Transcript of Module 2 Public Hearing on 07 November 2023

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Good morning, my Lady. The first witness today is Simon Ridley.

Mr Simon Ridley

MR SIMON RIDLEY (affirmed).

Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

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

Mr Simon Ridley: Simon Allan Ridley.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Ridley, thank you for attending this morning, and also for your provision of two statements, one INQ000252914, I think it runs for about 97 pages, you produce over 453 exhibits or at least you refer to them. You have also provided a corporate statement together with James Bowler, there we are, the second Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office, to do with matters concerning the Covid Taskforce.

My Lady, it may be worth saying that of course both those statements and all the documents and exhibits to which Mr Ridley refers will, of course, be put on to the website and considered, as with all the other documentary material before this Inquiry.

Mr Ridley, you joined the civil service in 1997; is that correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And you were initially with then Her Majesty’s Treasury until 2010?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: I think you then moved to the Department for Communities and Local Government?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In 2014, you were appointed chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate of England and Wales. You then moved back to the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In 2019, you joined the Department for Exiting the EU, and then you moved into the Cabinet Office in January 2020.

Mr Simon Ridley: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: In January 2020, you established, we understand, the Transition Taskforce, which prepared for the UK’s exit from the European Union. Formally the United Kingdom left the European Union of course at the end of January 2020; was that preparation and the taskforce concerned, therefore, with the end of the transition period which ended in December 2020?

Mr Simon Ridley: Exactly. The Department for Exiting the EU was closed down at the end of January 2020. There was a team under Lord Frost negotiating the new agreement. My role, alongside Jess Glover, a colleague in the Cabinet Office, set up the Transition Taskforce, which was to prepare, sort of, if you like, UK side for the exit following the agreement with the EU.

Lead Inquiry: And the exit culminated, did it not, in the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement on 30 December 2020?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Of direct relevance to this Inquiry, were you asked on 16 March of 2020 by the Cabinet Secretary to become secretary to what was then the newly established Healthcare Ministerial Implementation Group?

Mr Simon Ridley: I was.

Lead Inquiry: What was that?

Mr Simon Ridley: The – so on the 16th, I had a meeting that morning with Mark Sedwill. His proposition was to restructure and hugely increase the capacity of Cabinet Office to respond to the Covid pandemic, and wanted to set up four new decision-making groups, ministerial implementation groups, along the key four areas, one of which was healthcare, which was the one he asked me to be secretary for. Those four groups would then, if you like, feed up to a strategy meeting, that the PM would chair, which happened at 9.15 most days. The role of the health ministerial implementation group, or HMIG, was to take decisions on the government’s response across all the areas of health and social care. I mean, it was a decision – a Cabinet decision-making committee. My role as secretary was – it was the standard Cabinet Office role, in terms of preparing with the chair, who was the Secretary of State for Health, for the meetings, to make sure that there were papers for the meetings, to note and minute the meetings and the decisions that were taken.

Lead Inquiry: Were there in fact four MIGs, ministerial implementation groups, of which healthcare was only one? I think there was general public services, there was economic and business, and then finally international.

Mr Simon Ridley: That is correct. Each chaired by the separate Secretary of State.

Lead Inquiry: And each of these areas was meant to replicate the broad strategic areas of interest within central government, particularly within the Cabinet Office, in order to be able to put a structure for the governance and the strategic and operational decision-making for the response to Covid into place?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. I mean, it was clear this was a whole of system crisis, and we needed to be able to respond across all of those lines of operation.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Just to look for a moment at the areas that your MIG, Healthcare MIG, addressed, it addressed matters such as NHS capacity, shielding, social care capacity, the public health elements of the response to the Covid crisis, and it was both a strategic and operational body, so it strategised and it advanced proposals for operational matters?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

I think your statement shows that you in fact – if we can have paragraph 11 of INQ000252914, you co-ordinated wider advice on healthcare issues across the Cabinet Office and you attended a large number of strategy meetings chaired by the Prime Minister. You obviously attended meetings of HMIG and, throughout the course of the remainder of the year, or at least until the HMIG system ended in May, you were exclusively concerned with being the secretary to that particular organisation?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, that’s correct. I mean, the point to note is an awful lot of the healthcare response was obviously central to the work that was being done in that period between March and May, and so a lot of issues went to the 9.15 meeting rather than HMIG when they would things the Prime Minister was particularly focused on.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Now, I want to start by looking at one particular aspect of the work done by the Healthcare Ministerial Implementation Group, which was the shielding programme.

Was there an early and particular focus on shielding around the time of the decision to impose that first national lockdown? So mid-March.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, when I came into the Covid response as secretary to HMIG on 16 March, alongside just setting the committee up, agreeing the terms of reference with the chair, the first and main substantive item I was focused on was shielding.

Lead Inquiry: Give us an understanding of the scope of the problem or the crisis faced by the government in terms of making arrangements for those persons who were required to be shielded. How many people were assessed to be medically vulnerable and therefore primarily in need of shielding support?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I think it’s … firstly, I think we didn’t know with any great certainty. I mean, in the sort of low millions, that sort of – that sort of order. And there was a question which was indeed a question for much of the period about how large a group of people the shielding programme should apply to. And as we went through the period, there was a group of the sort of so-called clinically extremely vulnerable, but there was a much wider group of people with increased risk, but where the balance was slightly different.

Lead Inquiry: So there was a constant debate about the need not just to address the needs of those who were clinically extremely vulnerable, but those who were socially vulnerable, those who generally needed support, those who may or may not have made themselves known to GPs and to hospitals, and therefore a real need to try to identify who you should be addressing your support structures –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – towards?

Mr Simon Ridley: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Were you in contact with the devolved administrations in relation to shielding, or was this an England-only issue as far as HMIG was concerned?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we were setting up the shielding programme in England, because public health and those issues are devolved across the UK, but we were in touch with the devolved administrations. I certainly had calls with official colleagues, and I think they joined a number of the calls we had in those first couple of weeks as we set it up.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000197987 on the screen, please. This is a document dated 17 March.

It’s a note of an “Update meeting with [the Secretary of State]: the offer on vulnerability”. I just want us to get an understanding of the complexity of the issues. If you could just scroll back out, we can see that there are references to the core principles and eligibility, which of course had to be decided, Mr Ridley?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: The operating model, how it was going to work in principle, what the role of the NHS would be, how it would work vis-à-vis GPs, how the voluntary community sector would work, DEFRA, and military planning and so on.

So it was an extraordinarily complex exercise?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, and I think, I mean, my role in it was to bring senior colleagues from across government together. This was a programme that needed significant infrastructure and capability built by a number of departments, so the – there was – DWP I think set up the call centre, MHCLG, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, were working very closely with local authorities in terms of a lot of the practicalities of setting up the system. DEFRA needed – were working with supermarkets to – how to get food deliveries to people who were shielding, because the whole point was they couldn’t get out to do their shopping.

NHS were very involved, and indeed wrote to all the individuals on the shielding list, enormous sort of printing and letter runs. And we had – through the week of the 16th we were establishing that programme, those different lines of work, and keeping everybody together in order to wrap that up, so that it could be announced as we went into – and then in the week of the first national lockdown.

Lead Inquiry: What was the genesis of the shielding programme, Mr Ridley? The decision to impose a mandatory stay-at-home order wasn’t, of course, made until 23 March, but it’s clear from the paperwork that the programme for shielding scaled up at pace from the week before. So the week of the 16th you’re engaged in trying to put the programme into place. What led to the programme being commenced in that way? Was it a reflection of the fact that social distancing measures had been put into place on 16 March or was it a reflection of the fact that there was an understanding on the part of government that a lockdown was inevitable and therefore necessary preparations had to be made?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I can’t, I don’t think, speak with authority about the genesis of it, because I think the genesis of shielding was prior to the week of the 16th, in fact. When I joined there were people in departments thinking about aspects of the programme. I mean, it came from a realisation, as I recall, that as social activity was reduced there would be, you know, a cohort of vulnerable people who would need particular support, with higher risk factors who would need to – need to stay at home much more, and what was the support structure around that cohort.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Could we have INQ000197984. This is an email dated 17 March. It gives some indication of the number of bodies who were concerned in this programme. It’s an email from the Cabinet Office on behalf of yourself, Mr Ridley, and it sets out a list of actions and a list of agreed products for a COBR meeting. Those actions are due by the close of play, that particular day, 17 March. So the process was moving at pace, as I say, at full speed early on.

We can see the list of actions at the bottom, involving the DHSC to confirm public health policy, a breakdown of 1.4 million people, to confirm a critical path for preparing and sending letters. And then, over the page, actions for the DHSC, for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, DCMS, DEFRA, DWP, BEIS, the Home Office, the MoD, and HMRC. So a lot to be done.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, this was very much a whole-of-government programme.

Lead Inquiry: We can get some idea of the numbers and the scope of the programme from INQ000198016. This is a shielding offer comparison. Was this a reflection of the category of people who may need to be engaged in the shielding programme, who may need support of some sort, as well as the numbers of persons across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who could potentially be engaged?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. Yes, it is.

Lead Inquiry: Right. So a massive undertaking?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. And in addition to this, as we opened up the website where people could refer into it, the numbers grew because then lots of people identified – self-identified beyond the lists that we had originally.

Lead Inquiry: And there were a couple of major issues, were there not? Firstly, having initially identified those who were clinically extremely vulnerable, it rapidly became apparent that there were other people who needed support, and that was obviously a cohort, a large number of people in addition, and also that there were a number of people who had self-registered rather than being put onto the list of persons who required shielding by their GPs or by other local authorities or government bodies, so you had to work out what to do with them?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, we had a very – we had a kind of comprehensive, inclusive approach to this which enabled people to, as I say, self-identify, GPs to put people forward, as well as the original lists we had, and that grew the numbers substantially.

Lead Inquiry: Again, in reflection of the speed at which you worked, a call centre went live on 25 March, and by 29 March you had been able to work up plans not just for those who were clinically extremely vulnerable, but also for non-shielded vulnerable people as well, so the programme expanded as well as moving very fast?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

There were a number of other areas that the Healthcare Ministerial Implementation Group addressed. Did they include NHS capacity, so was an important part of your work maintaining oversight on what the NHS capacity was and how it would be able to respond to the demands placed upon it?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, that is correct. I mean, at this period, with the level of infection growing very fast and the numbers of people going into hospital fast, the ability of the NHS to have the beds and the ventilators for that was a kind of critical focus at the time. That was in the terms of reference for the HMIG. Quite a lot of those discussions also happened at the 9.15 meetings with the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Number 10 Downing Street was constantly seeking, was it not, from HMIG data about hospital capacity, how many hospitals were at risk of being overrun, what the progress capacity was of the Nightingale hospital scheme and so on and so forth, so there was a constant imperative, if you like, to keep Number 10 up to date and informed as to what the state of play was?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, I think at the beginning of the period there was an enormous need, I mean, for the Prime Minister, for the Cabinet Office, for government as a whole, to have clear, consistent data of the position on a whole range of things, including hospital capacity. I mean, what we did in – I mean, just in terms of the health ministerial implementation group, we took at the beginning of those meetings the dashboard, as it was at the time, on the same basis that it went to the strategy meetings in the morning, we tried to use those – some of the actions from those meetings were to improve that data as we went through.

Lead Inquiry: It was made clear, wasn’t it, that the Prime Minister was particularly concerned with the need to obtain and get access to or procure a large number of ventilators, that was a constant theme, was it not, throughout the middle of March and the beginning of April?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, it was.

Lead Inquiry: And was a lot of HMIG’s time spent procuring ventilators, conducting meetings and calls in order to accelerate domestic production, obtain ventilators from abroad and so on?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, not precisely. I mean, so the health MIG itself was a meeting, so a sort of ministerial decision-making meeting chaired by the Health Secretary, and could look on issues at, you know, the – how do we – the purpose of it was to drive forward decision-making to make progress against these areas in concert with the other MIGs and with the PM’s meeting.

My team supported that – that committee and made sure that the work across Whitehall was done to provide the papers and the decisions for ministers to enable that to happen. Procurement of ventilators was not something that either my – that my team did. There was a lot of work between the commercial teams in the NHS and, I think, DH and the commercial teams in the Cabinet Office to work with industry and to try to drive the capacity in the country to increase the ventilators that we …

Lead Inquiry: So you were in charge of the strategy and you were driving the process from the central government end of things, from the Cabinet Office?

Mr Simon Ridley: Exactly, but I did not have responsibility for procurement of some of those practicalities.

Lead Inquiry: In relation to the issue of discharge to social care, were the practical arrangements for the discharge of patients from hospital to the care sector made by central government, Cabinet Office, or the DHSC?

Mr Simon Ridley: So that was very much work, I mean, in the health system between the NHS, local authorities and the care sector. In central government, that’s the responsibility for DHSC, working very much with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, given their responsibilities across local authorities.

Again, our job in the Cabinet Office was to convene, bring people together, understand the position in the round and then use the HMIG as a means for government to make cross-government decisions where it needed to.

Lead Inquiry: And was that where the decision was made or advice was given as to the decision to be made about the discharge of patients from hospital to the care sector?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I think the need – so discharge from hospitals to the care sector is something that happens as a matter of course outside the pandemic, of course. It was particularly important in that period that people who were ready to leave hospital and NHS beds were able to be discharged, so in a sense that was – that’s part of the operation of the health system. I think the importance of it was discussed in HMIG, it was also an important part of meetings with the – with the Prime Minister at the strategy meetings, and I think the aim – I can’t remember the precise time period, I’m afraid, but the aim was that – my recollection is there were – an aim to get 15,000 people discharged from the NHS into social care over that period at the end of March and beginning of April.

Lead Inquiry: And this presumably was one of the many areas of focus for HMIG, this was discussed repeatedly at meetings throughout March and April?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, certainly, in March and the first part of April HMIG focused on the progress being made towards that end and the issues around it in terms of the preparation in the care sector for receiving people.

Lead Inquiry: This is obviously something for closer attention in a later module, but I just want to set out the chronology and the broad structure.

Was there an HMIG meeting on 22 March 2020 where social care was considered? INQ000055942.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: We can see at the top “Covid-19 – Health Ministerial Implementation Group”, Sunday 22 March 10 am, a number of ministers present, chaired by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Over the page, we can see your name, second name down, and then if we go through, please, to page 3, we can see the bottom indent, the last paragraph on the page:

“… the following points were made …

“- to support capacity in community care advice to care homes should be updated – current guidance suggests they should accept patients who are asymptomatic even if they have not received a COVID test.”

So as at that date, 22 March, it was generally recognised, and there was guidance to this effect, that patients would be accepted if they were asymptomatic but had not received a Covid test in fact?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, at this – at this time there was a lot of work going on in terms – in the – amongst the scientists and the medical community about asymptomatic transmission. I think SAGE were discussing these issues, I think I point that out in my statement. In HMIG, as I say, the purpose of these meetings was the progress on discharge and the issues around it, and that included, as this note says, the capacity in community care and the issues around receiving people from hospitals, which included testing at that – at that point.

Lead Inquiry: The two most important features of this policy or the guidance, Mr Ridley, were: firstly, that no assurance had ever been given that patients would be moved only following a negative test, that’s simply not what the guidance and the position reflected; and, secondly, that there was a constant debate as to whether or not there was a need for testing and whether or not the system practically allowed for the sheer number of tests that would be required in order to test patients coming out of hospital?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think that is – that is correct, there was a balance of different issues and different needs and we did face some capacity constraints at that point, which the NHS, the care sector and DH were grappling with.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000198032.

This is an email on 3 April from an official in Number 10, Alexandra Burns. She addresses it to “Team”, and from the fact, Mr Ridley, that you responded at the top of the page, we’ll come to it in a moment, you must have been part – you must have been amongst the recipients.

“I know that social care is front and centre of a range of conversations that are happening on eg PPE or testing (though of course is always second to NHS) – but do we know whether there is a coherent overall strategy for care homes? In either DHSC or in MHCLG or between them? It feels like maybe we need one in the way that we have one for the NHS.”

Then she refers to the resources for supporting NHS and capacity, but in relation to social care, what is said in relation to the policy approach appeared to her to be perhaps deficient:

“… Enhancing adult social care resilience by … maintaining and increasing workforce … maintaining … capacity … extra funding … capacity tracking – but I wonder if this really covers it.”

And she says this:

“Just looking at some of the stuff coming out of the rest of Europe and it feels like something we need to be properly ahead of … given that once someone gets it in one of these place many die …

“… I’m wondering whether we’ve considered more extreme measures or guidance – on staff rotations for example …”

Then over the page:

“I’m checking with you guys because I’m aware that it might just be something that’s happening which I haven’t seen – eg is the healthcare IMG looking at it properly?”

So that’s your MIG, I think she meant to say, ministerial implementation group.

Was there a realisation at this time, the beginning of April, that, perhaps by contrast to the approach to the NHS, which of course had been first and foremost in the government’s consideration in terms of the need to protect it, there had been perhaps an absence comparably of focus on the care sector?

Mr Simon Ridley: Well, I think that we were certainly, in Cabinet Office and in Number 10, as Alex’s email shows, at the end of March and April concerned to understand the position in care homes, and we’ve just – we’ve just discussed the Healthcare MIG discussion of it on 22 March. I think it is true those concerns were growing as we went into April. The data and the information around care homes was less good, because the nature of the sector, a very large number of care homes, many very, very small – and, as Alex’s email says, you know, really keen to make sure and assure ourselves there was a broad and coherent plan across the piece for care homes, because through those MIG meetings, you know, the very significant issues weren’t coming – coming through, and we were wanting to test that.

Lead Inquiry: On 7 April, INQ000083072, there was another Health Ministerial Implementation Group meeting held at 12 pm. We can see a large number of ministers and Members of Parliament attending. Over the page, page 2, your name can be seen in the middle of the page, along with a number of other officials.

Then page 4, on the third and fourth paragraphs, there is a reference to the Minister of State for Care; was that Helen Whately MP?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, it was.

Lead Inquiry: I think your statement in fact refers to the Secretary of State at paragraph 71 but it was in fact the Minister of State for Care. She said:

“… ensuring parity in the approach between the NHS and social care for PPE and testing was important. PPE was being delivered to social care providers from national stocks … A new channel … was also being established to deliver PPE to social care providers.”

Then this:

“Social care workers were also to be tested alongside NHS staff where capacity permits in order to reduce staff absences.”

Just before you answer, if we can look at page 5, we can see the actions, and they include work on metrics for adult social care, the need to ensure data reporting compliance from care home providers, and then it says this:

“- work on discharges was welcome …”

That must be discharges from hospital:

“… and the number of patients with a hospital stay of over 21 days had halved …”

So concerns were being expressed, were they not, as to whether or not there was a problem with the movement of patients from hospital to the care sector, in terms of whether or not they were infected with Covid, and steps were being taken to ensure a proper understanding of the position and whether or not testing would be available in order to be able to address that problem?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, I think that is – that is correct. I mean, as these actions – other of these actions show, we were also concerned to make sure that the funding and support was there for care homes, which Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government was working on, working with local authorities in terms of managing, you know, financial resilience. The care sector, as you’ll go into in later modules, I’m sure, is very diverse and dispersed with some larger care homes but also some very small enterprises.

Lead Inquiry: Is it fair to say, Mr Ridley, though, that a number of people expressed quite serious concerns, though, about the fact that, firstly, patients were being discharged into the care sector without a negative test, without, of course, assurance that they weren’t infected with Covid, and, secondly, that there was an absence in essence of testing of workers in the care sector and also of patients already within the care sector?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think it is certainly correct that concerns were being raised on a number of – a number of issues around – around the care sector, and there certainly were constraints in terms of the testing that was available and used.

Lead Inquiry: Can we have INQ000198042.

On page 1 at the bottom of the page, a Cabinet Office official, Mary Jones, says:

“Chris, I’m just sending this to [Cabinet Office] colleagues because my knowledge of social care is very limited so others with more expertise should editorialise anything I say here.”

Then over the page, she refers to a number of concerns that she has in relation to the approach being adopted to the problem of testing, of patients within the care sector and residents in the care sector not being tested for Covid, and of course on the fact that many workers in the care sector had not themselves also been tested.

To what degree did HMIG appreciate that there was a very serious problem with, of course, the spread of the infections throughout the care sector?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think the ministers and official colleagues at HMIG were concerned about the position in the care sector, concerned about the relative lack of data and information we had, and concerns around the risks of spread of infection, whether between patients or between workers and patients, and was seeking in various ways, as we’ve just discussed, to try to tackle those issues and put policy and operational guidance in place.

Lead Inquiry: Was there a concern expressed by some within your ministerial implementation group that the DHSC was not doing enough to help or that it was in a general sense behind the curve?

Mr Simon Ridley: I think in the centre we were, as some of these emails demonstrate, concerned about whether there was a comprehensive plan for how we – for how government would support and minimise the risks in the care sector. I think that work was being done in DHSC and elsewhere, and a strategy for care was produced in the middle of April, about which again there was some – there was some debate. But I think, yes, we were concerned that there were problems in the care sector that needed to be addressed extremely quickly.

Lead Inquiry: There was a general absence of planning within the DHSC to meet this problem and to meet this issue?

Mr Simon Ridley: I – I mean, I don’t think I can say with authority what planning there was and wasn’t in the DHSC on this issue. It was certainly – the team responsible for social care was, I mean, working incredibly hard, relatively, I think, stretched, and, as I say, we were pursuing these issues through HMIG and that strategy came forward in the middle of April.

Lead Inquiry: In terms of the practicalities, in terms of providing a sophisticated and comprehensive test system to ensure that patients were not discharged from hospital into care homes when they were infected and also to ensure that patients and workers did not move around within the care sector whilst infected, the Cabinet Office and Number 10 and the HMIG body had to push the DHSC to say: what is going on? What is being done about this? What can be done to solve these very grave problems?

Mr Simon Ridley: I think, yes, that is broadly correct.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000198046.

If we could start on page 3, this is an email from Dr Warner, right at the bottom of the page, 16.28, 13 April – thank you – and then over one page:

“Hi Imran [that’s Imran Shafi in Number 10] & Tom [Shinner in Number 10].

“I am becoming increasingly concerned about nosocomial infection rates in hospitals (ie an infection acquired in hospital).

“If there is a large scale infection in the hospitals, then we will have a number of problems.

“- Higher absences in the workforce and further stories about PPE and testing.

“- Problems with care homes, including not being able to discharge patients and potentially creating infections in care homes.


“I don’t know where responsibility sits between DHSC, PHE, and NHS …”

And he goes on to refer to SAGE, and his concerns are raised by the splitting of responsibility between different organisations.

If we then go back to page 3 and the response to his email, Tom Shinner says:

“I don’t have anyone on this, and I think this is a good idea, yes.”

Then at the top of the page Imran Shafi copies you. And then if we go back one page to page 2:

“I have seen no data on this and we don’t have people looking at it at the moment. It is a good idea and we will pick it up.

“… could you ask the department NHS/PHE in the morning and find out who is looking at this …”

Then at the top of the page, there is a response email from a Mr Macnaught:

“The DHSC lead is William Vineall. I will give him a call …”

Then if we go back one page, finally, to page 1, Mr Macnaught says:

“I’ve spoke[n] to William Vineall.”

Is William Vineall in the DHSC?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think he – I think he is. Paul was one of my HMIG secretariat team. William will either have been in DHS – most likely in DHSC, possibly in the NHS.

Lead Inquiry: “His initial reaction was that this is not an issue of concern but I’ve asked him to work on a note tomorrow.”

Dr Warner then returns to the fray:

“A submission to SAGE suggests that around 20% of infections and 10% of deaths are due to infections acquired in hospitals. Given this and the fact that this could cause wide scale disruption across the government’s response … I think it might be worth pushing quite hard on why this isn’t an issue of concern.”

Then Mr Macnaught says:

“… we will dig around …”

So two questions, Mr Ridley. Firstly, as the secretary to HMIG and in charge of HMIG, were you surprised that this had not already been an issue of very grave concern to the DHSC, seemingly?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, I mean, I think the – Paul’s report of that call was certainly surprising. I think there was concern about nosocomial infection, it was being discussed in SAGE, as Ben reports.

Lead Inquiry: Secondly, when you dug around or when HMIG dug around into seeing what the position was and why these apparent concerns were not being addressed, to what extent were you able to assure yourself that the DHSC was on top of this problem and was addressing it?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I – this was an issue I think that ran and we continued to focus on for a number of weeks beyond this – these dates in the middle of – in the middle of April, because I think we were increasingly concerned about nosocomial infection within care homes, the level of infection, protection and control in care homes and the extent to which the sector could address these issues.

Lead Inquiry: In summary, and I say that because this is an issue which will be looked at in far greater detail in the later social care, care sector module, for weeks the issue rumbled on as to, firstly, how great an issue of concern this was, what was the extent of the problem, and, secondly, there was a dawning realisation or an appreciation that the testing system in practice simply couldn’t keep up with the policy decision-making as to who was going to be tested and who had to be tested; is that a fair summary?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think in – just to expand very slightly, I think in Cabinet Office and Number 10, we were not assured of the position in care homes and the extent to which there were plans in place to minimise the risks of infection. Testing was a part of that, we were aware of constraints in testing, but there were other mitigations that we were seeking to assure ourselves of, such as broader infection control.

Lead Inquiry: The Chief Medical Officer recommended, I think around 14 April, that asymptomatic people going into care homes from hospital had to be tested, and then there were – further guidance was produced as to the need to test both patients in the care sector and workers, to stop –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – the spread of Covid of course.

Was it the DHSC or was it the Cabinet Office and HMIG which drove the declaration of public policies as to who would be tested? Who was driving the declarations that the time had now come for patients from hospital to be tested or residents and workers in the care sector to be tested?

Mr Simon Ridley: So responsibility for developing the advice in these areas lay with DHSC, resting on clinical and medical advice. Those were decisions, therefore, that rested with the Secretary of State for Health, though this was an area, as there were with many in the pandemic, where there were trade-offs between different groups when there was a general constraint on testing, so other public sector groups were interested in testing – we had debates about prisons, we had debates about other areas – and so those discussions often came to either HMIG or the PM’s meeting for the sort of broader perspective, but – so we were driving it from HMIG, if you like, to make sure there was a clear position. Actually I think similar discussions were had in GPS MIG and elsewhere about other groups. The advice came through DHSC, if that is clear.

Lead Inquiry: And lastly on this topic, again because we’re concerned in this module with central government and the highest level of decision-making, is it fair to say that the Cabinet Office, Number 10 and the Prime Minister personally became extremely concerned about the position within the care sector and whether or not policies were being promulgated and publicly announced to the effect that certain people would be tested, when there just wasn’t in practice the tests available to make good on those policies?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, yes, there was great concern from the Prime Minister, colleagues in Number 10, the Cabinet Office about the position in care homes and what could be done to mitigate it. That wasn’t just about testing.

Lead Inquiry: No, but my question was. There was concern generally about the sector and, of course, the vulnerability of the persons within it –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – as well as the discharge policy from hospital to the care sector?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, there was – there was concern about the implications of that, but I think everyone was agreed that we needed to discharge people from the NHS given the rise in Covid infections and hospitalisations and the need to have space and capacity for them.

Lead Inquiry: The imperative of freeing up space in the NHS by way of bed capacity took primacy over the care sector, the destination of where those patients went?

Mr Simon Ridley: So that is precisely what we were – what the government was balancing. And, yes, in – it was the case that it was a priority for discharge to happen, and as we – as the HMIG discussions were about, what the support and mitigations for care home and the care sector were, there were some limitations to that in terms of testing capacity.

Lead Inquiry: But it wasn’t a balance, was it?

Mr Simon Ridley: Well –

Lead Inquiry: The prime – excuse me.

Mr Simon Ridley: Sorry.

Lead Inquiry: The primary obligation was to free up space in the NHS, and that was done, but without, because of the exigencies of time and capacity, a full understanding of what the impact would be on the care sector in relation to which there was, firstly, no policy of testing and, secondly, no practical means of ensuring testing across the board?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, we were using the HMIG discussions to flush out those issues.

Lead Inquiry: We come now, then, to – if we can move forward, please, to May 2020. The Inquiry has heard evidence about how, at the heart of government, there was an understanding that there was a need to change these ministerial official bodies, the MIG structure, and to put into place a new structure that could cope with the ever changing and no doubt increasing demands of the Covid crisis.

You were appointed director general for policy and strategy on the Covid Taskforce in May 2020, were you not?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I was.

Lead Inquiry: In summary, what were the reasons for the change from the MIG structure to the Covid Taskforce structure, as you saw them to be, in May 2020?

Mr Simon Ridley: I set some of this out in my statement, and you have heard evidence previous to me about the ways of working in the Cabinet Office and Number 10 through some of this period. I think that a number of things happened through the second half of March and April that led to the need for change. I mean, the first was that it became increasingly clear that the combination of the four ministerial implementation groups and the 9.15 meeting create – kind of created a number of overlaps. So, I mean, we talked about shielding, a lot of those issues were in the health ministerial implementation group, but some of the issues around wider support were in the GPS MIG. To take an issue like PPE, we were concerned in the HMIG about stocks. Actually there was a big international set of issues about this because of the procurement from abroad and there were issues in the GPS MIG about PPE for prison officers, schools, et cetera.

And then secondly, because of the number of issues that ended up being discussed at the 9.15 meeting there wasn’t a sort of tidy funnel if you like, from four MIGs to a sort of central strategy. So it became a kind of noisy structure over time.

Equally, that meant for key colleagues in Number 10 and the Prime Minister and indeed other secretaries of state and departments, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for what a lot of the time. That was exacerbated by the fact that a number of us, in terms of the leadership in the Cabinet Office, got Covid through that period, so we were also – you know, as we went through March and April, different colleagues were off for two, sometimes more weeks at a time, so we were then filling in for each other, which sort of further confused the – the picture, and it became, to improve the efficiency with which we worked and the effectiveness with which we worked, a need to sort of bring all of that much more together and, crucially, to be clear who was responsible for what.

The second part of it – that’s inside the Cabinet Office.

The second part of it was that there was a significant degree of duplication between what we were doing in the Cabinet Office and some of the work being done in Number 10 through Tom Shinner and his team, and I worked closely with Tom in March and April on the relevant things, but we were parts of different – different units, and there was a need to bring that together. And in part because of all of this and because of some of the challenges of the working environment, there was a need for a bit of a reset, and that led – that meant ending the arrangements that ran to the end of May and moving to what became the taskforce.

Lead Inquiry: You’ve referred to overlapping boundaries, a lack of direction, a lack of clarity as to who was leading in what area, and were there prosaically just too many meetings, too much time spent on trying to work out what discussions should take place at which meetings?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. I mean, I think that is true inside the Cabinet Office. I think it was also confusing for colleagues in other departments because they might – if you have to go to a – most Cabinet committee meetings are preceded by an officials’ meeting chaired by the secretary or a member of the secretariat team. If you’re in the Department of Health and Social Care, incredibly busy across all of this, and you’re trying to feed people for an HMIG officials’ meeting and a GPS MIG officials’ meeting and an International MIG officials’ meeting, then there was too much activity.

Lead Inquiry: A profusion of officialdom?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, if you like.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

The Inquiry’s heard evidence, Mr Ridley, of a paper prepared by Sir Mark Sedwill, as he then was, to the Prime Minister, also of a paper prepared by Helen MacNamara, who then became subsequently the Deputy Cabinet Secretary, called How we Govern, and I think there was a paper from Martin Reynolds and Helen MacNamara on working practices.

Were they the genesis for the establishment of the Covid Taskforce or was the genesis to be found elsewhere?

Mr Simon Ridley: I think they were an important part of it. I think a number of conversations were happening and a number of things were happening coming from, you know, a lot of the same places, and there was, as we went through, I think probably the end of April, certainly into early May, pretty much a consensus that we needed to shift the way we were –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Simon Ridley: – we were working.

Lead Inquiry: The Covid Taskforce is described by you in your statement as a “whole of government” effort and you describe how it led official advice in the centre of government, so the advice to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to ministers, and that it brought together all the policy and key issues required to respond to the Covid crisis; is that a fair summary of the width of the Covid Taskforce?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think so.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Could we have a look at INQ000248852, which is your statement, at page 10, paragraph 2.21. We can see from this paragraph right at the bottom of the page:

“The Taskforce had a number of focused teams working with other departments on a range of areas … While responsibility for delivery … lay with departments and other relevant bodies (such as NHS Test and Trace), the … teams in the Taskforce contributed to policy development and helped ensure that collectively … policies were delivered effectively.”

So the Covid Taskforce was the body at the centre, within the Cabinet Office of course, which liaised with and worked closely with all the line departments and other bodies that were producing, procuring equipment, delivering, I suppose you would call it, the policies, but the CTF brought it all together in the centre?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, and I think I would – the Covid Taskforce was different from the MIG secretariat teams, in that the MIG secretariat teams effectively were the secretary to the committee and didn’t do a huge amount other than bring information together, seek to push key priority issues, assure the centre and provide information and advice in to the Prime Minister.

The Covid Taskforce had a broader remit, we did have a team that was the secretary to the Covid Operations Committee and the Covid Strategy Committee throughout the period, but we were a much broader team, also responsible for developing and getting agreed the overall strategy of the response and some key policy areas. The delivery was absolutely with line departments.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Page 8 on this document, paragraph 2.14, we can see something of the links between the Covid Taskforce to other bodies and other entities in government. You liaise with analysts across government, with SAGE, the subgroups, the CMO, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England, ONS, Treasury, as you would expect, BEIS, and the Behavioural Insights unit.

You, I think, were responsible for three of the six groups or teams within the Covid Taskforce, so you were responsible for vulnerable and shielding, strategy and roadmap, and policy.

Do you think that the CTF worked well as an overarching body designed to replace the HMIG system and designed to improve what was then becoming apparent was an underperforming structure?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, in summary, yes, I do, I think from the very beginning reducing to a single team with a clear lead, which initially was Simon Case, as the permanent secretary to Number 10, bringing myself and Tom Shinner and a number of colleagues into the same team, so we had a single team at the centre, did work.

I mean, from May, you know, we had to build the team up, and we had to develop the capability and capacity over a period of time, but it was a structure that endured from the end of May 2020 all the way through to spring 2022.

Lead Inquiry: So it passed the test of time, it carried on?

Mr Simon Ridley: It passed the test of time, and I think we got more effective as we went on.

Lead Inquiry: It obviously liaised very closely with the Prime Minister, Number 10 staff, with central government. Did it also set up deep dive meetings for various entities and personnel in government to look at particular areas in real detail?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Did it also – was it also responsible for providing dashboard briefings in Number 10, so the provision of data across the Covid response?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. I mean, the dashboard started earlier in the spring, it was run by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. We continued to develop that dashboard in the Cabinet Office. The dashboard passed to the taskforce I think in June, and from that period on our data and analysis team presented that dashboard to Number 10 and colleagues most mornings for the rest of the pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: You’ve mentioned the Cabinet committees Covid-S and Covid-O. The Covid Taskforce, as you say, was the secretariat for those meetings. Presumably it provided the agendas, it commissioned the paperwork, it organised the meetings?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Give us some idea of the scale of the exercise. I mean, how many Covid-O ministerial meetings did the CTF arrange?

Mr Simon Ridley: So there were a few over 200 Covid operations committees between May/June 2020 and 2022. It was the core ministerial forum throughout the pandemic in terms of taking advice for ministers to make decisions. It was – it met through 2020, I would say, you know, most days. It often met late. If we had to respond very quickly to issues it often met at the weekend. We held an official meeting before Covid-O to make sure departments knew – were involved in the development of the papers. A lot of papers were produced by departments. We didn’t produce all the papers from the Cabinet Office, but there were some issues in which we did.

So it was an absolutely critical part of the decision-making structure that was put in place.

Lead Inquiry: And presumably there were thousands of actions ordered to be done as a result of the Covid-O meetings?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Was the CTF responsible for those?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, we were responsible for getting those actions out. We tracked those actions through the period, and we worked incredibly closely with Number 10, the Treasury, other departments as necessary. A lot of meetings led to agreement on policy and there was a sort of subsequent announcement and the press notices or the guidance changes or everything else that went around that, and we were the people at the centre assuring ourselves that all of that happened as the government intended.

Lead Inquiry: You referred to policy. Could you just give us an understanding of the division of responsibility between the various bodies as to the formulation of policy as to non-pharmaceutical interventions in the second half of 2020? So who or which entity provided the Prime Minister and Covid-O and ministers with advice as to what should be done in terms of interventions? Was it something that was exclusively the domain of the Covid Taskforce? Was it a matter for the CMO and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to communicate to the Prime Minister? Or did responsibility lie elsewhere?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, in terms of advice to the Prime Minister, official advice from the civil service to the Prime Minister on non-pharmaceutical interventions came from the taskforce, in – we developed that working closely with the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer, with in particular the Department of Health and the Treasury, often a wide range of other departments.

Particular issues that came to Covid-O would sometimes come from other departments, particularly the Department for Health, so I think we will come on to this, but some of the papers on tiering came from the Department of Health, for example, at the – at points in the autumn, and then there were clearly discussions of some of these issues in other – other meetings between secretaries of state, and secretaries of state, the Health Secretary or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, provided at key points in the year their own input to the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Were there meetings of Covid-O to which the CMO or the CSA, for example, contributed in the absence of the Covid Taskforce, or were there meetings with the Prime Minister where the Prime Minister received advice from the CMO and the CSA in the absence of the Covid Taskforce? There appears to be a conduit by which information was provided to the Prime Minister, in particular from SAGE, through the funnel, the conduit of the CMO and the CSA. Was that a conduit to which the Covid Taskforce was always party?

Mr Simon Ridley: So there’s quite a lot there. The answer to your question at the end is: no, there was definitely a conduit of information from – the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer gave advice to the Prime Minister via electronic or personal means without the taskforce.

Covid-O, as a Cabinet committee, was always secretariated by the taskforce. The CMO and Chief Scientific Adviser were at most of those, and inputted into those. We developed papers with them, but they would give their own views in the committee when asked or moved to do so. In other meetings with the Prime Minister there were some which involved the taskforce and both the CMO and Chief Scientific Adviser, and there were some I am sure, but I wouldn’t know, which involved them but not us.

Lead Inquiry: My last question on this topic: was the Covid Taskforce concerned, therefore, that there were regular meetings or regular opportunities whereby the Prime Minister asked the CMO and the CSA and his closest advisers, perhaps, on what should be done, what practical steps should be taken to address the spread of the virus in – particularly in the autumn of 2020, in your absence, in the absence of the CTF, the body strategically and operationally concerned with providing advice to the centre of government concerning the proper response to the virus?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, I don’t think – well, I was not concerned about that, and I don’t think as the Covid Taskforce we were concerned about that. We worked very closely with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser throughout the period, they were very generous with their time and advice for us, and it was not our role to provide scientific or medical advice to the Prime Minister. That was their role. It was our role to provide policy advice to the Prime Minister about the actions he could or should take in response to that advice and, indeed, input from other government departments on a range of other issues.

The Prime Minister certainly contacted Chris and Patrick to get their advice, but I … there was no point in the period where I felt we weren’t either able to discuss with colleagues in Number 10 the nature of the discussion, or to discuss with the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser what they were saying. We attended SAGE, we read the papers, we had the minutes, that was all very much in the open, obviously.

Mr Keith: That’s a very convenient point.

Lady Hallett: I think you were warned that we take breaks, Mr Ridley. We will break now and I shall return at 11.30.

(11.14 am)

(A short break)

(11.30 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Mr Ridley, the data provided by the Covid Taskforce, in your statement, paragraph 2.12 and 2.13, you say that the analytical capability of the taskforce “comprised thematic teams covering health, science, economics, behavioural insights, social policy and public services, plus long range foresight and at that time functions”.

So was the taskforce able to bring together data and information across the whole breadth of all the areas engaged by the Covid pandemic? So you weren’t just providing scientific advice, for example, you were providing data and insights from across the range of these areas?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, that is – that is correct. Through the dashboard and through the broader work that we did. It’s a capability we built through the summer and early autumn of 2020, but by the – sort of October- ish 2020 it was probably about – a team of about hundred strong doing that, doing that work.

Lead Inquiry: Do we take it from that answer, Mr Ridley, that until the early autumn, or rather in the months before the early autumn, the provision of data and information gradually increased –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – until such a point where you were confident that your policy work and your strategy was fully informed by as much data and information as you could reasonably gather?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. I think that is correct. We were using – we were using data and analysis as we went through the period, but the sources of data grew as time went by and our ability to bring it together increased.

Lead Inquiry: So by way of an example, when advising in the autumn on non-pharmaceutical interventions or what interventions generally the government could consider imposing, was the advice that the taskforce gave as informed by economic considerations and social considerations as well as by the health and scientific ramifications of whatever it was you were advising?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. I mean, to take a slightly – at each of the steps of the 11 May 2020 roadmap, we provided advice to the Prime Minister and others about opening up through the summer of 2020, that advice was informed by an assessment of the five tests in that May document, but which also added to that advice sections on the economic impacts and implications and the social impacts and implications as well as the health issues.

Similarly, as we got into the autumn, we were providing the information and the analysis we had on the economy and society as well as on the NHS and the direct Covid impacts.

Lead Inquiry: An important part of the overall data and analytical capability identified in your statement was the ICJU, the International Comparators Joint Unit. What was that?

Mr Simon Ridley: So the ICJU was a partnership between the Joint Intelligence Organisation in the Cabinet Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It was a team that was brought together essentially to do a bit – what it says on the tin, to provide international comparisons of different issues. It was incredibly important from the beginning that we had an international perspective and understood, you know, what was happening in other countries and what the impact of different policies different countries were putting in place was. So the – when Rob Harrison joined as our director general for analysis in October 2020 he’d been doing that work in the Cabinet Office and we brought the ICJU sort of much more alongside the taskforce. They produced a number of really helpful pieces of work. There was a recurring piece about NPIs and social distancing, looking at what different countries were doing, the kind of different stringency levels that different countries had in place, as well as producing reports on different specific issues as they came up.

Lead Inquiry: So do you consider that the UK Government was well sighted on how other countries were responding to the common threat of the virus and on the detail of the various strategies, policies and plans that they put into place?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, and the – I mean, the ICJU wasn’t the only source of that. Through the dashboard we drew on other, you know, datasets about the growth of the virus, for example, or the path of the virus in other countries, so we were demonstrating where we were in terms of prevalence alongside other European countries and other countries at kind of all parts of the pandemic. We worked closely on key issues with ambassadors in various countries and working with the FCDO where there were specific issues that we wanted to dive into. So we had various means of bringing international comparisons to bear.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Now I want to turn, please, to the position that confronted the government in the late summer, so late June and throughout July and August. As a result of the first national lockdown, if we may call it that, the prevalence of the virus was low, wasn’t it?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: How quickly did it become apparent that the prevalence of the virus was ticking up, that infections were rising?

Mr Simon Ridley: So … I mean, it was – I mean, as with all these things – so it became clear in August, if you – well, no. The key data we had at this – at this point was the ONS infection survey which had started up and which was an invaluable source of information as we went into the later part of the summer and into the autumn, that had not been there in the – in the spring.

The ONS survey started to show a – you know, flattening off and then a small rise as we got into August, a small rise from low levels, and that came through the dashboard, I also had specific discussions with, you know, Ian Diamond at the ONS and with Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, and there was a lot of discussion about the risk of opening up exacerbating that rise.

I think on the data itself, I mean, there was uncertainty about the rate at which it would – it would rise until we kind of – as we get into later August and September, it’s sort of more clearly on an upward path.

Lead Inquiry: There was a perennial risk or a permanent risk, continuing risk, wasn’t there, that as soon as the country opened up, the virus would reappear? So prevalence and whether or not the infections were beginning to tick up was of huge importance, wasn’t it? You had to keep a very close eye on the way in which the virus developed thereafter?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. That – and we did. I’ve just said something about the national level. We also, through the work that was happening in what was the JBC and Department of Health, we were seeing local outbreaks –

Lead Inquiry: Just pause there.

Mr Simon Ridley: – if you want to come back to that –

Lead Inquiry: When you say, correctly, JBC, do you mean –

Mr Simon Ridley: Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Mr Simon Ridley: But the information – we got improved information via DHSC on local outbreaks, so as well as the national picture we were very closely monitoring, for the reasons we say, and it was actually – I mean, as far back as June, that there was the outbreak in Leicester –

Lead Inquiry: I’m going to pause you there, because we’re going to come back to the detail in due course.

Mr Simon Ridley: Okay.

Lead Inquiry: I just want to establish the level of concern in the late summer as to the re-emergence of the virus. Was it generally understood that viruses come in waves –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and that as soon as the prevalence began to rise, and the infections re-emerged, that there would likely be a second wave?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, so – yes, it was understood they came in waves, and there was without question an understanding of a risk of the second wave.

Lead Inquiry: The whole debate in March, or at least late February, early March, had been how to deal with the first wave in a way that ensured that the virus didn’t recoil like an uncoiled spring into a devastating second wave. So the whole idea of a second wave came as no surprise to anybody, did it?

Mr Simon Ridley: No.

Lead Inquiry: Throughout that late summer and into the early autumn there was, therefore, this constant tension between the scientific and medical understanding that if you open up the country, the virus would likely re-emerge with great force, and the need to ensure that economically and societally the country could be returned back to something approaching normal as quickly as possible. That tension never went away, did it?

Mr Simon Ridley: No. There was – I mean, the only thing – there was throughout a need to balance the requirement to suppress the transmission of Covid, because of the direct health impacts of that, and the economic, social and, indeed, broader health consequences of lockdown or very stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions, and that was the case throughout the two-year period.

Lead Inquiry: Could we look at an email from Tom Shinner dated 21 June, INQ000174752. Not an email, I’m sorry, a document.

Tom Shinner was part of the Covid Taskforce, was he not?

Mr Simon Ridley: He was at this point, yes.

Lead Inquiry: At this point. This is addressed to Simon Case, who, with you, was effectively in charge of the Covid Taskforce at this time in June:

“14 weeks to prepare for winter.”

Page 1, paragraph 3:

“What follows is a ‘straw man’ for your consideration and refinement; … [these] are the biggest current barriers and suggest pursuing five operational and five organisational actions with immediate effect …

“i. Develop a contingency playbook …

“ii. Replenish … stockpiles …

“iii. Enhance the senior scrutiny … on winter operational planning work …

“iv. Prepare a concerted behavioural influence campaign …

“v. Re-task the JIO …”

If we could just scroll back out, in paragraph 2 we can see Mr Shinner says:

“I think we are more vulnerable to a second wave of COVID than is apparent …”

Was it generally understood in June that we were vulnerable to a second wave of Covid and perhaps more so than was appreciated by some?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think we knew and it was clear that we were vulnerable to a second wave of Covid. I think there was a question about the extent to which there was hope or optimism bias against that, but I think the risk of it was known.

Lead Inquiry: In that paragraph 3, and also in the following paragraph, paragraph 4, we can see Mr Shinner makes a number of recommendations. In relation to the organisations he suggests rehabilitating and reforming Public Health England, restaffing key leadership roles, defining clear responsibilities across government, developing a central analytical function, redesigning the Covid Taskforce.

To what extent were any of these practical suggestions adopted, do you recall?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we – I mean, do you mean specifically paragraph 4 –

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Simon Ridley: – or do you mean the note more broadly?

So they – a number of these in paragraph 4 were adopted. The organisation of the various new structures in DHSC, ie Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre and PHE, were ultimately brought together. There – I mean, I can’t talk with authority about staffing across all of government, but there was – there were a number of places where senior staffing was strengthened, including in the Covid Taskforce, where we recruited Kate Josephs as a delivery director general succeeding Tom, and then Rob Harrison, as I’ve said, to – as a director general responsible for analysis.

I mean, we worked very closely from the Covid Taskforce across Whitehall. I chaired very regular meetings with directors general across departments, and indeed there was a regular Cabinet Secretary-led meeting for 2020.

We – we didn’t bring other departmental leads physically into the same team, we maintained the taskforce as structured in the Cabinet Office, as I’ve talked about. Number 4 was – was done.

We didn’t restructure the Covid Taskforce precisely as Tom describes here, but we did reorganise it as we went through the summer after Kate arrived and we brought more capability in. I can talk in more detail if that would be helpful.

Lead Inquiry: That would tend to suggest that the Covid Taskforce was on top of its game, it was aware of the need to perfect the position, perfect the system in order to prepare for the inevitable second wave?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we certainly – I mean, I wouldn’t want to overstate in terms of perfection, but we had learnt a lot in the spring, we wanted the Covid Taskforce to be in as strong a position in the centre of government as possible and we wanted to be working with Whitehall departments and with others to be prepared, and we were doing a lot of work through the summer to that end in terms of work on NPIs and how we could develop them in terms of scenario planning and some sessions that we had with Number 10 colleagues and the Prime Minister and others through the summer.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

INQ000265766, please, at page 3. This is a communication, a WhatsApp, between yourself and Simon Case. We can see at 21.22:

“Simon Ridley: Spoke to CMO/[Patrick Vallance] about next steps. They caution against doing much at all beyond outdoor sports/arts this month before seeing impact of the weekend changes. Their other big worry is keeping headroom to reopen schools safely come September.”

So the scientific and medical advice, if you like, from that quarter was very much towards making sure that the country didn’t open up too much too rapidly, that there was a constant risk that if things were opened up too much it would allow an opportunity for the virus to re-emerge faster than would otherwise be the case. That was the debate?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes. I mean, I think – absolutely. I think the other point that this is a very brief summary of was that seeing the impact of changes took time, and they were – they were cautioning against putting change upon change before knowing where we were.

Lead Inquiry: In general terms, in the summer, was the policy and the course adopted by the government in line with the CTF’s own views as to what should be done cautiously, safely, and in such a way as not to allow the virus to re-emerge?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, so we were bringing this view together. There was also, in a number of departments around Whitehall, a desire to get sectors re-opened. There was a significant economic and social cost to the length of time different sectors had been closed.

So in the taskforce we were trying to understand that and the implications of that and develop, you know, guidance around being Covid-secure, for example, to enable opening up, to mitigate these risks that the Chief Medical Officer and the Scientific Adviser were articulating.

Lead Inquiry: We appreciate the CTF was trying to understand the significant economic and social costs and work out the balance between the costs of intervention –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – and the costs on society at large of those interventions. But in a general sense, was what the CTF was recommending in terms of the general strategy of the government, the general course, that which the government actually adopted?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we were – we were governed through the summer by the five tests in the May 2020 document, which were about the capacity of the NHS, about our readiness on – kind of operationally on issues like PPE, about the direction of the virus, and we were couching our advice through that.

We were – we were certainly, in our advice, seeking to minimise the risks of a significant second wave, but we were balancing that against various other issues and in general advising a course consistent with …

Lead Inquiry: So in the CTF’s role as bringing together in one body the policy and strategy for responding to Covid and for liaising with and synthesising all the data and the approaches from the line departments, what was the CTF’s view on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme?

Mr Simon Ridley: The Eat Out to Help Out scheme didn’t come through me or the taskforce, it was decided by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor as far as I am aware.

Lead Inquiry: So the Covid Taskforce, by August, had been in place, had been formally announced in June but you had been operational since May. You were the single body tasked with synthesising the policy and strategy for responding to the virus and giving advice to government on how it should be responded to, but you did not advise on, you did not comment on, you weren’t even asked to consider the merits of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme?

Mr Simon Ridley: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: When you first discovered that that was what was being proposed by HMT, what did you do?

Mr Simon Ridley: Erm … I mean, I think – I can’t recall exactly the – you know, the first things that we did. I mean, I think to be – in terms of my – my role, internalise that as government policy, and what that meant alongside the other decisions that we were – we were taking, I don’t recall that there was, at that point, a prediction, if you like, of the impacts of it over the next few weeks, but it obviously factored into future advice.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Ridley, you were or you were shortly to become the leader of the CTF. I think you and Mr Bowler and Mr Case were the driving forces behind the CTF. You were in charge of the body which was convened, designed, operated to bring together at the heart of government all the policy and the strategy relating to the response to the virus. You must have been extraordinarily concerned that a major plank of the government’s strategy, a positive scheme to financially support people to eat out across those midweek days in August, had not been brought to you for your views?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, I … things – things happen that surprise – I mean, we were – we were focused on the advice we could – we could give in the context of the steps of the May 2020 – 20 – document. You know, there was – this was announced as government policy. I didn’t spend time worrying particularly about the whys and wherefores of that.

Lead Inquiry: Because you were effectively completely blindsided by the Treasury and there was nothing you could do?

Mr Simon Ridley: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

The Covid-19 recovery strategy was published on 24 July 2020. Could we have INQ000137239, page 1, and then page 5, I think, for the index:

“Suppressing the Virus

“Opening up Society …

“Continuing our Plan to Rebuild.”

On page 13, at the third paragraph, there is a reference to:

“The Government is undertaking preparations to make sure that we are as ready as possible for the risk of a resurgence in the virus between November and March.”

Did the CTF have a hand in the preparation of this document?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, we would have been – well, we were, sorry, the lead drafters of this document.

Lead Inquiry: What preparations was the government undertaking? What in practice, what in reality were those preparations? Can you give us some idea.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah. So the government was continuing to build the infrastructure and capacity of the test, trace and isolate system, led by Dido Harding, Department of Health and Social Care. We were doing lots of work on local interventions, again led in large part through DHSC, but we were bringing that together with other government departments. We did a lot of work under the banner of smarter NPIs to try to explore different ways in which it might be possible to reduce social contact and suppress the virus with less economic or social impact, and support other things besides. I mean, there was tonnes of work on the vaccine going on, for example, although we were not expecting that by November, we were hopeful we would have, as indeed we did, a vaccine in place by March.

Lead Inquiry: Putting aside the vaccines, which obviously are a huge topic on their own, and putting aside the test and trace, which of course was led – the NHS Test and Trace by that stage was led by Baroness Harding. What preparations in practice were being made in terms of, as you say, exploring different ways in which it might be possible to reduce social contact and suppress the virus? Do you mean papers or policy documents were drawn up saying, “Well, there is this tension between suppressing the virus and continuing to damage the economy”? Or do you mean there were policy documents identifying particular NPIs or restrictions which could be contemplated in the future? What –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – did that policy consist of?

Mr Simon Ridley: So that’s what we had been looking at through June and July, very much in the context of the very significant social and economic harms of the national – of a national lockdown, and wanting to be as prepared as possible as we went into the autumn for how we could mitigate a second wave without having to do a subsequent national lockdown.

We – I mean, in terms of the practical things we were doing, we ran a piece of work, I mean, as I say, under the title of “smarter NPIs”, to explore what the possibilities were. That involved colleagues from across government, particularly Health, the Treasury and others. We were looking at ways in which, for example, you know, we can encourage safer behaviours from people, we were looking at enforcement and compliance with regulations, we were looking at the possibilities of and how we could use local interventions rather than national interventions. We did a big piece of work on – it was called segmentation, which is essentially a sort of, if you like, a kind of harder and broader form of shielding is one way to think of it. So is there a way of protecting and, if you like, restricting the movement of more vulnerable portions of society and letting those less likely to suffer severe consequences of Covid to go about their lives more normally.

Lead Inquiry: Just on this subject of segmentation, so in essence part of what had hitherto in February/March been the mitigation strategy, which was trying to see whether or not there were parts of the population who could be segmented, safely contained in a way that would protect them in the event of a re-emergence of a second wave?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, and through a second wave.

Lead Inquiry: Your statement makes plain that there were two occasions when the government dug down into the issue of segmentation after the first wave, firstly in September 2020 and then at the end of 2021 with the Omicron wave. Why in September 2020 was it decided that measures for segmentation were impractical and, therefore, not to be pursued?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we did a detailed – well, we did this very much jointly with – in fact I think Treasury seconded a colleague into the taskforce to support us to do this work, very much a joint piece of work. I mean, the reason why a so sort of – if you like, a kind of hard form of this we didn’t think could work, was a combination of practical reasons, just keeping people away and isolated from the virus for a long period of time is ultimately sort of just practically too difficult. Part –

Lead Inquiry: Just pause there –

Mr Simon Ridley: Oh, sorry.

Lead Inquiry: – before we come to the second part. Was not the idea of segmentation merely a revised or recalibrated form of shielding? In the early part of the year the government had been able to put into place a practice whereby – you described it as low millions, but low millions of people in the population were effectively and well shielded, so wasn’t segmentation just a variant of that?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, so in a way – in a way, yes, but it was broader and deeper, and the purpose of it was to allow, if you like, life for others to go on broadly as normal. Whereas we were preparing the shielding to protect people, you know, including through a lockdown where there was much less social contact. So the prevalence was going – going down. The idea of segmentation was to enable people to be away from a virus when it was running rife potentially for much longer, because those people who were not segmented, if you like, were going about their normal business and you would expect a very high level of transmission of the disease between those people.

Lead Inquiry: How seriously was segmentation considered? You’re aware, of course, of the debate surrounding the second lockdown, as to whether or not a lockdown was avoidable, inevitable, whether or not there was an alternative path that could have been adopted whereby a segment of the population were segmented?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: In this work in September, to what extent did you seriously consider segmentation and satisfactorily resolve that it wasn’t possible?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I think we did the detailed work in – from August. We did a – we did a, I think, substantial piece of work through that summer. I recall I put a detailed piece of advice up to the Prime Minister, I think in September. There were various products as a result of that work that came about from talking to, you know, colleagues across Whitehall from – to the Chief Medical Officer and his deputy – his deputies, to the Chief Scientific Adviser.

We were learning from shielding, and indeed it was clear by that point that there were some benefits to shielding but there were also some real downsides to shielding and from being isolated for a long period of time without access to people. So we took all of that into account and we thought about what would happen – how do you come out of – how would you come out of segmentation and how realistically can you kind of get to that point.

So it was a detailed piece of work, and I think we were – we were confident at the end of it that that being a strategy through the wave would be unlikely to succeed on its own terms.

Lead Inquiry: Just help us more with the reason why it didn’t or couldn’t work. Are you, by reference to the issue of the real downsides to shielding and from being isolated for a long period and what would happen, referring there to the practicalities, how do you physically segment 1.5, 2 million or more people, mindful of course that you had successfully shielded a very large number of people in the spring, or are you referring to the more conceptual issue of, well, is it feasible to make people segment themselves and to be segmented for such a lengthy period of time, that is to say the period of time required to be segmented whilst a second wave washes through?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think both of those. I mean, to take – take a practical example, I mean, there are an awful lot of mixed generation households in the country or households where there is one person who is clinically extremely vulnerable. If you’ve got a household where one or two people are – if you like, need to be segmented, others are going to work or going to school or going shopping, to the cinema, et cetera, they come back home, if that home has only got one bathroom … there are all manner of just prac – the idea that the virus could – there could be a barrier between one half of society and the other half of society which this virus is going to very rarely cross, we could not see a way in which you could practically manage that sufficiently.

Lead Inquiry: There was never going to be a hermetic seal, there could never be a hermetic seal, that barrier would always be permeable. But in the spring, the government had been able in practice to provide a measure of protection to those persons who were shielding, because they had food delivered, they had medicine delivered, they had services provided, because they were, in practice, being segmented. Why couldn’t that have been done again? With the requisite political will, why couldn’t that have been done in practice?

Mr Simon Ridley: We were doing that in March through a period of a national lockdown, while prevalence was coming down and people were not going to restaurants, pubs, shops, et cetera. The premise of shielding was that we wouldn’t have to cause that social and economic harm because the rest of society would be left open, and therefore you would have very high levels of prevalence while you were trying to maintain the safety and separation of the segmented population. So I totally agree, we didn’t put up a straw man of a hermetically sealed border, if you like, or boundary, but the context this was being thought of was not the same as the context of shielding in March and how do we give people that extra safety at a time when we’re trying to manage the virus down.

Lead Inquiry: But the persons who were shielded in the spring were of course physically and mentally isolated by virtue of the national lockdown –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and of course by the necessary isolation brought by the need to be shielded. In the autumn, it would have been possible or it could have been possible to put into place a revised system of shielding, of segmentation, because you had the practical measures in place, but was it thought that because of the general prevalence of the virus in society, even that degree of shielding, being segmented, would be insufficient to protect those individuals because the virus was rampant in society, that it just wouldn’t work in terms of protecting them? Is that the thinking behind the decision?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, essentially. I mean, we did use advice to the clinically extremely vulnerable, and indeed there was clinical advice about who the right groups of people were through the autumn and indeed into 2021. We did use shielding. The point was we didn’t think that was a way to avoid other NPIs and enable the rest of society and economy to go on as – as normal.

Lead Inquiry: But if the level of prevalence, if the degree of infection in society had been able to be brought down somewhat, from the highest possible level, perhaps by tiers, perhaps by regional firebreakers, or whatever it is, why couldn’t, with a slightly lower or a significantly lower prevalence, segmentation not have been introduced in the autumn in order to avoid the consequences of a full national lockdown?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I – as I say, the conclusion of the work we did was that we did not think it would be possible to manage the virus and the pressures on the NHS through segmentation as our primary strategy. We did use shielding alongside other NPIs, tiers, et cetera, that is – and local restrictions. That is where we’d got to, as we got to September, October, November.

Lead Inquiry: On 16 September, there was a meeting with the Prime Minister attended by the Chief Medical Officer and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I don’t think I have available the notes of the actual meeting, but from a read-out note prepared by Imran Shafi, it does seem that there was a considerable debate about the reasonable worst-case scenario and that, with no action, the United Kingdom could again see deaths running at 200 to 500 deaths a day. Were you present at that strategy meeting on 16 September?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think I was, if it’s the meeting in the afternoon of that day. I think that was a meeting which was an opportunity for the Chief Medical Adviser and the Chief Scientific Adviser to gave their views on where we were to the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: They were obviously setting out the basic position in terms of what might happen if no action was taken. Was there any debate, though, about specific policies or measures which might be contemplated, for example circuit breakers or regional firebreaks or however you might want to call them?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, I don’t recall in detail, it wasn’t a meeting that we put propositions to or – sorry, to – the papers to. It was mostly to discuss the context and where –

Lead Inquiry: Where you were heading?

Mr Simon Ridley: Where we were heading and – where we were and where we were heading and where this might get to over the coming weeks. I’m sure there will have been discussions of particular measures, but it was not a meeting to decide those – those sorts of things.

Lead Inquiry: It seems from Mr Shafi’s notes that the Prime Minister asked to explore “a range of views from different scientists”. Do you recall the Prime Minister asking to hear a range of what might be described as alternative views from other scientists?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think I – I think I do, I think it came out of that meeting.

Lead Inquiry: Did you ask or did you ponder why he was seeking those views when he had, of course, the benefit of advice from SAGE, communicated through the CMO and CSA, and all the work, the policy and strategy and data from the Covid Taskforce?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, not beyond thinking it was – you know, why not bring a wide range of views in? It was important to understand perspectives. If the Prime Minister wanted different voices then he should just put that in place.

Lead Inquiry: But there was no area of data, policy or strategy which hadn’t been considered by you, the Covid Taskforce, and the combination of the CMO and CSA, was there?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, but there was a more contested debate about the right approach in terms of government action to suppress the virus, there was a greater variation of approaches by different countries in October than there had been in March, and the – you know, we were at a point in time where there was a kind of increasing, you know, risk of a second national lockdown, which the government wanted to avoid as much as possible.

So understanding the broadest range of views – I mean, we provided a wide range of advice in – from the Covid Taskforce, drawing on a number of different people, but I would – I wouldn’t say we captured absolutely every point of view and were able to present that –

Lead Inquiry: The scientists whom the Prime Minister ultimately met included Professor Gupta, Professor Heneghan, and the general proposal which was put before him subsequently in fact at a meeting on 20 September with them and Mr Tegnell of Sweden, the epidemiologist, was that it would be possible or it was possible to have a structure whereby a large part or a proportion of the population was indeed segmented and that this was a proper and useful way to avoid the calamitous consequences of a lockdown, and that approach became known in part – or a variant thereof became known as the Great Barrington approach.

At that meeting on 16 September did the Prime Minister call for a range of different views because the notion of segmentation had already been essentially turned down by the Covid Taskforce at that time? You had advised on 7 September that you didn’t think it would work. Was this call by the Prime Minister a reflection of his frustration at the fact that segmentation had been practically excluded by the Covid Taskforce?

Mr Simon Ridley: I don’t – I mean, I don’t – I think you’d have to ask the Prime Minister. I don’t think I can answer – I can answer that. But it was certainly the case that we were – you know, that the Prime Minister and other secretaries of state were seeking ways of managing the virus short of a national lockdown and that we were operating in a – in a context where we were looking for ways through short of that, in terms of restrictions, for sure.

Lead Inquiry: On 19 September, the Covid Taskforce submitted an advice, the winter strategy advice, to the Prime Minister.

Could we have, please, INQ000137293.

It’s a document from you dated 19 September. Paragraph 1 recognises:

“The infection is spreading rapidly. The 7-day average of confirmed cases has risen from 1,077 in mid-August to [3,600-odd] today and is on a sharply upward trajectory.”

Hospitalisations are increasing.

“SPI-M-O’s view is that, if no further measures are implemented, ‘such a high level of hospital admissions has the potential to overwhelm the NHS in around six weeks’.”

So six weeks from the date of this document, 17 September, is essentially the end of October. Is that correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yep.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister was presented with a number of options. If we look at page 2, paragraph 4:

“You could decide to take minimal action now, with a plan to intervene a couple of weeks hence if the numbers continue to deteriorate. But any intervention is likely to take two or three weeks to have an effect … infections will continue to grow.”

During that time.

If we look at page 3, we can see “Package A: Double down for winter”, which had – these were the least stringent measures, were they not: national address, publication warning, guidance to work at home if people can, more enforcement, hospitality table service only, tweaks to the rule of six.

I think the rule of six had been introduced on Monday 14 September, had it not?

Mr Simon Ridley: It had.

Lead Inquiry: But, paragraph 7, the view of the CMO and the Chief Scientific Adviser was that “unless it prompts a significant behavioural response, Package A is very unlikely to drive R below 1”.

Package A, the use of those words “very unlikely to drive R below 1”, was therefore never really very likely to work. Was it sensibly pursued? Was it advanced sensibly as a practical option?

Mr Simon Ridley: So on, I think – the meeting that discussed this note was the morning of the 20th, and we were – we discussed the trajectory and we discussed actions that could be taken, very much in the context that to drive R below 1 we would need to go further than package A.

Lead Inquiry: The whole point of this meeting was to debate what could be done to reverse the exponential or potential exponential growth of the virus.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: Why was package A even contemplated if it was very unlikely to drive R below 1?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, the first thing to say is there’s sort of – there’s obviously a huge amount of uncertainty in what we were trying to do, which is ultimately to prompt a significant behavioural response. So over the course of the summer, you know, we’d been opening up, people were starting to do more, and the question was – and we had in place a load of measures not covered here in terms of the local restrictions in areas of the greatest outbreaks, and the overall strategy the government was pursuing was still focused on local outbreaks, addressing local outbreaks, testing, tracing and isolating, and prompting compliance.

The question was: what level of further national action could prompt a behavioural response that shifts people back towards avoiding more social contact?

Absolutely, the – so package A was here as, if you like, an absolutely minimal amount of stuff that needs to be done and minimal amount of measures that need to be taken for the next few weeks, but you’re probably going to have to go further.

Lead Inquiry: So it was a makeweight?

Mr Simon Ridley: If you like.

Lead Inquiry: Do you have any views, perhaps with hindsight, on the propriety of advancing a makeweight package –

Lady Hallett: I’m not sure that’s a fair question, Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: All right.

Page 5, paragraphs 11 and 12, in the context of package B:

“This package would be more significant than steps taken in France and Spain … both countries are recording around 10,000 new cases a day. Deaths are rising.”

And 12:

“In addition to this package, the Government should develop a proposal for a much more severe enforcement policy.”

That package B is set out at paragraph 14 on page 5, I believe, “measures for the duration of winter”: reduce household mixing, reduce the number of exceptions to the rule of six, close hospitality 10 pm to 5 am.

And then, page 6, paragraphs 16 to 18, impact on the hospitality sector, more stringent than other European countries. But at 18:

“There is a risk that even a combination of … A and B would fail to bend the curve, leaving R above 1.”

So without answering, I’m just setting out the framework, package C on page 6, 19 to 20, “harder, temporary measures”: ban all contact between households in all settings except for work, advise against travel, closure of leisure and personal care sectors.

Was that the circuit breaker?

Mr Simon Ridley: Essentially, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Right. So the CTF suggested A, a package which was very unlikely to work if the aim was to reduce the R below 1, packages B and C in relation to which you were recommending that a combination of B and C would probably have to be imposed – have to be imposed in order for the aim, the strategic aim to work; is that correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, we were laying out the trajectory that we were on and different ways of changing it.

Lead Inquiry: There was no suggestion in this paper of the tier approach, was there?

Mr Simon Ridley: Erm … no, not explicitly.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Mr Simon Ridley: That debate was –

Lead Inquiry: In October?

Mr Simon Ridley: Well, it was – we would – tiers were being debated in September, because we already had multiple local restrictions in place across the country and there was a need to regularise that.

Lead Inquiry: In October, a system of tiers was introduced, was it not? It was debated, promulgated, announced: effectively regional lockdown measures. And it’s obvious that that was a step short of a lockdown.

Why wasn’t a tier package suggested as part of packages A, B and C and therefore advanced as a way of introducing another form of relatively stringent intervention but short of a lockdown that might have helped to reduce the incidence levels of the virus?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I think the end of this note mentions regional circuit breakers. We – we were debating how to regularise the local restrictions in place at this – at this point. I mean, this, this note was mostly focused on taking a degree of further national action following the introduction of the rule of six, as you say, a week or so earlier, to, you know – to increase the suppression of the virus at a national level alongside the local restrictions that were in place.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Ridley, standing back, in September these packages are proposed, around about the middle of September there is a rule of six imposed; following this meeting the Prime Minister goes for a mixture of B and C.

Mr Simon Ridley: A and B.

Lead Inquiry: Sorry, you’re quite right, A and B. So he doesn’t – he goes in part for a package which has been described as very unlikely on its own to reduce the R below 1, and he takes part of package B, he takes no part of package C. And that is what is announced: essentially curfew at 10 o’clock and some other aspects to do with enforcement and publication and communication and advice.

It doesn’t work, and in October the government introduces a tier system, which we’ll come on to in a moment, and that doesn’t work and we end up in an initial national lockdown.

Why wasn’t that tier system, which might be thought to be short of a national circuit breaker but is undoubtedly more stringent than curfew and restrictions in hospitality, considered in September as a result of all the policy work that the CTF has done, considered and debated upon, so as to give rise to the possibility that, had something more stringent than this been considered in September and imposed, there may not ultimately have been a need for the lockdown that was ultimately imposed?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I … I don’t recall why we haven’t discussed tiering as such in this note, other than the work on local lockdowns was, if you like, already agreed and in the sort of baseline of what we were doing. We were having a discussion about how to regularise that into tiers so there wasn’t the plethora of different arrangements in – in different parts of the country. This note was focused on – on further national action in the main that could be taken, because while the growth of the virus and the outbreaks were still largely at a kind of local and regional level, you know, there was concern that in areas with lower prevalence it would grow over – it would grow over time.

Lead Inquiry: But the tier system, whilst having an impact regionally, because obviously it worked by way of putting every region into one or more – one tier or another, Tiers 1, 2 or 3, was a national system, it applied across the whole of England?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So –

Mr Simon Ridley: But at different – Tier 1 was considerably lower than a mixture of – than some of the things in package A and B.

Lead Inquiry: Yes, but your answer was: this note was focused on national action in the main that could be taken. The tier system was a form of national action, was it not?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, it was a national system.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

On 20 September the Covid Taskforce supplemented this advice by presenting the Prime Minister with hypothetical scenarios of what ministers might be faced with in October if the virus was not brought under control; correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000146611.

So we can see from the top right-hand corner the action:

“Submission to [Prime Minister] on 14 October.”

This was – and the document emphasises it’s “Hypothetical thought-experiment not government policy”. This was a hypothetical scenario put before the Prime Minister in effect to tell him, “If you don’t take certain steps then by 14 October these are the sorts of problems or crises that you may have to confront”; correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Why was it necessary to put that in front of the Prime Minister and, bluntly, scare him or hypothesise as to what terrible dilemmas he might have to face in the future if he didn’t take a decision in September the way that the Covid Taskforce believed he ought?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we were trying to find ways to make sure we were having a debate about the policy decisions needed today to impact where we would be in several weeks’ time. There was a – there was an enormous amount going on every day, and there was uncertainty in trajectories and all these sorts of things, and the purpose of this meeting was to try and kind of create the space to say essentially, “If we don’t act now, this is the conversation we might find ourselves having a few weeks’ hence and the sorts of decisions that would come about”.

Lead Inquiry: But he’s the Prime Minister, you had given him a strategy document in September saying: these are the packages which we want you to consider, which one do you want? Why do you need to hypothesise as to future, yet to be – future eventualities which have yet to come to pass?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, what we would – we were trying to find, as I say, different ways to have the debate with the Prime Minister and others about the uncertainties, about the possible positions we could be in, and about – in order to inform decisions about action today. And we found at different points in July, August and September that doing meetings in some slightly different ways, that providing information in different ways, helped to stimulate that debate, and that’s what this was about.

Lady Hallett: Or prompt action?

Mr Simon Ridley: And prompt action.

Mr Keith: If you’ll allow me to say so, quite so.

You had – the CTF took a view, did it not, as to the merits of the various packages being presented to the Prime Minister and attempted to have, to use your word, that debate with the Prime Minister in a way that accorded with your, the CTF’s, approach? You hypothesised a worst-case scenario in order to affect, influence his decision-making; is that fair?

Mr Simon Ridley: Well, in order to make sure we were providing advice in the best way that we possibly could. I think, I mean, we – there is a meeting on 7 October where we recommend, essentially, regional circuit breakers. I don’t know whether we will come to that –

Lead Inquiry: We will.

Mr Simon Ridley: – or not. We could see, you know, the path of the growth of the virus and we were trying to make sure that the implications of that were part of the decision-making process. There were things weighed against this, which are – about, you know, the economic, social costs of more stringent NPIs.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister met with Professor Gupta, Professor Heneghan, Anders Tegnell of Sweden and Professors Edmund and McLean on 20 September, on the Sunday. Were you aware or were you made aware, as the head – I think very soon to be – of the CTF, of the outcome of that meeting?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I listened to that meeting.

Lead Inquiry: Meaning you were there?

Mr Simon Ridley: I can’t – I can’t honestly remember if I was in the room or on the end of a phone. There was a train delay that day and I … But I listened to the meeting.

Lead Inquiry: Following the meeting the Prime Minister’s conclusion was to pursue all package A nationally and some measures, as you’ve said, from package B, including the national curfew from 10 pm, options to tighten face mask policy and a call for tighter local restrictions.

If the scientific advice and the advice from the CTF is package A would be very unlikely to reduce R below 1, and if the government was following the science, why did the Prime Minister not adopt a combination of B and C or C or B, as opposed to pursuing all of package A and only some measures from package B?

Lady Hallett: I think that’s a question for the former Prime Minister, Mr Keith.

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think that is a question – thank you, my Lady – for the former Prime Minister, but, you know, it was clear from all the discussions I was in that he, and indeed his colleagues, were balancing a series of different harms and a series of different risks in the measures that they sought to put in place through that autumn.

Mr Keith: But your earlier evidence was to the effect that one of the primary roles of the CTF was to bring together all those other considerations, the economic, the social, the health, and so on and so forth.

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, and that is what we sought to do, but all we can do as the Covid Taskforce is give advice.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

So you did indeed give advice to the Prime Minister, further advice, on 7 October.

We will have INQ000198158.

“Policy package


“We recommend that the package should be applied to … the North West … North East … Yorkshire and Derbyshire [in part] …

“2. This proposition is summarised in Annex A.”

For four weeks. The prohibition of social mixing indoors and private gardens, closure of hospitality, closure of indoor leisure, closure of personal care services. Weddings, standalone ceremonies not permitted.

Were these the regional lockdown measures?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, this is effectively a – in the parlance of the time, a regional circuit breaker.

Lead Inquiry: Page 2:

“There is a choice on whether to tighten social restrictions further …”

(a), (b), (c) and (d).

“We recommend Option A, against any tightening …”

Then I think there was a – was there a map?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: An annex which showed those parts of the country which would be subject to these regional lockdown measures.

If we go back to the first page, was this a document that came from the CTF?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, there was this document, there was a map, as you say, and I think there was a third document that described the process we could go through to put this in place in about a week.

Lead Inquiry: There was a meeting on 8 October shortly thereafter –


And after the meeting, at which the Prime Minister had met the Chancellor, the CMO, the CSA and the NHS CEO to discuss Covid and NHS preparedness, this read-out refers to, well, the general course of the debate in that meeting.

What was the general tenor of the advice being given to the Prime Minister, epidemiologically? Was it made clear to him, or was it said to him, “The NHS is going to be overrun, the second wave is coming, unless these steps are taken there will be no prospect of avoiding the NHS being overrun”? How was it pitched?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think there were two parts really to the meeting, as I recall it. The first part was focused on NHS capacity and the extent to which the NHS was either then or likely soon to be overwhelmed, which the NHS chief executive spoke to, as recorded here. I think that – my recollection is that nationally at that point the NHS was – was not overwhelmed but there were some very clear regional pressure points, particularly in the northwest as I recall, but it was getting – it was certainly getting more pressurised and there was no doubt that the prevalence of the virus was increasing, and the scientific advice that was without action now we were likely to need to take further action soon.

And then the second part of the meeting was more about the non-pharmaceutical interventions, which was a debate about the level of confidence we could have that they would have the suppression effect that we were saying they would.

Lead Inquiry: On that first part, we can see in the bottom third of the page:

“Simon Stevens argued that – stepping back – not everyone currently accepted there was a problem, people did not think measures were fair, they questioned whether they worked, and if they did work, they wanted financial support. Government response should take these factors into account.”

Was the position with the NHS being presented on the basis that it was as bad as it had been in March – that is to say, unless measures are taken rapidly it will be overrun – or was it presented on the basis that it’s going to be extremely difficult for the NHS, but it’s not as clear as it was in March that the system would break?

Mr Simon Ridley: So my recollection of – at this point was that the NHS was under enormous pressure. It had some more capacity than it had had in March. At a national level it was coping but there were some regional areas and some particular hospitals under enormous pressure.

More broadly, and I think the comment you have drawn attention to, the debate about severe restrictions, lockdowns, circuit breakers, was certainly much more contested in October than it had been in March, and there was a – you know, a strong view of – across, you know, different parts of the country of not wanting to have stronger measures than their part of the country in their view required.

Lead Inquiry: Putting aside the undoubted damage that would be done by a further lockdown, putting aside the economic arguments and the arguments about the societal harm that would flow directly from a lockdown, and of course the impact on particularly vulnerable parts of the population, in terms of the NHS, the position was not as acute as it had been in March, was it?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, my recollection is that it was not.

Lead Inquiry: And the Prime Minister therefore wasn’t presented, was he, with a unanimous call for measures, these regional circuit breakers, these tiers to be imposed in order to avoid a collapse of the NHS; that just wasn’t how it was framed?

Mr Simon Ridley: Er … so – so I think the meetings were – and not just this one, there were other meetings where the position in parts of the country was becoming acute and the advice was “would become at risk”. I recall Liverpool in particular at this point was at risk of being overwhelmed in due course. We were also doing – I mean, working very closely with colleagues in Number 10 to seek to understand, you know, where that – the sort of point of overwhelm, if I can put it, might be for the NHS and how close that was. That was inherently very uncertain.

Lead Inquiry: “The [Prime Minister] was grateful for the contributions of all, and said he would discuss further with [the Chancellor] before agreeing a final approach.”

Having been present at the meeting, were you given to understand why he wanted to discuss this with the Chancellor, what was essentially a national decision, a health, public health emergency decision? Did he say why he wanted to discuss it with the Chancellor?

Mr Simon Ridley: Ah, I mean I think some of that is captured a couple of paragraphs up. The – you know, the economic consequences were very much at the front of mind. I think there was also a discussion about the financial support to local areas at this period which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, as a public spending measure, wanted to discuss.

Lead Inquiry: That debate with the Chancellor is in INQ000252865.

Lady Hallett: It doesn’t look as if we’re going to finish Mr Ridley before lunch –

Mr Keith: No.

Lady Hallett: – and there are some questions from the core participants.

Mr Ridley, are you all right to come back this afternoon?

The Witness: I don’t have anything else on, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: I take that as yes. Thank you very much.

I see what you mean. I have just worked out what your answer meant.

I will return, if you don’t mind, Mr Ridley, at 1.45.

The Witness: Of course.

(12.45 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: So, Mr Ridley, after the Prime Minister had been presented with the advice on 7 October, Sir Patrick Vallance refers in his evening notes to a meeting in Number 10.

INQ000273901, page 216, thank you.

It’s dated 8 October:

“Very bad meeting in no 10 …

“[Prime Minister] talks of Medieval measures than ones being suggested.

“‘Perhaps we should look at another approach and apply different values.

“‘Surely this just sweeps through in waves like other natural phenomena and there is nothing we can do.’

“As Simon Ridley said final slide PM said ‘whiskey and a revolver’.

“He was all over the place. [Chancellor] using increasingly specific and spurious arguments against closing hospitality. Both of them clutching at straws.”

The Inquiry is very well aware of reading too much into WhatsApps and diary entries, but do you recall the tenor of that debate and the mood in the meeting?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, this is the meeting we looked at the note of just before lunch. I mean, it is definitely the case that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor didn’t want to, you know, put in place circuit breakers at that point, I don’t recall the specific phrase that Patrick notes, and the Chancellor certainly was arguing against closing hospitality, and there was a debate about the extent to which sector closures would have the suppression impact that we were stating it would.

Lead Inquiry: Sir Patrick Vallance identifies only three choices for high prevalence areas, ie those areas that would end up in the level 3 tier:

“Do a proper lockdown.”

And essentially level 3 tier was, as you say, a regional circuit breaker, it was a high-level intervention.

“Use military to enforce the rules.

“Do nothing and do a ‘Barrington Declaration’ and count the bodies …

“What will they decide.”

So, as you say, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were resistant to – and the nature of the debate and the tension and the terrible choices they faced are absolutely apparent and known to the Inquiry, they were resistant to the tenor of the scientific and other advice being presented by the CTF?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, yeah. I mean, I don’t recall going through those three options in the way they’re articulated –

Lead Inquiry: No, no, no.

Mr Simon Ridley: As you say, these are just Patrick’s –

Lead Inquiry: Take on it?

Mr Simon Ridley: – evening notes. They definitely – the tenor of the debate was to not do one, if you like, as per this list, and to continue regional restrictions such as we were and increase enforcement and increase the use of test, trace and isolate.

Lead Inquiry: So curfews, restrictions on hospitality, enforce more but not impose what was effectively a regional circuit breaker, the level 3 tier?

Mr Simon Ridley: Exactly. And the decision following this meeting was to bring the tiers in and negotiate Tier 3 with regional areas, which we may be able to come to.

Lead Inquiry: As the CTF, epidemiologically was there really much option?

Mr Simon Ridley: So much option …?

Lead Inquiry: But to impose this regional tier circuit breaker system?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, our recommendation in this meeting was essentially a circuit breaker over a reasonably wide geographical area at that point in the northeast, the northwest and a large area of Yorkshire, as per the map you referred to earlier.

Lead Inquiry: Following the meeting, the meeting with the Chancellor on the 8th, the Prime Minister told the Cabinet Secretary that the government should seek to start negotiations with the local areas, because this was a regional system, there had to be negotiation with the local authorities, the local mayors, and in summary, is this right, negotiations began on 9 October. There was a Covid-O meeting on the 11th, a Cabinet call on the 11th. And, on the 12th the Prime Minister announced the three tier, Level 1, 2, 3 system of Covid alerts in England?

Greater Manchester went into Tier 3, Liverpool went into Tier 3, I think Liverpool went into Tier 3 first followed by Manchester about a week later, followed by South Yorkshire, Coventry, Slough and Stoke-on-Trent into Tier 2, so there was a change in the position, and various authorities moved up the tiers.

I don’t want to spend time debating the practical difficulties of the tier system, because in the event it failed to stop the incidence of the virus and we ended up in a lockdown. But you identify in your statement a number of real difficulties with the process.

Firstly, the regional areas, the mayors were of course opposed to any suggestion that their area be placed in a higher tier, of course; secondly, there were difficulties with negotiating with the regions, the nature of the restrictions and also what financial support could be provided to them; correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: There were requests for additional funding, and the negotiation took time and not every region was prepared to agree a package; correct?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, that is correct.

Lead Inquiry: And there was confusion to the public, you thought, because there were difficulties associated with how to communicate to the general public the difference measures, the different impacts of the different levels and of course which – whatever area was in which level. So it was a difficult process.

When did it become apparent to the CTF that the tier system was not doing enough to reduce the level of incidence?

Mr Simon Ridley: I think to answer that, if I may, Mr Keith, can I just described what happened a bit in the few days, because there were some different things –

Lead Inquiry: Yes, of course.

Mr Simon Ridley: – in there. And we had been discussing tiers with the Department of Health and other departments as a concept, in terms of regularising local restrictions prior to 7 and 8 October.

The – following that meeting on 8 October, as per the note, there was a subsequent – a subsequent discussion between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, and on that Thursday evening the decision was made that we would start the negotiations with local areas. And as you say, we started those on the following day, the 9th, before – that is before the formal agreement to tiers which happened in Covid-O, I think on the 11th.

Lead Inquiry: The 11th.

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, you’ve listed the reasons I put in my statement, I won’t repeat them, but we went into those negotiations incredibly quickly because of the urgency and, I mean, it was apparent very quickly that negotiating a tough enough Tier 3 with local areas was going to be difficult for all the reasons I described.

The meeting on the 11th then agreed the tiers, 1, 2 and a sort of baseline for 3, with an agreement that we would further negotiate the sort of tighter restrictions with areas from the 11th.

So the distinction, in response to your question, is it was not – it was not the case either sort of prior to the 11th that tiers in and of themselves wouldn’t work and that an approach locally to suppressing the virus differentially depending on prevalence wouldn’t work. The negotiations and that as a mean to get tough enough restrictions in Tier 3 areas, it was – it was clear pretty quickly we wouldn’t get there. Indeed, as you say, we got an agreement with Liverpool city region quite fast, over a couple of days, but the discussion with other local areas went on much longer, and I don’t, in fact, think we got there with Greater Manchester.

Lead Inquiry: Forgive me, I wasn’t suggesting that the government knew that they wouldn’t work on the cusp of trying to put the system into place and negotiate with the regional authorities. When, as October rolled through and the virus –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – began to spread, did it become apparent that the tier system, which obviously had involved some regions going into Tier 3 and some regions going into Tier 2, and perhaps the balance into Tier 1, I can’t recall, wasn’t going to reduce the level of incidence sufficiently fast?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think – I think we – we knew as we were continuing to go through October. I mean, prevalence was continuing to rise. The general, the general movement was up the tiers, if you like. Tier 1 areas were becoming Tier 2 areas, Tier 2 areas were becoming Tier 3 areas. And it was, as I say in my statement, clear that we’d end up having to have negotiations with large numbers of councils. So as a way of pushing back the virus quickly, we could see, as we went through other meetings in – and discussions in October, that was unlikely to work. I think – I think retrospective work suggested Tier 3 at least was slowing things down, but we didn’t at that point have the time of all of that to play with.

Lead Inquiry: So here is the question in relation to the tier system. I was asking you earlier about why this formalised system of regional circuit breaker wasn’t put forward as a specific option in September.

Do you think that if this tier system, which was announced, as I’ve said, on 12 October, had been developed further, introduced and negotiated in September, when the levels of incidence were necessarily lower, it would have stood a greater chance of success?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I think that is fair. I think the tiers themselves would have had to have been stringent enough, and we would have had to have applied them quickly enough in local areas and over a broad enough geography to have an impact, so they’re kind of – but in general, yes, that is a fair –

Lead Inquiry: And had they been imposed in September and the negotiations had taken place, there is, you would accept no doubt, a greater chance, although we will never know how great, that it would have worked and might have avoided the need for the subsequent national lockdown?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, I mean, I think that is possible. I’m – as I say, when we kind of get to 2021 we decided against regional approaches for lots of reasons, reflecting back, and that, you know, opening back up in 2021 was best done nationally, but it’s … I mean, it’s uncertain. It’s certainly the case that if we’d acted more strongly earlier we’d have stood a fairer chance of avoiding a national lockdown.

Lead Inquiry: On 25 October there was a forward strategy meeting in Chequers, and it was apparent to everyone there, of course, that cases were continuing to rise. By 25 October it must have been apparent that the tier plan, the tier system was having an insufficient impact in terms of the rise in the virus spread.

INQ000252880 details a number of strategies for the months rolling forward. So November to December and then January to January, and then March to April. I suppose seasonal strategies, is that correct? The strategy meeting on 25 October was held in order to try to chart a course going forward as to the possibilities that might eventuate?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, I think this was a sort of schematic sort of approach that was subsequent to the meeting. I don’t think this is what we discussed in the meeting on the 25th.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

INQ000136672 is a read-out from Imran Shafi in Number 10 in which he refers to:

“The PM [meeting] the team today on the forward COVID strategy …

“James Bowler [of the CTF] set out the overall potential course to spring, including rising numbers followed by a plateau. We needed to understand now what our strategy was to Christmas …”

In the bottom third of the page:

“[You] set out the strategic choices ahead. We would need to decide how to respond to LCR’s upcoming 28 day review.”

There was a debate about the general shift towards Tier 3. Is that the – what’s been described as the epidemiological levelling up –

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – the fact that areas went up towards Tier 3.

“… there was an option to bring some of this forward, as well as introduce tighter measures … within a tiers framework … or … a national circuit-breaker …

“The PM was keen to see the economic impact of the various scenarios.”

So was this a meeting at which not just the strategy course going forward was debated but also a warning that cases were rising, there might need to be a consideration of tighter measures in a tiers framework as well as or instead of a national circuit breaker?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, yes, essentially. This is sort of the next in a sequence of meetings we had through September and October and it was reason – reasonably clear we would need to take further action because of the tiers, people – the country moving up the tiers as well as the regional firebreaks, as they’re described here, which we talked about before we talked about a national circuit breaker.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000252878 is an email to you, I think, from an official in the Cabinet Office after that Sunday meeting. It says “Sunday meeting follow up”:

“Simon …”

Is that Simon Ridley, you?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “… Emma [Emma Payne],

“In the end I thought that did what it needed to.”

What did the meeting do what it needed to?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I think the meeting – I wasn’t party to the setting up, but the purpose of the meeting was to try to stand back a bit from – again, from the sort of day-to-day sort of rush of meetings we’d been having, and again to set out where we were, the trajectories, how the policy was working on the ground and to sort of debate what the options were without the meeting seeking to kind of come to a kind of – a decision – it wasn’t a decision-making meeting, it was a –

Lead Inquiry: Strategy?

Mr Simon Ridley: – let’s get the evidence out and sort of understand where we are and offer options meeting.

And I – Ollie was one of the key members of the taskforce. He and Emma were the leads on the – a lot of the strategy work and I think what he is saying here is we sort of successfully got the issues on the table and discussed the need for further action.

Lead Inquiry: “The conclusion – it’s bad, but we aren’t stampeding into lockdown, we push on tiers, and we prepare for the big decision [the conclusion, that is] – was broadly as we would have anticipated.”

What do you understand by Mr Ilott’s reference to “it’s bad”? Was that a reference, did you understand it, to the – was it a reflection of the general state of the country in terms of the spread of the virus and the terrible decisions which may then be necessary to take, or bad as in bad, the Prime Minister’s reaction?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, I – my recollection of the time is that this was a description of where we were in terms of the condition of the – and prevalence of the virus in the – in the country, and the need to suppress it.

Lead Inquiry: In his note, Sir Patrick Vallance refers to a meeting with you, INQ000273901, page 597, “Ridley meeting”.

Was there a meeting with – did you have a meeting with Sir Patrick Vallance separately from that meeting at Chequers on the 25th?

Mr Simon Ridley: I expect I had a call with Patrick, possibly others, ahead of – ahead of that meeting to explain what I thought it was about and what we as the taskforce were intending to put into it.

Lead Inquiry: “… positioned PM meeting …”

That may be a reference to the forward strategy meeting.

“… as ‘a chance to step back / but avoid making a whole load of decisions that then get undone by [the Chancellor]’

“I asked what PM thinks objectives are

“‘what he wants to achieve is a series of mutually incompatible options’.”

Did you say that?

Mr Simon Ridley: I – I mean, I don’t recall exactly what I – what I said, but it’s perfectly plausible because we were, you know, wrestling the need to suppress the virus with the consequences of a – of a lockdown, and we were at the point where we were going to have to do one or the other.

Lead Inquiry: In blunt terms, was the purpose of the forward strategy meeting to try to put the Prime Minister in a position of being able to make a decision, perhaps including a national lockdown, in a way that wouldn’t result in him changing his mind or being “undone by the Chancellor”?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, yeah, I think we were – we were seeking to debate the options without forcing, forcing a decision that wouldn’t stick so that we could – we had the space to explain the – where we were, the likely future path and the implications of that.

Lead Inquiry: The reference to the Prime Minister being positioned, or rather the meeting being positioned, and to the strategic aim of trying to avoid decisions that would then get undone, and to the possibility that the Prime Minister was regarded as wanting to achieve mutually incompatible options, smacks of the Covid Taskforce trying to usurp, perhaps, the discretion of the Prime Minister, to try to push him towards an outcome, to achieve an end; would you agree?

Mr Simon Ridley: Certainly not trying to usurp the position of the Prime Minister. It was our job, as we’ve described, to pull information/evidence together and to give advice and make recommendations. We’d made recommendations on 7 October where we had thought that a – essentially regional circuit breakers was necessary. By the 25th we thought further action was necessary and we were – I mean, the meeting was not my proposal or – I don’t exactly know where the meeting – recall where the meeting came from, but it was a chance to try to explain, you know, in, with more space, the issues. I think at this point it was my and our view we needed to take further action. The negotiations with local areas were not leading to strong enough measures quickly enough. But I don’t think we were doing anything other than trying to give advice.

Lead Inquiry: On 28 October, the Covid Taskforce prepared a further advice, I think in the name of James Bowler, your colleague – INQ000146617 – in which – and the handwriting is that of the Prime Minister. The note provided an update of the Covid strategy following the discussion on Sunday.

“It is for information, not for decision.”

In essence the note told the Prime Minister that the situation had continued to deteriorate. It said:

“… we do not expect the current approach to tiers to be sufficient to bring R below 1, although the data is not yet conclusive. We are … working on options to go further.”

And then in the “State of Play”, at the bottom of that page, there are the grave figures given about the spread of the infection.

We’ll just scroll quickly through the document. Page 2, paragraph 6, there is a reference to national interventions being deployed in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Wales. The Prime Minister’s put a question mark – exclamation mark next to it.

Paragraph 7, you don’t expect that the tiers will work because “most of England will move quickly through the current tiers policy”. That’s the epidemiological levelling up.

Page 3, paragraph 10:

“We are considering a range of options, should you choose to act in November …”

The Prime Minister says:

“Why not put everyone into level 3.”

Then he provides his handwritten comments on pages 7 and 8, and I’ve taken the hint from my Lady, I’m not going to put to you what you think of his comments, they’re a matter for the Prime Minister. But essentially he expresses his terrible frustration at the conundrum in which he is being placed.

Paragraph 4:

“What do we really ACHIEVE by smashing up the economy if we have no idea how many times we’re going to have to do it?”

Paragraph 5, the long-term costs to health and wellbeing from the lockdown strategy.

Paragraph 6, he fulminates on the average Covid mortality ages.

11 to 15:

“What HAPPENED to mass testing? What about the Moonshot?

“12. How can we get people to self-isolate? Is NHS [Test and Trace] actually achieving ANYTHING?”

It might be worth just reflecting on paragraph 22 or point 22. He raises the issue of whether or not there can be an analysis of quality adjusted life years, and he asks for serious economic analysis, finishing with the words:

“… We are causing such long-term poverty that we need to …”

Consider jacking in, essentially, this strategy.

Why wasn’t all this information in that note from the Covid Taskforce put into the advice document for the strategy meeting in Chequers? Why did the Covid Taskforce, having attended the strategy meeting on that Sunday, 25 October, return to the fray with a further detailed advice just three days later promoting the need, advocating the need for further options, but which plainly meant a national lockdown?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, the note on the – this note came about in terms of trying to take forward some of the issues that came out of the meeting on the 25th. I mean, I should say that the decisions here are incredibly difficult. I mean, I don’t demur from that at any point, I have every – you know, the Prime Minister was in a position where he was having to make exceptionally tough decisions that were going to have, you know, significant negative impacts on a number of people whichever way he went. He already had and he was – he was going to have to. I think the plan that we had worked very hard with colleagues across government to put in place around local restrictions, test and trace and isolate, and all these issues we had been doing for the last few months, and a number of these questions are in other notes and other discussions and other bits of advice, but we were at a point at this point in time where it was our judgement that, you know, where we had got to, we were at a point where to suppress the virus sufficiently we were now going to need to take further action.

We went back, I think, to the – I mean, I think the Prime Minister’s direct notes here got formally put to us through his private office, I suspect it was in an email from Imran, and we sought to go back on those issues, but at this – at this point we were, I think, heading towards needing to take further restrictive action to reduce social contact.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister did not, as a result of this advice dated 28 October, order a national lockdown, did he?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, we continued implementing what we had been since 9 October.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. Two days later the Covid Taskforce sent another advice to the Prime Minister, did it not?

Mr Simon Ridley: I think we did, we did a paper for, a further paper for a discussion on the 30th, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Two days later the Covid Taskforce again sought to promote a debate about a national lockdown, because – INQ000146710 – you presented a paper to Covid-O.

Was that strategy for Covid-O or for the Prime Minister?

Mr Simon Ridley: It was a discussion that the Prime Minister had, I think, with the Health Secretary, the Chancellor and CDL – sorry, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which was a Covid-O discussion that agreed what became the second lockdown.

Lead Inquiry: Why, putting aside the issue of why you returned yet again with another piece of advice in short order, in quick succession, why was this advice addressed to Covid-O and not to the Prime Minister directly?

Mr Simon Ridley: I … I suspect there was a discussion with – there may well have been a discussion with the Prime Minister before we got to the Covid-O meeting that day. I can’t remember the precise sequence I’m afraid.

Lead Inquiry: It’s a relatively short note. If we can just scroll through, it’s only two pages, and it essentially says: the epidemiological position is that we must have a national lockdown. And it recognises, of course, the significant impact on jobs and the economy in paragraph 9.

Why wasn’t that call to the Prime Minister for a national lockdown put into the paper or the meeting or the debate two days earlier, on the 28th?

Mr Simon Ridley: So I – I mean, to be honest, I can’t recall exactly over these few days why we – the sequence of the – of the papers. I think it was reasonably clear we would need to take further action and the direction of that, we set out that for information for the Prime Minister, as you’ve said, on the 28th, and that led to this meeting on the 30th that made the decision.

Lead Inquiry: The suggestion I put to you, Mr Ridley, is that the Covid Taskforce, obviously for credible and proper reasons, was seeking to manage the Prime Minister, it was advocating a national lockdown and, when the Prime Minister essentially resisted in the strategy meeting and two days later, ordering such a lockdown, the Covid Taskforce returned to the issue again to say to the Prime Minister, “Our recommendation is a national lockdown”. You repeatedly tried to secure that end. Is that a fair summary?

Mr Simon Ridley: I don’t think so, if you go back. I mean, on the – I mean, just going back to 7 October, we were recommending strong regional circuit-breakers in line with the overall approach the government was taking of not wanting to act through a national lockdown, but we were saying that to suppress the virus in the highest prevalence places we needed to take stronger action than we were currently taking.

That became negotiations, which we then worked extremely hard with colleagues across government to put in place immediately, from the next day, with lots and lots of councils across the northwest, northeast and Yorkshire. We ran those concurrently over a number of days. That proved – through those discussions we did not get to agreement with lots of areas for stringent enough measures, so we were not making the – the virus was continuing to spread and spread rapidly, because – and the pressures that was putting in – on the health system and elsewhere. We then therefore came back to the discussion of the action we should take, and explored the issues with the Prime Minister on the 25th, sent him further information in the wake of that on the 28th, and then made the recommendation for the national lockdown only on the 30th.

Lead Inquiry: Was the decision taken by Covid-O, the Prime Minister or Cabinet?

Mr Simon Ridley: The decision was taken by Covid-O, which I think on that occasion was attended by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Health Secretary and the Chancellor.

Lead Inquiry: Given what you’ve said about the possibility of the tier system being proposed and implemented in September and whether or not that gave rise to a possibility that a lockdown may not have been necessary, do you consider that the national lockdown, the second one, was avoidable in any way?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, I honestly don’t think I know, I’m afraid. I think that the second – I mean, it – as I think we were – said earlier, we would have had a better chance of avoiding the second lockdown if we had taken stronger action regionally sooner, successfully established isolation through the period, successfully got broader compliance with regulations and with other guidance, which is what the government was pursuing. We didn’t, and we ended up there.

I think there are – I think there are difficulties with a regional approach generally, because of movement. We do not have – the way the governance of the country works, implementing regional measures on a broad enough geography is quite difficult. So I – so I don’t know.

Lead Inquiry: On the alternative premise that a national lockdown was inevitable and the right decision to take, do you consider that it should have been imposed earlier?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, as I think I’ve said, I certainly think we should have taken stronger action earlier. In hindsight, if you like, the regional approach didn’t work and therefore earlier national action may well have been – have been better. But that, as we – as we know, comes with other consequences.

Lead Inquiry: Two final questions, please.

I have asked you questions about data. Did the CTF create a small team to examine data on disproportionately impacted groups in the summer of 2020?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, we did – I mean, actually to do more than examine data: to look at the data that was there, understand it, and to develop a set of propositions for what we should do to address the substantive issues.

Lead Inquiry: Secondly, did the CTF take part in the process of trying to draw up or rather directing the drawing up of regulations, the regulations which govern us all, in reflection of the policy decisions that were being taken or was that a matter for the Department of Health?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we had a team in the taskforce that essentially drew together the policy decisions and essentially the instructions for regulations. The regulations were drawn up by the legal team at the Department of Health and Social Care and signed by the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr Keith: Thank you very much.

My Lady, those are all the questions that I have. I know there are a number of questions from the core participants, but I don’t know what time constraints have been placed on them.

Lady Hallett: Mr Thomas, you can’t deceive me by moving places with Mr Weatherby.

Questions From Professor Thomas KC

Professor Thomas: Good afternoon, Mr Ridley. My name is Leslie Thomas and I act on behalf of the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations, and I have a small handful of questions for you.

In your statement you describe a number of meetings in 2020 regarding NHS capacity. So, for instance, at paragraph 49 of your statement you say:

“NHS capacity was the paramount immediate and urgent concern at the outset of the pandemic as prevalence grew and hospitalisations rose quickly.”

Question: did safety of NHS staff feed into those discussions?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I – they – they did, and they were certainly a consideration of the NHS leadership.

Professor Thomas KC: Okay.

To what extent, if any, was there discussion about vulnerability of NHS staff?

Mr Simon Ridley: I – there was, I think, discussion of vulnerability of NHS staff. It was a matter that was being addressed and led by the NHS.

Professor Thomas KC: Well, let me just add this: because the Cabinet Office was aware of data from Public Health England, dashboard meetings and elsewhere, about disparity in mortality and poor outcomes amongst black ethnic minority healthcare workers; that’s correct, isn’t it?

Mr Simon Ridley: That is correct.

Professor Thomas KC: Right, so what was the response to that?

Mr Simon Ridley: So in response to that, we set up the team I was referring to with Mr Keith a moment ago on disproportionately impacted groups, as it – in the round it was broader, it wasn’t about particular sectors of workers, but there was data – there was a lot of data, as you say, about worse outcomes for different ethnic groups, particularly for black and minority ethnic groups. We worked very closely with the Race Disparity Unit in the Cabinet Office, with colleagues in other departments, and essentially set up a programme of work across government and actually identified a senior official in the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to lead that across government, to look at that data and to look at what policy or operational changes we should make across government and across different sectors to address those issues.

That very much included the Department of Health, it also included Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, the Department for Transport, a lot of – a lot of public-facing roles such as – were important, the implications for – were – around worse housing were important, multigenerational households were important.

That came to a Covid-O – that was set up for an Covid-O meeting in September. There was a view the package of measures needed to be strengthened and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wrote to his Cabinet colleagues in the wake of that. That came back to a further Covid-O discussion in October and a set of decisions and the Minister for Equalities, who I think at the time was Kemi Badenoch MP, gave a quarterly update starting in October about those issues and we put in place a number of policy measures particularly working closely with local authorities and directors of public health.

Professor Thomas KC: Thank you.

I’m just going to remind you just to slow down a bit.

Mr Simon Ridley: Sorry.

Professor Thomas KC: I didn’t want to interrupt you, but –

Mr Simon Ridley: My –

Professor Thomas KC: – you were going at a pace there.

Mr Simon Ridley: My apologies.

Professor Thomas KC: Fine.

Let me move on to the second question that I have. Your statement states that on 20 March 2020 it was noted that hospitals had limited PPE stock and that, as a Covid-19 strategy ministerial group meeting on 13 April, the lack of clear strategy in relation to PPE was discussed.

Now, Mr Ridley, let me just put this to you: you accept, do you not, that adapted personal protective equipment, PPE, for ethnic minority healthcare staff is relevant for several reasons during a public health crisis such as this; you would accept that, wouldn’t you?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, it was important that we had the right PPE, yes.

Professor Thomas KC: So, my question is: were any concerns raised about black, Asian and minority ethnic healthcare workers requiring adapted PPE, for instance, you know, taking into account cultural, religious considerations, diversity in terms of body sizes, shapes, language barriers, anything like that?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, I can only – my recollection in this area is one that I think came up in an earlier hearing where Helen MacNamara raised PPE for women. That issue came to a discussion later, I think it was in April, where Lord Stevens responded around some of the broader adaptive PPE that was needed. But I don’t have further recollections about the different types of PPE and precisely what was needed. The focus for myself and the team in the Cabinet Office was in making sure we had the work in place across government to procure all the necessary PPE, the commercial procurement, through the NHS, and Cabinet Office colleagues then sought to address that. Beyond that I have – there’s nothing further I can add.

Professor Thomas KC: Sorry, can I just press you just a little bit. This is my last question. I just want to be sure on what you’re saying. So concerns were raised, were they, about adaptive PPE for ethnic minority workers? Concerns were raised, were they?

Mr Simon Ridley: Concerns were raised in my recollection about adaptive PPE for women. That’s the only recollection I have where the issue was raised with me. There was a discussion about PPE where Lord Stevens broadened that out to the different types of PPE and different adapts – adaptations of PPE. I can’t actually remember the list of things he raised, but the … the detailed procurement of PPE was not something that was part of what I was responsible for.

Professor Thomas KC: So you can’t assist us as to what action, if any, was taken in relation to concerns that were raised?

Mr Simon Ridley: I cannot.

Professor Thomas: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Thomas.

Mr Menon.

Questions From Mr Menon KC

Mr Menon: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Ridley, I ask questions on behalf of a number of children’s rights organisations.

Earlier today you told Mr Keith that the role of the CTF was to provide policy advice to the PM. When considering non-pharmaceutical interventions, was there any discussion in the CTF about the fundamental differences between how lockdowns and social distancing restrictions impact children as opposed to adults?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, there was a lot of discussion.

Mr Menon KC: What was the nature of that discussion?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, it took various forms. There was a lot of discussion about the implications on education and –

Mr Menon KC: Beyond education –

Mr Simon Ridley: – schooling. There were discussions about the implications for caring and very young children, and indeed some of the – of the reforms of NPIs that we made in the autumn around what we called “support bubbles”, some of those were about addressing issues as they pertained to particularly very young children and children with particular disadvantages and needs.

Mr Menon KC: Was there a recognition that isolation of children is simply not comparable to isolation for adults, as the Inquiry heard in October from a professor of public health? Was there that kind of recognition?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, so, we certainly had discussions about the consequences of and risks of isolation. I … I can’t recall detailed discussion about how – you know, the differential impacts of isolation in great detail between – between different groups, but certainly I’m thinking about policy, as I say, we were taking into account the differences for children.

Mr Menon KC: Are you going so far as saying there was a recognition that the restrictions had a disproportionate impact on children, within the Covid Taskforce?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, I’m saying there was a recognition that the restrictions and isolation had significant negative consequences on a wide range of the population. I cannot – I cannot recall specific – the sort of detail of differences between children as opposed to elderly people as opposed to anybody.

Mr Menon KC: Are you aware that in the summer of 2020, as an example, Scotland relaxed the social distancing rules for children under the age of 12, and later, in September, Wales relaxed the social distancing rules in relation to children under 11? Were you aware of that at the time on the CTF?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, we were aware of that. We did a lot of engagement with the devolved administrations.

Mr Menon KC: And yet that didn’t translate into any changes for children in England, did it?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, we retained the – the same restrictions in terms of the numbers that could gather.

Mr Menon KC: Why?

Mr Simon Ridley: Sorry?

Mr Menon KC: Why?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, I mean, it was the balance between, if you like, the clarity and simplicity of a – of a single number for gathering versus the fact that – you know, different exceptions and different rules for different types of people could better adapt to the variety of households and family structures but brought with it more complexity, and in the end we, in terms of gathering limits, we stayed with simple numbers of individuals.

Mr Menon KC: What is complex about removing restrictions for children under the age of 12? It’s simple and straightforward. Everybody can understand that.

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, with all these things, it’s a – it was a judgement. We were discussing the – the guidance and the regulations. As we tried to address different impacts for different types of people, as we tried to address the different way in which people live their lives, which is inherently incredibly complicated and varied across the country, the regulations and the guidance got more and more complex, as – in the round. And that in itself became a problem, it became harder to communicate it.

I’m not seeking to say we got all these judgements right, you know, some – there may well be restrictions we put in place that we shouldn’t have done and exceptions we put in place that we’d have been better off not doing. But we were trying to strike a balance overall between enough clarity to communicate what the rules were and enough complexity, if you like, to try to mirror the fact that society is complicated and the inherent harms for different types of people are different.

Mr Menon KC: But are you saying, I just want to be clear about this, the CTF positively advised the UK Government not to go down the route that Scotland went down in July and Wales went down in September?

Mr Simon Ridley: I – I confess on this issue I cannot completely recall what we advised. We definitely knew about it, we definitely discussed it, we would have put the issues and the options together. There were – there was certainly advice we put about the choice between gathering limits about simple numbers of people and gathering limits about different numbers of households, and we had those debates. I’m afraid I can’t tell you exactly what we recommended at different points.

Mr Menon KC: Was that based on any evidence or any research or was that simply a decision plucked out of thin air?

Mr Simon Ridley: It was based on evidence and research we had available and were aware of at the time, but ultimately we were, across the piece, making a series of judgements both in our advice and in the decisions that ministers ultimately made.

Mr Menon KC: What evidence? What evidence that the English model was better than the Scottish model?

Mr Simon Ridley: Well, we didn’t have any evidence that the English model was –

Mr Menon KC: You just said you had evidence. That’s why I am asking –

Mr Simon Ridley: No, I did, sorry, they’re different types of – I mean, forgive me. I was saying where there was evidence available and we were aware of it in general about the impact of different gathering limits – and it was pretty scant, I should say, because we were doing – this was all new – we sought to use it.

There was not a comparison, as I recall, between the efficacy either in terms of the impact as part of a set of NPIs nor in terms of families at the time we were taking these decisions in the autumn of 2020 that in detail compared those models. So we were making a judgement based on the information we had available and in the round what the set of measures we had in place were.

Mr Menon KC: To be fair to you, Mr Ridley, at page 369 of your statement you do say that some lessons were learnt by 2021 and some changes were made, and you specifically mention exempting very young children, under the age of 5, from some restrictions, as of January 2021.

Why then only children under the age of 12? I mean, why not children – sorry, under the age of 5? Why not children under the age of 12, as others had obviously done many months earlier?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, the … I’m at risk of, I fear, repeating myself slightly. I mean, we made changes to the NPIs and the restrictions to try and create exceptions where we thought they were necessary for the welfare of different groups as we went through. We actually expanded support bubbles in November 2020 for very young children, I think under the age of 1. We expanded some of that again in 2021. The – we had, and I’m sure discussed, lots of different options. The decisions were made, as I say, in the round as part of the overall NPIs that we had. We were seeking to learn the lessons from the, you know, the very stringent lockdown at the beginning with respect to – with respect to society. That was necessarily a set of – a set of judgements.

Mr Menon KC: Were you aware at the time on the CTF that children’s rights organisations and indeed the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, were calling for children to be exempt from social distancing rules as there were serious concerns about the impact on children’s wellbeing of these rules? Were you aware of that on the CTF?

Mr Simon Ridley: I’m sure – I am sure – I’m sure we were. I cannot give you a specific recollection of when, but we were working very closely with other departments and other organisations across government and beyond to try to maximise the information we had. We won’t – as I say, that won’t always have been complete.

Mr Menon KC: Finally this, on the issue of disproportionate impact: could we please have on the screen INQ000137239, Mr Keith had this on the screen earlier. This is the recovery strategy from July 2020. Thank you.

If we could turn to page 10, please, top of page 10, I’ll just read this out:

“We now have sufficient testing capacity …”

Sorry, that’s the wrong page. One second. (Pause). I’m just finding it on my laptop. Sorry, Mr Ridley, one second. Yes:

“While these impacts have been widespread [that’s the impacts of the rules and restrictions], they have not been equally distributed. Evidence shows the varying impacts on different groups or people with specific characteristics, including, but not limited to, BAME individuals, single parents, disabled individuals, victims of domestic abuse and low income groups, many of whom have been disproportionately affected.”

Now, I appreciate that it makes it clear here that this is not a full list, but it’s right, isn’t it, there doesn’t seem to know any acknowledgement here in the recovery strategy of the disproportionate impact of the rules and restrictions on children?

Mr Simon Ridley: So, you are right that this list does not include children specifically. I don’t think we would have – I mean, they are – they would have been included in terms of our thinking about disabled groups, black minority ethnic and low income groups, but you are absolutely right we have not listed children as a cohort, if you like, in and of themselves, in this sentence.

Mr Menon KC: And the only mention of children that I have been able to find in the recovery strategy is on page 15 – I think, to be fair again to you, you should see it – where there is a paragraph that addresses the re-opening of schools planned for September that year; do you see that?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, I mean, I think we and indeed ministers and the government were very, very concerned about the impact of lockdown on education and on schools and sought as far as possible to keep schools open and to maximise the support when they were not.

Mr Menon KC: With the exception of that single issue of the re-opening of schools, I mean, this is, is it not, largely a recovery strategy for adults as opposed to children?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, this was a recovery – a recovery strategy applied to – across the whole – the whole country. I agree there is – there is – there is not detail in here on children in the round.

When we get to the winter plan in the autumn, we do seek to increase the flexibility around some of the constraints for some groups of children through the widening of support bubbles, but you’re right, we did not go as far as other parts of the UK in England.

Mr Menon: Thank you, Mr Ridley.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Menon.

Mr Metzer.

Questions From Mr Metzer KC

Mr Metzer: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Ridley, I have a few questions on behalf of the Long Covid groups, on three short topics.

First, Long Covid and the plans in response to the pandemic. Can you help us, please, as to why there was no reference to Long Covid in the Covid winter plan of November 2020 when the DHSC had issued a public statement warning of the risks of Long Covid just a month earlier?

Mr Simon Ridley: I think, I mean, we were focused in the winter strategy about the plan to try to keep the suppression of the virus low enough to reduce Covid harms for everybody that caught it. We did not refer to Long Covid specifically. I don’t recall the extent to which there was a sort of – a kind of clear and agreed definition of Long Covid at the – at the time, but we – we were concerned about Covid harms in the round, not just about hospitalisations.

Mr Metzer KC: Yes. I think – I’m not going to go over it, but I think it’s well established and clear from the DHSC about Long Covid generally. But do you agree that people, primarily the young, still needed to know that there was an indiscriminate risk of long-term harm from Covid-19?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yeah, I think it’s important that people knew their – the risk they could face from catching Covid-19. We sought to communicate that through a number of means, including the work around the clinically vulnerable, which we were – I mean, that was driven by the – by medics and that changed in the winter plan. We adapted that to include some new – some new groups to improve that – that – the communication of that risk.

Mr Metzer KC: Would you accept there was a failing by not referring to Long Covid so that people could know and seek appropriate treatment if they had long-term symptoms?

Mr Simon Ridley: I don’t know whether there was a failing in that. We were, as I say, seeking to put in place the policies to keep the level of the virus under – under control, and I think there was a lot of communication about the potential risks to Covid albeit that we weren’t discussing Long Covid in and of its – by that label.

Mr Metzer KC: Secondly, advice given to the Prime Minister on Long Covid. Did the CTF advise the Prime Minister on the risk of Long Covid before January 2021?

Mr Simon Ridley: I’m – I’m not sure that we put specific advice up about Long Covid as a – sort of labelled as such. We were concerned about the risks of high prevalence to those that are most vulnerable.

Mr Metzer KC: Is that an agreement that the CTF didn’t advise him before then?

Mr Simon Ridley: I don’t recall notes from us on Long Covid specifically.

Mr Metzer KC: On 13 April 2021, the CTF produced a detailed paper, In Depth, Long Covid, which covers prevalence of Long Covid, its socioeconomic impacts, including the economic cost of work place absenteeism, and the cost of Long Covid QALYs and its impact on the health system. We don’t need to go to it, the reference is INQ000292660, I’m sure you know of it. Why did the Covid Taskforce produce this paper?

Mr Simon Ridley: So we – I mean, this was a paper that was produced by our data and analysis team, a part of it, which over the course of particularly from sort of I think November/December 2020 onwards did a number of pieces of work in depth on different aspects of Covid and different implications. We did similar bits of work on educational impacts and so on and so forth.

I think the reason we did one on Long Covid at this point was because it was – it was an issue that was coming more towards the forefront. There was also more information and more evidence about it. I think it’s about the same time the ONS have started to collect data on Long Covid and the purpose of us doing these notes in general, including this one, was to pull that information together from across government so that we had the best and most rounded picture of it that we could have to inform future decision-making, which in this case was the opening up from the third lockdown.

Mr Metzer KC: Do you consider that this paper had any impact at all on government discussions on Long Covid?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, I would like to think so, yes.

Mr Metzer KC: Can you elaborate at all, can you assist?

Mr Simon Ridley: I mean, I think if you turn to the February roadmap that we published to set out the plans for opening after the third lockdown, I don’t think it refers to Long Covid by name, but we’re very clear about the risk of extended symptoms for a number of people as a result of catching Covid, and that was informing the way in which we wanted to open up and the length of time between steps to make sure we did that in as successful a fashion as possible.

Mr Metzer KC: Do you agree that – Long Covid was known about well before April 2021, wasn’t it?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes.

Mr Metzer KC: Last area I want to ask you about: Covid-19 dashboards and Long Covid. Why was the data on Long Covid gathered by the DHSC and the ONS excluded from the Covid-19 dashboard?

Mr Simon Ridley: I – I don’t recall that it – that it was fully. I mean, the – the ONS data we got we put through the dashboard. We could only show a portion of the data we had available at any one meeting. I don’t – I don’t think there was a decision to exclude it.

Mr Metzer KC: Well, Mr Ridley, do you agree with me that the data on Long Covid was in fact not part – never featured as part of the Covid-19 dashboard?

Mr Simon Ridley: I honestly can’t recall all the dashboards. You may be – you may be right, but I don’t know.

Mr Metzer KC: On the assumption that is right, do you agree that not feeding this available data on Long Covid into the main Covid-19 dashboard deprived you, the CTF, and thereby the public, of vital information on the prevalence of Long Covid?

Mr Simon Ridley: No, I don’t think I do agree with that. I mean, as we’ve just discussed we’d done an overall evidence and analysis note on Long Covid. The ONS collected Long Covid data. That ONS data was very, very widely available across government, including the taskforce and the Cabinet Office, but across other departments as well, and it was fantastic that the ONS were collecting it.

Mr Metzer KC: Yes, but the absence of available data on Long Covid meant, surely, that there was insufficient information such that that might have meant that Long Covid was not factored into decision-making?

Mr Simon Ridley: As the ONS started to collect data we had more information on Long Covid. I think there was a debate and a degree of a lack of clarity about exactly what Long Covid referred to specifically. There was clarity that there was a risk of long-term sufferance from symptoms for a number of people who caught Covid. We sought to reflect that in the policy we made, particularly through 2021, and the data that was available as a result of the ONS’ work was very widely available.

Mr Metzer KC: More generally, but the available data on Long Covid didn’t feed in, did it, to the Covid-19 dashboard, which was significant?

Mr Simon Ridley: As I say, I don’t recall exactly what was and wasn’t in all of the different dashboard meetings. I think it’s worth saying the Covid-19 dashboard wasn’t, every day, exactly the same set of charts. It was a consistent set of data to help provide a baseline and a bedrock for ministers to have – prime ministers to have a common understanding of where we were, but the data – we couldn’t go through all the available data at every dashboard so we highlighted different things. I’m afraid I haven’t been back through all of them and exactly what we covered when, but the ONS data and other data was there alongside the dashboard and as available to everybody.

Mr Metzer KC: But the DHSC, I’m sure you agree, were producing their own Long Covid dashboard, so the data was available; do you agree?

Mr Simon Ridley: Yes, there was data available, I do agree.

Mr Metzer: Yes, thank you very much indeed, Mr Ridley.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Metzer.

Thank you very much, Mr Ridley, I’m very grateful for you staying as long as you have done.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: We’ll break now, I’ve been asked to take a break, and I shall return at 3.05.

(2.53 pm)

(A short break)

(3.05 pm)

Lord Edward Udney-Lister


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Lady Hallett: Sorry to have kept you waiting.

Mr O’Connor.

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

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Edward Julian Udney-Lister.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Lord Lister, you had kindly provided for us a witness statement at our request, which you can see up on screen. I know you’re familiar with the contents of that statement. It’s signed on the last page, we don’t need to bring it up, underneath the statement of truth, indicating that the contents are true. Are you in fact satisfied that the contents of this statement are true?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

At the start of your statement, Lord Lister, and in fact it’s on the page that we’re looking at now, you give us some detail as to your career, and of particular interest for present purposes we can see from paragraph 3 that between July 2019 – that is when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in succession to Theresa May; is that right?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So from that time until February 2021 you were a senior adviser to Mr Johnson?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: And within that period, initially from July 2019 until November 2020, you were what’s described as his chief strategic adviser, and for the rest of that period, from November 2020 through until February 2021, you were his chief of staff.

That second period – did that second period start with Dominic Cummings leaving Downing Street?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes, it basically started immediately he left.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, thank you.

Then I think it’s in this paragraph or it may be another one that you say after February 2021, so when you left that role of chief of staff, you became Mr Johnson’s special envoy to the Gulf, but only for a few months before you left government in April of 2021?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Just briefly before then, July 2019, so before you started your role at Downing Street, you describe having held a number of, first of all, commercial roles in the fire and security industry, and also, insofar as public service is concerned, you were leader of Wandsworth Council for a lengthy period between 1992 and 2011; is that right?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Then, after that, chief of staff to the Mayor of London, that is Boris Johnson, and also a Deputy Mayor of London between 2011 and 2019, and that’s a longer period, I think than –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: 16.

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry, 2016?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, that explains that discrepancy.

Then a non-executive director at the Foreign Office between 2017 and 2019.

So do we see, then, Lord Lister, that you had in fact worked with, perhaps closely with, Boris Johnson for some considerable period of time before 2019, first of all in City Hall and then at the Foreign Office?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes, it was – it was – I worked with him very closely whilst at City Hall, but then I was more remote, but then I went back to – well, helping him in the sort of spring of 2019 when he was running to become leader of the Conservative Party.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry has now heard from quite a number of the people who worked closely with the Prime Minister during the pandemic, some special advisers, some civil servants. It would seem from the outline we’ve just seen that you may have been, of those people, the person who had worked with Boris Johnson for the longest period of time; would that be fair?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think so, yes, of all the people that are on the list, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Can you give us in a nutshell what your working and personal relationship with him was like, for example when you started working with him in 2019 in Downing Street?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It was – I was in a unique position. I was – I sat outside his office. I was somebody he would speak to quite regularly. I was able to go in and speak to him after meetings. I was in a position where he’d use me to get information or wanted to sound off about things or to check on something.

Look, I’d known the man for ten years, so yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is it fair to say during that time you were in Downing Street before Dominic Cummings left that you and he had a sort of shared or split responsibility in terms of policy coverage?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We can see this described actually in paragraph 4 of your witness statement, which is on page 2. You say that as chief strategic adviser your areas of responsibility were foreign policy, security, defence and trade, business, whereas Mr Cummings had responsibility for areas of domestic policy; is that a –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: In broad terms?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: That was, in broad terms, the split between us.

Counsel Inquiry: You also say that your role included relations with Stormont, that’s Northern Ireland, and also I think the Irish Government itself?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, during the – particularly during the period from July 2019 to December of 2019, while Brexit was under way, I was involved very directly in all the negotiations with the Irish Government and with Stormont, which was at the time quite a difficult series of negotiations.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m just going to read you a few sentences from Dominic Cummings’ witness statement and see if you agree with what he said about the relationship that the two of you had to the Prime Minister. He said this:

“I was seen by the system as the PM’s most senior political adviser in most ways, but it was also clear to some officials near the centre of power that on some matters the PM listened more to Lord Lister than to me, and that the PM gave Lord Lister things to do without always informing me.”

Fair summary?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes, I think that’s probably right, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: How did you get on with Mr Cummings, Lord Lister?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: We worked together, we had desks facing each other so we knew each other. I can’t say there was any close relationship. We were just work colleagues.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s move on, if we may, to the early stages of the pandemic, and for this if we can go to paragraph 6 of your witness statement, which is on page 3. If we can pick it up about five or six lines down, you say this:

“On 27 February 2020 I set out my concerns around the threat from Covid-19 from an economic standpoint, indicating that this was as important as the health issues and needed to be discussed in Cobra.”

We can see, Lord Lister, what you meant by that, and what you said, if we go to a document which is INQ000236371, please, and it’s on page 47 of that document. I think this is the message that you were referring to in that part of the witness statement we looked at. Do you see it’s at the top here, dated 27 February, you say:

“Air freight rates in Asia up 500% and four days of drops on stock exchange. In my opinion this is the real Coronavirus threat. At best this [maybe you meant ‘there’] will be zero growth this year. Can I suggest that at the COBRA on Monday the economic bit is as important as the health input?”

Just to remind ourselves, we’ve heard a lot of evidence about the developing understanding of the virus. We’re at the end of February here. Was this actually your view at the time, that the economic risk presented was as serious as the health risk?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think you – in the context of that point in time, when we did not appreciate the true effect of Covid, and that evolved over the coming days, but at that point in time, we didn’t – we were not really aware of it, I was worried about the economic situation. I was worried that we were going to have a severe recession as a result of it. I was also concerned – I mean, we weren’t talking about lockdowns or anything at that time, this was all pre that, and I was just concerned that the effect on the economy would be severe.

Counsel Inquiry: Were you concerned, perhaps it follows from what you have said, that these economic risks were being either overlooked or at least downplayed?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I felt at that time that all the emphasis was on the health risk, which we were still trying to understand, and there wasn’t enough balance about some of the other problems that were arising, and that if – yes, health was a serious problem. I mean, I don’t think at that point anybody had died from coronavirus, it was still very early in the process. It was just a worry that it was … everything was coming from health. All the lobbying of the Prime Minister was coming from one direction and there wasn’t enough of the counterarguments being put on the table.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think it’s possible that, in trying to redress the balance, which I think is what you’re describing here, you may have been taken to, as it were, diminish the health arguments on the other side of the balance?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, I don’t think I ever diminished the health risks, because we could see that, and I think it was around then that – I think I do put it in a document somewhere – that we were starting to get a feel from China that it was becoming clear that the Chinese government was actually losing their efforts to contain the disease, and it was beginning to be clear that that was not succeeding.

I was, I think, just worried that … it was a finely balanced issue, and I still believe it’s a finely balanced issue all the way through, and yes – we may or may not go there in a minute, but yes we go into lockdown, but the decision to go into lockdown is not an easy one and there are conflicting issues which do need to be resolved and do need to be talked about.

Counsel Inquiry: As you say, I’m going to come and ask you some separate questions about exactly that, that balance between the harms of lockdown and the benefits of it, both in terms of the first lockdown and later in the year.

Finally, still sticking in February for a moment, another theme of the evidence that we’ve seen is that around this time Mr Johnson was telling those around him that he thought what was happening was an overreaction, or at least that he was worried that there would be an overreaction to the pandemic, as it was developing.

Is that a concern that, first of all, you heard him express, and, secondly, that you shared at that stage?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, I certainly shared that view. I think he did express that as well. I mean, I think everybody was very worried that we were overreacting to something which, at that stage, we didn’t believe was going to be as bad as it subsequently became. And certainly it was largely confined to China.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s move on just a little bit, Lord Lister. If we can go to page 10 of your statement, please, it’s at paragraph 23, I just want to touch on the meetings that you describe attending regularly, and I think – sorry, we’re on – that’s it.

So I still want to be asking you about that early period in, let’s say, February and March, but I think this paragraph applies to that time. You say you attended a number of core meetings, again meetings that we have heard something of from other witnesses, for example the 8.30 and then 9.15 meetings, the 9.15 meeting being the one with the Prime Minister, COBR meetings whenever the Prime Minister attended, Cabinet meetings and so on.

You say also, if we can look at the next paragraph that you regarded those meetings as an effective basis for decision-making that was going on at the time.

Just going back to the morning meetings for a moment, it’s right, isn’t it, that another of the regular attendees of those meetings in this period was Helen MacNamara, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: (Witness nods)

Counsel Inquiry: You may have heard that her evidence about the atmosphere and discussion in the morning meetings during this period, so let’s say February/March 2020, certainly the meetings that she attended, was that the atmosphere was, in her words, confident and macho. She said that wasn’t a new thing but that this atmosphere was “more so than usual”, and she said the atmosphere was one of “we were going to be world beating at conquering Covid-19 as well as everything else”.

Is that a description of those meetings that you recognise?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, I’m not so sure about the last statement you made, I don’t recognise that, but yes, I think there was a great deal of confidence at that time that this was a disease, it wasn’t going to be as serious as people made out. I mean, it wasn’t that long before we’d had the whole of the SARS episode, which had largely stayed confined to the Far East, it hadn’t really come into Europe. We were fairly confident at that stage it wasn’t going to come, and there was a concern that we didn’t overreact to a problem. And that there was a lot of other things that needed to be done. It’s worth remembering that by then we were only now some two months from a general election, two months from the Brexit date, there was a lot of other things on the agenda.

Counsel Inquiry: Lord Lister, confidence is one thing, but the effect of Helen MacNamara’s evidence was not that the mood at these meetings was confident, but rather that it was overconfident. That wasn’t something that she was saying in hindsight, she describes being concerned about the overconfidence at the time. So is that something that you recognise?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think I – what I recognise is that there was a belief that we had a health system that would be able to withstand it, that they had plans in place, it was well organised, it was well structured. And I don’t want to jump forward too much, but it was only when we reached the Italian situation that it dawned on everybody that this wasn’t like SARS in the Far East, this wasn’t a relatively minor disease, this was serious. And so that was – that was, what, in the first week of March?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Let us move on to that period, only a week or so on from what we’re discussing.

If we can go, in fact, it’s just a page or two back in your statement, to page 8 and paragraph 21, so we say – you’re here describing a meeting in early March 2020, and approximately that is the time, isn’t it, Lord Lister, when, amongst other things, it became apparent that the Italian, particularly in northern Italy, in Lombardy, that the health systems there were struggling to cope, we saw images on the news and so on of hospitals being overwhelmed. That was the time of this meeting, was it not?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes. I mean, and what was particularly striking about it was that the Italian health system was generally regarded as pretty good health system, as good as the UK one, so we were looking at a country that was very similar to ourselves.

Counsel Inquiry: Helen MacNamara said amongst other things that she remembered around that time in those morning meetings there being a sense that we would do better than the Italians, almost as though there was somehow a belief that they’d got it wrong or that we would manage to not make the same mistakes as the Italians; again, is that something you remember?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Erm, I’m not sure about that, but certainly I think we – yes, there was a feeling that we are going to do better than this, it’s not going to be as bad as that. But I think – we were still really in the position where we believed that the system had plans that it would be able to cope with this, the Health Minister was confident, everybody was confident.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Well, let’s look at this paragraph. For the first five or six lines of it, you essentially describe being briefed in a meeting in early March by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance about what we know and understand to be the mitigation strategy, herd immunity strategy, and clearly you were given that information.

Then four or five lines up from the bottom, you say:

“On or around 12 March … [you] recall the Cabinet Secretary advising the [Prime Minister] to explain to the public that the government’s plan to combat Covid-19 was akin to ‘chickenpox parties’.”

Again, that’s something we’ve heard about in other evidence but it’s something you remember, is it, that – Mark Sedwill using that term –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, I remember it being said, I can’t tell you at which event or anything else now, but yes, it was – it was made, but it was made in context, and for people of my age that was – that was how – when we were young that was how chickenpox was dealt with. And it was – it was still a belief that Covid was something that … herd immunity was the only answer, you needed to catch it, catch it quickly, and get it over and done with.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s read on, just the last few words of this page and then we’ll go to the next one:

“It was also in this context that the Prime Minister suggested to senior civil servants and advisers that he wanted to be injected with Covid-19 on television to demonstrate to the public that it did not pose a threat.”

Then you say that you “appreciate on reflection that those were unhelpful comments, but they were made at a time of high stress and limited understanding of what lay ahead”.

Of course you weren’t able to know, neither was Mr Johnson, everything that would develop over the following weeks and months, Lord Lister, but I just want to take you back to what you tell us that Mr Johnson said, that he wanted to be injected with Covid-19 to demonstrate to the public that it didn’t pose a threat.

It did pose a threat, didn’t it?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It … I’ve got to go back again. It was not – we were at – I’m a little bit uncertain of timings of some of these things, but it was – it was before the Italian situation had really become apparent to everybody. It was the time when Covid was not seen as being the serious disease. It subsequently became or was seen to be. It was a moment in time. I think it was an unfortunate comment, but I think when you take it in the context – out of context, like now, and in the timing, it was just an unfortunate comment.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I understand that’s what, how you regard it, Lord Lister, but I do want to press you a little. Do you think, then, that it wasn’t necessarily made at the same time as the “chickenpox parties” comment?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I really am not sure, I cannot – I cannot answer that question.

Counsel Inquiry: No. Well, even if it had been made some time earlier, it had been known for many weeks by that stage, or it was known for many weeks before then that Covid was a disease which would kill many of the people who caught it. So surely the Prime Minister wouldn’t want to be telling the British public that it didn’t pose a threat?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I come back to, if I may, in answer to your question, this is not that dissimilar to the situation we’d had with things like SARS, where it had been a killer disease but it had been a disease which had not transmitted itself to Europe, we had – not reached us, and we were still living in the forlorn hope, as it turned out, that it wasn’t going to come. That obviously was wrong.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, there is a difference, but I don’t think anyone injected themselves live on television with SARS, Lord Lister, nor would they have been well advised to do so.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I fully accept it’s a comment that shouldn’t have been made, but it was made at the heat of the moment, that’s all.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think whenever he made this comment, and obviously this is something we can ask him, but you’ve raised this so I’d like your own view about this, do you think that Mr Johnson did actually think not only that the country was well equipped to deal with the disease and that there were systems and plans in place, but that actually even more fundamentally it wasn’t really a dangerous disease at all?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I do underline the point I made earlier, I’m not sure of the timing of these things, but my memory is that at that stage it was not seen as the disease it – the seriousness that it became apparent later on. We’re right at the beginning of this. It hadn’t really hit Europe. It was still very, very new.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Right.

Let me move on, Lord Lister, and ask you some questions about another matter, and this relates to some of the early COBR meetings that took place, in fact in early March, and the question of whether the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, should or shouldn’t have been invited to those meetings.

We can start, in fact, on this page that we’re looking at, which is convenient. If we could look at – that’s it – paragraph 22, (ii), you are recording here, and there is a list, is there not, of things that you know you did relating to Covid which I imagine you took from an email review. You record here that on 9 March the Mayor of London, that is Sadiq Khan, asked to attend, as we will see, in fact it was a particular COBR meeting, and that you refused the request and suggested a meeting of mayors with Matt Hancock.

I would like to take you back in the chronology a little bit to explore what took place.

If we can start, please, by going to Sadiq Khan’s witness statement, which is INQ000221436, and page 16 of that statement. It will come up on screen.

We can see here that – we’ll remember that the date of your email, which you referred in your statement, was 9 March, so we have gone back a few days, and Mr Khan says that he recalls that there was a COBR meeting on 2 March. He said:

“It was about the sixth COBR meeting focusing on Covid-19.”

He hadn’t been invited to attend any of the previous meetings. He asked his government relations team to contact Number 10 requesting that he attend the 2 March meeting, given, as he said, that London was clearly one of the most at-risk places in the country due to its large number of airports and international travellers and high-density population.

If we very briefly just look at the paragraph above, we can see that on the same day he’d been told by Dr Jenny Harries that five of the 35 confirmed cases in the UK, so 15% or thereabouts, were in fact from London.

Just to follow from that, if we can go to a document, please, which relates to this exchange.

It’s INQ000118937. Yes, thank you.

So here we see – we can look at the bottom half of the page first – an email sent on 28 February, which was the end of the week before 2 March, from Sadiq Khan’s team to Clare Brunton, which is a name we will see several times in these exchanges, at Number 10, and we see that this person contacts Clare Brunton and relays a request from the mayor’s chief of staff for the mayor to attend the COBR meeting on Monday, that was 2 March, and again we see:

“Given its large number of airports, hospitals and international visitors, London is of course potentially one of the most at risk places.”

Pausing there, that would seem to be quite a good reason for the Mayor of London to attend COBR?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Perhaps because I had been so involved with London government and because I’ve also been involved heavily with the other local authorities up and down the country, always at the back of my mind was the accusation which would come at the mayor that he was treating London differently to the rest of the country, and my view was then, it stayed all the way through the Covid crisis, that you had to treat all parts of the country equally and give them the same kind of access as London, and if you for one minute allowed London in without inviting the others there would nothing but difficulty and problems.

Counsel Inquiry: We will come to see that that was why you stopped the mayor attending a subsequent meeting, but – one can see that that’s a sensible perhaps starting point, but if one has a disease which is affecting London more immediately or where the risk of the disease seems to be more focused or acute, really, do you – is there some sort of prohibition on recognising the fact that the Mayor of London in that situation might be more deserving of a seat at COBR than other regional mayors?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yeah, but where do you draw the line on this? And also, I mean, as you said earlier, it was a relative – it was a large number in proportionate terms, but it was still a relatively small number in London, the rest were outside London. Where do you draw the line on this?

The mayor – sorry, the Prime Minister subsequently agreed to the mayor coming about, I don’t know, a week later. You’ll have the –

Counsel Inquiry: We’ll come to it.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: But my point is it was always about parity with the rest of the country and treating all parts of the country in the same way.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, we can take this more quickly now. I mean, to be fair, your name doesn’t appear on these emails. Can you tell us at this distance whether you were on involved on this date or not?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Which one?

Counsel Inquiry: We’re looking at the emails from 28 February, Lord Lister. We’ll come to see the ones which bear your name a week or so later. It may not matter much but do you know whether you were involved on this occasion?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I probably was but I can’t confirm 100%.

Counsel Inquiry: In any event we see that what happened was that the message went back to say that the Mayor of London would not be invited to that COBR meeting.

Then we see, if we can go on to a different document, please, INQ000214135, the same type of exchange on 8 March, so let’s say a week or so later. If in fact we look at the email on the very bottom, again there is a member of the Mayor’s team emailing Clare Brunton:

“… following reports COBRA will meet again [tomorrow] re Coronavirus, the Mayor’s view is that he should attend this meeting, given the potential impact on London and Londoners. I know a request was declined for him to attend the previous meeting [that’s the one we just looked at], but given the increased spread, we feel it is even more appropriate that he be there tomorrow. Can you let me know please …”

Then if we go back to the page before, we see Clare Brunton I think contacting you saying:

“I assume the answer is no again?”

You saying – if we just leave it without it being enlarged, we can just read up, I think.

Then in the middle of the page you saying, just underneath where it says “On 9 March” you say:

“No but I do think there needs to be a meeting of Mayors perhaps with Matt Hancock.”

Then there is another email from Clare Brunton, these are all happening within a few minutes of each other, saying that the matter had been discussed at the 8.15 meeting, presumably without you, and that the “general view from the room” was that there is an argument for Sadiq Khan being at the meeting.

And in response a few minutes later you say you can’t have him there without Street, that’s the Mayor of West Midlands, Andy Burnham et al, “or is London more important than Manchester”. So this is the view you’ve just expressed?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And we know that as a result of that he wasn’t invited to that meeting.

Just one more time, then, it really – is that sort of basic “you can either have all of them or none of them” approach really appropriate at a time where there is a developing virus and there are perhaps good reasons to think it’s affecting London more immediately, more seriously than other places?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, I … I did believe there should be regular meetings with the mayors, and that’s something that should be taking place, but I did believe that to actually single out one authority over another would be a mistake.

Counsel Inquiry: Just to complete the story, if we can go back to Sadiq Khan’s witness statement, so that’s INQ000221436, we can see, if we go to page 18, please, we can see – and we don’t need to zoom in, we can just look briefly – we can see that he refers, having been not invited on 9 March to COBR, on 11 March he had a meeting with Chris Whitty. And then if we look on paragraph 77, about halfway down, he says:

“We had a wide-ranging discussion [that’s him and Chris Whitty], covering the way in which the situation was thought likely to develop … noting that the highest concentration of cases in the country was in London, which was not surprising given the density of its population and status as a major transport hub.”

So in fact Chris Whitty appears to be confirming the concerns that Sadiq Khan had earlier expressed. Then further down the page we see that there was in fact a COBR meeting the next day on 12 March. Again he asked to attend, again he was told he could not, and – the next page, please – it’s only the week after that, on first time. That’s paragraph 82.

So Lord Lister, just finally on this, on reflection, in hindsight, given that sequence of events and the documents we’ve looked at, do you think perhaps you or the system ought to have been readier to make an exception to that rule you’ve described and invite Sadiq Khan – as in fact, as we can see, he was on the 16th – a week or so earlier?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: And – yes, and I – I think perhaps we should have

moved – or I should have authorised it earlier. But

I was always concerned about this treating London

differently from the rest of the country, and in fact

later on in Covid that became much more of an issue than

it was at the beginning.

But in hindsight, perhaps it would have been right

to have done it earlier, but I – that worry was always

at the back of my mind.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Right. Well, I want to take you forward, then, in

time, please, and let’s talk about the first lockdown.

If we can start, please, on page 11 of your

statement, paragraph 26, you state here that:

“By 23 March … it had become clear that a lockdown

was needed to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, to

buy us time until a vaccine was developed and to March, that Sadiq Khan was invited to COBR for the 16 underline the seriousness of the situation to the


And I won’t take you to it, but there is another

paragraph of your statement where you state explicitly,

perhaps it’s implicit here, that you accepted, and still

accept, that the first lockdown was justified at the

time and in the circumstances that it was ordered?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think what we believed at the beginning of March was

that there was a plan that was there that could be used.

There was the belief that herd immunity was the answer to the problem, and that the quicker we actually all caught it, the quicker we would have immunity from it, and that – that to some extent remained true, except of course that the death toll would have been unbelievably high and totally unacceptable, and therefore it was – became absolutely clear that herd immunity was not a policy option that was open to the government, and that a lockdown was the only solution.

But there were a lot of concerns about bringing the lockdown in. I mean, there was the worry about education, there was the worry about the economy, I mean, they were all there and they’ve all been spelt out, but it was felt that this was the only answer and I go along with that. I think at that particular point in time it was the right solution.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, and in fact in the next paragraph of your witness statement you give us a lengthy list, it goes on for several pages, of what you described as the key challenges the government faced at this time, by which I think you mean perhaps just before and then during –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – the first lockdown.

I wonder if we – I’m not – I will pause at one or two of them, but if we scroll through we can see then what you regarded as being those key challenges: testing, social care – if we can go on to the next page, please – public health legislation, the devolved administrations. I’ll come back and ask you some further questions about that. You mention the issue of PPE.

Go to the next page, please.

We can just cast our eyes down, there is a series of issues there.

Next page, please, and the next page.

You’ve mentioned the closure of educational establishments as being one matter of particular concern, Lord Lister. Was that a factor as you regarded as one which was being considered as a reason not to lock down or was it something that was –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, I –

Counsel Inquiry: – a factor in terms of trying to unlock as quickly as possible?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It was more a question of trying to unlock as quickly as possible. I think I have said earlier in my statement that I believed that once it became obvious, and I think it became obvious once we started to see what was happening in Italy, lockdown was an inevitable outcome.

But it wasn’t a pain-free option. We knew that once you moved into lockdown there would be other people who wanted to access health for other reasons who would not be able to. We knew that there would be problems with education, that – the economy, and I can go on on all those things, but that had to be balanced against the terrible prospect of deaths, which – which was just an unacceptable position, and there was really no choice at that time.

But I’m just trying to – what I was trying to do was trying to say that it wasn’t a pain-free decision, it was right that government should try to see what – what the consequences of what they were doing was going to be.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. And we’ve looked through that range of issues which you describe as being in play at the time, and we can look to the bottom of this page, it includes, of course, a factor that you have already raised, which is retail and business.

Is it fair to assume, then, that this list, which at its outset you were clear was not, as it were, an exhaustive list, but this list was the types of issues that you recall being raised with the Prime Minister or those around him during this period?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes. They were all things that were discussed, because there were – there was a great deal of concern about all of those things, and …

There was an acceptance we had to go towards lockdown and we would probably have to do lockdown, but there were going to be effects from that which we needed to take into account and try to see if we could mitigate them. And I think I picked up there, when I talk about testing, testing wasn’t an option, there was virtually no testing available, so we couldn’t really test anybody. We were worried about social care and what was going to happen with social care. All of these things were issues that we were actively talking about and worrying about.

Counsel Inquiry: Last thing before I move on, it’s a long list there, as I’ve said you don’t describe it as being an exhaustive list, but one, at least one issue which is notable by its absence is any question of the great increase in domestic abuse that took place once lockdown was ordered. Is that missing from the list because it wasn’t considered or can you tell us that it was?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, it was – it was certainly considered but I’m not sure it was considered right at the start of lockdown, I don’t think that was one that was particularly high on the list. I don’t think people had thought about it as being a likely outcome from it.

Counsel Inquiry: So –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I mean, in hindsight, yes, it should have been and it became an obvious discussion point later on, but by then we were in lockdown. And I’m still not sure what we could have done differently. If you’re locking down, then you’re locking down. That’s one of the prices – I mean, there are all sorts of other things, like young people stuck in halls of residence miles away from home and couldn’t come home because we’d closed the transport network down. There were lots of other things that were also happening at that time.

Counsel Inquiry: Just to take you back to that, Lord Lister, your very lengthy career in local politics at a national level, it’s an odd thing to hear you say that one identifies a problem and then just shrugs one’s shoulders and says there’s nothing –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Oh, no. No, no, I’m not saying that. I’m sorry, if I gave that impression, then I unreservedly apologise for that. All I’m trying to say was that was not an issue right at day one when we were discussing lockdown. Lockdown was a very blunt instrument which was being used to try to stop the spread of Covid. There were all sorts of consequences from that. Yes, we should have thought much more about domestic abuse. It just didn’t – it wasn’t discussed in my hearing until actually after we’d imposed lockdown.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So not foreseen, but it’s right, isn’t it, that once one recognises that there is a problem there –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – or, for that matter, other similar problems with other vulnerable groups that are experiencing, let’s say, a collateral impact of lockdown, there are lots of things that could be done to try to ameliorate the problem, aren’t there?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes, and that was one of our worries: what do you do with – this was never – sorry, the list in my statement wasn’t designed as an exhaustive list of all the issues.

Counsel Inquiry: No, I hope I made that clear.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: They were the number one issues, if I can put it that way, which were coming up, and we spent a lot of time going through them.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me move on, Lord Lister.

At a later part of your statement, perhaps we can go to it, it’s on page 16, paragraph 28, about five lines down, can you see where you say:

“In my view the first lockdown continued for longer than I believe was necessary.”

Can you help us to understand that statement, please? Why do you think that, and is there a particular period that you think was inappropriate or that steps were not taken quickly enough in a more general sense to lift the lockdown?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: The concern was, as lockdown continued, the consequences of it were becoming more and more difficult, the concern about the economy was enormous, business wasn’t flowing. I mean, if I take a very simple example, for example, sale of cars, how do you keep car factories going if you can’t sell the car that’s being produced? Therefore you’ve got no alternative but to end up needing to – letting people go. And there were all sorts of problems. And by then – the early part of lockdown everybody understood there was no choice, but as lockdown proceeded it became more and more difficult to keep these things going. And indeed we started to relax things, we started to relax things like garden centres and other things, large places. But the pressure from the public was enormous by then to open up. And that stayed there until the summer when we did open right up.

Counsel Inquiry: Pressure from the public, perhaps, but you seem to be expressing here your own view that things should have been done differently?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I – my own view was that we needed to look at releasing the economy as quickly as possible and that the quicker we could do that the better. That was always my view. And once we started to see the numbers starting to improve – and look, please, this sounds very cruel and hard, every death is a terrible thing and I’m not for one minute arguing that it isn’t, but I am arguing you have to balance it all the time and that the pressures on the economy were enormous by then and the pressures from people, from business, everybody.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s look at another document, if we can, and that is an email – in fact it’s from Stuart Glassborow, who the Inquiry heard from yesterday.

Yes, that’s it.

I know you’re familiar with this email, Lord Lister. At the bottom of this email is a read-out, a summary, is it not, by Stuart Glassborow, who, as we recall, was the Prime Minister’s deputy personal private secretary, a read-out of a meeting that had taken place between Mr Johnson and the Chancellor, and he is sending that read-out to you.

We see that in the meeting that he is describing there had been a discussion between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor where, as we see from the very first couple of lines of the main paragraph:

“… the Chancellor re-iterated the implications for the economy of the current lockdown measures if they persisted.”

And then I won’t read the rest out but we see that the theme is similar to the one you were just describing, the Chancellor in summary urging greater progress on opening the economy up.

We see further up the page you asking to be involved in a follow-up meeting.

Is this a fair reflection of what was happening at the time? Do you recall the Chancellor really taking up that course that you’ve just been describing and urging the Prime Minister to move faster, opening up the economy?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I don’t think it was just the Chancellor, I think it was really anybody that was looking at economic factors that were at play at that point in time. There was also pressure from other sectors to open up. It was beginning to be worrying about what was happening to the economy, and there was a constant stream of messages coming back from various industries that they were going to have to start letting people go, close down, they were running out of money, and it was at this time that various subsidiaries were being put into various places to keep things going.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s hardly surprising in one sense that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is advocating within government for government to take steps to protect the economy, after all that’s, you might think, his job, but in this particular context, where there is a pandemic afoot and a balance to be struck between health risks, as we’ve been discussing, and damage to the economy, did you understand the Chancellor’s role to be simply advocating for that economic side of the argument, or did you think that he was himself trying to come up with his own assessment of the balance between health risks and economic damage?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I don’t think I’m really sure on the answer to that one. Certainly, as you quite rightly say, it was his job to represent the economy, it was my job, as part of my role in Number 10, to also represent business as well, all of whom were pushing hard for some relaxation because of the consequences of this. I think the rest of that you’ll have to ask the Chancellor.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, we will, but I’m still interested in your understanding of the dynamic at the time, because we’ve heard some evidence that some of the scientists involved in SAGE and so on took the view that the Chancellor was striking the wrong balance in this period and arguing too forcefully for economic matters and causing a risk, and in fact we heard yesterday some evidence that the Prime Minister himself referred to what was described as “pro death” squads from the Treasury. One doesn’t, of course, want to put too much weight on a few words, but what I want to ask you, with your experience and presence there at the time, is: what was the understanding? Was the Chancellor perceived as someone who was simply advocating at every step for the economy, or was there a feeling that he was trying, and in some eyes failing, to strike the right balance between economic risk and health concerns?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think everybody was trying to strike that balance, and I think it was a situation where you either erred a little bit more on the economic argument or you erred more on the health argument. I mean, it could be argued if you – if you like, that the health representatives who attended the various meetings with the Prime Minister, I don’t think we would have come out of lockdown that summer, they would have kept us there, even though the data was showing a marked improvement in the situation.

And therefore that this was a sort of constant discussion that was taking place – “argument” I think is too strong a word – it was a discussion that was going on all the time.

Counsel Inquiry: With the Prime Minister right at the centre of it?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And as, in fact, we’ve seen earlier today, having to make some extremely difficult decisions?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Before we move on, I just want to ask you one more thing about this document. If we can look at the very bottom of this page, and it will mean we go over on to the next page:

“The PM and Chancellor agreed on the need to undertake measures that would power the economy, giving the best shot at as full and fast a bounce back as possible. This would likely focus on supply side reform, eg on planning.”

Well, this is in May, it wasn’t that much later, was it, that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was introduced, not about planning, but fairly described as something on the supply side –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – of the economy?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think that’s, by the way, where that thinking was predominantly.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Were you involved in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, I was – I was aware of it, I was aware of the thinking behind it, I was aware of the discussions about the changes to the VAT rules, and what they would do, to try to kick start the hospitality industry. And it was the hospitality industry above all other industries that was the one that was most affected. It was there that the greatest number of company closures was taking place, people were losing their jobs, it was that part of the economy which was more seriously affected than any other part.

Counsel Inquiry: You weren’t involved directly, from what you say, in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, but again, given your experience and presence there in Downing Street at the time, would you have expected that scheme to have been developed in a way that calibrated the risk to health against the benefit that was sought to be achieved to the hospitality industry?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: But, if I may answer that, I’m now struggling to remember the numbers, I think it was at that time you could have no more than six, once we did open up – it might have been four, I can’t remember now the number, but there was a limit on the number of people that could gather together, so it was quite small groupings that were to be allowed, there was the 2-metre rule that was in place. These were things that were designed to try to make that as safe an opening as possible.

Counsel Inquiry: Doesn’t that rather beg the question, Lord Lister, because one way of doing that sort of calibration that I suggest would be by a non-scientist like you, with respect, to undertake the sort of exercise you’ve just undertaken to say, “Well, there is not many people sitting round a table and there aren’t going to be that many tables, so it will probably be safe”?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, that whole policy piece about the design of the rule of six and how far people should be apart was something that was set up following discussion, advice with medical professionals, it wasn’t somebody like me sitting round a table who came up with a rule of six.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I want to go back to Eat Out to Help Out, because one obvious way of ensuring that that scheme struck the right balance, or at least understanding what balance it did in fact strike between economics and health, would be to have asked SAGE, which was after all the committee that had, as its function, providing expert epidemiological health advice to the government. And the evidence that we’ve heard was that SAGE was not consulted about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Would you have expected that to take place?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I can’t answer whether SAGE was or was not consulted, but what I can say is that all of this was discussed at the 9.15 meetings. There were the Secretary of State for Health present, there were medical advisers present, all of it was done in discussion with those various people, and at the end of the day the Prime Minister in conjunction with his colleagues in the Cabinet made the decision.

Counsel Inquiry: Just one more issue before we move on, and it’s still on this question of striking the right balance and ultimately, following this discussion that you’ve described, the Prime Minister having to make what, in many cases, were very difficult decisions.

Are you able to help us a little bit more about the dynamics of all of this between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor? We’ve heard this afternoon in fact that later in the year, so in the autumn, where these discussions – we’ll come on to talk about this ourselves – came back with a vengeance, there was a perception that the Prime Minister would make a decision, shall we say, favouring the health side of argument, only for that decision then to be, and the word used was, “undone” by the Chancellor, who would have another go at him and persuade him to change his mind.

Is that something that you recognise?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: What I recognise from that was that the Prime Minister was dealing with a series of – there were no easy decisions here. Everything was a balance. And it was a very difficult balance to strike. And I think that at the various meetings there were different lobbies that were at play, the health lobby, some of the other ministers were pro-lockdown, others were wanting to open up. That was taking place all the time. So he was trying to steer a path through the middle of this, to the best of his ability and listening to the advice being given to him on both the economy and from the health professionals.

Counsel Inquiry: Were there occasions where it appeared that he’d made one decision and then one group or the other had a further meeting with him or discussion with him and he then changed his mind?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, any decision that was – he did change his mind on wouldn’t have been a decision that had been finalised by Cabinet or any other group, it would have been in discussions with his various advisers round the table, and I think that was more him weighing up the different options that were in front of him.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me move on, Lord Lister, and I’m moving forward now perhaps a little further in the year, or perhaps we’re still in the summer of 2020, and the evidence the Inquiry has heard about the culture of the working environment in Downing Street and Cabinet Office at the time is striking, and I’m sure you’re familiar with what the Inquiry has heard. We’ve seen the paper that was written by Helen MacNamara and Martin Reynolds on that very issue. Do you think you saw that paper at the time?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m not going to take you to it, but we will recall that summary: “superhero bunfight”, junior women being talked over or ignored, various different aspects of an unhappy staff culture.

You were right at the centre at the time. What insight can you provide us with about all of that?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think there was a real tension at play at that time. I think it was largely driven by personalities. There were people there who were quite difficult to deal with, and I think there was a lot of tension that was taking place. I don’t … I think that there wasn’t enough weight given to the view of some of the different people round the table. More weight should have been given than there was. But it was quite difficult to deal with it, there was a problem with – and I mean – I mean, you’ve heard from Dominic Cummings, you’ve heard other evidence, I mean, he was not an easy man to deal with, and that was a tension that was in the room.

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry to interrupt you, Lord Lister, when you say “he was not an easy man to deal with”, you mean Mr Cummings?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, sorry, having interrupted you, let me ask you another question: you had worked with Mr Johnson, as we saw, for many years by this stage, including somewhere completely different, City Hall, for some time, and while there is a general understanding I think that Mr Johnson creates or enjoys a perhaps slightly chaotic working environment, I think it’s clear that what was being described in the Reynolds/MacNamara paper was something quite a lot more than that.

Was there any comparison between the working environment in the Cabinet Office in the summer of 2020 and other places that you had worked with Mr Johnson? I suppose what I’m trying to ask you is: do you think Mr Johnson’s sort of influence is part of the explanation for all this, or was it the very particular circumstances related to that place at that time?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It was not like that when I worked for him in City Hall. I don’t think anybody would ever suggest it was. It was – there were better working relationships between the individuals, and I certainly have no memory of any one group being talked over. I think that was a feature of Downing Street. I think it was – it’s partly, I think, the tensions and the pressures of the place, which are enormous, and there’s also a certain amount of this, about being – people being very, very tired.

The working day in Downing Street is sort of 8 til 8 plus weekends, that’s the norm for anybody who’s working at the centre of it, so it’s hardly surprising tensions do run high. I’m not saying that’s acceptable, I think that it would have been better if the Prime Minister had dealt with it perhaps when the opportunity occurred to him in the – certainly in the July of 2020, if not earlier. But he should – there was a personality clash that was constantly going on, and it was – there was an atmosphere.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just take you to one WhatsApp reference which gives us some insight into your role, fairly limited role, in all of this.

Yes, that’s the right page.

This is, to be clear, an exchange between Simon Case and Mark Sedwill. You don’t seem to have received or contributed to these messages, but you are mentioned in them. We can see that on the 2 July, so that’s a couple of months after the paper from Helen MacNamara and Martin Reynolds, Simon Case, who at this stage recently had come to Downing Street, or the Cabinet Office, says:

“At this rate, I will struggle to last six months. These people are so mad. Not poisonous towards me (yet), but they are just madly self-defeating.”

Mark Sedwill says he will fix, and then:

“Yup! You’re ok so far because you’ve been around for the good news phase. Wait until there are more Leicesters and then the fur will fly. Watch yourself.

Mark Sedwill says:

“As I pointed out to Eddie [and that’s you, I take it] it’s hard to ask people to [march, I think he meant] to the sound of gunfire if they’re shot in the back.”

And Simon Case says:

“I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well equipped to run a country. PM asked me today about who will replace Shinner when he goes … I was quite direct in telling him that lots of the top-drawer people I had asked had refused to come because of the toxic reputation of his operation.”

What these two very senior officials seem to be discussing between themselves and also, on this basis, discussing with you is a very extreme set of affairs, not just some personality clashes, but the sort of toxic culture which seems, as we can see from the last entry, in fact to be discouraging others from wanting to go and work in the Cabinet Office. Is that a fair reflection of how you saw things at the time?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you remember Mark Sedwill having that particular conversation with you or –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Not particularly, but I remember – well, not those words, but I do remember similar conversations. We did speak together quite a bit about the need for change, and that it would have been easier if there was a change in the regime.

There were two problems. One was too much power was being taken to Downing Street because of the frustrations of things not being done elsewhere; in fact it wasn’t the right answer to bring it to the centre, it should have been left in the departments and whatever the problem was corrected within the department. But also it was because some of the personalities just made it very, very toxic.

In fact, I mean, it’s … I’m jumping around the bush a little bit. I mean, I think the problem by then was that Dominic Cummings’ relationship with other people had become very strained.

Counsel Inquiry: You were – you remained in Downing Street for about another eight or nine months after this. Did the position carry on as bad as it’s described here or did it improve particularly –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It started to improve, really, after – during the summer and afterwards it got a lot, lot better, I think because there wasn’t quite the same drama and tension that there had been in the first – the first lockdown, but also I think because the personalities had slightly started to change and people had moved on a little bit, and that – I just think it got easier to deal with the problems.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Let me go to another topic, which is your involvement in relations between the government in London and the devolved administrations. Of course, I mean, the Inquiry has heard a fair amount of evidence now on that issue. We saw right at the start of your evidence that, prior to the pandemic, one of your areas of responsibility had been overseeing relations between the UK and Ireland in the context of the Brexit negotiations.

Did you have a role, once the pandemic started, in liaising with the devolved administrations about the measures that were taken to combat the pandemic?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I had a role in so much that we had regular meetings with the devolved administrations. I was able to make calls to various people, and did do at various times, because of issues that arose. So yes, I was involved.

Counsel Inquiry: You referred in your witness statement – I don’t think we need to go there, we can if we need to – to what you describe as “Four Nations Forums”. Were those the same things as the regular telephone calls or perhaps Zoom calls that Michael Gove had with the leaders of the devolved administrations?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Michael Gove had the more formal meetings, but there were quite regular discussions which the Prime Minister was involved with, when various issues were – at various points during the Covid pandemic there were these calls, these regular Zoom calls which took place between the leaders.

Counsel Inquiry: So you’re not referring to any special or sort of –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, no, there was –

Counsel Inquiry: It’s just what you call them?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I mean, the four nation forum, I think, was the formal name of the ministerial group which was led by Michael Gove.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ll come to one or two particular issues, but in general terms, what was your take on the state of relations during this emergency between London and the devolved authorities – sorry, the devolved administrations?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think they went very smoothly, or relatively smoothly – nothing went smoothly, but relatively smoothly with Northern Ireland and with Wales, and it was fairly tense with Scotland.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, let me explore that by moving on in the chronology, because the evidence the Inquiry has heard is that, as 2020 passed and in particular once in the summer of 2020 the lockdown step-by-step was lifted, that was the point at which the policies that were being pursued in England and in the devolved nations started to diverge, and it was a consequence of that divergence that there were tensions developed between the devolved nations, and in particular calls made – by Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, at least – for there to be more sort of centralised decision-making, calls for COBR meetings, or a joint ministerial council to be held.

Is that a fair summary? Do you recognise that description of how the relations went?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve also heard that Boris Johnson was opposed to what he described as, as it were, federal decision-making. He felt that it would be wrong – and I’m paraphrasing a part of his witness statement – wrong for, as it were, himself and the leaders of the devolved nations to meet together to decide on measures; rather, he should simply decide what should happen and the devolved nations should be informed and attempts made to accommodate them.

Again, have we got that right, and what were your views about that issue?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think – I think the Prime Minister felt very strongly there needed to be one UK message being pushed out, and there were various disputes with – particularly with Scotland, over some of that messaging. There was an issue that pretty much each – each step of the lockdown release required some change to rules or regulations in one form or another, and to try and get agreement amongst all the devolved authorities was very difficult.

By and large, Wales and Northern Ireland went along with Britain, with England, maybe with some small modifications or changes or maybe they influenced those to – and their changes could be incorporated. But with Scotland, it was always that whatever the announcement was, Scotland wanted to do it a day or two earlier than England, or a week later, or it never wanted to do it at the same time, and that created a great deal of distrust within the organisation, and a lot of frustration.

Counsel Inquiry: The starting point, perhaps, is that health was a devolved issue –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – in each of the devolved nations, so they were entitled – more than entitled, they were under a duty – to make their own decisions on health issues within the different nations. I mean, that must be right?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: That’s right, and in each of them there was a chief medical officer, and the Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, used to have regular meetings with his opposite numbers, the chief medical officers of those devolved administrations. That, I think, all worked pretty smoothly and pretty straightforwardly; it was the politics that was always the problem, and this – it seemed to us in Downing Street that it didn’t matter what the decision was, Scotland would always want to do it slightly differently to England.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me take you to the part of your witness statement that you draw – where you draw attention to this point. Yes, thank you. It’s (iv), and we can see here you say that the co-operation was “less effective in the case of the Scottish administration”, and then as you say, “keen to announce measures either before or after the rest of the UK”, and then this, “for reasons that appeared more political than data-driven”.

Well, the Scottish administration did have the political authority and duty to make those decisions, so what do you mean by “political” in that paragraph?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think there was a real desire by the Scottish Government to always show that they were not doing the same as England and that they were running a different operation in Scotland and that they were, in their view, doing things better. It was just – but it always – almost seemed that there was the desire just to be different.

Counsel Inquiry: Opportunistic?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think that’s a good word.

Counsel Inquiry: And it’s implicit in everything that you’ve said that this was a source of frustration in Downing Street?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It was a frustration, it was just – it – look, you’re making a decision at a COBR decision or whatever to change a rule, and then you find out that the change has just been done in Scotland the day before or three days later, and then there were also arguments about some of the messaging that had to be put out. It just caused confusion.

Counsel Inquiry: Was this sense of frustration one of the reasons why Boris Johnson was reluctant to meet the leaders of the devolved administrations?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, he – he largely used Michael Gove for those meetings –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: – and he delegated that responsibility to Michael Gove to do that.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, quite. So he – as I said, we’ve seen evidence that in particular Mark Drakeford in the autumn of 2020 called for there to be meetings, a JMC or a COBR meeting, on different occasions; and the answer, at least on occasions, was: well, no, we won’t have a meeting of the heads of the government but Michael Gove will meet with you on a Zoom call.

That’s what I mean by perhaps reluctance of Mr Johnson to engage in that type of meeting. Do you think that this sense of frustration could have been one cause of that?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes. I mean, I think there was a constant feeling by him that whatever he was going to say, they were going to play politics with it and do something slightly different, and that was – that was what happened time after time.

Counsel Inquiry: You referred, Lord Lister, to messaging, communications, and there’s a document I – well, just pause there before I take you to the document.

Yes, let’s go to the document. We’ve got it here. In fact it’s a document the Inquiry has seen before, but it dates from May 2020, so again when – sort of around the time of the first lockdown being lifted.

In summary – I know you’ve seen this document before – there was a request, was there not, from the Scottish Government that the new “Stay Alert” campaign which was being used in replacement for the old “Stay at Home” campaign, shouldn’t be used in Scotland because it didn’t reflect the policies being pursued by the Scottish Government?

If we read to the bottom of the numbered points, ultimately the recommendation was that the Scottish Government’s request should not be met, that the campaign should be run nationwide, and I think we’ve heard from an earlier witness that that’s what happened.

Wasn’t the Scottish Government, with its devolved responsibility for health, entitled to ask the London government not to broadcast a campaign in Scotland that didn’t reflect Scottish Government policy?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think this was the argument, that it was just causing confusion with too many different messages going out to people, it was hard enough trying to have one coherent message going out all the time, and the general view was that it was essential to stick to one message, and that was clearer, easier and better to do that.

Counsel Inquiry: Doesn’t that reasoning simply not meet the point that in this area of health, under the devolution settlement, it was for the Scottish Government to decide how the pandemic was going to be tackled in Scotland?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yeah, but when you’ve got national newspapers, national television stations, national things, you can’t suddenly start having different messages. The same adverts were going out on television right across the country.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, one way of addressing this which has been mentioned in evidence is that at press conferences, as you say, which clearly were going out across the UK, the Prime Minister should make it clear, if necessary, that certain measures or certain campaigns didn’t apply to Scotland. But more fundamentally than that, given the devolved responsibility of the devolved administrations, if the English campaign wasn’t something that they were happy with, wasn’t that a reason not to run the campaign at all?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: But you can’t not run campaigns through – through the course of the pandemic. There was a series of campaigns being run in newspapers, on television, and there was a very strong view coming from the media side at Number 10 was that you had to have one simple message that goes to everybody.

Counsel Inquiry: And the person to decide on that one simple message was Boris Johnson?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, he’s the Prime Minister.

Counsel Inquiry: He’s the Prime Minister of a country, parts of which had their own responsibility for health.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: But he also had a very clear responsibility about the pandemic, to do the best he could for the whole country, and that was the view he took. Although I’ve got to say to you I think most of this was really discussed within the media operations of the Cabinet Office and Number 10.

Counsel Inquiry: Looking back on it, clearly there was conflict, tension; you’ve described your understanding that there was a certain amount of political game playing. Do you think if the governments of the four nations had tried harder to work together and settle their differences that there could have – that some of these problems could have been overcome?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I’ve got … I’ve got to say, I think that actually the Prime Minister at the COBR meetings with – and meetings that Michael Gove had, everybody tried very hard to have coherent messages and to work together. It was just difficult with Scotland. It was … I mean, I don’t remember any disputes – I mean, not major ones – with Wales or Northern Ireland, or disputes which weren’t resolved relatively amicably.

Mr O’Connor: Lord Lister, I’m going to move on to the last of the topics that I have questions for you about, and that’s the –

Lady Hallett: Can I just ask roughly how long? I’m not pinning you down, it’s just that I’ve been asked to take a break, but if it’s not going to be that – I know Ms Mitchell’s got some questions.

Mr O’Connor: Yes. Well, it’s not going to be a couple of minutes, it’s going to be probably maybe 10 or 15.

Lady Hallett: Well, I’ll take a 4-minute break.

(4.27 pm)

(A short break)

(4.31 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr O’Connor.

Mr O’Connor: I’m grateful, my Lady.

Lord Lister, I’m going to move on to, as I said, my last area, which is to ask you some questions about things that took place in the autumn and winter of 2020, going over into 2021. In fact, the Inquiry has heard from Mr Ridley today a fair amount of evidence about that period.

We know, of course, infection rates started to rise at the end of the summer and into the autumn, there were calls from SAGE and others for the so-called circuit breaker lockdown from September. That’s the context.

If we could look, please, at paragraph 32 of your witness statement, which is on page 17, you make very much the same point: the R number was rising in September 2020, the proposal for the circuit breaker. However, you say, the opposition to any form of lockdown was intense.

Then this: you recall the PM saying in September 2020 that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown. You go on to say it’s an unfortunate turn of phrase.

Can you help us with the occasion on which the Prime Minister said this, or to whom he said it?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, I can’t, I can’t recall. I mean, it was at one of the many meetings that were going on, and I can’t tell you which one.

Counsel Inquiry: No. What did you take him to mean by it?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think it was just the … we’d had the summer, hospitality had opened up, there was immense pressure to keep the economy moving forward, and the R number was starting to rise, particularly in the north of England, and this was beginning to lead to quite a few pressures from the Department of Health and from the Health Secretary for a lockdown to be put in place as soon as possible. And this was the debate that was going on: do you now lock down or do you keep going? By now we were starting to see vaccines coming through, things were starting to look a bit brighter than they had been earlier.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of vaccines?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Well, no, generally. Generally things were looking brighter than they had been in the first lockdown. There was a feeling that: could we hold off, could we find an alternative to locking down? And it also that the R number, although it was rising, was not rising at the same rate in all parts of the country.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ll come on to the tiers shortly, but just before we leave this: it’s one thing to have a debate about locking down or not locking down, of course issues between the harm that a lockdown would do and the health risks that might seem to indicate a lockdown is needed, but to say that “Let the bodies pile high” is a very striking term –

Lady Hallett: I think that’s a question for the former Prime Minister, rather than Lord Lister.

Mr O’Connor: I’ll move on, Lord Lister, to ask you about the tier system.

As you say, and in fact if we move to paragraph 33 of your witness statement, we see you make the point that the R number was not the same in different parts of the country, and it was in October of 2020, was it not, that this tier system was introduced and you played quite a significant part in trying to implement it; is that right?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And what was your role?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: My role was to try and get an agreement in the different parts of the country where the R number was going up to basically establish a tiering system, Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 – Tier 3 basically being total lockdown – and it was an attempt to try and find an alternative to a national lockdown, and therefore do it on a regional basis, and try and keep the economy, as much as of it as we could, moving forward.

Counsel Inquiry: You say you were negotiating or trying to make agreements with the local authorities. Perhaps it’s obvious, but presumably it was with those authorities and the regions that were proposed to be put into the higher tiers –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yeah. I mean –

Counsel Inquiry: – that a discussion needed to be had?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yeah. Basically the number was rising, particularly in the north, there was some movement in the Midlands, but it was mainly a northern phenomenon at that point in time. Later it changed again, but at that moment it was particularly high in areas like the northwest, and that’s why we started the negotiations in Warrington, we started in Liverpool. It was those areas that were seen as the ones with the highest – highest threat at that time.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard about Liverpool and Manchester, but just give us an idea: were there in fact quite a number of different regions, a number of different negotiations under way?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes, I mean, basically the whole of the north and the Midlands was subject to different negotiations under way. I mean, in the northwest, for example, there was one going on with the Lancashire authorities, which was a group of authorities; in Manchester, it was the metro mayor; in Merseyside, it was a metro mayor; in Warrington, we had another one; and we had one in Cheshire. So, I mean, we had different negotiations there, and then that was reflected right across the northeast and the north generally.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard in fact from Mr Ridley this afternoon his views about tiering system, and perhaps his fundamental view was that because of circumstance – which we’ll come on to – it wasn’t given long enough to prove itself or not. But he did also identify a number of built-in problems with the tiering system, and one of them we’ve just really been talking about, which is that it necessarily involves a series of negotiations with quite a large number of different authorities, which experience proved were difficult and lengthy.

On that, were there to be another situation in which a system like this was envisaged, do you think that the necessity to have all these different negotiations with different authorities is a reason in itself to mean that a tiering system is simply unachievable, or not?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think we tried to bring in the tiering system by agreement with each of the authorities, and the problem was that each one wanted to try and get a bit more money than the last one. So the negotiations were, by their very nature, difficult. And one of the things that I did do right at the beginning of the negotiations was to assure anybody that we did a deal with that, if later on with some other authority we’d come to something slightly different, that retrospectively that would apply to them, so nobody was going to lose out.

But it was tense and was difficult. The local authorities did not want to close their hospitality industry down. It had only just started to get back on its feet. There was immense opposition to it, and the problem with it was we were trying to do it on a regional basis, which I think was right, was the only thing we could do, but of course within a region things weren’t always the same.

I mean, a good example, Manchester. I mean, the high number, the high R number there was in Bolton, that was our biggest problem, while Stockport had a very low R number. But that was just within one region, but we were trying to impose a tiering system which would be for all of Manchester or all of Merseyside.

So it was – it was messy, but I think it was the right thing to do and I think we, by and large, got agreement to most of it by most authorities, and I think if we’d kept it going it – well, I believe it would have worked, but in the end there was a decision taken just before Christmas to bring in a circuit breaker and to stop it.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Let me just ask you about one other of the problems identified by Mr Ridley. It really follows from what you have just been saying, that quite apart from, he said, the difficulty of the negotiations, one ended up with an incredibly complex situation with a whole series of different regions, different rules applying in different regions, the need to draft different regulations for different regions and then all the confusion on the ground that stemmed from that.

Again, do you think that those were the types of problems which in the end could have been overcome and perhaps in the future, in another pandemic, could be?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I would like to think we could overcome them. I think we were starting to overcome them. I think we’d got a coherent set of regulations. I mean, once we’d done the first couple, the rest were largely copies of those regulations. Yes, there was a bit of confusion, you know, why was Manchester different from Merseyside or wherever, but by and large I think the local people understood what was going on in their communities and it was a price worth paying to try and keep their economy open, and that was seen as valuable and worthwhile.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Now, as you say, the experiment with the tiering system in fact only lasted a month or so, or less, because the second lockdown was introduced at the beginning of November. Then, as we know, in January there was a third lockdown introduced after Christmas. You have expressed a view in your statement in a number of paragraphs that you didn’t think that either of those two lockdowns should have been imposed.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I believed that the tiering system was going to work. I think that it wasn’t given long enough. I think we could have got through to the other side of Christmas without the circuit breaker. I also believe that by the time we did bring in the final lockdown, by then I don’t think – I just think the tiering system wasn’t given enough time or enough of a chance to succeed.

Counsel Inquiry: You also mention at various places the vaccines, but it’s – you mention them, I think, in relation to both the second and the third lockdown, but in fact the vaccines didn’t really get going until into the New Year, did they? So at least at the time those two lockdowns were introduced, they weren’t really a feature?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, they were just being started, we’d started with relatively low numbers in the autumn, early autumn, and it was being ramped up pretty steadily through into the New Year, when it was really beginning to then become a major factor. But we knew the vaccine was there, we knew it was coming, and there was a feeling that with local tiering, and if the R number went up sufficiently high, we would close down that area completely, which was the plan. I still think that could have worked, but it wasn’t to be.

Counsel Inquiry: No.

I think the last point, Lord Lister, can we look, please, at paragraph 37 of your statement on page 18. This is one of the passages where you’re expressing the view that the second – in this case the second lockdown should not have taken place, but I want to ask you about a sentence about six or seven lines down where you say:

“There was no evidence that young people were badly affected by Covid-19 but the argument was that it was necessary to protect their parents and … grandparents …”

And so on.

By the end of 2020, it was clear, wasn’t it, that Long Covid could and did cause serious illness in young people? Is that fair?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I’m not sure, I think it was later than that when Long Covid became the issue it became. I think it was still not really understood at that point in time. It certainly wasn’t a major factor in the – in the autumn of 2020. It certainly was by 2021, but I don’t remember it in the autumn.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Well, I don’t want to spend time going over the details. In fact, what’s probably more important is your own understanding. So we know, for example, that there had been some Department of Health sponsored meetings and so on in the summer and the early autumn of 2020; but was your position, doing the best you can, from let’s say October/November 2020 – help us, were you thinking of Long Covid as a factor at that stage or not?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No. I was much more concerned about the economic effects of lockdown. I was – I suppose it was inevitable because I was spending all my time talking to leaders of local authorities, I was very much involved about what was happening in those local authorities, about the need to get the economy moving, the worry they had about people losing jobs, all of that. So for me that was the priority, and I was very much involved in trying to do that, and I had to – it’s worth just making the point: those negotiations were not one way, it was a two-way negotiation, because I was also negotiating with the Treasury, because the sums of money had to be agreed. So it was quite a complex period.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: But I still believe that … well, we’ll never know, but I do think the tiering could have been given more of a chance.

Counsel Inquiry: Just sticking with this and Long Covid just for another question or so.

Of course we know that around this time, it was the time of the Great Barrington Declaration, we’ve seen references in some of the Prime Minister’s documents to him worrying about the QALY issue and the age of Covid victims and so on, and so it was very much part of the debate that lockdowns were having a disproportionate impact on young people.

One point to make in that regard is the one I’ve made to you that Long Covid did have an effect on young people, but can you remember that being raised as an issue in your discussions –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – either in terms of the second lockdown –

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, not particularly. I mean, I think the main issue that was coming up with young people was always the issue about school closures and the need to get schools back.

Mr O’Connor: Yes.

Well, thank you very much, Lord Lister, those are all my questions.

My Lady, there is one set of questions from the core participants.

Lady Hallett: Ms Mitchell.

Questions From Ms Mitchell KC

Ms Mitchell: Thank you, my Lady.

I appear as instructed by Aamer Anwar on behalf of the Scottish Covid Bereaved.

Lord Lister, I’m going to ask you to look at an email communication which you were involved in, and can I ask that Inquiry numbered document INQ000214134 is placed up on the screen, and can we scroll down to the bottom, please.

Do we see here that a question is being asked that the FM is looking to have a call with the Prime Minister to discuss Covid-19 further, and a question is being made about availability.

Can we scroll up from that, and if we can zoom in on the response that, I think in blue. Becca is asking, and I think this includes you as you respond to it:

“Hi all

“What do you think of this?

“I think it would be near impossible to reject this request given the subject matter. I can ask for more info on what it’s about specifically first?”

Then can we see your response to that, and I think your response there is:

“No choice but to do it.


Firstly I’d like to ask you: were you aware of any attempts by the Scottish Government to discuss Covid with the Prime Minister prior to this occasion?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I … I have no memory of that. I’m sorry, I think I’ve got to say I’m not sure.

Ms Mitchell KC: We see from that line of communication that the word “further” is used, tending to indicate that there must have been some earlier communication; would you agree?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Ms Mitchell KC: If we can orientate ourselves, at this time – this was, I think, the 5th – that the request was made, 5 March, and that was on the date Covid-19 was added to the list of notifiable diseases.

From the text of this email chain, it appears that there’s a reluctance to have the First Minister in contact with the Prime Minister.

What was the reason for that reluctance?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I … well, I mean, as you can see from the exchange of emails, the meeting took place, so it – I certainly wasn’t trying to block that meeting taking place. But there was quite a lot of tension between the Prime Minister and the First Minister, they had no real personal relationship of any kind other than that they, I think, generally didn’t like each other very much.

Ms Mitchell KC: But surely, given the nature of what was being discussed and the timing of the call, it would have been important for that to have taken place regardless of any views held personally?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yeah, and you will see from this exchange, I mean, that the call did take place.

Ms Mitchell KC: I’d like to move on, please, and it’s a document that you’ve already been taken to. It’s a part of your witness statement at paragraph 27, page 12, and the Inquiry number is INQ000237819.

This is the part that I would like to take you to about devolved administrations, and we’ve already had a look at this. You’ve indicated that, whilst there was good co-operation with Northern Ireland and Wales, it was less effective in the case of the Scottish administration, and you’ve made reference to “keen to announce measures either before or after”. You describe this as more political than data driven.

The Inquiry, I think, in relation to this matter, has already heard evidence from a professor indicating that this particular message, the “Stay Alert” public messaging, was one which is the worst of all combinations because it doesn’t tell you what to do and it tells you to worry.

This particular messaging aside, what other decisions taken by the Scottish Government do you consider were more political than data driven?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think it was really what I said earlier: whatever the decision that was taken at a COBR meeting that was in discussion with Wales, Northern Ireland, whatever that decision was, it would happen in Scotland as well, but it wouldn’t happen on the same day. It would never be co-ordinated. There was always a desire for it to be a Scottish decision, not an English decision, and it was always the same decision, but it would happen two days earlier, two days later or whatever.

Ms Mitchell KC: So, when you say that the reasons appeared more political than data driven, what do you mean? That’s not about the same message, is it?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: That is what I was meaning by that statement, that the data was saying we should do this or that, whatever it was, there was this desire for – in Scotland, and please excuse me saying it, to be different all the time. And I think that was a political move rather than a practical move.

Ms Mitchell KC: I think the Inquiry has already heard a lot of evidence about the data suggesting that matters should have taken place earlier, and that decisions should have been taken earlier. Indeed, I think you yourself said so earlier. Might that, rather than simply being a desire to be different, in fact be something which was data driven, because you were trying to implement matters more quickly?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I mean, this was a general statement I was making right at – right through the Covid period. There were at various times changes, there were rules which we were imposing across the country, the rule of six, the 2-metre rule, there were various other rules that were being developed, and I can’t remember them all now, but, I mean, at the time they were – they were very much sort of things you discussed every week, and it was just every decision that was taken, Scotland always went slightly differently in timing to the rest.

Ms Mitchell KC: You’ve mentioned the rule of six; I wonder if I can take you to paragraph 49 of your statement at page 21. You’ll recall my learned friend has already asked you about this matter, and you explained it wasn’t simply sitting round and deciding that six seemed like a good number, but it was made in combination with the experts.

I wonder if I can ask you to reflect on paragraph 49, where it says:

“Reductions in the ability for people to meet and later the ‘rule of six’ was interpreted far too harshly in my view. From memory the rule of six was an arbitrary number and this concept, as well as others such as household ‘bubbles’ were introduced as a means of compromise between isolation and full contact.”

I wonder if I can ask you to reflect upon the view that you believe that the rule of six was an arbitrary number, and how that might square with your view that the decisions taken by the UK Government were more political than data driven?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I’m not arguing that the rule of six, and six was the right number. What I am saying is that along the line, you have to have a decision which is right across the UK, and so everybody understands whatever the rule is, and it was this constant pressure for something to be different, and that’s really the point I’m trying to make.

Ms Mitchell KC: Well, the question, with respect, I’m asking is: did these decisions taken, the rule of six, represent a decision taken by the UK Government which was more political than data driven?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No, I don’t think so, I think it was a – it was the best compromise people could come up with, it was done in conjunction with medical advice that was given, it was also discussed extensively amongst the chief medical officers. These were things that were discussed quite widely before they reached a decision-making point.

Ms Mitchell KC: But then you describe the number that was chosen as arbitrary.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: My point is I am not sure, and I cannot remember why six was not four or six was not eight. It was a number that was decided at that time and that I was not party to making that decision. My point is I think it was, it did create all sorts of problems for people. I think it was very difficult, it was seen as being very unfair, and there were a lot of examples of that unfairness.

Ms Mitchell KC: I would like to turn now to a different issue, and to take you to an excerpt of some handwritten notes that were made, and they have been typed up. These are notes made by Patrick Vallance on 28 November 2020, or reflects a discussion at that time, and that is INQ000273901.

In order to orientate ourselves, if I may read:

“PM meeting re Tiers (advice from Gold).

“‘We can’t have endless boundary disputes. We have to make arbitrary and Draconian decisions.’.

“PM wanting to put more into Tier 1.

“CMO says ‘I wouldn’t put anyone in Tier 1 as Tier 1 all went up before & this Tier 1 is even less stringent.

“Selling the testing on ‘Liverpool got out of this by testing’ - not true – it made a minor difference.

“also endless reference to what focus groups said …

“Ed Lister ‘all our feedback is that the more you put in Tier 1 the better’ …

“The exact opposite of what we need to do.

“This is all a game of getting votes.

“PM is the only rational voice in the political side …

“[PM] arguing for going harder & says ‘more jobs will go if this thing takes off again’.

“Simon Case comes in & says if you put everyone in lower tiers and then add Christmas we will undoubtedly have to do another national lockdown.

“PM ‘What this disease has taught us is that hoping that something will turn up & it will be ok is fucking stupid’.

“Keeps coming back to hope that testing can help.”

Now, what I want to ask you: do you remember that particular meeting?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: No. But I can remember that kind of argument.

Ms Mitchell KC: And the feedback which you were giving there, the feedback which you describe as “all our feedback is that the more you put in Tier 1 the better”, what was that feedback from?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: That was – that was the feedback from local authorities up and down the country who all wanted their hospitality sector opened up as soon as possible, and that was the general view, everybody wanted to be in Tier 1, so we were then having arguments in the north to move them to Tier 2 or ultimately to Tier 3.

Ms Mitchell KC: And would you agree that that feedback that you were giving at that time and the view you were expressing wasn’t scientific feedback or data feedback, it was political feedback?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: It was political feedback but not party political feedback, it was political feedback from the – from the leaders of local authorities up and down the country.

Ms Mitchell: Those are my questions, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Mitchell.

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: I’ve just got one question, Lord Lister.

Given what you described as the personality clash, particularly with Mr Cummings, and you having acted as an adviser to the Prime Minister, is there anything one could do to put in place any kind of structure about the role of the special adviser that might prevent this in the future, if you had such a personality clash, or is it inevitable?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think – I think there’s two – can I answer it in two ways, if I may?

Lady Hallett: Yes.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: I think that you have to think about the way Boris Johnson likes to work: he’s a journalist, he always likes to have both sides of the argument on the table. That was something, I suppose, as a journalist, he just automatically felt was the right thing to do in making a decision. One of the problems with people like Dominic Cummings is that they always believed that their decision or their view was the right view and there was no alternative view. That creates that tension. That’s one issue.

The second issue is I think there wasn’t a clear – very clear line of responsibility in Downing Street, and I think that was a mistake, and I think there should have been clear lines, clearer responsibilities, and I think that would have eased the situation.

I also think people needed to be treated as little bit more respectfully than they were. Some of those WhatsApp messages, and you’ve seen them, are pretty appalling, and that’s something that I felt very uncomfortable with.

Lady Hallett: You talk about clearer lines of responsibility, that’s really what I was getting at and what has been occurring to me as I was listening to the evidence. But special advisers, I think they’re temporary civil servants, aren’t they?

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: Yes.

Lady Hallett: How could you create the clearer lines of responsibility? Because, although they’re temporary civil servants, they answer to the minister rather than to the permanent secretary.

Lord Edward Udney-Lister: They are there to assist the – to assist the minister, but, I mean, for them to be effective – I think people need greater training to understand that in government, in the civil service, you can rarely get anything by instructing somebody to do it; you actually have to sell it to them, and sell it to them as being the right decision for the country, for whatever it is you’re trying to sell. I don’t think it’s actually much different in business, actually. You always have to sell the message, and I think the idea – and some of the special advisers I think had it – was that they had the authority to act on behalf of the minister and just give instructions, and that just causes resentment and difficulty. And I think that’s what you picked up from some of the earlier evidence that’s been heard, and that’s certainly how I read it.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much. Sorry to use you as if you were the author of a seminar. Thank you for your help.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Mr O’Connor?

Mr O’Connor: My Lady, that’s the end of the evidence for today.

Lady Hallett: Thank you. 10 o’clock tomorrow, please.

(5.05 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Wednesday, 8 November 2023)