of profoundly shocked when he heard about these discussions because they seemed to him to indicate quite how far removed from reality, if you like, people’s understanding, including Mr Sedwill’s, were of the pandemic and how far it had reached.

In your statement, first of all, let’s be clear, you say that you’re not sure that actually Mr Sedwill advocated chickenpox parties, but you think it probably was something that was discussed by him in the Cabinet Office. As I read it, your take on this is that, if you like, it provides an insight into the way people were thinking about the pandemic as late as early March?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think it really shows our lack of understanding. I think our collective – and I can’t say what basis this was on, but I don’t think we understood how serious Covid could be for certain people, I don’t think we properly understood any of the serious consequences like Long Covid, any of these things. And I think we definitely did have the mindset that the thing to do was to, you know, if you – if you had Covid then you’d be better and then it would be better because you weren’t going to get Covid again, the notion that we’d be – be infected.

Now, that could be just our collective ignorance rather than something that was said. I definitely don’t remember Mark Sedwill advocating chickenpox parties. We were talking a lot about family dynamics and what people would do, I mean – and by the way I think chickenpox parties are a very bad idea – but you – it’s more revealing of what we were thinking at the time and our level of – our lack of understanding, I think.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Let me move on to a different, although related, subject and it is this idea of “following the science”. It’s paragraph 36 and page 21, if we can.

Just picking it up from the start of that paragraph, you say:

“[You] remember conversations [in the same period as we’re talking about now] in late January/early February where those of us working together in No 10/Cabinet Office at one step removed from the handling of the response expressed doubt about the argument that we should ‘follow the science’.”

You go on to say this is one of those areas where you wish you’d been able to access your phone, because you have a memory that you were texting or WhatsApping people about this; is that right?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: But as we will see, it wasn’t just texts, because there were some emails that you sent about that, and we’ll come to those.

But if we move on, if we can, to – well, no, sorry, could we stay with paragraph 36, please. You make it clear that the concern wasn’t that you thought that Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, and no doubt all of those who supported them, were anything other than excellent scientists who could provide scientific advice; what you go on to sketch out is a slightly different concern. Perhaps you can explain it.

Ms Helen MacNamara: I thought it was a very odd thing to say. It’s not what governments normally do, is just decide that they’re going to blindly follow advice from something else. So I didn’t – that was my first question with it, is why are we following? Is that the right thing that a government should be doing is following the science?

And I also, probably more significantly, didn’t understand what “the science” was, and thought it felt both like, to my first point, a bit of a cop-out – you know, we’re not making any decisions, we’re just following the science – and an unfair one on the scientists in particular, and then secondly there’s so much and so many different scientific questions involved and even I, who’s not an expert, could see that.

So I thought it was an odd thing to stick so religiously to, although I could see its value as a comms line.

Counsel Inquiry: If we look at paragraph 38, which is over on the next page, you make a further point, Ms MacNamara, which, as I understand it, is that, perhaps because science was something that people were less confident about, people at the centre, than other areas, it was almost like a safety blanket, that because epidemiology, no doubt modelling, is actually really quite complicated science which decision-makers didn’t feel confident with, they reached for this idea of “following the science” in a way that, to use the point you make there, they wouldn’t have done in another situation, for example economics, and you say:

“… it would have been laughable to propose following ‘the economics’.”

But nonetheless people did say they were “following the science”?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and I should say there are a very large number of very brilliant scientists and people with scientific backgrounds working in Whitehall. So it’s not that they’re not there, it’s just that they’re rarely in the kind of upper echelons of the civil service and the Cabinet Office, and also in the kind of ministerial and political environment. So that was my point, really, that that sort of ignorance, which I would – you know, Mr Cummings and I are both history graduates, so, you know, there’s only so much of your own learning and knowledge that you can apply to asking good questions, and I think that we were collectively under-confident on being able to ask questions about science, even though we had some very good scientific advisers around us.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me ask you a more direct question about this. We’ve seen evidence, in particular from Patrick Vallance’s dairies, but not only that, that he and others were frustrated about the fact that the Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, didn’t understand the science and would get it wrong, and they would have to repeatedly explain what they regarded as being quite basic points about infection rates, modelling, worst-case scenarios and so on. Did you experience that too?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. As in did I witness that?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Drawing this together, at paragraph 39 at the bottom of this page and going over to the next, you make the point that science was really only one part of the decisions, that sort of suite of decisions that was going to need to be made, and if we can just skip to the next page and the end of that paragraph, you say:

“The questions about how to respond to Covid-19 were – in my mind – huge political, ethical, moral, social and economic questions that went to the heart of the kind of country we were or wanted to be, alongside a whole set of relentlessly practical operational issues like supply of food and medical equipment. There would be hard choices and they should be made by elected Ministers.”

Is that part of this disagreement that you had with this phrase of “following the science”?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, I thought it was unfair in two directions. So never mind the point about what science and which scientists and does anybody understand the science, but this was going to be huge for the whole country and for everybody, and it wasn’t right to abnegate responsibility to effectively an unelected group of people and put everything on their shoulders, both because it wasn’t fair and right for them but, probably more importantly, it’s not fair and right in terms of who these choices belong to.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s just look at a document where you raised this issue at the time. So it’s tab 6 in the bundle, and it’s INQ000285980. It’s the top of that page.

You’re emailing Mark Sweeney in early March, and at the second paragraph there’s a conversation about something else and then you say:

“btw [by the way] apart from my mini-rant about the masculine tone, i have some VIEWS about the way we are treating ‘science’ like it’s the word of God. We don’t always go where the science leads us…Chris [Whitty] is exceptional [by the way] so this is not a pop at him but the answer isn’t just what is rational.”

There is another email, which I won’t bring up, at about the same time where you make a similar point that this idea of following the science is giving too much weight to scientific advice?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: So does this reflect the type of concerns you were expressing at the time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It does. It does. And, Mr O’Connor, would you mind if I made a similar point? I don’t know whether later in my evidence we’re going to get to talking about the Grenfell fire, but I can see that that’s on the screen.

Counsel Inquiry: No, do.

Ms Helen MacNamara: I just want to – you may see through my evidence that I am referring back to the learning I had from having been the Director General for Housing and Planning at the time of the fire. I just am always conscious that is not – it’s not just a policy experience, it was a tragedy that happened in our city and 72 people lost their lives and a lot of other people’s lives were profoundly changed by that, and I wouldn’t want anybody to see what I was saying or hear what I’m saying and not think that I don’t acknowledge that as a separate thing. It’s not – I think it’s just important to make that clear.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, thank you. We see that.

The last thing I wanted to ask you about this, though, is what we see here is you talking to Mark Sweeney, who was another senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, about following the science. Is this something you took up with Boris Johnson or elected politicians, saying, expressing the type of views you’ve described today and which you seem to have been emailing Mark Sweeney about?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I don’t remember raising it with Mr Johnson, but I did see him regularly and felt very comfortable with being able to say what I thought to him and ask him questions. So it’s perfectly possible that I would have said: what does this even mean, what is the science, or something. I don’t think – I can’t remember a specific instance, but it would be very surprising to me to have felt so clearly about something for a number of weeks and not to have said it to him. I would have done.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Let’s move on in the chronology, Ms MacNamara. I want to ask you about that period in the middle of March. We’ve certainly heard a lot of evidence yesterday about that time when the strategy changed.

As you subsequently discovered, you were in fact coming down with Covid yourself, weren’t you –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – on Friday 13th and Saturday 14 March. And I think it’s right that, was it the Saturday that was your last day in the Cabinet Office and you dialled in to some meetings on the Sunday and –

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I worked from home all day Sunday, yeah, but decided not to go to the office because I was worried that I might have the virus by then.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So we’ll bear that in mind. But with that in mind, let’s look at page 32 of your statement, please, and paragraph 60 at the bottom of the page. You quote there the account which Mr Cummings has given of that occasion towards the end of the day on Friday, 13 March where you walk in. As we’ll come to see – perhaps we should have touched on this earlier – we’ve heard about Downing Street and the Cabinet Office being, as it were, places very close to each other but with separate organisations. You were based in the Cabinet Office, were you not, but spent much of your time in Downing Street?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: The account that Mr Cummings has given is of you walking from the Cabinet Office into Downing Street and in fact into the Prime Minister’s study that evening – he wasn’t there, the Prime Minister – but you saying, and this is his account but I think you agree with it, that you had just been talking to Mark Sweeney, whose name we’ve just seen, who was in charge of co-ordinating with the Department of Health.

“He said [that’s Mr Sweeney had said but you’re reporting it] ‘I have been told for years there’s a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We are in huge trouble’.”

And then you said, expressed your view, that:

“I have come through here to the Prime Minister’s office to tell you all that I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people. As soon as I have been told this, I have come through to see you. It seems from the conversation you are having that that is correct.”

Give or take a few words, is it right that that’s an accurate account?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s very striking.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: No doubt you can still remember that moment of realisation?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, it was horrible. So I think – I mean, you heard from Mr Cummings yesterday. I think that in effect on either side of the link door, which is the door between Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and my office was just above it, that we’d been sort of going through the same process I think in those previous two weeks, in the sense that – the just increasing concern that actually we were really radically in the wrong place. And my experience that Friday where I had started with the morning meeting in Downing Street, I think, and then I’d done another briefing with the opposition where their concerns – all the opposition parties and their concerns were entirely valid and their anxieties were so clear and high, and I felt listening to what the government side and my side of the table were saying, it was – I was more alarmed rather than reassured at the end of that meeting.

And so I’d spent most of the day that Friday, on top of all of the other things that we’d been doing the previous week, really trying to gauge how much of a problem I thought we had. And it was a sense of foreboding like I hope nobody sitting in that office ever has that again, actually. It was a very, very scary experience, and – but I felt that it wasn’t in any doubt in my mind at that point that we were heading for a total disaster, and what we had to do was do everything in our power to make it as – you know, impact as little as possible in the time we had available in the circumstances that we were, not what would have been better weeks or weeks ago, but from that moment on what were we going to collectively do.

Counsel Inquiry: The context, then, is the government has a strategy, it’s in the action plan, it’s “Contain, Delay, Mitigate”, squashing the sombrero, and as we read this account, what was the real tipping point for you was suddenly realising the complete lack of any supporting planning to make that policy work; is that right?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It’s more that the scale of what was going to have to happen, I think, was just so outside of what anybody had thought might be necessary. So I’m – you’ll have people before you who are much more familiar with the planning as it was, but that the fact that we would have to effectively ask everybody in the country to stay at home, and the impact that that would have. It’s one of the things, if you work in government, you can just start to imagine all of the consequentials that will be for: what are you going to do about the Prison Service? What are you going to do about all the other bits of public service? What about people who are vulnerable? You can just imagine – and I remember feeling – this kind of explosion of all of the questions that we would need to be able to answer, and my fear that we wouldn’t be able to answer them, and so we’d be trying to deal with these two things.

We’ve got accustomed to talking about lockdowns and we all lived through it, but if you go back to what it felt like at that time in March, it’s sort of inconceivable that you would in fact do what we then went on to do. And, you know, I’ve – I heard a little bit about, you know, should we have locked down earlier; we could not have gone any faster in a safe way, I don’t believe, from that day.

Now, could all sorts of other things have been different beforehand? I’m pretty sure, yes, of course. But the scale of the undertaking was absolutely enormous, and I think it’s – once we got used to sort of imagining you could lock down and open up and lock down and open up, there’s – there’s nothing like that, we didn’t – there wasn’t a manual or a playbook or anything.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to explore this issue. You said there that part of your thinking on this day was there was going to be a need to lock down and how was that going to happen. As I said, the plan at the time was that there wasn’t going to be a lockdown.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: There was going to be squashing the sombrero. And what we’ve heard from Mr Cummings and others is that what made them realise at very much this time that there would need to be a change was that the plan, the mitigation plan, wouldn’t work because the NHS would be overwhelmed, and it simply couldn’t be done because it would involve too many people dying.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: That’s not quite what you’ve put here, and I’m just interested whether that was something that was in your mind or whether it was more, as you’ve said, to do with the scale of the planning that was going to be needed?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think – I think that is a fair distinction, actually, and definitely the conversation that I then went on to have with Mr Cummings and Mr Glassborow and Mr Warner in Number 10, I understood from that conversation much more that there wasn’t going to be this peak that we were going to get through or squash, there was going to be a long and sustained period of time.

But I think at that time I didn’t feel I had a very good understanding of what the virus would be. I didn’t have a very good understanding of the impact on NHS capacity. What I had a good instinct for was seeing what was happening elsewhere in the world and knowing, having had a number of conversations with Mr Sweeney about the legislation that might be needed, that the worst-case scenario, which worryingly was looking like something that might actually happen, not a worst-case scenario, we just hadn’t done any of the planning. So how are people going to get fed if they have to stay at home? What’s going to happen to schools if people have to stay at home? And it was those more, which you might expect. My background is as a domestic policy civil servant, so that’s probably where my mind went more than anything else. And I probably still at that point fervently hoped that the planning we would have to do for that extreme scenario wasn’t in fact going to be needed, but I really knew we had to get that extreme scenario actually worked up.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard and you describe in your statement as well the series of meetings which then took place over that weekend. We’ll have other witnesses who can help us with those, so I’m not going to take you through them in detail, but I do just want to ask you about one of the meetings, which you describe at paragraph 65 of your witness statement, so it’s on page 35.

I think it would have been on the Saturday where you say that – I think it’s in preparation for a larger meeting involving more senior decision-makers, there was what you described as a “scratchy meeting” with the DHSC and others that Mark Sweeney chaired where, your words, you say:

“… it was clear the DHSC view was to wait until the latest possible moment to tell people they had to stay at home …”

So what are you trying to convey by that word “scratchy” and the content of that meeting?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I think when we were – and you’re right, there were lots and lots of meeting notes and papers and details of all of the meetings that happened on that Saturday. When we were trying to find the note of this meeting I think we worked out that it was actually on the Sunday, so it was the Sunday meeting of the – for the Prime Minister and this was the prep meeting before then to make sure – it’s a classic bit of civil servicing, to make sure that the civil servants all understand what the other civil servants are going to say, and that you’ve got some sort of co-ordination, so you’re using the ministerial time most effectively.

The reason I remember this as “scratchy” is because at this point it felt like we really were in slightly different places in terms of a group of us in the centre who had got much further on how bad this would be quite quickly, and a – perfectly reasonable I should say – concern from DHSC who knew as well if not better than we did that the planning wasn’t there to support this. That there needed to be more time to get some of this planning actually done.

So it’s a bit of a – the scratchiness was precisely that. At this point I think we were in an unbelievably urgent hurry to get where we needed to be as fast as possible.

Counsel Inquiry: And one of the points that Mr Cummings made in his evidence yesterday is that we shouldn’t assume that there was some sort of transition from the containment plan to the suppression plan that everyone agreed with, and that it was seamless; in fact over this weekend people were disagreeing, there was uncertainty, it was by no means a smooth transition from plan A to plan B, and it sounds like you agree with that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I do agree with that, and it’s because I think we had – we’d got to a different place much faster. And it’s not – that is also reasonable if you think about it from the perspective of the DHSC colleagues involved. They were more well versed, might well have understood better the consequences for the health operation. It’s not – I wouldn’t want to give the impression that they didn’t have some valid points that they were making, I just think that we had moved into a different way of thinking about what might happen.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Just lastly on this, then, a couple of fairly high level questions. Mr Cain yesterday gave evidence that although, to be clear, no decision to lock down was made over that weekend, and I think that’s commonly agreed evidence, his impression was that over that weekend it became the collective view. No doubt, Mr Cummings’ point, not smoothly, but still it became the collective view that there would need to be a lockdown. Do you agree with that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: That’s certainly how I saw it, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: As we’ve heard, you dropped out of the picture because you became unwell, but of course we know that the lockdown was announced about ten days later, on the Monday of the week after. Were you expecting the lockdown to happen earlier than that? You’ve given us a clue to your answer already in terms of how much needed to be done. But your own view, had you expected it to happen earlier or not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I don’t know, is the honest answer. I’d – I thought it would happen as soon as it was possible to do it, because – given there were some really big questions to ask and answer, I think.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard that a lot went on on the following week, involving Mr Johnson and others, but you were not involved in any of that –

Ms Helen MacNamara: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – because you, in fact your whole family, got Covid?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You were off work from that Monday for, I think, the best part of three weeks?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. I don’t think – the other thing I should say, and this might help you with the evidence in the emails and the record, I’m not sure we referred to it as “lockdown” at that point. I don’t think we were talking about there being a “lockdown”. I think we were talking about people having to stay at home, from memory.

Counsel Inquiry: Moving on, then, looking ahead, you came back to work on April 2, which, as I say, I think was about two and a half weeks or so that you were off.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: And then, as we’ve heard, you were in post until February of 2021, when you left the Cabinet Office.

During that time, then, the Prime Minister was very unwell and there were issues for you to deal with in that regard. Your boss, Mark Sedwill, resigned and was replaced by Simon Case?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: You had serious concerns about conditions, working conditions at the Cabinet Office, and there were steps you took to try to address that problem, and there was an involvement on your part in a number of other Covid-related matters.

So would it be fair to say it was a very busy, very demanding time for you following your return to work?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, undoubtedly.

Counsel Inquiry: If we can look, please, at paragraph 73 of your witness statement, so it’s page 40, you give – perhaps we can briefly zoom out so we can see the whole page, the title is “Prisons”, but you give us a vignette, if you like, of an incident that took place on your first day back, which – we’ll look, but I think you’re suggesting that it in fact drew together some of the themes of your experience that was to come.

What in fact happened, you say, was that a relatively junior member of the staff at Number 10 came to you with a concern about what was going to happen at prisons, and in particular whether prisoners who were in unsafe conditions in the prisons should be released or not. And, without reading out the paragraphs, the essence of it is that you were surprised and concerned that a decision hadn’t been taken at departmental level, and there seemed to be a certain amount of failure to take a decision that needed to be taken; is that right?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. Yes, I was worried – well, as I said in the statement, worried that the decision should probably have been taken in the department and then if that wasn’t going to be the case it should have been taken in the Cabinet committee structures that had been set up. So the notion this decision was still hanging and was dependent on the Prime Minister personally taking a view was a cause for concern for me.

Counsel Inquiry: And that it had needed to be raised by – with you – a junior member of staff, that’s not the way the government should have been running?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No, and I should say although she was, I mean, technically in civil service terms junior, rather brilliant and the private secretary responsible for home affairs, so she was effectively doing her – she was doing her job, but the fact that it was a private secretary in Number 10 who was having to force such a big question is not how government should operate, no.

Counsel Inquiry: I should have made that clear. I mean she was junior to you –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – but that includes rather a lot of people in the civil service?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: But then let’s just look at paragraph 74, if we can, because you say:

“In retrospect many of the systemic problems that caused substantial issues in managing the response were visible in this moment: i) the sucking into No 10 of too much of the decision making by the political machine and this compounding a narrowed perspective, ii) a general lack of knowledge or understanding of how large parts of the state operate, iii) an over-ideological (in [your] view) approach to individual decisions … an absence of the accountable people in departments being involved or sufficiently involving themselves in decision making … Cabinet government not serving its usual purpose … unreasonable pressure on the No 10 private office and [finally] an absence of humanity.”

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: We will go to most if not all of those themes in the questions I’m going to ask you after a break that we may have shortly, but I wanted just to pick up on that very last consideration. You say “an absence of humanity”. That’s a – it’s a broad term, it’s a powerful term. What did you mean by it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I mean, I’m sure, as you say, we’ll talk more about this in general, but I think in this particular example it was the fact that there would be individual prison officers at risk, public servants who were just, you know, coming to work and doing their job, that individual prisoners, who had already in effect been punished for the crime that they had committed by being in prison, the lack of care or comprehension that they needed also to be looked after, there was a responsibility to look after those people. And then also that there was a responsibility to look after the families of the people for whom the prisoners might be returning back to. And it just felt very – very cold, actually, in terms of the decision-making. But all of those broader points are true as well. I included this as an illustration; I’m sure there are countless more.

Mr O’Connor: Yes. Well, as I say, we will go on and touch on, as I say, I think most if not all of those themes.

My Lady, since I’m going to move on, may this be a good moment for a break.

Lady Hallett: Certainly. I shall return at 11.25.

(11.10 am)

(A short break)

(11.25 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr O’Connor.

Mr O’Connor: Ms MacNamara, we had reached the moment where you returned to work following your period of illness with Covid. I think we said that your return day was 2 April, and one of the issues that you had to address as soon as you got back was the question of the Prime Minister’s illness and how the Cabinet Office was going to respond to that. I think it was a Thursday, that 2 April, and at that point I think it’s right that the Prime Minister was already ill and self-isolating in his flat in Downing Street, and he was admitted to hospital over that next weekend and, as we all know, became very ill.

You describe in your witness statement one of the tasks then that you had to address was thinking through how, as a matter of constitutional propriety, the government would continue whilst he was unwell, in particular in the event that he became too ill to communicate his wishes, which as we know he did.

So you describe in your witness statement discussions that took place, decisions being made, and you refer to Dominic Raab, as the First Secretary of State, assuming certain responsibilities. It’s apparent, if we can – we don’t need to turn it up, but at paragraph 94 of your statement you refer to, in your words, having to make it up as you go along.

I’m going to take you to a document in a moment, but the sense of your statement is that there were no plans, a bit like we were talking before the break, for you to reach for you to show you and your colleagues how you might address this problem; is that right?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, it is, and I think it’s probably accurate to say that there were times at this period where it felt like working or living in a sort of dystopian nightmare, that just when one terrible thing had happened then the next terrible thing was about to happen. And the Prime Minister being so gravely ill was obviously awful.

It is fair to say that there is no magic cupboard you can open in the Cabinet Office that has a kind of “this is what you should do in these circumstances”, but I wouldn’t want to be too alarming around that, because there is also always precedent and practice and knowledge and expertise that you can draw on in those circumstances. But personally, it was very challenging. The Cabinet Secretary also had Covid at this point in time, and we felt very vulnerable, if I’m honest.

Counsel Inquiry: We can get a sense of the thought processes in the work you were doing if we look at a document, which is tab 13 in the bundle, it’s INQ000286029.

This is a document, Ms MacNamara, you drafted, didn’t you?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And I think we underline the word “draft”, don’t we?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. I mean, this is – one of the experiences of coming before these inquiries is that you see your very, very first – this is the first draft of my thinking on that Sunday, I think. On the Sunday.

Counsel Inquiry: We take it as we find it, Ms MacNamara, but it’s certainly a valuable insight into the types of issues that you felt you needed to consider at the time, and we can see you’ve put – well, the title “How we manage while PM is ill”, and scenario A being if he is ill but able to communicate, and B if he is unable to communicate his wishes.

Then we see, do we not, a series of, if you like, categories of decision-making, which perhaps reflected Cabinet Office directorates or areas of work, and a sort of first thought as to how you might manage who would take these decisions, whether they needed to be taken, whether they could be deferred. It’s a battle plan really, is it not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It’s a very first draft of it, and I think you have the – not that I could promise the later draft is much more polished, but you have got a more final version which lines up some of this, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We see then, if we go on to the second page, there is a series, in true, good civil service style, of lines to take, questions and answers, the types of issues that you were obviously anticipating people – perhaps not necessarily the press, but people with whom you’re dealing will want to know the answer, and we get a sense perhaps of that vulnerability you were just describing and exactly how anxious and also a sense of making it up as you go along.

If we look at the third page, the question:

“What if the PM gets worse?”

So perhaps scenario C. And your fairly frank reflection, “God knows what we say here”, but the final sentence:

“[You] don’t think there’s a world in which that level of uncertainty will stretch out in a way that is constitutionally …”

I think you meant sustainable?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: In other words, “If he does worsen we’ll have to make a plan”?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that really what you’re saying?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and this is a conversational style because it’s a document I think that I had written for, then, various teams to start fleshing out and writing the real kind of much more detailed Q&A, but this is entirely – yes, it’s entirely in line with obviously what I was thinking that day.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. I just want to come back to that question of preparedness. We’ve been told many times that a pandemic, an influenza pandemic in fact, was at the top of the risk register. We have spoken about the plans that were or weren’t made to prepare for such a pandemic. But even if it was a flu pandemic that was to emerge rather than the Covid pandemic that we know in fact took place, even in that situation, it would be entirely foreseeable, would it not, that people at the top of government, including the Prime Minister, would be affected by the illness?

Don’t you think, with that in mind, that this is the sort of thinking that should have been done in advance, not necessarily by you, but by the system?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I do think there should have been more thinking in advance, and I hope that there is now – I’d be amazed and horrified if there isn’t – about, when you are in this particular kind of crisis where the key people can get ill or their families get ill or they suffer a bereavement, that there is a better set of plans and provisions, yes, for the Prime Minister, but also other ministers. And although you’re absolutely right, you know, there isn’t a kind of “open the box and here is the plan” on a Prime Minister being ill, fortunately Mark Sedwill and I had in fact done some work and thinking about this in the summer of 2018, it must have been, just after we’d both taken up our role. And I should also point out there are obviously people whose job it is to think about these things in the Cabinet Office. So I was surrounded by people with deep constitutional expertise.

But the nature of our constitution is that not everything is – well, very little is written down, and in practice what it relies on is sensible people making sensible decisions. I don’t think anybody had foreseen the difficulties of trying to do this particular bit of thinking while actually the impact of the Prime Minister being so ill, or God forbid the worst happened, would be also be even more significant, I think, for the country, and the combined potential for that sort of instability was genuinely awful.

Counsel Inquiry: Of course no doubt you’re right to say that there are people in the Cabinet Office who are steeped in these sorts of issues, but I think you’re also agreeing that it’s very sensible to have some plans prepared?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and it will not surprise you to know that after this we made sure that there were plans, and I was pleased to see in the Cabinet Secretary’s statement that there are in fact now more – there’s more robust arrangements in place. It’s, again, not an experience you would want anybody to go through twice.

Counsel Inquiry: Just taking a step to one side, we’ve talked about the planning that was there or wasn’t there for how to deal with this situation of the Prime Minister becoming very ill. But, as you’ve mentioned, it’s also the case that particularly at this time, sort of March, early April, there were an awful lot of people at the top of government who were ill?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Not just the Prime Minister, you’ve also mentioned Mr Sedwill, who was ill, you were ill, Matt Hancock had Covid, so a whole group of you who were all at the core of decision-making who all became unwell. And of course we don’t know exactly how any of you caught Covid, but is it fair to say that there weren’t the plans that there might have been or the procedures or the safeguards that there might have been to stop quite so many people in and around Downing Street getting a transmissible virus at a time of a pandemic?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It’s absolutely fair. And, as I say, I really hope that there is more of a plan now. And it’s probably the case that, even weeks and weeks before there was a decision to be made to, you know, go to the next stage in terms of the whole country, there should have been more care taken about the key people who might be involved in those decisions and some of the things that then were put in place later in terms of having alternates and people not always being in the same room and all that sensible stuff about how would you minimise transmission, I would hope that that’s there now.

Counsel Inquiry: No doubt you are right that there are some quite sophisticated plans that could be made. As soon as you know the virus is coming, let’s think about separating people, let’s think about taking extra precautions, all those clever things that you could put in place to try to minimise the risk that a number of people in a particular part of government will all be off at the same time.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: But you refer in your statement to something far more basic. If we can look at page 95 of your statement, please, it’s paragraph 194, so four or five lines down in that – well, let’s start perhaps at the beginning. You say:

“As an organisation the Cabinet Office excels in creating the kind of faceless bureaucracy that is maddening even to those who are theoretically in positions of power. From the outset there was a failure to programme that there was a duty of care for the people who worked in No 10 or the secretariat or the Taskforce.”

Then this:

“Even the basics were neglected – as a small but demonstrative example it took seven months after the beginning of the pandemic to get a hand sanitiser station by the link door between No 10 and the [Cabinet Office] (a door with a pin pad that anyone who worked for the Prime Minister was constantly having to touch on their way through).”

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Seven months, Ms MacNamara?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Even I was surprised by that when I went back into the record and saw how long it actually took.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s all very well to think of those complicated arrangements, a bit like the royal family, to stop senior officials and politicians becoming infected, but if they’re working between the Cabinet Office and Number 10 and they’re all having to touch a touch pad and there’s no hand sanitiser, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that so many of you got Covid at the same time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It’s not surprising at all, and also it’s indicative of just a lack of care, actually, which I think was damaging in all sorts of ways.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that sort of planning has now been done or systems have been changed so that we could have some confidence that if there was, let’s say, a flu pandemic, just as transmissible if not more so than Covid, perhaps there will be some sanitiser on that touch pad?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I hope so, and I hope that people are better looked after, more importantly.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to move on to another topic, but another matter which concerned you as soon as you came back to work, and that was, you describe in your statement that as soon as you came back really you quickly realised that there were very serious problems with the Cabinet Office team, in part because they told you – members of staff that is – that they were working under great pressure and they were unhappy?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You describe that at least one of the responses to that problem was conducting a review, as we will see, and that was something that you did, I think, in early May of that year, 2020. We’ll look at the documents in a minute, but we will see, I think, that you worked first of all on this with Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary for the Prime Minister – he is of course someone we’re familiar with, he gave evidence earlier this week – also an official called John Owen, who we haven’t seen so much of. Can you tell us what his job was, please?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So John Owen was the principal private secretary to the Cabinet Secretary, so he was a director working in the Cabinet Office, so –

Counsel Inquiry: So he was of – he did a similar job to Mr Reynolds?

Ms Helen MacNamara: He did the job, yeah, but for the – but for the Cabinet. So the Cabinet Secretary has their own private office and John Owen was the director of that during that time.

Counsel Inquiry: Perhaps that leads into the next point, which is that, I mean, we’ve touched on the fact that Number 10 and the Cabinet Office are, as it were, different but the same, but this was a piece of work that you did across both organisations?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I felt it was very important that it was owned by both organisations, because – because of some of the friction, actually, and that also it was much better if it was the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary had together asked for this piece of work, and the reason why I thought it was important to – sort of provide a space where all the people who were very cross and unhappy could tell me exactly how cross and unhappy they were in a way that I could actually do something about it. I think at this time, probably in line with – throughout what I was trying to do was do the things that I could, and one of the things I felt very strongly was that, you know, you can march about saying everything is terrible, you can commentate on the chaos, or that you can try to do something to fix things. And this is one of my attempts to try to do something to fix things. And it was partly giving space for people to be upset and unhappy as well as then trying to tell – get them to tell me how to fix it.

Counsel Inquiry: And they told you in person in the sense that you describe in your statement interviewing –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – 40 or more people over the course of a few days for the purposes of the report?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Were those interviews you conducted on your own or with Mr Owen or …?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think Martin and I did most of them together. There may have been a couple of ones in Number 10 that he did and a couple of ones similarly in the Cabinet Office, and that was just in the interests of time, but Mr Reynolds was also really concerned about what he could see about how people were feeling, so it was something we did together.

Counsel Inquiry: Now, let’s look, first of all, at the report itself, if we may, so that’s at tab 22, and – thank you, it’s on the screen.

I’m not going to go in any detail to this document, Ms MacNamara, because, as we know, it went through various drafts, didn’t it, and I think you actually say in your statement that this final draft, this document we are looking at, your words, may have been “too kind”. And following that train of thought, there’s some other stuff in the drafts which I want to ask you about.

But just looking at this, we see the date, May 2020, and your name and Mr Reynolds’ name. It doesn’t say who it’s addressed to, but do we take it from your earlier answer that it would have been addressed, what, to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary?

Ms Helen MacNamara: And the Cabinet Secretary, to both of them.

Counsel Inquiry: So they would have both had a copy of this?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah. Well, sorry, they were both given a copy of it, as far as I understand.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Ms Helen MacNamara: The Cabinet Secretary certainly had it.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Well, let me – we’ll look back at it – follow on from there: did you discuss the contents of this document with either the Cabinet Secretary or the Prime Minister or both?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I discussed it with the Cabinet Secretary, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: But not with the Prime Minister?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No, and I think it was – I think Martin was going to discuss it with the – we were both working for our principals, if you like, so that wasn’t – there’s nothing particularly to read into that.

Counsel Inquiry: No.

Ms Helen MacNamara: I probably in any case would have had a much more detailed, well, conversation with Mark Sedwill because it was more about the operational management and how we were setting things up. So he – the Prime Minister’s often the customer of the answer, not the creator of the solution, and for – Mark Sedwill would have been much more interested in actually – we would have talked through – in fact what I remember is talking through both what I had heard and then what we were going to do about it as a shared problem.

Counsel Inquiry: All right. Let’s look, if we may, at a draft of this document, which is at tab 29, and it’s INQ000136755.

I should make it clear that they are very broadly the same, are they not, there are just one or two extra lines in some of these drafts which I may ask you about, but people shouldn’t get the idea that there are huge differences between the versions.

I want to focus on the paragraph 2 of this document headed “The culture isn’t getting the best from people”. This is actually a document the Inquiry has seen before, Ms MacNamara, but nonetheless what is included in this paragraph is striking. Your conclusions were that the organisation wasn’t “working as one team between the [Cabinet Office] & No 10”.

Looking a couple of lines down:

“Not sustainable. People are exhausted and stressed. Don’t feel confident or empowered to take decisions (… universal sense of powerlessness …). Trying to do too much so nothing is done well … Views ignored. Bad behaviours from senior leaders tolerated … Too many people behaving as if they have been parachuted in to save the day.”

A couple of further lines down:

“Lots of people mentioned junior women being talked over or ignored.”

Then there is a footnote saying that some of the people who made that observation were themselves people who had been talking over junior women. I think it’s the footnote that didn’t make it into the final –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Is that – did that not make it into the final draft?

Counsel Inquiry: And then also this term:

“We need a modern culture of organised collaboration not [a] superhero bunfight.”

A very similar point was put to Lord O’Donnell. In the context of this crisis, which was now well under way, and the degree of centrality that the Cabinet Office and Number 10 had in trying to address that crisis, to read these conclusions about the state of morale and ways of working within the Cabinet Office is pretty devastating, isn’t it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Well, I think it was pretty devastating. It’s accurate. I also think that it’s important to recognise that the fact that there wasn’t a plan and there wasn’t a system and that therefore everybody was working to try to run to catch up with themselves and also extremely worried and anxious about what was happening, feeling all of these different kinds of responsibility. It would sort of be amazing, given that prior of there was not a plan, that – if it was in fact this perfectly well ordered and organised experience.

I think the other thing I’d like – it’s – not everybody was behaving badly. So it’s very – it was important to highlight the things that were going wrong and the fact that there were some big cultural issues, but there were also loads of people who weren’t doing that. So particularly my criticism of a macho environment doesn’t mean that – or men talking over women doesn’t mean that that was all the men there all the time. And human beings are messy and complicated and this was an extraordinarily pressured and difficult situation and people were working outside of their structures, outside of their competence, they were frightened, and it’s not surprised at all to me that that didn’t bring out the best in some people.

I think that the important thing is, like, how do you make sure that when anybody is in those sorts of situations again there are structures and systems that mitigate against what will happen to human beings in that situation. And I think that’s what we were missing.

Counsel Inquiry: Yeah, and what you were trying to address as a starting point with this report?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Imperfectly, but yes.

Counsel Inquiry: The term “superhero bunfight” I think is another one that didn’t make it into the final report.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Help us, is what you were trying to capture, I think it’s actually maybe Martin Reynolds who came up with that phrase –

Ms Helen MacNamara: It’s John Owen, actually.

Counsel Inquiry: Was it John Owen?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Was this issue – and you’ve sensibly, helpfully made it clear you’re not talking about everyone, but clearly there was a problem. Is this a similar issue to that macho overconfidence that you were describing in January/February or not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: That’s a good question. So I’m sure that it – you don’t take the culture to the extremes from nowhere, I imagine, so I think that that macho confident bravado sort of way of operating undoubtedly made it possible to go from what might be okay in that scenario into something that was really not. Whereas if I think about working for Mrs May, I don’t think there’s any world in which we could have got from January to May and had this sort of culture, because it just wasn’t – it wasn’t there in the DNA of the organisation at that time.

So I do think it is related, and I probably – I mean, unfortunately, really, given this, but I probably out of kindness to John Owen didn’t include his phrase in the final report, because we were trying to also be moderate. But I think it’s a good indication of the strength of feeling and how alien some of this practice was, particularly for us as civil servants, that you don’t normally behave in these ways, and definitely, definitely in the domestic bit of the civil service, this is quite an unusual set of, well, culture to work in.

Counsel Inquiry: There is a passage in your statement where you talk about – no doubt generalising, but talk about two different sorts of civil servants, one being sort of “high ego”, I think are the words you use, people and on the other hand “invisible” people and the system working best if there is a balance of those two types.

But the conclusion perhaps was that the balance had got out of balance during this period?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It had got – but also I think the “parachuted in to save the day” thing was a real problem. We were – there were lots of new people. They all, rightly, felt a sense of mission and purpose and wanted to help, and that is a – that’s a great thing, when things are broken, people who run towards broken things. But it does also – if you get 15 people who all think individually they are going to save the day, that does not a happy organisation or culture make.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Let’s move on and talk about another of the issues which you identify, which is the question of junior women being talked over or ignored. You describe in your statement noticing a marked change on your return in this respect. Perhaps we can just go back to your statement and let’s look at page 50, paragraph 99.

At the beginning of that paragraph, you say:

“From when I [so page 50] got back to the office other women who worked in either No 10 or the Cabinet Office sought me ought to say how pleased they were to see ‘a woman’ at the table again.”

You go on to say that you were surprised by that, because although the Cabinet Office and Number 10 hadn’t been, as it were, historically perfect in these terms, the issue between men and women hadn’t been a matter of comment before, but it was now.

You say:

“Pre-Covid I would not have characterised No 10 or the Cabinet Office as a particularly abnormally sexist environment in the context of Whitehall and Westminster …”

Which are, you say, endemically sexist.

“But …”

And perhaps this is the point:

“… what started as a murmur became a roar over the next couple of weeks. Not only were there numerous examples of women being ignored, excluded and not listened to or talked over it was also clear that the female perspective was being missed in advice and decision making.”

We don’t go to it but in another part of your statement you say that women who had worked in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office for some time reported feeling as if they had become invisible overnight.

Can you just help us explain what seems to have been a very marked change?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So it was – it was striking, and I think the two points are related but different, and I don’t know if it was a consequence of the psychological pressure people were under or – I don’t know what it was, but it was really, really obvious that not only were there hardly any women there, but when they were there they were – you know, they had to turn their screens off so they all – on the Zoom meeting or they were sitting in the back row or – there just weren’t any women talking. Which was unusual. And that probably – well, I don’t know if it’s worse than that, but related to that, women whose job it was to do something were not able to do their jobs properly because they weren’t having the space or being asked the right questions or being treated with the respect that they would do. And it was genuinely – yeah, it was both striking and awful.

And then the fact that there were no women contributing to the policy discussion documents, a problem in itself, because there were some expert women who weren’t being listened to, and also women were being looked over.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. And just last reference on this point, but if we can look at page 52, paragraph 102, please, you describe a little bit more of the experience, you say:

“Women working in No 10 and the Cabinet Office experiencing very obvious sexist treatment.”

You say it was impacting on their work. You say:

“The dominant culture was macho and heroic. Neither are the preserve of men (women can be macho and heroic too) but the culture was problematic because it meant debate and discussion was limited, junior people were talked over and it felt that everything was contaminated by ego. It was positively unhelpful when the country needed thoughtful and reflective decision making.”

So that does sound, that you say again that – that word “macho” again, it’s at least a close relation of the environment, the atmosphere that you were describing from February and March?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And we can see that you expressed your concerns about it at the time, and indeed they were shared by others.

If we can look, please, at tab 17, INQ000286044. If we can look towards the bottom of that page, this is an email, Ms MacNamara, that you sent. I don’t think we have a copy list, but the sense is that it was to a group of women in the Cabinet Office and Number 10. It’s dated 13 April, so a week or so after you got back. Is it right, I’m not going to read through the whole email, but you are drawing attention to some of the very themes that we’ve just been discussing; is that right?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. And the reason I sent this email, and I did blind – I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to find out who I blind copied it to, was partly me just checking that what I was understanding was right. So that’s really why I was doing this, because it was worrying me so much what I’d heard and I wanted to make sure that I was right that this was a big problem, not an individual one.

Counsel Inquiry: If we just briefly look over the page, please, later in this email we can see, the first full paragraph on that page, you say:

“My concern is that at the moment the working environment/culture is too macho and egotistical.”

Those words that we saw in your statement.

“This isn’t going to get the best outcomes …”

And in the paragraph above you make the sort of causative point that there are areas of policy that are suffering, you refer there to domestic abuse and abortion. I’m going to come back to some of those issues in a little while, but perhaps it’s important to make it clear now: you weren’t just – it would have been important anyway to make the point that the treatment was bad, but you felt there were real consequences of that treatment at the time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, in my hierarchy of concerns, the thing I cared the very most about was whether we were putting our best effort into trying to tackle what the country was faced with, and I felt that this particular set of attitudes and behaviours was getting in the way of that, as well as finding it personally not right.

Counsel Inquiry: If we can look back at the first page of this document, please, I think we will see that other people replied – I mean, well, let me ask you, did you get many responses to this email?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think everybody replied, yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And what was the tone of the responses?

Ms Helen MacNamara: That they were glad that I’d raised it and they gave me other good and useful examples and said that they would do what they could to help, broadly speaking.

Counsel Inquiry: And thinking of the chronology, this is mid-April, so this would have been one of the steps that led to the review?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, although I don’t think I would have seen it like that at the time, I just wanted to fix this particular problem that I could see in front of me.

Counsel Inquiry: But on this document we can see that one of the people who responded was Katharine Hammond, a very senior civil servant in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, and she said:

“Sadly I 100% agree this is an issue.”

And she makes some proposals there?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Just moving on, I wanted to ask you about what – apart from seeking people’s views, and we’ve also mentioned the review that you conducted, what further steps were taken to address this problem? You refer in your statement to the fact that just raising the issue helped, but perhaps didn’t change the fundamentals. Did this problem go away or not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So, no, but raising it as an issue and talking about it collectively I think helped people to feel clearer about the fact that it was okay for them individually to raise a concern. And after sending this email and a number of conversations I then spoke to quite a lot of people individually whose behaviour had been highlighted about what had been said and a lot of those people then moderated their behaviour. I mean, I think in that footnote that didn’t make it to the final report that there is sometimes a gap between – these men were in all – they were very serious that they were worried about the sexism and yet they were also sometimes the people who had done the talking – it’s – that’s also sort of a consequence of working under pressure sometimes. But once the issue was highlighted people were – lots of people changed. But that didn’t change the overall – no.

Counsel Inquiry: A perhaps related issue is the availability of counselling for staff, and if we can look, please, at – this is a document at tab 43, INQ000308323. Yes.

We’ve moved forward in the chronology a little bit, we’re now in mid-June, but this is an email you sent to someone called Carol Bernard. First of all, we note that you were there, again, drawing on your experience from the Grenfell fire and no doubt the support you gave to your staff in the aftermath.

But we can see what you’ve said, you talk about people breaking down in tears, and trying to obtain some counselling for them. Was that successful?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Why not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I’m not sure I can answer that question. It’s a profound cause of regret to me that we weren’t able to better support people. And I should just be really clear, I’m not in any way – the hierarchy of people who had more miserable times and awful things happened in their lives, and the people who had to deal with people dying from Covid, were obviously dealing with something much, much worse and more profound, and what I am talking about here is that it is very difficult being in central government in any case in these sorts of situations, never mind when you add all the externalities that these people were dealing with, and I do think it’s a gap not to have psychological support available, and I had been able to provide that in other departments I’d worked in pretty easily, at very low cost to the taxpayer, in a way that was genuinely helpful for all the people working on those things. And I don’t really understand why we couldn’t do that then.

Counsel Inquiry: I do not want to get into the detail of this, Ms MacNamara, but we see one email here where you are trying to obtain some counselling. Did you leave it at that or did you press for it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: No, I pressed a number of times, in a number of different ways.

Counsel Inquiry: Just moving on a little bit, but sticking with this, these issues that were thrown up on your return and the review that you undertook. One way of describing what was shown, although I’m not sure these exact words are in your review, would be that there was a toxic culture in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office at the time. The Inquiry has heard evidence, in fact heard evidence yesterday, of the repeated use of extremely crude language in, for example, WhatsApps sent between members of the Downing Street team.

Was that, do you think, one aspect or perhaps a product of that type of toxic culture that you are reporting on in your review?

Ms Helen MacNamara: There was definitely a toxic culture.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry saw yesterday some particularly crude WhatsApp exchanges between Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson about you –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and about your possible departure from the Cabinet Office. Let me ask you: was Dominic Cummings part of that toxic culture, part of the problem?

Ms Helen MacNamara: If you – I would just – it would be helpful to me to make a couple of comments about those messages.

The first is I think it’s important to understand what was actually happening at the time. So it is undoubtedly true that the Prime Minister had offered me any number of permanent secretary jobs in order to leave the Cabinet Office during that period of time, and I had repeatedly explained that I wasn’t going to participate in another of my colleagues being moved on in order to create a job for me, and so we had been having this exchange for a period of time. The things that Mr Cummings – having seen those messages, it was – you know, it’s not – it’s horrible to read, but it is both surprising and not surprising to me, and I don’t know which is worse, actually. I think that he was frustrated with me at the time. I would absolutely own that. I would also say all I was doing was actually working in the service of the then Prime Minister and defending his interests.

I’m sure lots of this is not for you, but the two things in particular that he was cross about, one was the appointment of David Frost as the National Security Adviser, where the proposal was that Mr Frost, who had left the civil service as a director, be – and then taken on very significant political roles, that he be then reappointed into the civil service as a permanent secretary and put in charge of national security. And for reasons I don’t probably have to go into, I thought that was wrong, so I wouldn’t let that happen, and had in fact come up with a proposal that would fulfil what the Prime Minister wanted, which is that Mr Frost should join the Lords and be a minister, because I felt that was more proper, and have accountability.

Mr Cummings in those messages is also frustrated with me and says that I was sacking special advisers, which I never did, it would never be my role. The particular thing that he looks to be extremely cross about in the August is because we were involved in an employment tribunal where he had in fact dismissed a special adviser and I was insisting on him telling the truth to the employment tribunal, and he didn’t respond well to that.

So, I mean, yes, surprising and not surprising. It wasn’t a pleasant place to work.

Counsel Inquiry: And I think it follows from what you say that those emails that we saw in your view absolutely are, if you like, evidence or a way in which we can gauge the type of toxic culture that you and others were experiencing at the time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It is also revealing of exactly the wrong attitude to the civil service, if I may. That’s – I was doing my job as a civil servant and that … I’m confident about that. And the way in which it was considered appropriate to describe what should happen to me, yes, as a woman, but yes, as a civil servant, it’s disappointing to me that the Prime Minister didn’t pick him up on the use of some of that violent and misogynistic language.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, that was going to be my next question, because Mr Cummings has been asked about the messages that he sent, but of course, it’s the point you make, which is that we have seen that Mr Johnson was a participant in not just that WhatsApp group but plenty of others where this sort of language, that sort of abuse, was used. Drawing on your experience in the Cabinet Office, what is your reaction to what appears to have been his failure to try to stop that sort of language, that sort of attitude prevailing?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It is just miles away from what is right or proper or decent or what the country deserves.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me go on, Ms MacNamara.

We were talking about the solutions that were thought of to try to move on and improve the culture at Number 10 and Downing Street, and you explain in your witness statement, I’m not going to go to the paragraph, but you explain that at least part of the solution to those problems was to encourage people working in Number 10 and Downing Street to spend more time together so that they had a chance to develop, as it were, better relationships in that no doubt stressful environment.

In fact you emailed Martin Reynolds to that effect, and at tab 27 of the bundle, INQ000136760, we see this email. In fact, so it’s the sort of lower half of the page, we can see, can’t we, that this is in fact part of the drafting process of that note that we – the review document?

If we can look at the passage starting “I’ve suggested 2 messages”, the paragraph, picking it up two or three lines down, you say:

“We also agreed that we would find ways for the senior team to get together on a social basis. Provided it is within the guidance!”

Then, as it happens, you go on and mention your concern that guidance on safer workplaces isn’t being kept to, and we’ve talked about that already.

But is this a suggestion – this suggestion that the senior team get together on a social basis, is that part of this idea of trying to improve the culture at Number 10?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Absolutely. I mean, people didn’t – had never met each other, so you had a whole load of people, you know, a lot of whom were really brilliantly useful, who had been brought in to Number 10 as experts and specialists on various things, who were working with people they had never met, and I was particularly concerned that lots of these people sort of had no idea of the sort of trip wires in the organisation that they were working in, and I was confident that if we could just get people to talk to each other, that they might in fact be able to work better together. That has been the case everywhere that I have worked. And it was definitely true at this period of time that that was something I was very concerned about, people didn’t know each other’s names.

Counsel Inquiry: You add, of course, the important further thought that any such meeting should be within the guidance.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Of course.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to move and look at a different document from very much the same time, which is at tab 24 of the bundle. It’s another one of these documents relating to the drafting process of your review. It’s actually an email. Yes, we have it on screen, INQ000136754.

Towards the bottom of the page, we can see, this is a message from John Owen, so you were saying he was Mark Sedwill’s private secretary and the third person who contributed to the review. He is pleased with the draft, he says it’s cheered him up no end to read, and he has put some comments in red.

If we can move on to page 4 in the document, please, we can see under number 7 one of his sets of comments.

Now, the subject matter of these comments is not really why I’ve taken you here, but what you are discussing is the question of whether, as part of this review, people should be encouraged to work from home or not. In fact, this was another sort of theme of the draft review which didn’t make it into the final version, perhaps because the three of you couldn’t quite decide what you as a combination thought about it. There were arguments both ways, were there not?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: One of the points Mr Owen was making, and we can see he’s disagreeing with the idea that people should be encouraged to come into the office more, he says:

“I fundamentally disagree with this. When we are telling the country to socially distanced it shows utter contempt to the electorate to openly flout those rules.”

Now, as I’ve said, there were arguments both ways and we see in the documents a discussion about whether in fact, because of the ways of working in Number 10, it was important to be there. But that sentiment, that it was important for those working at the centre to take a lead and to provide an example to the rest of the country, I imagine is one that you agree with?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I agree that we should have been following the rules. Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: Just thinking about both of those, then, the earlier email about trying to encourage more meeting and this point, what is your reflection, Ms MacNamara, on the fact that, as it very well known, there were a series of parties that took place in the Cabinet Office and in Downing Street in the weeks and months that followed these emails, including one on 18 June that you attended?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So they should never have happened, is the first thing that I would say, unambiguously, and I’ve set out in my statement a lot more of my thinking and explaining why I did what I did at the time. Explaining is not the same as excusing. And I think that, you know, it is both incredibly depressing and actually helpful that people understand a little bit more now about what it was like to work in that organisation during this period of time, because there’s a lot about the handling of when those – the allegations of parties came up that I profoundly disagree with and, firstly and most importantly, lying about it. I don’t understand at all why it wasn’t acknowledged that, on a number of occasions, I’m sure, that Downing Street and the Cabinet Office sometimes didn’t follow the regulations.

You will see throughout any number of emails between us all, this endless conversation about: is it okay that so many people are in the office? What are we doing to try and limit the number of people in a meeting room? And some of the reasons I think why people thought they had to be at work so often, and definitely why I thought I had to be at work so often, is because it was my only mechanism of keeping any sort of control over what was happening. So – but we collectively got all of that really, really wrong. I would absolutely acknowledge that.

The thing that I think has been particularly unfair about what has happened is its allowed for a portrayal of a lot of people who worked really hard and did amazing work to be presented as something that, in my experience, they weren’t.

Now, I find it hard to talk about this because I didn’t – I wasn’t there. You know, I’m – I don’t know how old I was at the time but I definitely wasn’t partying in Number 10, I was either at work or at home. And I think that acknowledging what had happened, acknowledging that some of it was a symptom of the situation, being honest about the fact that actually I would find it hard to pick a one day when the regulations were followed properly inside that building – and I know that because, as I’ve said in my statement, there was one meeting where we absolutely adhered to the guidance to the letter, and that was the Cabinet meeting, and everybody moaned about it. Moaned and tried to change it repeatedly. So I know how exceptional it was to really, really, really properly follow the guidance.

And I think that in retrospect, obviously, all sorts of things were wrong. I think that – I really hope that in addition to the investigation that was done into a specific subset of events, where I would also say I think “events” is one of those – “parties” is one of those irregular verbs, so my glass of wine in the office with colleagues at the end of a difficult day is – your “event” in the Cabinet Room is their “party”, and I’m not sure how a junior civil servant working in Number 10 is supposed to be able to know the difference of where those lines are drawn.

And I think that – I really hope that there was also an additional piece of work done which is to look at the entirety of what happened in organisational cultures across Whitehall during that period of time, and to try to understand why, and then how can we make sure that doesn’t happen again, because I think – those are the civil service questions: why did this happen? Why did this collective group of people decide to do things that are so clearly in the wrong place? And then how do we make sure that that doesn’t happen again?

And, like I say, I hope that piece of work has happened, because I think it’s really important, because – and I will – this is the last thing I will say about this, but when the police drew the line at what was acceptable or not acceptable as the, I think it’s called a birthday gathering, I’m not sure, in the Cabinet Room, when they said that was the wrong side of the line, I am certain that there are hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers who in retrospect think they were the wrong side of that line. And I really hope there has been some mature conversation about that, because that sort of thing, if it’s not addressed, is corrosive actually in a culture. And I hope that endless lessons are learned about this period of time, but some of them are about cultures and ways of working and supporting people and providing better infrastructure so mistakes aren’t made. And when mistakes are made, owning them and saying sorry.

Counsel Inquiry: Ms MacNamara, I want to take you back to one of the things you said, which is that you weren’t there at the parties.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Acknowledging the point you made about what we call those events –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – but you were there at one of them, weren’t you?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, absolutely. I mean, absolutely I was in the office. And I didn’t think at the time – and this is again my own thinking and my own profound regret, and my profound regret is for the damage that’s been caused to so many people because of it as well as just the mortifying experience of seeing what that looks like and how rightly offended everybody is in retrospect. I mean, I have gone into some detail on this in my statement. I absolutely knew and thought it was actually important for there to be space for particularly the private office to be able to gather together and spend time together, and that was entirely because of the kind of culture that they were working in, and entirely because I was really worried about individuals breaking and suffering and whether they were going to be okay, and how important their colleagues were to each other.

And I just want to say again I’m saying none of that in excuse of my own misjudgement, and I’m saying none of that in excuse of thinking any of these things were okay, but it was a much more complex situation than has allowed to be presented for lots of different reasons, about – and I think it’s mainly I feel very strongly that it’s unfair on the junior civil servants who are caught up in it.

Counsel Inquiry: Complex, but still those events shouldn’t have happened, should they?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Not – no, of course not.

Counsel Inquiry: You describe an institutional failure, really, but you were at the very apex of that institution –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and so, to the extent that there was an institutional failure, that was to a degree your failure?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. I don’t – I think describing myself as the apex of that institution is probably overstating my role at the time, but I definitely, as a senior leader working there then, of course I do, and of course I own all of the other things that I wish now in retrospect I had done more on. You can’t possibly go through this experience at the time and the time I’ve had to think about it afterwards without thinking I wish I’d done a lot of things differently.

Counsel Inquiry: Ms MacNamara, let me move on to, if you like, a constitutional issue, which takes us back to one of the issues we noted at the very start of my questions. You will recall that in that paragraph of your statement where you were summarising the preparedness or otherwise of the British Government, state, for Covid, you referred to some unhealthy habits which the system had acquired during the year or two before, and one of those that we touched on was this habit of bypassing ministers in decision-making. I won’t take you to it, but you refer to the practice that developed during the Brexit discussions about ministers being put into reading rooms before Cabinet so that they could see documents that they were about to be asked to endorse. Is that the type of situation that you’re describing?

Ms Helen MacNamara: It is. It’s both the – I mean, it’s not uncommon, and I’ve worked with lots of different Number 10s, it’s not uncommon for Number 10 to not be wild enthusiasts for Cabinet government and collective agreement, so that’s in general a point. It is definitely true that through the Brexit time I do think Whitehall got bent out of shape in terms of Cabinet government and ministers being treated properly and ministers being able to take decisions. I am pretty hard over as a civil servant, I think, on the importance of collective agreement and Cabinet and ministers taking decisions.

Counsel Inquiry: You haven’t referred to leaking. We heard from Mr Cain yesterday, we saw some WhatsApp exchanges where there was a pretty robust discussion between Mr Cain and Mr Johnson, I think it was, about leaking from within the Cabinet, names were named of people they thought were leaking material. From your experience, was this part of the explanation for why there was this desire on the part of the core decision-makers, the Prime Minister and his team, to, to use a word, marginalise Cabinet ministers?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So it’s definitely an explanation, I don’t think it’s an excuse, would be my view. Although I do – would absolutely agree with them on the damage that leaking caused in terms of the quality of decisions that then are taken, because you are rushing at a gate in terms of getting a decision out. And I say that, I think it’s very important that there is good reporting of what government is doing, so it’s not a kind of attempt to shut down journalists reporting things, but it is really, really corrosive when somebody decides to leak something ill-formed and then everybody has to rush about trying to come up with what the real answer ought to be in hours rather than days.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me just now focus in on the Covid period and what you say about this in your statement. So if we can go to page 64 of your statement, paragraph 129, you say here:

“At the time I was concerned about what I saw as a circumnavigating of Cabinet governance and became increasingly worried about the Cabinet themselves not being given the full scientific picture or able to properly be part of accountable decision making.”

You go on to say that there was an asymmetry, and we will recall that one of your roles was briefing the shadow Cabinet:

“… there was an asymmetry in that at one point the Shadow Cabinet were getting more opportunity to ask questions of the CMO [Chris Whitty] and CSA [Patrick Vallance] than Cabinet Ministers who were actually in the Government.”

Is this the summary of that concern that you’ve just been describing?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: If we look just at a couple of documents to see perhaps in practice what was going on, first of all, if we look at tab 52, and it’s a WhatsApp exchange, INQ000236371 – thank you. Have you got that, Ms MacNamara?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah, thank you.

Counsel Inquiry: This is an exchange between a group including Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings and, as we will see, Martin Reynolds from February 2020, so it’s fairly early in the period, but we see Dominic Cummings saying there:

“Lots of signs that containment has failed and we shd now expect a proper pandemic.”

And needing to have an update for the PM.

If we go over the page, we see Martin Reynolds saying:

“We have scheduled a ministerial meeting on Heathrow for first thing so …”

Can’t have a meeting tomorrow:

“… but will look to fix later …”

Then he says: well, perhaps we could cover it at Cabinet or at the – that’s the National Security Council.

Then if we skip down a couple of entries, later that morning we see Martin Reynolds, who perhaps by that stage has spoken to the Cabinet Secretary, saying:

“Mark S [one assumes that’s Mark Sedwill] says he would prefer to do it at Cabinet so let’s fix that again …”

And he makes the point that Cabinet would be “better since [it] includes [a] wider cast list including health”, and so on.

We see Dominic Cummings’ response:

“No. Cabinet leaks and if there’s bad news it will leak straight out via some fool.

“That’s a [very] bad idea.”

So it’s a vignette, it’s a WhatsApp exchange, but do we see there in practice the problem that you’re describing, which is that the opportunity to discuss a serious development, to understand the science, to have input from that wide variety of sources that Cabinet provides is being vetoed, in this case by Dominic Cummings, on his view because Cabinet leaks and “we can’t” – it’s not a suitable body to have these discussions?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. I mean, it’s undoubtedly the case that that did mean Cabinet probably didn’t get the briefing it ought to have done and it’s also the case that things leaked from Cabinet just almost immediately.

Counsel Inquiry: If we just look at another document – this is tab 39, INQ000308305 – this is a rather different situation, but perhaps the same basic point. It’s an email you sent about the – we’ve talked about the action plan in March. This is the roadmap, the plan for coming out of lockdown in May of 2020, and you are sending an email to Martin Reynolds, having had a first look at a draft.

You’ve got various criticisms of it, but in the –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – first paragraph, one of the points you make, looking at the second line down:

“On a fundamental level I don’t see how this can be the recovery strategy without any debate or advice about the policy or choices contained within it and without it being shared with Government Ministers.”

I think in your statement you say that it simply wasn’t shared amongst the Cabinet in the course of drafting it. Is that another example of this problem that you’re describing?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and it’s worth – just in case this comes across as a kind of processed nurdling, it’s worth explaining why I was so bothered by it. One of the things that I think happened during the pandemic overall was that it became incredibly sort of – and I’m not a car mechanic, so I don’t know if it’s short-circuited or hot-wired or whatever it was – the ability for somebody to write something and then it to become a published document from the government was just so quick. So there’s two problems with that: firstly, that you don’t get – government’s a serious business and the boring work of going through all of the things that are on the one hand and on the other hand is important because it produces better outcomes when something is actually going to happen in real life.

And also as important, if not more importantly, the accountable people for the decisions of this government are people who’ve been elected and I do appreciate it can feel a bit tedious to have to get them to agree but it’s not a get them to agree and tick it through, it’s that they are accountable and they should be making the decisions on behalf of all of us who elect them. That’s not a bit of processology, it’s a really fundamental point to the way that our country is governed; so it matters.

Counsel Inquiry: So that’s, if you like, a constitutional imperative?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You’ve also mentioned that the process of Cabinet government brings just a qualitative difference. It makes for a better decision. If we can just look, please, at page 54 of your statement, paragraph 107, I think this is the point you’re driving at here, towards the bottom of that paragraph, and perhaps this is coming back to that point about breadth of experience and the real world experience that we were discussing in context with football matches.

But picking it up about eight lines from the bottom, if we can, you see there’s a sentence in the middle of that line that says “whatever”. So:

“Whatever the personal experience of those in the room (and it was a pretty privileged set of people by any standard) there should have been a way of advising on implications for the whole population in the way that more normal Civil Service work would have allowed for.”

And then this:

“The full Cabinet were better at bringing this wider perspective – they were a bit more grounded in consequences that were not as obvious and the complexities of the world as it is. The Cabinet were not asked their opinion very often and not on decisions in flight that I can recall.”

So is that, if you like, the point about the quality of decision-making that is lost if the Cabinet are bypassed?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think so, and it’s also a point about the narrowed perspective which I think is a – I presume we’ll come on to that.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, we will certainly come to that.

I think at a different part of your statement is it fair to say that you had a similar reflection about the Covid-O group being a rather narrow group and suffering from a similar problem?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and I happen to think that more elected people involved in decision-making is better.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s move on, if we may, to a rather different but still constitutionally flavoured issue. For these purposes, I’d like to look at a paper that you were involved in drafting. It was dated 22 May. It’s tab 30 and it’s INQ000183934.

Now, this is a document – the reason for going to this document, Ms MacNamara, is because of the proposals that you make about relations with the devolved administrations. There’s obviously other points in this document, but that’s why I’m asking you to look at it.

That is the front page with the Prime Minister’s comments on the paper, which I’m not going to go to, but – so if we can go to the next page, please, we see the beginning of the note as it is and, without looking at it, we can remind ourselves that this was in fact a document drafted by you and Simon Case – is that right – I think before he became Cabinet Secretary.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. This is when Simon has just been appointed as the permanent secretary of the Covid Taskforce, or what would be then the Covid Taskforce.

Counsel Inquiry: In summary, is this fair, that this is a document which is – it is part of the process by which the arrangements within Number 10 and Downing Street were rearranged and, in particular, the MIGs were put to one side and replaced by Covid-O and Covid-S?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and also an attempt to, again, kind of restart government as normal, I think, which is why there’s so many other Cabinet committees also mentioned.

Counsel Inquiry: As I say, the particular focus for present purposes is on the question of how the devolved administrations were to be bound in to this new process, and we can see in the summary of the document in that bold passage at paragraph 1, two or three lines up from the bottom, there is a proposal that:

“… we use the usual Joint Ministerial Committee mechanisms to manage the DAs.”

Just note that word “manage” and we’ll come back to it.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Because there is, as one would expect, a further paragraph in the body of the document which gives us more detail on this issue and that’s paragraph 6 on the next page. We can see that you make the point that so far the devolved administrations have been involved, first of all, by attending COBR and, secondly, by being represented on the MIGs. You say:

“There needs to be a mechanism to discuss and agree on a four-nation approach. In keeping with a move back to normal structures, you could convene a Joint Ministerial Committee … when needed instead. COBR would stop meeting on Covid, unless we re-entered a crisis situation.”

Then you talk about city mayors. Then in bold:

“Do you agree to use the JMC to manage conversations with the DAs? And only use COBR if we re-enter a crisis situation?”

And I think Mr Johnson made it clear he agreed with this proposal?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: What did you have in mind when you said that joint ministerial committees could be convened in the normal way? Was this something that was going to happen weekly, monthly?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I think that you’re right to – you know, “manage” is an uncomfortable word to see in the summary and “manage conversations” in the actual draft is a better way of putting it.

So I wasn’t closely involved at this point in how conversations with the devolved administrations were going. I know that there were – I had had conversations with the CDLs team – sorry, that’s the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – about this note and about the proposal within it and particularly the things that he was going to be asked to do, and my understanding at that point was that it was important that there were some sort of formal structures whereby these conversations could carry on if we were closing down COBR – not closing down COBR but, for these purposes, not having devolved administrations involved in the replacement Cabinet committees because that would be odd because, you know, it’s not the way that Cabinet committees work – then it was very important to have a mechanism for those conversations to continue in the normal way of things.

So I’m more familiar, to be honest, with the way that the JMC ran in the coalition then at this point of time. I wasn’t really involved in anything to do with managing relationships. But that would have been my expectation and that would have been – my assumption would be that would be for the CDL to do mostly but not only the CDL, I’d also have been expecting that the Prime Minister and the First Ministers would also find ways to speak to each other.

Counsel Inquiry: What we know, again in summary, is that first of all there were never any JMCs at least that –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Of course.

Counsel Inquiry: – had as their purpose dealing with Covid arrangements.

Secondly, there were regular calls between Michael Gove and the devolved leaders, but that during that period the leaders of the devolved administrations repeatedly said that that wasn’t adequate, that they were essentially just being – these calls were just being used to tell them what was happening rather than as a means of, to use your phrase, using a four nations approach to discuss what should happen, they repeatedly called for JMCs which never transpired.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Okay.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me ask you about a passage from Mr Johnson’s witness statement. If we can call it up, it’s tab 35 in your bundle, page 45, 188. It’s document INQ000255836.

This is a passage in his statement which has been the subject of some consideration at the Inquiry, but this is a response by Mr Johnson to the suggestion that there should have been JMCs during the pandemic. He says:

“It is optically wrong, in the first place, for the UK Prime Minister to hold regular meetings with other DA First Ministers, as though the UK were a kind of mini EU of four nations and we were meeting as a ‘council’ in a federal structure. That is not, in my view, how devolution is meant to work.”

Do you see any tension between your proposal in the document that we were looking at, your expectation and that statement by Mr Johnson?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Can you expand on that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I don’t think I was aware in making that proposal, and I’m saying this hesitantly because I just don’t have much memory about why this was here. It would have been a standard “if you’re not going to engage with the devolved administrations in this way, then you must engage with them in that way” and I probably wasn’t thinking about it in a more sophisticated way than that.

This is obviously entirely different. I did know that was Mr Johnson’s view towards the governing structures of the United Kingdom, and I also knew that the personal – the kind of personal politics between him and the First Minister in Scotland in the way that it was played back to me – I never saw it first-hand – was such that that had been a thing that people talked about as being difficult in the first phase. So I suspect that this was a way of trying to go back into a more normal pattern.

I don’t think it would have occurred to me that there wasn’t going to be any JMCs after that.

Counsel Inquiry: Whatever you call the meetings, were you expecting a substantive process of discussion and consultation to take place across the four nations looking forward?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I was expecting close working is probably the better way of putting it. That would have been my expectation, as a continuation of close working, which is not only at ministerial level. So I know that the respective CMOs of the four nations also met regularly and I would have been expecting those sorts of – the kind of close working while respecting the devolution settlements to continue.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, thank you. We can take that down.

I want to move on to just another short topic and that is about the Health Secretary, Mr Hancock. Would it be fair to say that he was one of those people who you worked with fairly closely during the period of the pandemic?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I will have seen him in the formal meetings, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: But regularly?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Oh, very regularly, yes, but as part of the kind of – as a member of the Cabinet or as a member of the committees, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You worked in the Cabinet Office?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: He worked in the Department of Health?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So there was clearly some distance there but, equally, he was very involved in the response to the pandemic and you saw him in meetings?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be – I probably was in a meeting with him once a day at various points, yes, you’re absolutely right.

Counsel Inquiry: All right. I want to take you to two or three passages in your witness statement. First of all, page 20, please. It’s that paragraph at the top. We went to it earlier this morning. Just to remind ourselves, you explained that one of the reasons that you were confident that the plans for the pandemic existed was simply because Mr Hancock time and time again, in your words, and as you’ve explained this morning, without any ambiguity, assured the Cabinet that they were there. Would it be fair to say that you were surprised, let down, when you realised that what he had said wasn’t actually true?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Erm … I was surprised. Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me ask you about another passage, just going forward a few pages to page 58. At the very bottom of that page, paragraph 117, you say that through April it became obvious that the confidence Number 10 had in the machinery in the Cabinet Office was in sharp decline:

“There were also increasing questions about the performance of DHSC and the Health Secretary where the issue was a lack of confidence that what he said was happening was actually happening.”

You say that the two were related, and then this:

“The usual systems of governance in Whitehall rely on people being truthful.”

The sense of this part of your statement seems to be that people working in government at the time didn’t trust Mr Hancock, they didn’t believe that what he was telling them was true. Is that a view that you held?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So, it’s definitely the view in government. It is – I think it’s fair to say it was what we experienced, so that what was said in a meeting as actually being under control or going to be delivered or something that was fine, that then subsequently a matter of days sometimes, or sometimes weeks later, we’d discover that that wasn’t in fact the case.

So I think it’s quite hard to say, you know, absolutely it wasn’t the situation where, you know – I don’t recall, anyway, a situation where it was black was white, but definitely a pattern of being reassured that something was absolutely fine and then discovering it was very, very far from fine, and that that again is sort of unusual in a Cabinet. Inside Whitehall in a Cabinet committee or Cabinet government situation, you don’t usually get that. You don’t usually get everything’s okay and then two weeks later not only is it not okay, it wasn’t even there.

That’s very – that’s very, very unusual, in my experience. And so this is my point, that not only was that a problem, but why wasn’t the Department of Health – why wasn’t anybody who was able to say “actually it’s not quite like that”, my experience is that we didn’t get those signals through from the department, we didn’t get a sense that actually what we were being told might not be right, and then that also then led to, I would have thought reasonably, a concern that the processes and structures that we’d put in place in order to create any accountability were in fact not really working because things turned out not to be the case very quickly afterwards.

Counsel Inquiry: So, yes, there was an issue with processes, structures, the Department of Health, but does it come back to the fact that Mr Hancock regularly was telling people things that they later discovered weren’t true?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: One more passage on this, Ms MacNamara, and that’s page 39 of your statement. It relates back to that period, that very tense and difficult period just after you came back to work in April and, in fact, you can see at the beginning of that paragraph you say it was a fragile time.

In this paragraph you describe being indeed, as you say, the eerily empty Number 10, partly perhaps because everyone was off with Covid, but Mr Hancock had recovered and was back. You say you were pleased to see him recovered, and you talked about your respective experiences, and then you say you remember trying to reassure him that he didn’t need to be in the office, especially not in Number 10, and saying that it must be very hard. As Health Secretary, he could not have imagined the enormity of the decisions he would be involved in when he was appointed and given, as you say, that it was a long way from the day job, you wanted to know if there was any more help or support he needed.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Then you have included in your statement this account, and also his response, which is:

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

This is an intriguing exchange that you’ve chosen to include in your statement. Are you trying to tell us something about your assessment of Mr Hancock’s character or the way he was doing his job?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I’m trying to explain just how jarring some of that was and how different places, lots of us who were all theoretically in the same place that we were, and it does partly go back to my point about kind of nuclear levels of confidence that were being deployed, which I do think is a problem, and it really stuck with me, this moment, and I thought – I have tried throughout this statement to be – give you the most honest and best account I can of what it was like to be there, because I think that’s the best service that I can do in terms of you being able to come to some conclusions.

So it was important to me at the time, so I felt it was important to include in this way. But it’s more a point about confidence than anything else.

Counsel Inquiry: Confidence or, in fact, overconfidence?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think overconfidence, yes, is completely – I mean, yes, overconfidence. And going back to my humanity point, I think that this failure to appreciate all the time that what we were doing was making decisions that were going to impact on everybody’s lives, and that meant lots of real people with real consequences, and I don’t think there was ever enough attention paid to that.

Counsel Inquiry: You were trying to engage with Mr Hancock about the incredibly onerous scope and impact of the decisions he was going to have to be making, the impact on the lives of everyone in the country of those decisions, and he thought he was playing cricket?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Well, I assumed it would be weighing heavy on his shoulders. I mean, he may well tell you that it was and he felt it was important to project something else instead, I don’t – I don’t know, I just know how I experienced that.

Lady Hallett: Mr O’Connor, are we going to finish with Ms MacNamara before lunch?

Mr O’Connor: No, we’re not, my Lady, I have another half an hour.

Lady Hallett: In which case it’s been a long morning for you. I think we will break for lunch now, and I’m sure the stenographer would also be grateful for a break. 1.55, please.

(12.54 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.55 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr O’Connor.

Mr O’Connor: I’m grateful, my Lady.

Ms MacNamara, I want to turn now and ask you a series of questions about what you describe in your witness statement as narrowed perspectives on the part of decision-makers, and it’s something we’ve touched on during the morning, the consequence of some of the behaviours and narrowed understanding, lack of real life experience, that you observed on the part of those in Downing Street.

You will recall that we looked at that paragraph of your statement where you brought together those themes which you thought were represented in the issue about prison releases, and one of the themes that you referred to there was a general lack of knowledge or understanding on the part of decision-makers of how large parts of the state operate.

With that in mind, I’d like to ask you some questions about understanding of the NHS on the part of Boris Johnson, his ministers, and so on, the NHS, which of course was of such central importance to the pandemic, as we’ve heard, the lockdown was caused by an understanding that there was a need to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

So with that in mind, could we look, please, at page 39 of your witness statement, it’s paragraph 71. The context is you’re discussing challenges and debates within the Cabinet Office about the NHS and so on, but I want to pick it up about five or six lines from the bottom. Do you see it says:

“I do not remember anyone working in the centre or who was part of the conversations who had a detailed understanding of the way the NHS operated. This is not unusual or unique to that time. Social policy and the ‘operational’ management of the state is always under-represented in the centre of power whereas HM Treasury, foreign policy and national security are overrepresented …”

Just going back to the first sentence, you say you don’t remember anyone working in the centre or who was part of those conversations who had a detailed understanding of the way the NHS operated.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Given all we’ve heard about the importance of the NHS, and not just in terms of caring for people but the detail, whether it was going to be overwhelmed or not, that’s a very striking statement?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. It is – was an observation at the time and is striking in retrospect as well. I think it probably goes to what needs to be different in the future is that it oughtn’t to be possible to kind of start from that primary level of ignorance. It causes problems and it was something we felt very strongly at the time, that just actually having people who were literate in the NHS would have been more useful.

Counsel Inquiry: No doubt there were attempts to educate the Prime Minister, his advisers, his ministers in the way the NHS worked, and we’ve seen, for example, Simon Stevens came to meetings, of course Chris Whitty, but was that a sticking plaster that did the job or do you think there was still a deficit that actually led to imperfections in policy decisions?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think if you were starting again you might think quite differently about what is the skills and expertise and knowledge that ought to be available immediately for a Prime Minister to help support them on the business of the day, whatever it is. Say, for example, there has been a military attaché in the Prime Minister’s private office for a very long time, there are very good reasons, because when the Prime Minister is taking decisions which relate to the deployment of the military, then having somebody who can sit right by the side of the Prime Minister and translate and explain and bridge that gap is very important and useful.

I’m not – it’s not my place and I wouldn’t be suggesting there need to be a series of attachés, all I’m saying is that I think this is an endemic problem, that having more actual operational and detailed experience of important things for our country, it would be better if the Prime Minister could have those in-house as well as, yes, absolutely always should be relying the Chief Medical Officer and the Secretary of State for Health. Because what, in my view, you don’t want Number 10 or the Cabinet Office ever to be is a sort of mini-replication of the entirety of Whitehall. Good government works when everybody is doing their jobs well and the centre is doing its job well and trying to recreate everything in the centre of Whitehall, as I think, probably, this experience shows in a pretty gruesome way does not work.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me shift focus just a little bit, still on narrowed perspectives but now on that type of narrowed perspectives where there is a failure properly to consider certain groups within society. And before turning to specifics let me take you to one general observation you make, it’s at page 53 of your statement at the bottom, paragraph 106, and you say this:

“I remember at the time feeling as if while there was undoubtedly sympathy [and I think you’re talking about sympathy amongst the decision-makers] for the differential impacts on women, poorer people and how Covid was disproportionately harming Black and Asian communities, when it was raised it was treated as if these were naturally occurring phenomena rather than the consequences of deliberate choices (albeit often historic). [You] do not think the impacts on women and children were properly appreciated even much later in the process.”

It’s that term “naturally occurring phenomenon” that stands out. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So what I mean is I think there wasn’t a sufficient understanding that government, in the way that it was making designations at that time, was either compounding or correcting inequality. And I don’t think there was enough understanding of the impact of what the government does or how our country works in the day to day, and then enough of a questioning look at whether the decisions and actions of the government were making that worse or – worse or better. And, I mean, that might not have been the way that other people would phrase it, but I would, that we weren’t – there wasn’t enough mindfulness about trying to address inequality, as opposed to sort of compounding it without really noticing.

Counsel Inquiry: So perhaps there was not an understanding that what the government – the choices the government made, just as in the same way as historic choices that earlier governments had made was actually driving this change?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Now, we spoke earlier about the reports you did, the evidence you took, if you like, about the overtalking of women in the Cabinet Office, the fact they weren’t present at meetings and so on, and I said we would come back to the causation issue, if you like, of what effect you thought that was actually having, quite apart from on policies, quite apart from the effect it was having on those concerned.

Perhaps we can look, please, at paragraph 103 of your statement, on page 52.

In this paragraph, you detail a series of policy areas which you think were affected. You say:

“In terms of the policy response that the exclusion of a female perspective led to significant negative consequences, including the lack of thought given to childcare in the context of school closures … a serious lack of thinking about domestic abuse and the vulnerable, about carers and informal networks for how people look after each other in families and communities.”

You also say insufficient thinking about single parents alongside a disproportionate thinking about shooting and football. And you also mention a lack of guidance for women who might be pregnant and so on.

So at the moment dealing with those things sort of cumulatively, can you tell us a little bit more about your concerns at the time?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I could see that not only was it that decisions were being made that didn’t think about these impacts, that the kind of – the sort of absence from the room was even more problematic, that I didn’t actually believe that decision-makers were wilfully and deliberately deciding to cause harm to particular groups, but that it wasn’t even considered was a real – a real problem.

And I should say – I mean, I’ve talked a lot about women in this statement, but the issue of ethnicity and the divergent impact of Covid on different communities was something that we were really concerned about at the time as well.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, let’s just come to that now, because – so if we can look, please, at tab 53 of the bundle, and it’s document INQ000286042, what we can see is this is another response, isn’t it, to that email we looked at earlier about women at the centre? I think we saw Katharine Hammond’s response before lunch, but this is a different one, from another civil servant called Alexandra Burns, and in the first paragraph she addresses your email about impacts on women and so on, but then she goes on, and we’ll note that this is still just 13 April, to say:

“Separately, I feel like there is an issue bubbling on another equality dimension – race. Lots of discussion starting publicly about the fact it seems to be hitting ethnic minorities harder.”

She doesn’t know whether it’s true or not, although she clearly thinks it may well be, she can understand the problem. But then she says:

“… do you know if there is any work looking at this at all at the moment?”

Tell us, is that something that you took forward or that you were aware that others took forward?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So this is a not uncommon moment when another of the private secretaries in Number 10 is really identifying a problem and highlighting it. Quite helpfully, I think she was the first person to really start to worry and raise this as an issue.

From what I recall, she and I then spoke about it. She explained a bit more what she was worried about and I think – but I’d have to check the record again – I think we started with the data and trying to get a better understanding of the data and then trying to – in lots of ways that was the way in which to try to highlight a problem or an issue at the – at the time. But it’s another good example of her – her doing that.

Counsel Inquiry: Again, it wouldn’t have been your role personally to have investigated these matters, but to have –

Ms Helen MacNamara: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – made sure that other people were?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. So quite often I think, as you will see through the record, what I’m doing is hearing about something, someone’s raising an issue with me, and then I am working out where to put it and how to make sure that we are, as always, trying to do our best efforts and think in the biggest way possible. So that’s probably how I try to work in general and it’s definitely – given very little of this was actually under my kind of operational management, it was one of the things that I thought was how I could contribute the most at the time.

Counsel Inquiry: Switching back, if we may, because we were talking about issues about women –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and those lists of issues that were, you felt, being overlooked, this is again something that you sent emails about, took action about at the time.

So if we could go, please, to tab 37 of the bundle, and it’s INQ000308302, an email you sent ten days or so after the email we were just looking at, towards the end of April, and you say that:

“[You] think that we should make a list of all the things that have happened because of lack of gender diversity in decision makers. It isn’t enough that we keep observing this phenomenon … doesn’t matter if the political team haven’t asked or don’t seem interested. As Civil Servants we have a responsibility to find a way of building this input in so that the country gets the best outcome. That isn’t optional.”

And so on, and then you start by making a list of issues which mirrors some of the points that are in your witness statement: confusion about access to abortion, guidance on pregnancy, and, the second one, not making provision for victims of domestic abuse.

So do we see here you trying to start a process of bringing these issues more to light?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think – so this is an email to Kata Escott, as she said, so just to – she is another great example of people who run towards a problem. So she is actually a former – she had been the principal private secretary to the previous Cabinet Secretary and she is one of the people who stepped up and volunteered to help. So this is a person I know quite well, which is probably why the tone of the email is quite brusque, I think. I certainly wasn’t criticising her. I think what has – I mean, far from it.

I think what has happened here is that she and I have had a conversation, we’ve thought that raising things was enough, and then now I’m thinking that, from what she’s just said to me, it’s not enough and so we think about what do we do now. And this – this whole time, as is pretty normal in the civil service, you try something and then it doesn’t work so you try something else and you try something else, and I think that’s what she and I are trying to do here.

And then she, who at the time was working in the team who were providing the advice on Covid, was making sure from her perspective, as far as she could, that these considerations were baked into the advice and thinking.

Counsel Inquiry: And the theme of this email is, as you say, it’s not enough just to notice these problems, or even to talk about them, we’ve got to do something about them; was further action taken going forward on these issues, either by you or by others?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So by her, yes, and I’m pretty sure the record will show that in terms of what then started to feature in the advice that came from the taskforce.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

One of the issues we see listed there, which you have referred to more than once in your statement, is the question of domestic abuse and I think in another email you said that you thought it was very likely that people had died because not enough had been done to think about how to address the problems that that group faced.

I’m not going to take you to it, but do you recall that?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I do recall that, I think that was me reacting to a Cabinet minute where the – I think the Prime Minister said that no one had been harmed or it was something like that, and I felt that wasn’t – that the Cabinet minute needs to be accurate and I was concerned about – obviously that I thought that domestic abuse was sadly bound to have increased, and I think that it’s one of those areas where, if we’d have just had a month more or six weeks more, and the sort of people that think properly about these issues in the centre of Whitehall, of which there were many, then we might have been able to do something that mitigated that harm.

That is one of the things that – well, it’s obviously awful that we were not able to think ahead enough in advance and that then all those people came to further harm.

Counsel Inquiry: Just pursuing that issue a little further, if we can look at paragraph 45 of your statement, please, on page 25 – so it’s the bottom page, in fact, I think the bottom four lines – do you have it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You say:

“I remember it being far too difficult to get people to pay attention to domestic violence and lockdown – and the Number 10 Private Secretary (Hannah Young) having to push back against the assertion that it was not an urgent problem because it was ‘not showing up in the data.”

You say:

“It is only because of her relentless pushing of the issue that there was eventually a summit on ‘hidden harms’.”

That’s precisely the kind of thing, you say, as you’ve said now, where, with even weeks more to plan, it may have been possible to avert that harm?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and I think it’s also – people don’t want to think about these things. So you don’t want to think that awful things happen to children and partners and parents in their own home, and if you are a kind of more experienced civil servant or somebody who’s worked in lots of – you have a different sense, unfortunately, of these things and I think it goes to who is involved in advising and decision-making and are they able to bring the kind of full gamut of what the state actually knows about what sometimes happens, and I feel that it was quite lopsided at this point. We were looking at harm through a very narrow lens without realising that, of course, there can be all sorts of other consequences of things you can’t see.

Counsel Inquiry: One of the phrases you used in that part of your statement was that this issue wasn’t considered because it was “not showing up in the data”, and another theme of your witness statement is this idea of, well, what is a countable thing? Should we be restricting our concern to so-called countable things or should we be thinking more broadly?

If we can look at another document, which is tab 11 of the bundle, INQ000286019, we see here another of your emails, again from April, where you are trying, I suggest, to capture a series of these either non-countable or less countable things, and saying let’s put these on the dashboard alongside hospital beds, deaths, and so on.

Just to pick up on what you said a moment ago, is this the type of thinking that you would have liked to have done if there had been another month or two to prepare for the pandemic?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, absolutely. So this is an email to Mark Sweeney who was running the economic and domestic secretariat and, if he and his team had been able to spend a bit more time, they would have been able, I’m confident, to have bottomed out all of the other questions we ought to be considering.

This isn’t a perfect list, and again I’m looking at, you know, a pretty hurried and conversational piece of work rather than something very, very profound and thoughtful. But I definitely thought that from very early on we were looking at the wrong indicators, or rather that there were many, many, many more signs of both what was happening and what the government was doing that we ought to be bearing in mind when we were making decisions, and it sort of gave false comfort to keep on getting ever more precise data about a particular set of things.

That is not to say that I don’t think both that there was inadequate data – that was definitely true – and that data matters – it definitely does – but it was more that I thought that we were perhaps, as I say, not just focusing – focusing on countable things and also possibly counting the wrong things.

Counsel Inquiry: Just one more area in this narrowed perspective, and that’s the question of PPE for women, another issue that you tried to drive forward. If we could look, please, at page 53 of your statement, paragraph 104, towards the bottom of that paragraph, you say that you raised issues about the “inadequacies of PPE for women, and tried to make sure this was taken into account in any new supply”. You record that the Prime Minister, I don’t know whether this was at your suggestion or not, raised this issue with Simon Stevens, who, as we know, was the chief executive, I think, of the NHS on April 30, and he, that is Simon Stevens, reassured the Prime Minister that the issues with PPE fitting women’s bodies had been misreported and there wasn’t a problem?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that something you – were you there at that meeting –

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – or were you told about it?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Was it because of your suggestion that this was raised?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I wouldn’t want to claim single credit at all, so I had – I had definitely raised this issue a number of times and it was, I presume, the Covid – I can’t remember, the team who were working on Covid before they were the taskforce, who had asked the Prime Minister to raise that. I wouldn’t have been involved in writing the briefing. But I do remember feeling that I couldn’t – once we got to that point there wasn’t much that I could do to keep on pressing this point, because if he thought it was fine then I didn’t – that’s sort of the end of the road really.

Counsel Inquiry: Just noticing and remembering that date of 30 April as being the date on which this meeting, you understood, took place, just let’s look at one other document, please, and it’s tab 21 in the bundle, INQ000286059, and we need to go to at least the second page to see the start of the email chain.

We see it starts with an email from you, another email you sent during April, another pursuing of a separate issue. You’re emailing Simon and Mary. Remind us who they are, Simon Ridley and Mary Jones?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: It seems you at least thought that you had sent a number of annoying emails to your colleagues during that period?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: But you raise with them the question of whether this issue of PPE not being designed for female bodies had, as it were, been considered by those who were sourcing PPE in those early days of the pandemic.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: We see both responses that we get back, first of all from Mary Jones:

“Hi Helen, I have not heard it discussed … at the top level meetings … Simon will be much better informed than me …”

Then if we go back to the first page, the response from Simon Ridley; who was Simon Ridley?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So the contribution Simon Ridley made during this whole period is genuinely extraordinary, I think, and Simon had been a director general in DExEU, the Department for Exiting the European Union, and he is one of the people that sort of went straight from that into being involved in this nascent Cabinet Office team. I think at this point Simon was maybe running the NHS MIG, I say – sorry, I’m not – but I think he was running one of them, one of the Cabinet committee groups at that point, and he would have been involved because he was involved I think in the procurement of new PPE as well.

Counsel Inquiry: Later in the year he became one of the heads or the head of the Covid Taskforce?

Ms Helen MacNamara: I think much later, after – yes, so he was the director general, then he worked for Simon Case, and then he worked for James Bowler, and I think after James Bowler as a permanent secretary left then I think Simon became the permanent secretary then, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: In any event, here’s his response back in April to your email about PPE for women, he says:

“… thanks for raising this. I will be honest: it is not something that’s been in conversations I have had thus far. That’s not to say it isn’t in thinking, but I will assume not really and take it up.”

And he emphasises that diversity is important.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Then if we look at the top of the page we can see it’s two weeks later on 30 April, the day, we saw, of the meeting with Simon Stevens, that Cleo Watson, who I think was another of the officials in Downing Street?

Ms Helen MacNamara: She was the deputy chief of staff, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Who says:

“Astonishing. 2 weeks later and finally raised in one of these meetings.”

What do you think she meant by astonishing? Astonishing at how long it had taken?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So she and I had been talking about this all the way throughout as well, and it would be unfair to create the impression that what she’s doing here is criticising Simon and Mary, both of whom I’d worked with extensively and have every confidence that what they were doing was trying to get the thing addressed. I think the reason, but I am speculating rather than knowing, and the documents would tell you, is that the reason why eventually it had to go to the Prime Minister to ask the question is because they had tried any other route to get the answer, and then – you know, using a Prime Minister in a meeting to ask a question shouldn’t be your first response if you want to know the answer. It’s the point you get to if you can’t find any other way of getting through the system. And I suspect that’s what Cleo means here. She and I had lots of conversations about this. And in fact everybody on this email chain are people for – who were concerned about the differential impacts on women and were trying to do something about it, in my view.

Counsel Inquiry: So, Ms MacNamara, here are a whole series of issues, all of them linked to this question of narrowed perspectives, which you were raising in April, and we have been through them and to a varying degree you were able to get others to take them on. Looking forward, perhaps to the next pandemic, it’s obvious from what you’ve said that you would hope that the Cabinet Office would have more time to think these things through, but beyond that, how should the government, do you think, ensure that the interests of ethnic minority people, disabled people, women, are more properly taken into account in this sort of situation?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I think I’d say two things. Firstly, that I think, you know, you’ve heard some great and interesting things in your first module about how government should be ready for crisis response, and I would hope that the suggestion that I think Mr Letwin made, about creating a bit of machinery that had that responsibility of auditing and managing plans and managing risk, that you would want that unit to have that question as one of the things that it was asking, not just, “Are we ready?” and “Have we got enough of this thing in that warehouse?” but have we thought sufficiently about the impact.

I think that there is – there are legal frameworks that could be in place that I believe would equip for better decision-making in terms of this sort of emergency again. And I also think this is really about normal civil service work. So in my experience as a civil servant it is just normal, and actually it’s legally required of you in terms of an equality impact assessment, to make sure that the work that you are doing that you understand the impact that it’s going to have.

Now, those things can be laborious and the answer to everything isn’t “let’s have another piece of law about it”, but I do feel you have to have structural forcing mechanisms that don’t let you not notice the impact of the decisions that you’re making. And that matters even in a crisis. And I also think there’s a whole host of other things about culture and behaviours and the structures and the people and the skills and experience that are around a Prime Minister that I hope will be better, because that’s what we collectively all need to do, is just make sure it’s better next time.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Finally, I’ve got three further short points I want to ask you about which don’t have much of a common theme really. The first is about overwhelming the NHS. It’s been a recurring theme and, as I’ve said, the risk that the apprehension of overwhelming the NHS was one of the reasons that the lockdown decision was taken.

Of course if one is facing a population level pandemic and one is talking about hundreds, even half a million, three-quarters of a million deaths, it’s easy to say in that situation the NHS will be overwhelmed. What’s harder to do is to calibrate where below that the NHS overwhelm point is, if I can put it that way.

This is something that you address in your statement at page 89, paragraph 181. I think we might need to go back to the page before, just to the start of that paragraph. You say:

“It was difficult to get the right kind of engagement from DHSC or the NHS. There was an inbuilt reluctance to accept that it was possible to get to a point where the NHS was overwhelmed and/or to acknowledge that this would be something that No 10 and the Prime Minister would need to be across …”

And there’s reference to concern that help from the Cabinet Office might not be helpful, and you say you kept being told that the NHS capacity was elastic.

Then later on, a couple of lines down, you say:

“It was only much later that I realised that what was meant by NHS capacity being elastic was the capacity of people working in the NHS to work themselves into the ground to keep people alive.”

So were you in fact ever able to get to the bottom of this question of what we mean by the overwhelming of the NHS?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So this is in the following winter, so this is the winter of 2020/21, when – and this is a place where I was much more actively involved in managing what we saw as – well, and which were – concurrent and compound risks of what was going to be happening in the winter of ‘20/’21, so most of the work that I did in relation to Covid in the autumn was around thinking about how we just could not possibly – I couldn’t bear it if we were in the same position as we had been in the spring, and we created a small team in the Cabinet Office to manage these winter pressures. This was the winter when we were going to practically be managing through the impact of leaving the European Union, and the CDL in particular was really clear on how we needed to manage these things together and gave us some great political leadership at that period to try to manage the concurrent risks. Winter for government anyway, and I had experience of this previously in the Cabinet Office, you quite often have to do winter-readiness exercises, because the severe weather plus the NHS in normal times can get overwhelmed, it’s a pretty normal, I would say, thing for the Cabinet Office and for government to focus on.

So, sorry, I just wanted to set out that context, because then there was at the same time this concern that I had, probably again thinking back to March, of how would we be able to identify the point at which we thought that it was likely the NHS got overwhelmed, and was this going to be in a particular geography, so was it going to be about – because we had learnt a bit more about how the NHS operates at this point, but was it going to be about it just wouldn’t be possible for there to be enough ambulances and enough emergency beds in a particular place so that people could safely be looked after, or was it going to be a system risk, all of these pretty, pretty normal questions.

I mean, I go on into some of the detail in this in my statement, but my – the thing I was finding really difficult is that it was very, very – well, it was just impossible to get anybody to quantify that, to say, “We will know two weeks before we hit an absolute crisis point that we are heading for a crisis point”, and then what is our plan B. And partly because, as I’m sure anybody would understand, if you had been through that experience that we – some of us had been, we just were really possibly – I don’t think it was overconcerned, but we were extremely concerned about seeking to do whatever we could do to try to avoid this problem. And my reflection about it being the people is – is after I left that I understood it more.

And I think the other thing about the NHS being elastic is the NHS is much more than just acute care and acute hospitals, and it had been my experience of working in government for a long time that when people – you know, when – the institution of the NHS tends to focus and talk much more about that than it does about public health or GPs or all of those other things, and I think, again looking back, I think we were not just – weren’t concerned enough about the actual kind of overall health of the population as opposed to what we would do if there wasn’t – if there were ambulances queued up outside three hospitals in the same geography.

So – sorry, I think it’s just a slightly broader point.

Counsel Inquiry: No, it’s all very helpful.

Let me move on and ask you about a different issue, and that’s children. There is a passage in your statement, I’m not going to take you to it, where you describe the issues around the grading disputes for exams in the summer of 2020, the problem emerging in Scotland, and then happening in England. Apparently, no one had really thought about trying to address the problem in light of the Scottish experience in England.

Let me take you, though, at least to paragraph 164 of your statement, page 81 I think. This is the sort of conclusion of that process. I think it’s right to say you did some work to try and understand what had happened, and you sent some people into the Department for Education to try to assist with that.

Ms Helen MacNamara: So this is when the Cabinet Secretary was away before the new Cabinet Secretary was appointed.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Helen MacNamara: So that’s partly why I was doing it.

Counsel Inquiry: Exactly. So if we can go on to the next page, in the end, as a result of all that happened, and you describe it in your witness statement, you say:

“[You] thought that in the circumstances it was untenable for the Secretary of State …”

I think you mean Gavin Williamson.

“… to continue in post but [you] could understand the argument for leaving him there [for a short while] until the schools had returned …”

And that’s what Simon Case relayed about what the Prime Minister intended to do.

So do we take it that, on your evidence, your understanding was that Gavin Williamson would not remain the Education Secretary, at least for any length of time, at that point?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, that was what I was told and that was in relation to the fact that the permanent secretary had effectively had to resign and it felt that, if that was the case, then – I was told the same thing was going to be true for the Secretary of State.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So exams: you also address the question of schools closing/not closing in early 2021. But more broadly, are these two incidents examples of a deeper problem, that the interests of children, and no doubt their parents and others they’re associated with, weren’t properly considered alongside all those other interests that we’ve been discussing?

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes, and I think it’s the invisibility which is my concern about that. It’s because you can’t see the problem that you are creating in the future, if you like, and I think one of the responsibilities of good government is to do that, is to make 20 years’ problem today’s issue to be addressed and it felt that that wasn’t really material.

I also think, going back to my narrowed perspective point, it was really striking at the time for those of us who have children in state schools, like the vast majority of the country, that the differential experience of some children and other children and I would – you know, my children are obviously, you know, fortunate in so many other ways that in terms of the access they have, and there wasn’t enough thinking about the overall experience of children who might not have quite the same privileges as the people who are in rooms in Whitehall taking decisions, and I think it’s – it’s related a little bit to my point about domestic abuse, is that you just shouldn’t as a state, as a government, be able to not know and understand the whole population in your decision-making, particularly the people who are outside of your day-to-day experience, and that causes problems if you think that your life is the same as everybody else’s, and it’s kind of fine to do that as an individual but institutionally it’s really wrong.

Counsel Inquiry: The last of these three topics, Ms MacNamara, is the question of the second lockdown: autumn/early winter 2020.

We’ve heard a lot of evidence in the last few days about that, about indecision, about Boris Johnson and his government not taking the scientific advice, much of which was eerily similar to the advice that had been given earlier in the year. We’ve heard references to trolleying, to chaos, to dysfunction.

There’s a passage in your statement where you, I think, try and crystallise your thoughts about this. That’s page 90 of your statement, paragraph 183.

If we pick it up about eight lines down, it says:

“The Prime Minister rarely accepted that to govern is to choose. He really did want it all and changed his mind often. The decision making swung between two extremes; the Prime Minister’s undoubted liberal instincts and then the extremes of shutting everything down, when in reality all of the discussion and debate and choices were in the middle.”

Taking it shortly, what were your reflections about the experience of the second lockdown?

Ms Helen MacNamara: So I’ll start with this point: I think by this stage it’s become really clear to me that the advice from the officials who are supporting the Prime Minister and his ministers in taking these decisions is uncomfortably close to everybody to the political decision-making and I don’t say that – that’s not a party political point or anything else, it’s that if you are people working and trying to work for a prime minister who is changing his mind a lot and if you’ve got – you want to make sure the right thing happens, and so you tailor your advice ever closer to where he is to see if maybe you can get even closer and maybe get him 50% of the way to something that, you know, is better than nothing.

What you are not able to do is say this is 100% – well, you can’t even say it’s 100% of the right answer, but there was just too – they were far too close to having to kind of I think I’ve called it ride the tiger here or something, of the – far too close to having to actually stay with what was a quite politicised environment in terms of it was about what was acceptable and what was the right political thing, as opposed to the thing I think would be better in future circumstances if there was a bit more insulation between the people who were giving the advice to the best of their ability, laying out all of the facts, and then allowing ministers to decide.

I appreciate that will be uncomfortable for lots of other reasons but I just don’t think there was sufficient insulation between those teams at that point. And that is absolutely not to criticise the individuals involved but it just all got too much kind of swirled together, and so I don’t feel those sorts of structures gets the best from the civil service.

I think that it was just extraordinarily frustrating to see some of the same patterns emerge in March, and part of that was because by then we had a whole load of new fresh people and so, at this point in time, I had resigned from the civil service but I was determined I was going to stay for as long possible to manage as much of the winter as I felt that I could, partly because of my experience early on.

One of the things that was really challenging about doing that, and I can see when I go back into my own record that my tone becomes even more kind of anxious and worried and firm about what we should and shouldn’t be doing, was because we had new advisers, we had a different political team in Number 10, we had civil servants who hadn’t been around in March, some of whom made the mistake of thinking that everybody who went before sort of wasn’t as good as them, and that’s an easy thing to think, but there was a horrible kind of repeat pattern that was going on then, and that decision-making was way too political, and I don’t think there was the space for the civil service to be its best self.

Mr O’Connor: Ms MacNamara, thank you very much. Those are all of the questions that I have for you.

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: Could I ask just one question, Ms MacNamara, before we let you go, if I can get it out.

The relationship between special advisers and senior civil servants: Mr Cummings, I think in his written statement, objected to his being called a chief of staff by some people.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Lady Hallett: Is there – there isn’t a chief of staff? You spoke about somebody who was a deputy chief of staff earlier.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yes. So the – Mr Cummings never wanted to be called “chief of staff”, I remember that. I think he thought that – well, I can’t remember now, but he wanted to be called “senior adviser” or something. There’s no question in anyone’s mind who was the Prime Minister’s most senior political adviser: it was him.

I think, but I’m sorry I can’t remember, I think Ed Lister might have had the title “chief of staff” at that point, and the Prime Minister absolutely and definitely relied on him, and Ed Lister had much more operational experience of government and of how things worked. So, in practical terms, Ed was probably – was really helpful on particularly the autumn lockdown and managing – Ed did much more the operational implications of the decisions that had been taken and I think that Mr Cummings did much more of the ideas, I would say.

I don’t know how helpful that is.

Lady Hallett: Special advisers presumably are meant to advise. They’re not decision-makers, or …

Ms Helen MacNamara: They are absolutely meant to advise.

Lady Hallett: But they can instigate areas of enquiry, can they, and research –

Ms Helen MacNamara: They definitely can, and Number 10 has got more political advisers and civil servants together as two parallel groups, which is unusual compared to departments.

In theory, special advisers are not supposed to be able to direct the civil service. I think at this time that was very, very, very theoretical.

What kind of keeps us all anchored safely constitutionally, if you like, is that the special adviser is normally working for the Prime Minister or on behalf of the Prime Minister. So if I think back to previous times, I would be very clear when I was asked to do something by a very senior adviser in Number 10, they were asking me on behalf of the Prime Minister and that was not clear at this – so that’s one of the other things that’s problematic, is that it wasn’t asking on behalf of the Prime Minister, it was asking separate to, which the wiring of those systems doesn’t work if that’s what – if that’s what happens.

Lady Hallett: That’s what I was wondering.

Ms Helen MacNamara: Yeah.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Ms MacNamara. I’m extremely grateful to you and sorry we’ve kept you here for so long.

The Witness: Don’t worry. Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Mr O’Connor: My Lady, we’ll move straight to the next witness, Dr Halpern.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Keating: So, my Lady, can I call Professor Halpern, please.

Professor David Halpern


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keating: Thank you. Could you give us your full name, please?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, I’m David Halpern, Professor David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Firstly, thank you so much for attending today and assisting the Inquiry with its investigations.

A few things by way of preliminary matters. If we can both keep our voices up, secondly speak slowly so that your evidence can be captured and my questions can be captured. If we can avoid, if we can, overspeaking, because it doesn’t assist with the transcript.

You’ve helpfully provided a witness statement dated 19 May of this year. We can see it in front of us. In relation to that, it runs to 65 pages and you’ve signed that at page 63, and you’ve had a chance to refresh your memory in relation to that, and can you confirm that that is true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, I can, thank you.

Counsel Inquiry: As you indicated, you are here on behalf of the Behavioural Insights Team. You’re now the president. When you drafted this statement you were the chief executive officer and you’re here to provide an overview of the role you played on behalf of that organisation during the Covid pandemic.

It’s an extensive statement. We can see at the top right-hand corner 105 exhibits and even those are quite substantial in themselves. It traverses many issues. We’re not going to cover them all today. The first point, of course, is that your statement and those exhibits go into evidence; so we have that and that assists the Inquiry.

But I want to focus upon four areas: one main area and three secondary areas. The first area is really touching upon your background, which we will in a moment, and what the Behavioural Insights Team is.

Secondly, at the heart of your evidence, focusing upon your involvement particularly in February and March 2020, assisting and advising those at the heart of government.

Thirdly, understanding and compliance of social distancing from a behavioural perspective, bearing in mind your expertise in that field.

Lastly, we’ll conclude and touch – and I emphasise touch upon – what you describe as “Covid missteps” when we look at lessons learned.

Is that okay?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Professional background.

And again forgive me for perhaps dominating the strike in speaking so much at the beginning, but I can perhaps deal with this quite shortly.

We see it at page 2 – forgive me, at paragraph 4. We see your background initially that you, as we know from your title as a professor, you’re an academic with a lifetime tenure at the University of Cambridge and you’ve held posts at Oxford and Harvard.

We can touch upon when you first worked in government. From 2001 to 2007 – it’s at paragraph 3 of your statement – you, on loan from Cambridge, is that right, that you assisted the former Prime Minister Tony Blair as the chief analyst in the Prime Minister’s strategy unit?

So you were there for roughly six years, and from there you became the founding director and research director of the respected independent think tank, the Institute for Government; is that right?

Professor David Halpern: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: And we’re familiar with the organisation and we’ve had a number of reports referred to. Indeed, we’ve had evidence from Alex Thomas already during this Inquiry.

Thereafter, once you finished at the IFG, you became a director of Behavioural Insights Team in 2010-2014. Did you set it up?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah. So I went back – it’s quite unusual, perhaps – to Downing Street in 2010 to do a range of things which the then Prime Minister David Cameron was interested in. That included behavioural science – actually, it also included things like his interest in wellbeing or other aspects of public service reform.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So you’ve had experience with Tony Blair, David Cameron and, before we turn to Behavioural Insights Team, you also mention your experience in What Works group. Perhaps you could briefly explain what that was.

Professor David Halpern: So What Works, and one of the things that may come through today, is the idea it’s a simple question: what does work in government and policy and practice? And so it was to try and drive a more empirical, if you like, evidence-based approach to government. So I took up this role a day a week, essentially at the request of the then Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, as the UK’s What Works national adviser, which I did for ten years pretty much.

Counsel Inquiry: So for perhaps a number of decades, in fact, you’ve had access to and advised Number 10 in relation to these matters?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s turn to the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the Nudge Unit, formed 2010 as part of the Cabinet Office, and what was its purpose?

Professor David Halpern: So in the words of the coalition agreement, it was to support people to make better choices for themselves. In more everyday speak, most government policy issues concern human behaviour, be it public health, trying to live more healthfully, paying taxes, getting people back to work. When you look at it, most public policy issues concern human behaviour and the strange thing is there wasn’t much expertise in government about that.

So it was set up as an experimental team, very small, seven people, to try and introduce that kind of expertise into government, we actually set it up with a two-year sunset clause on the basis of if it didn’t work, then it probably wouldn’t work, then it would automatically be shut down.

Counsel Inquiry: And the sunset clause wasn’t exercised because it continued within Cabinet Office until 2014, and then it was positioned outside Cabinet Office, is that correct, and then in due course it became independent, a completely independent entity?

Professor David Halpern: That’s correct, which is what it is today. Essentially, because it was seeming very effective, we were receiving requests from many other governments and other parts of government to help. It’s quite complicated to receive money from another government as part of Downing Street and so it was felt it was better to set it up in the semi-independent and then, eventually, fully independent form.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, and during Covid you were at that semi-independent stage?

Professor David Halpern: That’s correct. We were co-owned formally by the Cabinet Office and I also did a day a week directly as national adviser.

Counsel Inquiry: In relation to the work the Behavioural Insights Team did, it was advisory, it had no decision-making power. And you said that – I’ll summarise what you say in your statement in relation to this – it received inputs from multiple government departments and you would supply notes, run experiments to help predict behavioural responses to policy options and take part in policy or analytical discussions.

Moving on to our second topic, and again the main part of your evidence that I want to draw out today is how you became directly involved in the response.

We see at paragraph 18 of your statement that you became formally involved on 14 February, Valentine’s Day. That’s when you were called upon. Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care, called upon you. And is this a fair summary, that over the next month that you were drawn into more and more meetings closer to the heart of government?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, I think broadly it is. The request came, as you say, directly from Chris Wormald, the perm sec at DHSC, but inevitably, even in order to our core work, we needed to understand what was the transmission mechanisms as it was understood, what were the other policy issues. And so we were therefore pulled into other meetings, including in Downing Street and Cabinet Office.

Counsel Inquiry: Rather adopting your phraseology of “what works”, the picture from the statements is that you were asking multiple questions of multiple people trying to find out what the problem is and how to find a solution?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. When we’d originally built the Behavioural Insights Team, we also built it on the back of what had been the strategy unit. In order to affect someone’s behaviour, you need to figure out what is going on, what’s the cause of the behaviour, but also, in the case of Covid, what’s the transmission mechanism? So how is it being spread, if it’s on hands or if you’re coughing?

So it leads to quite practical questions around what exactly is going on in order to be able to answer it and, of course, this ranges from every aspect from first line of defence when you’ve only got public health issues like, you know, washing hands through to when you move into you want people to take a test. Well, will they turn up, you know? Will they stay at home if you ask them? And even when you have a vaccine later on, a vaccine, of course, is not a vaccination until someone physically turns up and says, “Yes, you can stick it in my arm”.

Counsel Inquiry: So pausing there, because there’s a huge amount of work that you did –

Professor David Halpern: Of course.

Counsel Inquiry: – and you’ve summarised that, that you ran 57 online experiments, four field experiments, and you provided 41 policy notes and were involved in eight longer projects; so a substantial body of work that you were involved with over this period of time.

In relation to the work you were doing, was it on a UK basis, was it England, was there any consideration of the boundaries between England and the devolved administrations?

Professor David Halpern: So a bit. Our commissions mainly – and, in fact, you can see the main headlines just summarised there because of those bodies of work, they’re studies –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: – was mainly Department of Health, sometimes Cabinet Office because we still had a core contract with Cabinet Office. I don’t recall any direct commissions from the Scottish Government. We did do some work in Wales. We did sometimes get commissions from local government, Manchester or whatever. I don’t recall doing stuff in Northern Ireland. So mainly centre government in UK Westminster.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. And in relation to the scope of your initial instructions back in February 2020, and we can see that at paragraph 18 of your statement there, that initial meetings with the permanent secretary, and in due course Matt Hancock, but your scope really there was to assist with the behavioural aspect of how the public would engage with the government’s response to Covid and we see “provide advice on how the government would communicate Covid-related messaging so the public recognised the severity of the virus whilst avoiding public panic”. It sounds very easy when you read it out like that, but it’s actually quite a difficult balance to provide information but also not to commence public panic; is that fair?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, quite so. We had, of course, previously worked on some other crises in government, not least fuel crises, where some of you may remember – my Lady may remember – you had a minister who said, well, just fill up a jerrycan and of course that led to mass panic, everyone filling up their cars and the whole system crashing.

So, yes, on the one hand you want to inform the public, not least about what can they do to protect themselves and their family; on the other hand, of course, you want to avoid panic. Generally, you don’t have panic actually but you can see in this case, of course, a legitimate concern.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So one of the first public messaging programmes you were involved in was “No Regrets” – or no-regret public messaging was the type of messaging you were involved in?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. So our belief has always been if we’re asking the public to do something, people have many other things in their lives, let’s make sure that it’s authentic in the sense that it’s going to work, going to do some good for them, and early on when there is uncertainty particularly your attention is drawn to so-called no regret messages which you are pretty sure will be good things, generally are doing no harm almost for sure. So hand washing became very rapidly, even by the time we were engaged – had been highlighted as an obvious thing to try and slow transmission so yes that would be an example of a no regret it’s hard to think of examples of washing your hands doing much harm.

Counsel Inquiry: No, I can’t think of one. But in relation to that hand washing, that was a considerable amount of your work – when I say “your”, the organisation’s work – during those early days in February and into March; isn’t that correct?

Professor David Halpern: In those very early days, yes, that’s correct. And maybe it’s an illustration we can use for a minute about the nature of the work that we would do. It might seem an obvious thing. Many of you would have seen the posters, those green posters with the hand, they’re still up across Britain. So if you think about your challenge, someone is going to look at that for a few seconds, and the question is: how can you get as much information across as possible in that poster?

So, you know, you wouldn’t dwell on it but what we would do is we would literally test, and we did test, variations in posters, variations in messages, with thousands of people, and say: what – you see it for a few seconds, like in the real world, “What did it say? Can you remember?” If you can’t remember five seconds later, it’s not likely to be effective. “Would you intend to do that? Would you wash your hands?” You know?

So we would test that, and essentially by testing variations you can tune and improve it so that the final one that most people would have seen had gone through – in fact you can – you will see and you have in the evidence a number of iterations which would increase public comprehension. So it’s – even a trivial example, if you looked at it across – you would see the message gets simpler, the words get bigger, some of the confusion disappears. Do you need the NHS brand or government brand or is it just distracting you? That the image, the early images were quite a confusing image, it was – what was it? It was actually hands on a rail.

Counsel Inquiry: Just pausing there for a moment.

Professor David Halpern: Sorry.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m conscious that it’s a product of a huge amount of work you’ve done.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And it’s an illustration, is it not –

Professor David Halpern: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: – that evidence-based decision-making takes time and a number of iterations to perfect the message?

Professor David Halpern: It does take time, although a key issue is not as much time as you think. I mean, those things were assembled with experiments with thousands of people over days, not weeks or months, and it’s a key question, in our view, about there are lots of these practical issues which are critical to effective policy or delivery which actually you need to handle in that empirical way.

Counsel Inquiry: In relation to your involvement we can put hand washing to one side, that work was still ongoing, but your involvement expanded and you were in touch with Professor Whitty on 18 February asking the questions you have alluded to already in relation to Covid transmission mechanism.

Again, very briefly, what was your understanding of Covid transmission at that stage, on 18 February?

Professor David Halpern: Sir Chris very generously helped us, and we had that early briefing, particularly to understand what was the transmission mechanism. So, again, it might seem trivial and everything but if you think, for example, it’s airborne, it may be different than if you think it’s so-called fomite, when you cough it’s on a surface –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes?

Professor David Halpern: – right? If you think it’s on a surface, then you’re going to spend a lot of time cleaning surfaces. If you think it’s in the air, it’s a different strategy.

So he took us through what was understood about the virus, his understanding of those transmission mechanisms and, therefore, to help us work out what were the points behaviourally that you might be able to introduce to reinforce support people to slow down the spread of the virus.

Counsel Inquiry: Moving on to 20 February, meeting at DHSC, and you were examining government publications, and we can see this at paragraph 23, in fact, of your statement. So another meeting, one of the many you attended at DHSC, was to go over a government publication online, and the issue was around the level of detail to include so that people can be warned about what’s going to happen and the range of possibility of what might happen.

The bottom of that paragraph I just want to focus upon is about this:

“The strong expectation in the room from the medical experts [on 20 February] was that the ‘wave’ would be unstoppable once community transmission occurred ie once the ‘contain’ phase was left.”

Is that right?

Professor David Halpern: That is correct. I mean, of course I think we know a lot about behaviour but we’re not medical experts and therefore we are very much relying on it, but that was very, very strongly the impression – well, graphs on the wall and so on.

Counsel Inquiry: So was the impression from your understanding that it was a matter of not if but when this virus was going to be – and its unstoppable once community transmission occurred?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, that conditionality being important but yes in that time I think people were still hoping, if not expecting, that it would be possible to contain the virus through the work of Public Health England and others, but yes, once it got out more generally that it would be pretty much unstoppable and therefore the implication was mitigating the negative effects rather than being able to contain it.

Counsel Inquiry: And at that stage, bearing in mind this meeting with the caveat, but were you content that the publications sufficiently represented the risk to the public as understood at that time?

Professor David Halpern: I would have to look back at it, but I think it was pretty straightforward that – the implication, if you read it, a lot of people were potentially going to die. And indeed there was specific discussion about the inclusion of the numbers of deaths in previous pandemics, not least so-called Spanish flu, which it kept – introduced a reference point about the seriousness of the situation, and there was discussion whether to include that, and our view was people need to be correctly calibrated about what the risk is. Not afraid but correctly calibrated. So it seemed a sensible thing to do.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to use a different phrase, not calibration, but did you have any concerns that this information was cutting through, that there was sufficient public awareness of the risks around that time?

Professor David Halpern: So this is late February –

Counsel Inquiry: We’re 20 February, this is before your meeting in due course on 25 February, just before Lombardy becomes more high profile.

Professor David Halpern: So I didn’t think it was way off, but in the days that follow it – I mean, as you know I was – talk about – I actually had to be away for work and, particularly returning in late February, I was pretty surprised that we were not seeing posters in profile.

But remember on the 20th you’re still talking about contain, and therefore it’s very small numbers. You’re really relying on PHE to try to do their job and everyone hoped that, like SARS or previous issues, it would be contained.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s move on to a meeting you had with Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner on 25 February, we can see that at paragraph 25, Ben Warner being a data scientist who we are going to hear evidence from next week.

And it was a meeting on non-Covid matters, as it happened, but you say here:

“… we took the opportunity to compare notes and share concerns.”

So by this stage, the dreadful events in Lombardy were in our consciousness, we could see what was going on on the televisions and the dreadful loss of life which was beginning to emerge over the days in Italy.

What concerns, if any, were expressed to you by Ben Warner and Dominic Cummings at this meeting?

Professor David Halpern: So I don’t think Dominic Cummings was at that meeting. I think it was only Ben, from memory.

Counsel Inquiry: Forgive me.

Professor David Halpern: It was a meeting, I mean, as indicated there, primarily looking out – remember Ben had been brought in to try to increase the kind of quantitative, mathematical data science capability in Downing Street, so we were – a lot of it we were talking about that in general terms, is actually my memory, but I’m sure we were starting to talk in this period about, what are the data flows, what is the modelling, is it good enough, and so on.

I actually remember Ben Warner at that stage, you can ask him directly, was quite upbeat about the modelling and its quality, which was a sort of a good comfort. But yeah –

Counsel Inquiry: So a touch base?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Alive to the – what was going on in the wider world, but no significant concerns at this stage?

Professor David Halpern: Well, remember, a lot of normal government was still carrying on at this period.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: And we look back and we can see the whole story, but at that point it hadn’t really hit in force, certainly in the centre of government.

Counsel Inquiry: What we’re interested in is your perspective and your experience as you had interaction with central government.

On 26 February, the next day, this isn’t a government interaction, this is when you attended a Royal Society seminar, and we’ve heard evidence from the president of the Royal Society, and this was a seminar to discuss quarantine as it related to the current Covid outbreak. You recall attending that meeting, that seminar. What impact, if any, did that have on you?

Professor David Halpern: Well, of course, this is – the work on Covid was starting to really take over my life and many others, but it was particularly – we were really still trying to understand the transmission mechanisms in detail. You know, we were very interested in the detail because we’re trying to, you know, guide people, you want to guide to what’s effective. So, I mean, a simple example would be – I touched on this issue about surfaces, and the guidance was being assembled – well, do you need everybody in schools to be cleaning every floor or not? Like, is that relevant, is it not?

There was particular work – so James Rubin, who I know you’ve spoken to, had done an absolutely excellent review on quarantine, looking at the evidence, and the extent to which people would sustain quarantining behaviour over long periods, to which his general conclusion was yes.

So we were very much in sort of sponge learning mode still, what can we learn about, you know, these mechanisms, previous analogous behaviour. Also, on the medical side, what is your best understanding on these transmission mechanisms?

So the last thing we want to be doing is telling people in campaigns to do XYZ but it’s not going to be effective.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: We want to direct attention, it’s a precious thing, to things that would actually make a difference to help people protect themselves and their families.

Counsel Inquiry: And this work and this information finding is in a context when there is discussion, in broad terms, regarding quarantine and testing and obtaining better data; is that right?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. You know, we were very interested in testing and data, and we can talk about that later if you want, but yeah every aspect of it. But even – you mentioned testing. Let me just introduce why, behaviourally, we would also be interested in it, of course you want to know about how a disease is moving through a population or not and – and build up where’s your best place to put your testing if you’ve got limited capacity, but you also want to look at its behavioural capacity, so if I’m going to say, “You need to quarantine now, Mr Keating, for the next two weeks, will you do it?” are you more likely to do it if we said, “You need to take this test, and it looks like you’ve got Covid”, well, you can imagine what the answer is, but it’s an empirical question. Or even, “It may be too soon to say, we want you to quarantine for two weeks, by the weekend we will test you”, and then that will confirm – see what I mean?

Counsel Inquiry: Just pause there.

Professor David Halpern: So these behavioural consequences.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. I’m –

Lady Hallett: Are you continuing with that subject?

Mr Keating: I can pause there, because I’m conscious we’ve been going a long time.

Lady Hallett: Well, I’ve just had a message.

Mr Keating: Yes.

Lady Hallett: If that’s okay, right. I shall return in 15 minutes.

Mr Keating: Thank you.

(3.10 pm)

(A short break)

(3.25 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keating.

Mr Keating: Thank you, my Lady.

Professor Halpern, we were going to deal with the topic of SAGE and how it came about that you were at a number of SAGE meetings.

In the timeline, the 27th meeting, you were at Number 10 in a meeting in the Cabinet Room which was chaired by Matt Hancock, dealing with a number of the issues and pinch points.

As a result of that and your dealings with Patrick Vallance at that time, you were asked by him to join SAGE; is that correct?

Professor David Halpern: That is correct, yes, in the wake of that meeting.

Counsel Inquiry: What was the rationale for you being asked to join SAGE?

Professor David Halpern: Well, of course, you can ask Sir Patrick Vallance. It seemed there were two main issues, I think. One is, we’d – and I’d mentioned to him about some modelling work we thought was very good, particularly linked to Hannah Fry, the mathematician, the simulation of a spreading of a coronavirus, which we thought had some very powerful insights in it. We were also very interested in details of the transmission, as I explained earlier, including the extent to which which behaviours would protect both individuals and populations.

So Sir Patrick was very keen that there be one voice, one view on this, and so he encouraged – in fact asked me to join SAGE meetings accordingly.

Counsel Inquiry: And we know that you, from 3 March to 23 March, were at six meetings, the first being on 3 March. Then on 5 March, the second meeting you attended, your summary of this, which I’m going to read very briefly, is that it considered how to communicate in a way that would be effective and which would not panic people, that theme continuing.

10 March your view of that meeting as summarised in your statement:

“At this stage there appeared to be a view within SAGE that Covid was an unstoppable wave and containment of the virus would not be a viable option.”

13 March, the next meeting you attended, and this is the one where your concerns crystallised and you describe how the penny dropped, and we’ll refer to that shortly.

Then there is two more meetings you attended on the 18th and 23rd. But after the 23rd your invitations to SAGE ceased. Any particular reason why that was?

Professor David Halpern: I actually don’t know. I did ask Patrick once, but SAGE – its membership can change, and it’s for the government, you know, Chief Scientific Adviser to decide. It – essentially when it went online rather than in person, I don’t know, I didn’t seem to get the invites any more, but we were pretty busy doing other work, so –

Counsel Inquiry: Of course, which you’ve set out in your statement.

Professor David Halpern: – it’s for sir Patrick to decide.

Counsel Inquiry: The next subtopic is herd immunity.

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard a lot about it. You have had some involvement in this and I want to touch upon your understanding of that strategy from your contacts –

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – with those at the heart of government. You had contact with Neil Ferguson on 20 February, and you had obviously contact with both the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer. And what was that understanding in the late February of the strategy?

Professor David Halpern: So of course it had been – was then expressed in the published document on 3 March, essentially it was contain if you could and then you mitigate, and that was it. As you say, I am not uniquely – was getting increasingly troubled about that, I suppose, because we felt there were viable ways of doing sophisticated suppression, but essential by the presumption was, I mean, on all quarters it felt, from a convergence of different medical views, the modelling, the position on vaccines, the practical experience of the CMO himself, was that once essentially community transmission had started it would be some version of an unstoppable wave, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: In relation to the term herd immunity, you yourself utilised that phrase, you used that in a BBC interview on 10 March which you set out in your statements. This had followed on from the 3 March SAGE meeting where it was unstoppable, and you refer to that interview where you made a comment about the potential need to cocoon elderly and the most vulnerable in the weeks to come, and you referred to the phrase herd immunity.

At that stage, why did you refer to the need to cocoon the elderly and vulnerable?

Professor David Halpern: So I should explain the interview was primarily actually talking about the science behind – you know, we talked about a moment ago –

Counsel Inquiry: Hand washing?

Professor David Halpern: Hand washing, but more generally how you’d apply it.

The interviewer, Mark Easton, at the end, asked a question. I responded, probably shouldn’t have done, around essentially the vulnerable, and I’d said – partly because of course it was in all the meetings, it was in the media. Self-evidently there was 5000-fold at least in the age-infected fatality rate, and so it was pretty inevitable, it seemed – to discuss in SAGE too of course – that we would want to protect the most vulnerable. I use the phrase “cocooning” because it’s the one used in the literature. And I think Mark Easton asked me the question about three times, which should have been a warning sign, but – and on the third time I said we obviously need toll cocoon protect and people until –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: – you know, in general population, herd immunity or whatever had been received, so –

Counsel Inquiry: Sentiment, to use your phrase, was an authentic one, the need to cocoon?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, exactly. You are going to need to protect the most vulnerable –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: – because it will scream from 10,000 feet. And the phrase “herd immunity” was being used very widely and it was probably a mistake on my part to have used it in that interview, is the truth of it.

Counsel Inquiry: But you were contacted by Number 10’s communications, not Lee Cain, somebody else in that office.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And you summarise how there was no issue with the use of the term “herd immunity” but you were pulled up about using “cocoon”; is that correct? Cocooning?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, it was specifically Jack Doyle I remember, for a hairdryer treatment. They were very angry about it, but they were particularly angry about the word “cocoon”. My memory of it was because the word hadn’t been used in public particularly and they didn’t really want to get into that issue because it hadn’t been talked about publicly as a policy issue. If you remember there was issues around if you had – you know, if you’ve got symptoms, that you might be asked to self-isolate, but none of the stuff around what later became shielding –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: – had in fact been discussed in, I think, in the public policy debate.

Counsel Inquiry: 10 March, unhappiness that you were dealing with cocooning/what became shielding?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: But herd immunity okay?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, I mean, it was just very widely used in all the internal discussions as a shorthand for not government policy, as often discussed, but that it would likely arise over time.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

I want to move on to our next topic, subtopic, behavioural fatigue. We have heard a lot about it and it’s been in the public domain?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We should see this at paragraph 64. In fairness to you we need to address this. So on two occasions the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Whitty, deals with this, 9 March and 12 March. And it really talks about sustainability and how people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over a period of time. And we can see the other reference about it, (inaudible) and at a certain point starts to flag on 12 March, and he will give evidence in relation to that.

But the first point is this, it’s been suggested in the past that you and your organisation were, in the shadows, the source of this advice is that correct –

Professor David Halpern: So glad to get this clear. We were not. It’s not a phrase we had used. Not only was it not from us, but also, as you will know privately from the emails, we were pushing pretty hard to move forward on social distancing measures by that point.

Chris Whitty, I think, I’ve read his statement, he’s pretty clear about where it comes from and describes it as a mistake on his part. But, yeah, it was unfortunate.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you relay to him at the time that it wasn’t the right phrase from a behavioural scientist perspective?

Professor David Halpern: I don’t know if I did. He had lots of other things. I did send him a paper a few days later, which I think is in the evidence –

Counsel Inquiry: This is about the Spanish flu?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah, which was essentially to look at some work insofar as it had occurred during Spanish flu. The main point about the paper was that even in those very difficult circumstances you did not see this so-called fatigue, this is particularly in America it was studied, American cities. Only by the time you got to the second and particularly third times you had lockdown did you see anything akin to people really starting to give up on it. So –

Counsel Inquiry: We could go to that document if you wish, but is this a fair summary, is that it gives that information?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s a discussion point but it’s a little bit ambivalent in terms of providing express advice that it was the wrong thing to say, “behavioural fatigue”?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, and – but James Rubin, others in SPI-B, as you will know, there was an avalanche coming towards Chris to say, “What are you talking about?”

It’s particularly me the context of novel behaviour, and when everybody is moving together our strong view, you mentioned the quarantine work also, was that people would comply to a high degree and so it was – you know, was misleading to imply that that behavioural science was saying that, and indeed, as again Chris Whitty has spoken about in his statement, he unfortunately gave the impression that that was a reason for delay, which was not his intent, I think. And of course from the SAGE minutes you’ll know was not what was being said in private.

Counsel Inquiry: Next topic, change in strategy, and your experience of this. Timeline, we’ve dealt with 10 March, that there was a view about Covid being unstoppable, and containment was no longer viable. You have mentioned already, just a moment ago, that you had raised concerns on 12 March specifically, you raised concerns regarding the limitations of SAGE modelling in an email to Chris Wormald, Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, Jonathan Van-Tam, and you say this:

“We are at the limits of what modelling can tell us.”

Then we see a pivotal meeting, my words, not yours, on 13 March, “SAGE meeting”. My terminology, but would you agree that was a significant meeting, 13 March?

Professor David Halpern: It felt to me that it was. I felt both the content of the discussion and the emotional tone in the room was there was this realisation that something was amiss and policy had to shift.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, let’s explore this realisation that something was amiss. So key SAGE meeting, you recall there was a graph of an infection wave over time, with a red line to represent an NHS capacity with the objective, the key objective, to keep the wave under the red line in line with the mitigate, delay messaging. You say that there was different understandings of capacity, the red line, number of beds, number of ventilators. Is that right?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is it the case that during the meeting that Stephen Powis, who was an NHS director, and Patrick Vallance questioned the modellers on why they were so sure that suppression of the virus in line with what was being done in China and South Korea was not viable? That’s your paragraph 73, so I’m reading out your evidence. Is that what the position was?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. So my memory is Steve Powis specifically raised it. My memory is very much following on from what you just said, which is that there seemed to be confusion over what was the capacity in that red line, the difference between ICU versus serious cases – you know, three-fold differential, et cetera – and that this wasn’t a small problem, it was a big problem and the implication was the numbers and models you’ve been using it will be overwhelmed.

So that, I think, prompted Steve Powis to say, “So why are you so sure that doing stronger measures or lockdown would necessarily rebound? Why is it a bad thing to do?” And Patrick Vallance picked up on it and said, “Yes, that is a really good question and pressed the modellers to answer”.

Counsel Inquiry: And the modellers here are Professor Medley and Professor Edmunds, SPI-M, and what was their response to that pressing or probing as you described it?

Professor David Halpern: So they were very definite. You know, they are modelling experts. But what struck me again in this moment was they said, Graham particularly, absolutely sure 100%, 100%, and one of the things I would teach at Cambridge was statistics and you just think you don’t – nothing is 100%, certainly in the uncertainty of models. And it troubled me really deeply, because I felt that, you know, 99%? But 100%?

And it was – it encapsulated for me in a moment this overconfidence in aspects of the models.

Counsel Inquiry: And in relation to that overconfidence in the modelling, you mention in your statements this confusion regarding NHS capacity and other issues, such as the low level of testing capacity, and ambition – I presume the low level of ambition. What did you mean by that when you refer to “ambition” in your statement?

Professor David Halpern: So as many things were gone through in that meeting, another one as you say was testing capacity. I remember I think my notepad had recorded as they said they had a thousand tests a month on serology, a thousand a month, and I think I’d scribbled, “Why so few?” You know, a thousand a week, a thousand a day. We’re so far off the pace.

So now you’ve three major concerns piling up in this meeting –

Counsel Inquiry: Just pause there, thank you. All these concerns, great concern you described it, overconfidence, and you referred to your notebook and you were making a number of notes but what you did write was that “WE ARE NOT READY”; is that correct?

Professor David Halpern: I did, and indeed wrote it in capital letters, it was so striking.

Counsel Inquiry: We see it there. A Number 10 colleague leaned over, crossed out your entry, which we see at the bottom of the page, and what was written instead of “WE ARE NOT READY”?

Professor David Halpern: “We are fucked!”

Counsel Inquiry: And that was written by your colleague, a Number 10 colleague; is that right?

Professor David Halpern: That’s right. Ben Warner.

Counsel Inquiry: Ben Warner?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, who I believe you’re talking to.

Counsel Inquiry: So in graphic terms, reflecting the meeting, concerns regarding overconfidence, did that reflect the concerns, readiness for the unstoppable wave that was about to come?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. I mean, remember, the one play that you had in the strategy as was expressed to us, I think, was that you can shape the wave, as referred to endlessly, you could flatten it, et cetera, and then you were trying to do it to stop the NHS being overwhelmed. But in this meeting you’re hearing evidence that on current trajectory it is going to be overwhelmed, that we don’t have the testing ready. You know, we’re – the models seem overconfident – there were a lot of grounds for concern and so hence I really felt quite shocked and depressed. I felt that, you know, it’s not our role to do all those things. We’re working on the behavioural aspects to –

Counsel Inquiry: Just pause there. It’s my fault. I think we’re both going to have to slow down a little bit.

Professor David Halpern: I’m sorry, yes. Apologies.

Counsel Inquiry: No, I speak fast at the best of times, so if we can try and slow down a little bit. And I’ve interrupted you, so forgive me. You said that you were feeling quite shocked and depressed, “it’s not our role to so all those things. We’re working on the behavioural aspects”.

Is there anything you wanted to add to that answer?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. So the overall sense was that, as in my notebook, we, the country, the policy world, is not ready for what is unfolding and I felt that, you know, on people’s faces in the room that that was – there was some realisation of it, a sort of cracking in the confidence.

Counsel Inquiry: “Cracking in the confidence”, “the penny has dropped” is how you describe it, and you say in your statement that others in the room, and you, felt that “we should have been pursuing suppression strategies”; is that right? Paragraph 74.

Professor David Halpern: Yes, that’s right. There’s a key question of what “suppression” means, but basically –

Counsel Inquiry: I think we’ve heard quite a lot about that.

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So we’re okay.

Professor David Halpern: But yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So post meeting, going through this chronology, difficult meeting, you were in contact with Matt Hancock, who you had worked with alongside for a number of weeks to update him. And you describe how you felt, that – how you spoke to him and said that, “The penny has dropped, that we really need to do something about suppression and locking down”. And what was the response?

Professor David Halpern: So, yes. I had, I think, texted or WhatsApped Matt. He had called me back and I was surprised, I suppose. He said along the lines – said this is the “best news” he’d heard all week, “best news” in a very specific sense which is that there was this realisation that strategy might need to change, something more dramatic might have to be done in order to really stop, slow the spread.

So I was surprised by it, but of course I wasn’t in all the meetings he was, but –

Counsel Inquiry: No.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Not the most natural response to a bad news message, but your impression was that he felt stronger and more immediate action was necessary, and we could not just wait for the unstoppable wave?

Professor David Halpern: My sense was for ministers such as Matt Hancock, others were much closer in their centre of Number 10, but they were dutifully following the science and were very uncomfortable with where it was going. So there was appetite to be stronger in the policy moves, but they were waiting for the signal to be told that’s what we need to do, and so that’s why he experienced it as a good thing that that realisation was coming through.

Counsel Inquiry: You say later in your statements that in particular for Matt Hancock, in your view, he was quite frustrated and was ready to act more decisively – is that right – at that time?

Professor David Halpern: That was my sense at that time, yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: So in relation to those concerns – we don’t need to turn to it – you set out in your statement how between 16 and 18 March you sent several emails to Mark Sedwill, Chris Wormald, Dominic Cummings, Jeremy Farrar, in advance of the next SAGE meeting, expressing your concern, and the need to consider a global lockdown to shut down the virus, and that was something that you were in correspondence with; isn’t that correct?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, that’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: On 18 March we know that, as you set out in your statements, that you argued that – you argued for a lockdown in the meeting?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. Bear in mind that I had already, you know, before the 13th had written to say – in fact, literally wrote a list of what we would now call “lockdown style measures”, slightly softer, but, yes, at this point it was: why aren’t we going full-blown?

I was not at that time aware – I’d read Patrick Vallance’s statement that there were meetings that had clearly occurred in between those two meetings; so, in that sense, we were in our lane – maybe not seeing the whole picture. But, yes, I was really concerned that we needed a very decisive decision.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. You put it very well: you’re “in your lane”. We’ve got other evidence which we have and that’s why I’m dealing with this quite succinctly.

There was one point that I wanted to draw out at paragraph 93. You describe on 23 March an email with Tim Leunig, who was at HMT, Her Majesty’s Treasury, as I understand it, and he – there was emails between you and you expressed a view that the modellers in SAGE seemed to have “a remarkable thin grip on the deaths caused by externalities”; in other words, from behavioural or system side effects such as people being too afraid to seek treatment for other conditions.

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: That’s something which you had identified at that stage and raised?

Professor David Halpern: That’s correct. I mean, we’d crawled over the models quite carefully and Neil Ferguson had been kind enough also to let one of my team go to Imperial, look, as it were, behind the curtain of the models.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: So we were at this point maybe less confident, therefore, but this is one of a number of issues. The specific thing which comes in force later, you know, if people aren’t going in large numbers in to get medical treatment, then you get a lot of excess deaths or illness as a result of that. The person – I mean, Tim, I think, had written to me about some of his concerns – he was an adviser to the Chancellor – and I had put him in touch, if I remember, on that with the government’s actuary, who of course were experts in some of these questions.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, thank you.

Our third penultimate area, and it’s a short one, is understanding and compliance with social distancing from a behavioural perspective. Again, a comprehensive statement. You deal with this. Impacts of senior officials’ breaches. I really want to touch upon this from your expertise as a behavioural scientist.

From the behavioural perspective, you describe the Dominic Cummings incident as “very unhelpful” at paragraph 140. Why was that? Why was it unhelpful, in your view, from an expert point of view, not an opinion point of view?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. So people are very influenced by what they see others doing. We all sit here quietly in this room, partly taking the cues from each other. In this case, in everyday speak, people are more influenced by what they see others doing than what the formal rules are. It’s what’s known as declarative norms. So littering would be a simple example: you are much more likely to litter in a room that already has litter. You can literally experimentally test it. So there you’ve got a high profile figure on the face of it pretty blatantly breaking the rules and justifying it, seeking to justify it.

So it, you know, was extremely less than ideal. If there was any – anything positive to be taken from it is that data generally suggested that most of the public were complying and continue to comply because what mattered more was those people around you, your neighbours, your fellow workers, your commuters were fortunately more important than what someone in Downing Street was doing.

Counsel Inquiry: Pausing there for a moment. So an issue, mitigated by other behavioural factors, which may affect an individual, but you describe it from a behavioural point of view as an almost textbook example, of what not to do; is that correct?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah, it was atrocious.

Counsel Inquiry: And later on in your statement you say it say sort of blew a hole, a huge hole, in a rule-based approach and undermined the credibility of Her Majesty’s Government in what it was asking or demanding of the public?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. So I don’t know how much detail you want to go in on this.

Counsel Inquiry: I was just going to draw that out, unless there was anything else you wanted to say in relation to that that you considered to be key.

Professor David Halpern: Well, let me just put a marker down that rule-based, you know, frameworks on behaviour are brittle. You know, you follow the rule: if you don’t, you get punished. They’re different from a principle-based set of guidance, which are more flexible.

Having gone down the route pretty heavily of a rule-based approach, when you get a breach of it, you can’t wriggle and worm; you have to say “hands up”. So it’s quite a profound issue about how you set up your framework, your approach, and what that means, what you’re saying to the public in terms of affecting behaviour.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. And it undermines public confidence?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah, well, it blows a hole in it if you just break the rule and think … then try and wriggle out of it.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. The next topic relates to the work you did for the Department of Health and Social Care, a study between late spring and autumn 2020 into the public’s understanding with social distance guidelines.

You looked at local alert levels and whether people understood the level of alert in their area; ie, is that Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3? And the outcome of that report, which may not come as a surprise, but what did that study reveal?

Professor David Halpern: The public were very confused. The rules were getting more complicated. They were struggling to remember what they were. They might not know which tier they’re in, and so we would test this. We were testing it periodically and many of the public didn’t really understand the rules, and this in some ways got worse and worse. It does similarly – it relates to this issue, actually, of rule versus principle.

So if you’re going down the rule-based approach, all kinds of questions about, well, can I go out? Can I meet people in the garden? Will that be okay? Can I share a car with someone? You know, a lot of rules to remember as opposed to some other countries had gone down a principle-based approach. So the Japanese would be an obvious example, the three Cs: avoid crowded areas, avoid – et cetera. So it gives you a general sense of what’s dangerous and it’s for you to interpret.

Counsel Inquiry: Just pause there, thank you.

Finally on this heading, you deal with a number of programmes in your statement and their behavioural effects. You talk about the stay alert programme and you say this:

“Arguably, the UK tried to have its cake and eat it, and sometimes ended up with neither. ‘Stay Alert’ was an example [of this].”

Why was the “Stay Alert” programme, very briefly, so bad in your view?

Professor David Halpern: It tells you to worry and doesn’t tell you what to do: the worst combination. Is that short enough?

Counsel Inquiry: That was very short.

Professor David Halpern: Very good.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. But no, it was very helpful, thank you.

Especially when we’re talking about communication, the next programme was Eat Out to Help Out, and again you’ve done work in relation to that in parallel, and is it the case that the work, the research you did, was that Covid-secure premises was a more evidence-based approach which would encourage behaviours. That probably is a very simple summary for a complex study?

Professor David Halpern: That is correct. From memory, I think we did the study for BEIS, again using this experimental approach; so maybe it’s helpful to explain it again. So we chose several thousand people and we’d ask them, you know, thinking of a restaurant you liked, would you go back there? But what we’re doing is we’re showing different people a different variation. So sometimes you’d see, this is your favourite restaurant, and there is a pretty – a picture of the waiter with nothing on their face, but other groups would see the waiter with a mask or with a Covid-secure – and we also asked them asked about if we paid you £10 or whatever, would that, you know …

So we’re setting up different conditions to try and work out how it would influence someone’s intention to go to the restaurant.

Counsel Inquiry: And again –

Professor David Halpern: A very clear result.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes?

Professor David Halpern: That people were very strongly influenced by anything what you might call Covid-secure, the mask, the safety, this is the rules for the restaurant – I think 20-odd points more likely, percentage points, to go to the restaurant.

In contrast, paying people was quite a small effect, I think six percentage points, so it was a very powerful result, we thought, because it tells you that if you get a Covid-secure system in place, not only are more people going to be confident to go out, it’s also reinforcing good practice of Covid-secure requirement. So you would pay a premium to go to a restaurant with your mother, maybe you do that anyway, but in this case, for Covid, whereas if you were a bunch of 21-year olds, you might not care so much and you would go, as it were, for a less secure environment.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

So in relation to this, financially cheaper and with less risk of transmission if you went down the Covid-secure route?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Last points on this section is one of your looking ahead steps and we know that we shifted in the rules over this period of time, you say this:

“Don’t go for simple rigid rules if you think it’s likely you’re going to have to vary them or have limited ability or intention to enforce them.”

Professor David Halpern: That’s correct. So it builds on the earlier point –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: – about rules. So the worst thing to do, say this is the rule and then you can see all around it’s being broken. I hesitate to say this in a room of lawyers, but the classic example is if you see a wall and it says “No ball games”, the first thing you might think is, “Well, that’s a pretty good wall”, and as soon as you start to break the rule – essentially you become a rule breaker.

So you really want to design rules that are generally followed, you want to enforce on egregious breaches but you don’t want to inadvertently signal lots of people are breaking the rule because it will make it even more likely that others will follow suit.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. A lot of information there and we’re dealing with it at a high level. It’s more detail in your statement, and again I’m conscious of not – wanting to do due justice to these important principles.

Let’s move on to the final area, which is lessons learned, Covid missteps.

In July 2020 you set out a number of opinions and criticisms on the initial response to the pandemic from a behavioural perspective in a document entitled Institutional Lessons from Covid. You’ve explained that was a hard copy letter initially sent in July to Helen MacNamara and Alex Chisholm in the Cabinet Office, and later is it the case that you were asked for that copy of the document again and you updated it and in September 2020.

Let’s have a quick look at that, so it’s INQ000129093.

What I summarised can be seen in the top right-hand corner, and it runs to 13 pages approximately. It’s a significant piece of work in itself, forms your evidence and warrants to be read and considered in its entirety, which it will be and has been on this side. So I’m not going to go through it sequentially, I just want to draw out two significant points, which is this: you describe the early misstep, and we can see it at paragraph 1:

“Overconfidence and anchoring in our expert medical community led to a presumption that covid would be like a flu-like wave, blinding it to the pursuit of near-suppression as a viable option and an expanded tracing system in particular. Our decision-making was vulnerable to systematic error.”

If we could go to page 2, please, where you expand – this is your executive summary, you expand upon this, and I’m just going to find the right reference, it’s the second last paragraph, you say how this was built into the … just pausing there for a second.

Next paragraph, thank you very much.


Counsel Inquiry: In fact it’s the third paragraph, “Arguably the most fundamental misstep” – forgive me, you say:

“This presumption was built into the Contain-Delay-Mitigate-Research strategy … It also underpinned the early (Chris Whitty) position on test and trace and the Vallance view on ‘herd immunity’ (later air-brushed).”

It would be remiss not to pick that up now. What do you mean by the last remark, “herd immunity (later air-brushed)” in that communication in July 2020?

Professor David Halpern: Well, you’ll be getting evidence from many people, I mean, Patrick’s been pretty clear on it, I think within government communications there was definitely a de-emphasis on the herd immunity language and the way in which the early strategy I think was expressed. I think others can argue there was continuity but it did feel there was a significant recalibration or description of it. Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: After the media and public backlash around 13 and 14 March?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, and arguably, again possibly for you to determine rather than me, but a recalibration of the policy.

I mean, I might just say the key point actually was a slightly different – a subtle one, which even, of course, having now had the benefit of reading Sir Patrick’s own reflections, is he does talk about, even in his evidence, of course the best thing to do would have been to have a much better test and trace system and so on. But that is actually a part of sophisticated suppression. That is what the South Koreans did, that is what Singapore did, that’s what many other countries did. And we didn’t do it. We weren’t doing it in February, it wasn’t on the table, and it partly itself links to another issue in this document, which is the how. How would you do it? It’s the boring mechanics of how would you find out, have a better contact tracing system built at scale and so on.

Counsel Inquiry: So in relation to the how point, which is – operationally, one of the points you make is that there needs to be thought as to how to deliver strategy and follow up and explore the questions and really examine under the bonnet what needs to be done?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, exactly, it’s the very practical detail.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: If you say it in a model we want to reduce social contact, a host of questions immediately follow: how? Who? What? How would we do the detail of it?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So it’s two points I want to draw out. You were invited into SAGE, you were at a number of meetings, you were watching and expressing concerns from the margins and then from the centre regarding what was happening and asking questions.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You say in your statements that your view is that yourself and others were quietly dismissed as not understanding the science. Is that correct?

Professor David Halpern: Erm –

Counsel Inquiry: By some perhaps?

Professor David Halpern: Some, not all, but yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And your phrase “anchoring” was mentioned at the outset, anchoring, groupthink, the similar phrase used, but you mention that this was at the heart of one of the missteps in that early response; is that right?

Professor David Halpern: Yes. And on a number of issues. “Anchoring” essentially means you have a strong prior, and you find it hard to move from it. So humans in general, so behavioural effect, tend to seek confirming evidence for their priors. We’re not as good at seeking what’s the counter evidence. And particularly, in this case, saying: what experiment, what piece of evidence would answer the question?

You know, so that’s why earlier on I mentioned you can do experiments very fast. So if you’ve got a question, does it work, does it not, the puzzle becomes how fast can I answer that question.

Counsel Inquiry: Second point I want to raise, and the final point, is this: the negative impact of overconfidence is something you mention in this report, and you refer to previous detailed work you’ve done on decision-making in government and the headline is “beware over-confidence”?

Professor David Halpern: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: And you say this, perhaps if we could bring this up, this is page 3, please, second last paragraph, I think. We’ll just leave it there for a moment and I’ll just make sure I have it. Yes, second last paragraph, third line from the bottom:

“Ironically the pride in our science and our capabilities [that being the UK] slowed our ability to learn lessons from other countries. Under cover of variations of ‘it is very different there’, there was an arrogance that we knew better, and would do better.”

That’s your words which you set out in this report and sent to government. Is that right?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, I did feel that was true. So the report, behavioural government, looks at this, it shows, for example, generally, as people become more senior their overconfidence generally gets bigger rather than less. I did feel it characterised a lot of what was happening from early on, so those very early comparisons to other countries, Japan, Germany, and it made us slower to look really carefully at what they did and learn the lessons from them.

It also had many other manifestations. I mean, masks would be an example. We felt that the evidence became very compelling certainly by late March, early April, for masks, and there was a strong anchoring in and scepticism in many of the medical community.

Counsel Inquiry: And linked to what you say in your report, and the final point from me, is you say in your statements that there was a touch of hubris, that at paragraph 167.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: We perhaps don’t need – “a touch of hubris that we knew better, and would do better, alongside criticisms of how badly other countries … were doing”. That’s a view that you formed at the time. Is that the position?

Professor David Halpern: That is so, from even February. I should be clear, of course, this note was written privately. It didn’t – the last thing we wanted to do was undermine key figures, on the other hand, to learn the lessons. So yes, there was a sense, I’m sure it’s heard elsewhere, that we were lucky almost to have the best team in our senior figures and there’s no doubt they’re extremely talented and brilliant people, but that can also bring a lacuna with it of overconfidence, and particularly maybe less openness to other aspects, which is the engineering, the how, the detail, of course the behavioural too. So yes.

And we could be wrong, of course, we could be totally wrong, that even if we’d gone for it, really gone for it in February, could we have built a South Korean or Singapore system? Would the public or ministers have wanted to do it, because of some of the intrusiveness it would have implied? But we feel we didn’t deliver on that, and there were really a lot of examples of the slowness of the system which was then manifested with really great consequence.

Mr Keating: Thank you, Professor Halpern, they’re all my questions. I’m grateful for your patience.

My Lady, there are two core participants you have granted permission.

Lady Hallett: Mr Menon.

Questions From Mr Menon KC

Mr Menon: Good afternoon, Dr Halpern, I ask questions on behalf of a number of children’s rights organisations, and I just have a few questions for you on a discrete topic.

At paragraph 126 of your witness statement, you mentioned that in the summer of 2020 the Behavioural Insights Team was formally commissioned to participate in a Cabinet Office-led social distancing review alongside Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty and others. Is that right?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Mr Menon KC: And that review was a substantial piece of work, was it not?

Professor David Halpern: Fairly substantial, yes.

Mr Menon KC: In the sense at least that its report was published by the government a year later, in July 2021?

Professor David Halpern: (Witness nods)

Mr Menon KC: Yes?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Mr Menon KC: My Lady, that report, as far as I’m aware, is not on the Relativity system, but is available on the government’s website.

Dr Halpern, that report, published in July 2021, does not make any distinction, does it, between the differing aspects – impacts, excuse me, differing impacts of social distancing rules on adults and children? Can you assist as to why?

Professor David Halpern: I can’t recall the detail of it. It was – of course the main point of the report was to look at whether you could, for example, relax the 2-metre rule, replace it with – you know, substitute other equivalent issues. But you’re right, of course, there would be particular issues for children, playgrounds, et cetera, other activity. So I – forgive me, I’m happy to look in more detail, but I don’t recall the extent to which children were discussed. I don’t remember it as a major theme, but I’m sure you know better than me.

Mr Menon KC: Just on that, I suppose there are a number of possibilities, I mean, it could be an issue in relation to the terms of reference and the scope that government had set, or it could have been because of how the team, the Behavioural Insights Team, chose to prioritise the issue of social distancing rules. I mean, I don’t know, if you can’t help on that, please say so, but that’s really what I’m trying to get at.

Professor David Halpern: I’m not sure I can add much more on the specifics but you’re right, I mean, there are many groups, segments, one needs to consider, including children.

Mr Menon KC: You mentioned the 2-metre rule. Were you aware, for example, that at approximately the same time that this review was being commissioned, in July 2020, Scotland, as an example, exempted children under 12 from the social distancing rules whereas England did not? Were you aware of that?

Professor David Halpern: I can’t remember the timing, but again you clearly are on top of the detail.

Mr Menon KC: Well, again you may not be able to help on this either, but can you assist as to why this review, which, as I said, you know, took a year to complete, did not explore this, I suggest, significant difference of approach vis-à-vis children under the age of 12 between Scotland and England?

Professor David Halpern: I could be wrong, but I think it didn’t – the work was done much more – in a much more compressed way than had a year. It may have been a year before it was published but my memory is it was done on a relatively short period of time, in the context that there were real concerns, for example, on the economic impact, many of the impacts on people’s lifestyle, of especially the 2-metre rule, and that – the language is often used is could you identify for example a 1 metre plus or an equivalent way of achieving the same reduction in transmission that would be less harmful to people’s lives, to the economy and so on. So that was the, I think, the primary objective of it. It was – my memory of it was done on quite a compressed time period, to be honest, so that the impacts were done –

Mr Menon KC: Very well.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Mr Menon KC: What you’ve described was the priority as opposed to, for example, the fact that adults and children behave differently and social distancing rules obviously impact differently on adults as opposed to children; is that right?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, yeah, I don’t doubt that.

Mr Menon: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Menon.

Mr Jacobs.

Questions From Mr Jacobs

Mr Jacobs: Dr Halpern, I ask some questions on behalf of the Trades Union Congress. Do feel free to continue to look forward if it’s uncomfortable.

Could I start with page 30 of your statement and in particular paragraph 132. I think it can be brought up on screen. What you say, under the heading of “Financial incentives”, is:

“We thought there was a strong case for using some financial incentives to support people to self-isolate when identified as having Covid or having been in contact with a case. A specific concern was that low income, and less securely employed individuals were being put off testing and isolating given the impact on their financial situation.”

Firstly, Dr Halpern, why was it thought by you and the Behavioural Insights Team that there was a strong case for financial incentives?

Professor David Halpern: So, as we touched on earlier, we were looking a lot at not just comprehension but compliance, whether people were able to follow the rules, self-isolating and so on, and we would then look at certain groups who were saying they weren’t going to comply and ask them why, and one factor was of course financial.

In fact, I wrote a detailed note to Dido Harding – it’s mentioned at the end of the evidence statement, I think – at early June suggesting one of a number of things, I think it was 2 on the list, was we strongly recommended producing more financial support to those who couldn’t afford it. I mean, for reasons that will be plain: you know, if you’re an Uber Economy, you know, driver and you’re going to lose your income, that’s a pretty big deal and difficult for you. So how are we going to support that person?

Mr Jacobs: Would it be right to say in basic terms that that’s not just an absence of an incentive, there’s actually a powerful disincentive for compliance which needs to be addressed?

Professor David Halpern: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mr Jacobs: The correspondence on this issue which you describe in these paragraphs of your statement relates to the latter part of July 2020. Had you been aware, in the period sort of mid-March when self-isolation comes to the fore as an NPI and the end of July, of any determined sort of focus and thinking about this issue of incentives for self-isolation?

Professor David Halpern: So, yes, we had raised it, of course. There was further work, I think there’s one of the bits of evidence is with Gila Sacks was asked to do further work on it, and of course others such as on SPI-B had raised the issue too. In fact we were concerned not only that financial support be given, but the way in which it was given too.

Mr Jacobs: You describe raising it; was there a receptive audience?

Professor David Halpern: My memory, and I think it’s in some of the evidence, was that our sense was the Treasury were resistant. That is the Treasury’s job, to be resistant to spending money, but we found it – our sense was they were not going to – they weren’t easily persuaded for a more generous funding package, although of course one was put together by, I think, September? You may know.

Mr Jacobs: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Mr Jacobs: Well, let’s perhaps look at some of the evidence on that. Could we have up on screen INQ000129090.

So we have an email from you of 28 July 2020 addressed to some officials in DHSC and also the Cabinet Office, and the second sentence is:

“We’re also looking at the financial incentives issue for Simon Case right now, to see if we can move CX …”

Is that Chancellor?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Mr Jacobs: “… [whose] starting position is quite sceptical.”

Pausing there, so had there been conversations between you and Mr Case about this financial incentives issue, about the Chancellor being sceptical?

Professor David Halpern: I don’t recall talking to Simon about it. I definitely did not talk directly with the Chancellor, but there were many officials. Also I think – I’m trying to see. Clare Lombardelli, for example, was on the social distancing review, a senior Treasury official, so –

Mr Jacobs: Yes.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Mr Jacobs: Your email continues:

“Risk is that the national campaign – if in doubt, get a test…’ – due for Thurs could be dogged by this lack of support, [especially] in key target groups.”

Just briefly, what in general terms are the key target groups you’re referring to?

Professor David Halpern: So those individuals where we saw – or groups – much lower compliance or likelihood to come forward for a test. So, that particularly. We did a lot of segmentation to identify risk. That might be someone who was, for example, in an occupation which was in a lot of contact with other people – a classic example was a taxi driver – but whose income was very insecure. And so they were quite –

Mr Jacobs: Mr Halpern, would it be correct to say that in broad terms you’re thinking about groups where compliance may be low?

Professor David Halpern: Yes, particularly, yeah.

Mr Jacobs: But perhaps also transmission may be high, or higher risk?

Professor David Halpern: Yeah, thank you.

Mr Jacobs: Okay.

At the end of that email, or the last paragraph, you say:

“Lots of questions remain … about which form of incentive/support would be maximally effective … My gut feeling is that HMT will be hard to move to Statutory sick pay change, but could be persuaded to go for an Australian style ‘hardship fund’ administered by [local authorities].”

Was there a particular reason for your gut feeling that HMT would be hard to move on statutory sick pay change?

Professor David Halpern: So, from memory only, it would be because it would have a lot of, an economic term, deadweight costs, so it would be very expensive, you would be paying a lot of people for whom – they probably would have complied anyway; whereas something which was more akin to a discretionary hardship fund, especially – we’d suggested – built into the test and tracing system, so when you were saying to someone, you know, “It looks like you need to isolate, do you need support?” and then be able to offer it straightaway.

Mr Jacobs: Were you aware, or did your team do any sort of extensive work on the relative benefits of using the statutory sick pay system as against a hardship fund?

Professor David Halpern: I don’t recall detail. We did, in the gap before this, try and design – as you’ll gather, one of our ways of working was to figure out: how would you answer that question? Literally to run an experiment, for example, in a local area. We didn’t win that argument but we did, as mentioned in this email, identify, as it were, a natural experiment which – in care homes, which we felt was quite compelling evidence to reinforce the case that for low income but very important workers it was important to offer that financial support.

Mr Jacobs: A few moments ago you referenced the fact that a scheme of sorts was brought in – it was obviously more or less along the lines of the hardship fund administered by local authorities – at the end of September. Was your team asked to do any work about the effectiveness of that scheme, for example reviewing whether it was effective?

Professor David Halpern: I don’t believe we were asked to do so. We did write some work on it, particularly again around compliance issues. My memory, a lot of – we can dig that up for you. A particular issue was not only about the scale of the money but how difficult it is to get it.

So if you are someone on a low income and we say “You need to self-isolate. By the way, here’s a load of paperwork, you have to go to someone else, hopefully it will get sorted out”, that’s not great. Much more important to be able to say “Do you need support? We’ll give you that support right away” –

Mr Jacobs: Just pausing there, Mr Halpern. Those are clearly important issues generally which go to the effectiveness of the scheme.

Professor David Halpern: Yeah.

Mr Jacobs: Is your evidence that work wasn’t done, at least by your team, as to whether those sort of concerns were adequately addressed in the scheme as it was introduced?

Professor David Halpern: I don’t recall if we did experimental work on it. I do recall we wrote notes about the issues, flagging them, suggesting further work.

Mr Jacobs: Final question: you have given evidence about your observation of 13 March that “We are not ready” or other chosen expletive. Do you think it’s a symptom of being not ready that it’s not until late September that a scheme is introduced addressing something as important as incentivising self-isolation?

Professor David Halpern: I do, and I realise we’re at time, my Lady, but perhaps I could use that to make the more general point.

So, yes, it was way too late. We’d raised it much earlier; not the only ones. But it was part of a pattern, in a sense. Lots of good people trying to do the right thing, but your good intention in policy or the scientific evidence, you have to translate it into practical systems approaches. You know, will the money work, how difficult it will be? The app was similarly – we thought the app was absolutely key. We were very concerned from day one of the first lockdown as: was the government ready for the end of lockdown with the kind of tracking systems, et cetera? The app was due, we were promised, in two to three weeks. It was six months. Six months.

Mr Jacobs: Dr Halpern, could it be put this way, at least in relation to the self-isolation support: it’s all very well and good having the idea of self-isolation, but if one doesn’t think carefully through the practicalities of how to make it work effective, then it’s not much use?

Professor David Halpern: Yes.

Mr Jacobs: Those are my questions, thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Jacobs.

That completes the evidence for today, Mr Keating?

Mr Keating: It does, my Lady, thank you.

Lady Hallett: Well, I hope you won’t deny me my free will, Professor Halpern. So, on that note, thank you very much for your assistance.

We shall resume at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning.

The Witness: Thank you.

Mr Keating: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

(4.25 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Thursday, 2 November 2023)