Transcript of Module 2 Public Hearing on 08 November 2023

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Good morning, my Lady. The first witness today is Lord Sedwill.

Lord Mark Sedwill


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you commence your evidence, please, by providing your full name to the Inquiry.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Good morning, my Lady. Good morning, Mr Keith. I’m Mark Philip Sedwill, Lord Sedwill as you’ve said.

Lead Inquiry: Lord Sedwill, thank you for your provision of your witness statement, which is dated 18 August, INQ000250229. I think it’s 43 pages, and you’ve provided the usual declaration.

I think you also provided a witness statement for Module 1 as well –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: – for which we must thank you.

I want to ask you first about the system by which you were provided with material to enable you to provide the witness statement.

I think you were provided with a good many documents by your legal advisers and by the persons responsible for assisting the Inquiry with the provision of evidence. You haven’t had access to or sought to replicate all the material which you would have seen during your lengthy and impressive career to do with Covid?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, I’ve had access to a range of material, I think there was something like 2 million documents that referred to the Cabinet Secretary during the Covid period, so obviously we had to try to identify the crucial ones: Cabinet minutes, emails and so on. And as you’ve heard, I think, Mr Keith, in other evidence sessions, the record-keeping is not – and the access to records has been troublesome.

Lead Inquiry: You no longer have your mobile phone from the time when you were Cabinet Secretary and dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Is it correct that the messages that would have been on your phone at that time were not backed up, they would have been deleted, as part of a normal policy?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s correct. As – I mean, essentially, really, as National Security Adviser, I would regularly clean my phone. I would usually, if I returned from a foreign trip on which I’d been using it where there might have been an espionage threat, it would generally be – been rebooted, for example, so I didn’t have access to any WhatsApps or other messages from my end, essentially after I left office.

Lead Inquiry: But you have been provided with some WhatsApp material relating to conversations to which you were party, because the record of those conversations has been retained by the other persons to whom you were speaking?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: You didn’t keep a private diary at the time, but you did, of course, as Cabinet Secretary, keep a notebook which recorded notes of formal meetings, and that of course would have been retained by the government?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s correct, and I think a facsimile of some of the relevant passages has been provided to the Inquiry.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed. Thank you.

Turning to your career and your professional background, you served in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for many years, from 1989 to 2013, during which time you were notably Her Majesty’s ambassador and then NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: You were then political director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but you became the permanent secretary to the Home Office in 2013?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: And was that under the then Home Secretary, Theresa May?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s correct. I worked for her, and then after she became Prime Minister, Amber Rudd was then Home Secretary for the remainder of my period.

Lead Inquiry: But you then became National Security Adviser in 2017?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Was that under Ms May’s administration?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Then from June 2018 did you become Acting Cabinet Secretary?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: When was that made permanent?

Lord Mark Sedwill: In October 2018. My predecessor, Jeremy Heywood, took medical leave in June, I was asked to step in. Tragically he didn’t recover and had to retire on medical grounds, died shortly afterwards, in October, and the Prime Minister asked me to continue as Cabinet Secretary in – as you say, confirmed in the formal role thereafter.

Lead Inquiry: Did you also become the head of the civil service and was that combination of roles a long-standing convention?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, it had been – they had been separate, I think, in the 1970s, really since the mid-80s they had been combined. There was a brief period after Lord O’Donnell stepped down as Cabinet Secretary, head of the civil service and indeed permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, when those three roles were split, and Lord Kerslake, the late Lord Kerslake, took over as the head of the civil service for a couple of years, Jeremy Heywood, Lord Heywood, as Cabinet Secretary, and then, when Lord Kerslake retired, Jeremy Heywood recombined the two roles of Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, and I succeeded him in those.

Lead Inquiry: Lord Sedwill, that’s very helpful. Could I just ask you to go a little bit slower, please?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: Our stenographer, who is working remotely –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: – will find it difficult to keep up with that speed.

The Cabinet Secretary is head of the Cabinet secretariat, is by virtue of his or her role right at the top, at the apex of the civil service.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Is the role of the Cabinet Secretary one that is set down in writing? Is it constitutionally defined, or is the role of the Cabinet Secretary, whoever he or she may be, rather more an organic one, something that changes over time according to who the Prime Minister of the day might be?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It is written down in the Cabinet Manual, which is essentially a codification of many of the procedures of government. The formal role is as secretary of the Cabinet, in other words the person who is responsible for the proceedings of Cabinet, that the minutes are properly recorded, but in practice you’re absolutely right, Mr Keith, the role is organic and the Cabinet Secretary balances a relationship with the Prime Minister, a relationship with Cabinet, a relationship with the permanent secretaries, and, indeed, a relationship with the palace, and one has to try and keep all of those relationships in balance and in good health.

Lead Inquiry: As well as being head of the civil service, and therefore responsible for it, and as well, is this correct, as carrying – for carrying responsibility for ensuring the operations, in a general sense, of the Cabinet Office and its role in the centre of government and the role that it performs of liaising with other government departments and, to use a word we’ve heard a lot, synthesising the strategy, policy and operational facets of government?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s correct. The Cabinet Office essentially, I’ll simplify, is really in two groupings. There are several thousand people in the Cabinet Office. Most of that group are essentially performing the role of what one might describe as the civil service department responsible for the overall management of the civil service, the central functions, HR, digital and so on. And that is overseen by the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, who, in my time, was first chief executive and then the chief operating officer for the civil service.

The direct responsibility really of the Cabinet Secretary is for the Cabinet secretariat. Of course, as Cabinet Secretary, one oversees all of it, and that’s a few hundred people, essentially supporting the functions of Cabinet and of the Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: Are two of the most important functions of the Cabinet Secretary to advise the Prime Minister on the machinery of government, how that process at the very highest level works, and secondly, to give advice on the appointment of ministers?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s correct, Mr Keith. The – probably more the first. The Cabinet Secretary would typically provide the Prime Minister with formal advice on machinery of government, whether different departments might be reorganised, because prime ministers will make changes to the departmental structure, Cabinet committees and so on. The Prime Minister in the end makes the decision on a range of advice, not just from the Cabinet Secretary, about whom to appoint as ministers and so on. It would be rare for a Cabinet Secretary, for example, at the beginning of a government or in a reshuffle, to say to a prime minister, “X should go to Y department”; that isn’t typically how it would be. It would be more the case the Prime Minister would have a view and would perhaps ask the Cabinet Secretary’s advice or, indeed, check whether there were any obstacle to a particular candidate being put in a Cabinet job.

Lead Inquiry: Is there any convention or long-standing principle governing the confidentiality of the conversations between Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister over such matters?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed, you put it very well, these have always been entirely private conversations. There might be other advisers of the Prime Minister in such conversations. It’s fundamentally for the Prime Minister to judge.

But if there were a delicate matter about, for example, the conduct or competence of one of – of a Cabinet Minister, for example, that would normally be in a private conversation between the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister, or potentially the Deputy Cabinet Secretary, responsible for propriety and ethics, might be included in that as well.

Lead Inquiry: Presumably that convention, which governs the specific conversation between the Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister, in no way precludes civil servants, SPADs, other people, talking between themselves and with others, perhaps even the press, about the merits of the appointment of particular ministers or their enforced resignation or sacking?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed, Mr Keith, it’s – speculation about Cabinet reshuffles, et cetera, is the lifeblood of much commentary on government, and of course in the end a Prime Minister is entitled to take advice from any source, formal or informal, about whom to appoint to their Cabinet.

Lead Inquiry: Coming back to your performance of the dual role of National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary, did that give rise to any concerns on your part as to your personal capacity to be able to fulfil both demanding roles?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Naturally there was a question of bandwidth, but that would be true of either of these jobs in any event. In either of those jobs, one is sitting at the heart of a team, and so, in order to be able to perform that, I delegated even more functions than I might have done otherwise. For example, as National Security Adviser, several of the key relationships with European allies I delegated to the Prime Minister’s international affairs adviser. And I was – it was never intended to be a permanent arrangement. It seemed appropriate at the time, and of course one is only replicating the span of responsibilities of the Prime Minister, who covers both sets of issues.

Lead Inquiry: In his evidence to this Inquiry, Mr Cummings said that you had at one point, it’s unclear when, expressed to him doubts about the wisdom of the combination of the Cabinet Secretary’s job and the National Security Adviser’s job. Did you express concerns to him about the wisdom of such a practice?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall it in quite those terms. Certainly, as I said a moment ago, it was not intended to be a permanent arrangement, and I was conscious that when I stepped down it would almost certainly be the case that the jobs would be split again. It arose really because of the particular and tragic circumstances in which I’d taken over as Cabinet Secretary.

I think I may well have pointed out to Mr Cummings that my background had equipped me for being National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary was not a role to which I’d ever aspired.

Lead Inquiry: The split or the re-emerged split following your departure may indicate, Lord Sedwill, that the combination of the two jobs was perhaps not altogether a wise one?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think it made sense in the circumstances of the time. The government of both Theresa May and in the first phase of Boris Johnson were going through the most intense period on the Brexit negotiations, there were elements of national security involved in that. As I said, it was never intended to be a permanent arrangement, that was clear with Theresa May when she appointed me as Cabinet Secretary, and therefore it wasn’t a question of whether the jobs would be split, it was a question of when.

Lead Inquiry: Turning to focus a little more on the role of Cabinet, is the Cabinet the ultimate decision-making body in His Majesty’s government?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, correct.

Lead Inquiry: But does it follow from that that Cabinet must decide or take all decisions that are of significance or particular import?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It’s a matter of judgement, and so there are Cabinet committees which also have that authority. Collective responsibility also applies. The National Security Council, for example, is one such committee. And it’s a matter of judgement for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary about which decisions should be taken at which level.

So if I may just to give a different example, when the UK participated in military action after the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2018 with the US and France, although that would normally have been a decision for the National Security Council, Jeremy Heywood and I concluded, for reasons which probably needn’t detain us, that it was of such significance, relating to Parliamentary scrutiny and so on, that it should be taken by the whole Cabinet.

Lead Inquiry: Covid-S and Covid-O were two Cabinet committees, the institution of which you advised upon in May of 2020. Were they full Cabinet committees and therefore empowered to take decisions in the same way that the full Cabinet may have been?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. Well, in the same way that any other Cabinet committee would be. In the end, as you’ve mentioned already, Cabinet overall is the ultimate decision-making body, but delegates, formally delegates certain areas to Cabinet committees, and Covid-S and Covid-O had that status.

Lead Inquiry: I ask because only yesterday, in fact, evidence was given to the Inquiry to the effect that, in relation to the second national lockdown, ultimately the decision to impose that lockdown was taken by a meeting of Covid-O in November of 2020. Constitutionally, was that an appropriate position to be in by virtue of the fact that, as a Cabinet committee, it was vested with the full power and authority of the Cabinet to make such a decision?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That was after my time, so without knowing the full detail, constitutionally, assuming the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary are content, then a Cabinet committee can take decisions on behalf of Cabinet, and full collective responsibility, et cetera, applies. So constitutionally appropriate. Of course, a matter of judgement as to whether it was the right forum.

Lead Inquiry: Evidence has been given to the Inquiry that throughout 2020, perhaps less so in 2021, there was a degree to which Cabinet authority and Cabinet governance was circumvented by virtue of important decisions being taken outwith Cabinet, and also, I think, a process by which the accountability of Cabinet to Parliament and to the people was undermined by virtue of the attacks made on Cabinet, the way in which it was described, the way in which ministers were described. Would you agree that, during the latter time of your role as Cabinet Secretary, Cabinet governance was undermined to a degree?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Attacks of that kind clearly undermine public confidence in Cabinet governance. Actually, in terms of the formal procedures, the key decisions were taken either in Cabinet or in the UK COBR with the devolved First Ministers and their teams in attendance. So I think in terms of formal decisions, the constitutional position, we sought to follow it. And I know, Mr Keith, you’ll probably want to come back to the relationship between the dialectic within Number 10 and the formal procedures, so I won’t dwell upon it now –

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – but I certainly sought to ensure that formal decisions were taken by ministerial groups of the appropriate nature, properly minuted, properly actioned, and I think that procedure was followed.

Lead Inquiry: Is COBR another such committee, as with Covid-S and Covid-O, in which full authority or authority is vested to make decisions of this type?

Lord Mark Sedwill: A ministerial COBR, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. Not an operational COBR?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Not an officials COBR. Officials can, of course, take decisions that have been remitted to them on operational matters. I chaired COBRs during various crises but policy decisions requiring ministerial assent would be taken in a ministerially chaired COBR.

Lead Inquiry: There was nevertheless a perpetual tension between Number 10 and Cabinet, was there not, in relation to where important decision-making took place and the degree to which matters might be debated and resolved within Number 10 before being put to Cabinet?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah – I wouldn’t describe it as a tension between them, in that Cabinet was formally involved, but, as you’ll have seen from some of my notes, minutes to the Prime Minister, I did need to remind him of the importance of involving his Cabinet colleagues, not just in the formal decision but in the formulation of that decision. It’s quite normal for prime ministers, any minister, to talk to their own teams about a key issue before they go into a formal decision-making body. In this case it was important just to remind the Prime Minister of the need to ensure there was space for his elected colleagues to be fully participative in those decisions.

Lead Inquiry: It would seem that the formality of the process was adhered to. Why did you feel there was a need to speak to the Prime Minister about whether in substance, in practice, Cabinet was as engaged as it was required to be?

Lord Mark Sedwill: A pattern – I think Helen MacNamara mentioned this in her evidence last week, a pattern had arisen really through the Brexit period, partly because of Cabinet leaks and the sensitivity of the negotiations, where in that period ministers would go into a Cabinet meeting having not had the chance to consider papers the weekend beforehand or with their advisers, but into a reading room beforehand, in order to try to understand the papers and then take their views into Cabinet. And that had clearly been unsatisfactory for many of those ministers in being able to take advice and formulate their own view. But I think that practice had – although we didn’t have exactly that system during Covid, that practice of the Prime Minister going into Cabinet, particularly after the election, with a firm position of his own, and that being set out at the start, constrained the candour of Cabinet discussion.

Lead Inquiry: Nevertheless, you had concerns that Cabinet was not as fully participative, to use your words, as it should have been?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct. And I – as you’ll have seen, there are minutes from me to the Prime Minister where I remind him of the need for that.

Lead Inquiry: Helen MacNamara makes a second point in this context to the effect that the full Cabinet tends to be better at bringing a wider perspective. Putting aside the democratic accountability, of course, vested in Cabinet by virtue of being the Cabinet of the governing majority party, her view was that Cabinet is rather more grounded in its perspective than perhaps – I don’t mean this pejoratively – a cabal of officials and civil servants, advisers and the Prime Minister might be in Number 10. Would you agree with that suggestion?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. One of the points I would remind officials of was that every minister, certainly every senior minister, was also a constituency MP, and so they had essentially a ground truth from that experience that officials sitting in departments wouldn’t have themselves, that personal exposure to the public. It’s one of the strengths of our system, I think. And so I was always keen to encourage Cabinet ministers to remember they weren’t just speaking from their departmental perspective, but as constituency MPs with the grounding in the views of the ordinary citizen.

Lead Inquiry: And particularly because this was a public health emergency with whole country, societal and economic consequences, that perspective, the perspective that Cabinet could bring, was of additional value?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: SPADs, special political advisers. What are they?

Lord Mark Sedwill: How much time do we have, Mr Keith?

Special advisers, there have been special advisers, I mean, back almost, I would guess, to Lloyd George’s time, but they’ve become – there are more of them and they’re more prevalent across government in the modern era than was the case in the past. They are essentially personal appointees of ministers, they’re formally appointed by the Prime Minister, but these are people who will bring political and communications support for senior ministers. Some are, one might describe as specialist advisers. There are one or two of those in Number 10 now, I believe, and certainly we had some of those at the Foreign Office in my time there. But mostly they are people with a political alignment with the Secretary of State and the government of the day, who are providing them with personal, media communications and political support.

Lead Inquiry: Can I pause you there?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: Just in terms of the basics, do they exist in both Number 10 and line departments, so other government departments?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, Mr Keith, so in departments there would normally be two or three, each Secretary of State might have two or three. There are many more in Number 10, and in Number 10 they work in blended teams with officials and, indeed, experts who might be brought in. So Number 10 is rather different in that sense to a line department.

Lead Inquiry: Are those teams the policy and communication teams to which you made reference in your statement?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed. So, for example, the policy unit would have a mixture of special advisers, specialists and officials. And that dates back to the 1970s, that kind of structure.

Lead Inquiry: Are political advisers expected to restrict themselves to advising on political and communication matters, or may their brief stray across wider fields?

Lord Mark Sedwill: They’re expected to bring the political and communications and media perspective to policy matters as well. So they aren’t restricted in their advice, it’s that they bring that perspective, and most ministers, most secretaries of state would want their special advisers in the room in a department, for example, when discussing major policy issues.

Lead Inquiry: The ability to bring perspective to policy matters covers potentially a very wide area indeed. Is there any governance or any code or manual which defines the role of a political adviser, or is it very much a matter for the individual adviser and his or her minister?

Lord Mark Sedwill: There is a special advisers’ code, and it resembles but isn’t identical to the civil service code. Special advisers are formally appointed as temporary civil servants, and that’s how their employment contracts, et cetera, work. But rather, as we were discussing earlier, there’s an organic element to it, and their role will depend on the department, on their personal relationship with the minister, in Number 10 their personal relationship and authority with the Prime Minister.

But there are – there are rules and boundaries set to those roles by the code and their employment.

Lead Inquiry: But they are very much not civil servants, and therefore they are answerable ultimately only to the minister who appoints them, governed by or constrained by the special advisers’ code to which they’re subject?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct. Formally the Prime Minister actually appoints all special advisers, even those who are attached to ministers and often move with them. So their personal affiliation is most likely to their own secretary of state or minister, but in formal employment terms actually it’s the Prime Minister who signs off the appointments.

Lead Inquiry: Now, I want to ask you, please, about the efficiency or efficacy of Mr Johnson’s administration on the cusp of the pandemic in January and February 2020 following, of course, the general election in December the previous year.

As an administration, that is to say a body of government coming into office and able to pick up the threads of government, or the handles of government, was it a particularly experienced administration?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It was – there were some very experienced senior ministers. Michael Gove, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, had served almost uninterrupted since 2010, there was a brief period when he wasn’t a Cabinet Minister. Mr Hancock, the Health Secretary, was – had been in Cabinet for several years. There were others – there were others as well.

Overall, and I think Helen MacNamara touched on this, in a sense it was though, overall, more like an opposition party coming into power after a general election than a government that had been in power for ten years, because of the nature of the Brexit process and the change – the change in personalities that Mr Johnson brought in when he became Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: In terms of its ability to be able to focus upon and deal with an emerging crisis, and one that, of course, enveloped the entire country, how focused was that administration in the early days on its own agenda or other matters which it wished to pursue?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That was the primary focus. The general election, as you said, had taken place in December 2019, the legal deadline for Brexit was 31 January, and so that was the primary focus in January 2020. Because they had a majority, they needed to change some of the legislation that – some of which they’d had to compromise on when they – when it was a minority government before the general election, in order to see through Brexit, and so that was very much the – the focus for January. And then once that was done, the Prime Minister’s focus was then on the manifesto and essentially setting a five-year term, as he expected, off on its course with a Cabinet reshuffle that didn’t take place until February, because of the Brexit inflection point.

Lead Inquiry: Was that the reshuffle, I think, around 14 –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: There has been reference, Lord Sedwill, in the evidence to your introduction of a programme called the “fusion programme” by which you sought to change some of the mechanics underpinning the Cabinet Office, I think, in relation to its secretariats in particular. When was that programme introduced by you, and what impact do you assess that it had?

Lord Mark Sedwill: We’d introduced it into the national security community from 2018 onwards, and that’s where we developed it.

Just very briefly, the underlying philosophy was to deal with the fact – Whitehall is essentially, it has very strong vertical structures between departments that can become siloed, and my strong view was, and remains, that the Cabinet secretariat, whether a single secretariat or the individual components, should provide as much as possible of the horizontal connective tissue, and so that was the thought behind that programme. We’d developed it in the national security community, and then I was seeking to extend that concept, when I became Cabinet Secretary, into a unified Cabinet secretariat.

And there’s a diagram, I think, Mr Keith, we’ve provided which shows the responsibilities of my key directors general that’s rather deliberately designed to look like the Olympic rings, to show there were overlaps, because I felt it was necessary to have that connective tissue in the centre to balance the very strong vertical structures of departments of state.

Lead Inquiry: Were those changes to the machinery of the Cabinet Office introduced in January and February?

Lord Mark Sedwill: We’d begun some of them beforehand. It was an ongoing programme, but certainly to the broader Cabinet secretariat, it was in its very earliest stages.

Lead Inquiry: The evidence from Alex Thomas, who was the expert, I suppose, on governance or political science instructed by the Inquiry, was to the effect that that programme created some complexity and structural confusion, certainly in its early days, by virtue – necessary virtue – of the changes that you had sought to bring about. Would you agree that there was a degree of complexity and confusion brought about as a result of that programme?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Certainly complexity, and in a sense that was deliberate. Government is a complex set of organisations and I wanted the Cabinet secretariat to be the place that managed that complexity.

Clearly I would have – I was seeking to avoid confusion. I recognised that I was asking civil servants to operate in a different way to the way that they might have traditionally done so, operating across boundaries rather than within defined responsibilities, and that change of institutional culture and behaviour takes time.

Lead Inquiry: Turning to your first understanding of the emergence of the virus in China, your statement makes plain that this issue was raised with you by Sir Patrick Vallance on 21 January, I think it was the same day that the World Health Organisation published its first novel coronavirus sitrep, situation report.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Did you receive around that time a formal request from the DHSC, perhaps in the form of its Secretary of State, Mr Hancock, for a COBR meeting to be convened?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, I don’t recall whether it was a formal request, but certainly I was asked whether a COBR could and should take place.

Lead Inquiry: Did you accede to that request straightaway?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Not straightaway, I wanted to ensure that a COBR, if it took place, was properly prepared. I was concerned that it might be communicated in a – in a form that could be unnerving for public communications. At the time the government’s approach was to try to maintain calm in its public communications and the fact of a COBR might have disrupted that. But actually I think two days later I was advised by the head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat that there was enough of a cross-government requirement that it did make sense to go ahead, and I agreed that the – agreed to the request.

Lead Inquiry: Did you not in fact doubt to some extent the genuineness or the aim of the request from the DHSC for a COBR to be convened?

Lord Mark Sedwill: There had been a practice, or a habit, I think, probably, which had stretched back several years, of COBRs being convened for communications purposes rather than primarily to make decisions that couldn’t be made elsewhere. I was confident that this was a health issue, I was confident that with a very experienced team there, they had all the authority they needed in order to be able to make the substantive decisions, and I felt that a COBR which might have been convened primarily for communications purposes wasn’t wise. As I said, two days later, I was advised that there was a genuine cross-government basis for it and I agreed.

Lead Inquiry: May we be plain, please, as to what you mean by “communication purposes”. Were you concerned that the COBR was being called by the DHSC for presentational purposes, that is to say to make a splash about the role of the DHSC, perhaps its Secretary of State, and that is why you initially hesitated?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That is a fair summary of my thinking, Mr Keith.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

You make plain in WhatsApp messages between yourself and Mr Hancock on 23 January that you had agreed a ministerial COBR. You used these words, “I’ve agreed a ministerial COBR tomorrow”. Was that decision in fact one for the Cabinet Secretary or were you speaking there on behalf of the government as a whole in relation to this decision?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Formally one would require the Prime Minister’s consent, but of course there’s always a shorthand in these matters, and I think the Prime Minister would have expected me to provide the advice, Mr Hancock would have expected it to be me, so in effect the decision was mine, even though formally I guess I was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister’s authority.

Lead Inquiry: The first COBR took place on 24 January –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: – and it was chaired, as we all know, by Mr Hancock. There was then a second COBR on 29 January.

Could we have that, please, on the screen, INQ000056226.

We can see a number of ministers on that first page in attendance. If we go over to the second page, we can see a number of parliamentary undersecretaries of state, a number of ministers or members of devolved administration parliaments dialled in, and then a number of officials, including Chris Wormald, Chris Whitty, Sir Simon Stevens, Katharine Hammond. Many of these names are now familiar to the Inquiry.

Just if we go over one further page to page 3, we can see the remainder of the officials who dialled in.

There was, it would seem, no Cabinet Minister present at that COBR or Cabinet Office official other than, I think, the director of government communications, Alex Aiken, who may or may not have been in the Cabinet Office or Number 10.

Is the secretariat to COBR provided by the Cabinet Office?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. Mr Keith, if I may, I think you said no Cabinet Minister, whereas if you look at the first page –

Lead Inquiry: Did I not say Cabinet Office –

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think you said –

Lead Inquiry: You’re quite right, Lord Sedwill, I said “no Cabinet Minister”. I meant to say no Cabinet Office minister or official attended.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed, so I think that is correct. The secretariat for COBR is the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, that’s part of the Cabinet secretariat, and I know we’ll be discussing that further, so they provide the secretariat for COBR in the normal way –

Lead Inquiry: Is that –

Lord Mark Sedwill: – and – sorry, as you see, it’s minuted just as any other ministerial meeting is minuted.

Lead Inquiry: So in practice, whatever actions are taken from a COBR meeting, whatever thinking or learning that has to be disseminated throughout government, comes to the Cabinet Office by virtue of the fact that it provides the secretariat?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

If we can look, please, at page 5, paragraph 3, we can see, and we’ve looked at this paragraph a fair few times now:

“The [Chief Medical Officer] said that the UK planning assumptions were based on the reasonable worst case scenario. There were two scenarios to be considered. The first was that the spread was confined within China, the second was that the spread was not limited to China and there would be a pandemic like scenario, with the UK impacted.”

Lord Sedwill, the Inquiry has asked a number of witnesses about what they took from this information, and in particular the fact that, under the second scenario, there appears to be an assumption or a recognition that if the spread is not limited to China, if the virus leaks from China, then there would be – not there might be – a pandemic-like scenario with the UK impacted. So control of the virus is vital, and if it leaves China there will be very serious problems indeed.

I want, therefore, to ask you when the Cabinet Office saw this paragraph, when it understood what the Chief Medical Officer was saying, to what extent did it appreciate at this early stage, 29 January, that once the virus left China, if it left China, there would be an inevitable crisis as far as the United Kingdom was concerned?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think we wouldn’t have understood that to be inevitable, in – the scale of the crisis that we faced a couple of months later, and that’s partly because – I think this is in other documents – that this was a discussion of the reasonable worst-case scenario and in late January, early February, I think Cabinet, for example, the Chief Medical Officer, gave that around a 1 in 10 probability, and by the end of February I think it was about 1 in 5.

So essentially, I don’t want to jump ahead too much, Mr Keith, because I know you’ll want to go though some of this, but essentially within February, the course of February, there were two processes. One was in the foreground, one in the background, at least from my perspective.

In the foreground were the briefings to Cabinet, et cetera, and I believe you may want to come back to some of those, which was essentially talking about the situation as it was, the probability that the UK would have a severe impact.

And in the background, at that stage run through the COBR process with the Health Secretary and his team in the chair, was the planning should the reasonable worst-case scenario manifest itself.

And those two were related, but they were distinct.

Lead Inquiry: Is this the nub of it: there is a reference there to planning assumptions being based on the reasonable worst-case scenario. But when the Chief Medical Officer went on to say, essentially, in practice, in reality, there are two scenarios to be considered, it wasn’t sufficiently understood that he wasn’t there talking about the reasonable worst-case scenario, he was talking about the reality of what would happen, either the spread is confined or it is not?

But the government thinking focused perhaps overmuch on the doctrine of reasonable worst-case scenario and the probability of that occurring rather than on what the Chief Medical Officer was saying would happen?

Is that a fair summary?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think that is a fair summary.

Lead Inquiry: By early February, it became apparent that Covid was unlikely to be contained within Wuhan or Hubei Province. As the Cabinet Secretary, what did you understand to be the position in relation to the availability of practical measures which could stop the spread of the virus into the United Kingdom if it were to emerge significantly from China?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I refer to this later on, and so I’m trying not to impose a false memory –

Lead Inquiry: I’m asking you –

Lord Mark Sedwill: – of what I believed at the time.

Lead Inquiry: The early February.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

I wouldn’t suggest I had a deep understanding of what the practical measures might have been. Essentially, as I said, what I was really seeing, partly because I was dealing with many other issues, was what – the briefings into Cabinet, et cetera, from the Chief Medical Officer, Health Secretary and so on. And I presumed that in parallel, in the background if you like, the planning, operational planning to put in place the mechanisms we’d need to tackle a reasonable worst case, should it no longer be a scenario but a fact, were happening in parallel, and certainly that was my presumption at the time.

I was aware from what the Chief Medical Officer was saying of what some of those measures might be but only in the most high-level terms.

Lead Inquiry: Did you understand at that high level that the control measures such as they were would be effective in preventing the spread of the virus throughout the community in the United Kingdom or that there would be very real practical difficulties with their efficacy, with whether they would work?

Lord Mark Sedwill: At the time the – my understanding from the briefings we had was that it might be possible to manage the spread of the virus, but that it was inevitable, because no one had immunity, that it would spread through the population.

Lead Inquiry: And that is the genesis, of course, of the mitigation herd immunity debate?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Exactly.

Lead Inquiry: I’ll come back to that. Well, that’s very clear.

Coming back to Cabinet, you’ve made the point that of course, as Cabinet Secretary, you were necessarily guided to a very great degree by the information provided to Cabinet, to which you were the secretary, rather than perhaps the micro-level detail of COBR.

In hindsight, so I make plain in hindsight, do you think that Cabinet was given in those meetings in February a proper understanding of the seriousness of the crisis, and in particular the realisation or the information that such levels of control as might be deployed to prevent the spread of the virus were unlikely to work?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think on the latter point I would agree with the proposition you make, that if you look at the Cabinet minutes of that period, the first half of February, there was at a high level a good explanation of the nature of the virus to the extent the scientists understood it. Of course it was still very new. There was an explanation about the potential level of fatalities and casualties should the reasonable worst case manifest itself, and that was based, I think still at that stage, on a sort of flu pandemic paradigm. But there was an assurance that plans were in place to manage it, and in hindsight it would have, as you suggest – those plans should have been interrogated more carefully by me and at the Cabinet level.

Lead Inquiry: There are, indeed, repeated references to plans to manage, and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in particular produced papers saying “plans are under way to manage, we are taking steps to manage the activity, activities are being carried out in order to plan for this eventuality”. What did you understand those plans to consist of, albeit at high level? What did you think in practice was being drawn up, was being done to meet the threat of a virus which was, as was generally understood, uncontrollable once it left China?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Some – some of the plans I – I recall that I would have been aware of, or was aware of, so I knew that one of the issues that had arisen from Exercise Cygnus, the flu pandemic exercise in 2016, was how to manage excess mortality, and so I was aware there were plans of that – operational plans of that kind.

I presumed, but I don’t think explicitly, but presumed that, for example, plans to protect, quarantine the most vulnerable, the most medically vulnerable, would have been part of that planning, but I didn’t interrogate that at that time.

Lead Inquiry: There was indeed, of course, in the end, a very good shielding plan drawn up, drawn up, as we’ve heard, at pace –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: – and notwithstanding considerable complexity, in middle to late March. There was obviously a plan for hand washing and there were plans for the dealing with the numbers of deaths which might be expected under the reasonable worst-case scenario, so, prosaically, body bags –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – how to deal with bodies?

And there were also plans to deal with the legislative underpinning of whatever public order powers the government might wish to take to itself to manage the crisis. But none of those plans in any way deal with the control, stopping the virus from entering the United Kingdom and then spreading throughout the community. Was that understood or appreciated at all?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No. So the kind of capability that would have been required to do that, and I think you mentioned this in your own opening statement to this module, Mr Keith, is the kind of capability that East Asian nations had to be able to, for example, forward and backward contact trace people coming in through the border and imposing strict border controls in order to keep incidence at very low levels so that that is a practical proposition. That capability did not exist at that time.

I wouldn’t claim to have had enough knowledge myself to know that that was a capability that was important or indeed that it was missing. But clearly that became apparent and it’s that kind of thing that I’m referring to when I minute the Prime Minister later in the spring about the position we found ourselves in at the onset of the pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: So in summary, is this fair, the capability did not exist, and that of course is nothing that can – there was nothing that could be done about that, at least in the very short time span between February and the full emergence of the virus, but that capability or absence of capability was simply not the subject of extensive debate. There wasn’t a debate at the highest levels of government to the effect of: the virus is coming, we must have a means of stopping its spread, of controlling it significantly, but we don’t have any means, what are we to do? That debate was absent.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think the first part of that debate certainly was absent, and I wouldn’t have encouraged it, in the sense, as you imply in your question, it would have been bolting the stable door. That capability couldn’t have been constructed in the time available.

There was extensive discussion about what the right strategy was for dealing with the spread of the virus, notoriously the squashing the sombrero, which I know you’ll probably want to pursue in more detail. There was a lot of discussion of that.

Lead Inquiry: Was there too much focus on strategy, on strategising, rather than dealing rather more prosaically with the practical implications of the emerging virus?

Lord Mark Sedwill: We should have been able to do both.

Lead Inquiry: On 29 January, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, emailed Professor Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Professor Ferguson of Imperial College London with a request to model what could be done to delay the upswing of an epidemic. Professor Edmunds says in the course of a fairly lengthy email:

“Given the apparent speed of spread, it seems unlikely that contact tracing and isolation is going to be effective at buying us much time.”

There was, of course, a basic system for contact tracing, the First Few 100 cases system, a system by which travellers and index cases could be tracked –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: – and the virus suppressed in those particular cases. Did you, as Cabinet Secretary, know, were you told, late January, early February, that the scientific advice was that it was unlikely that the existing system of contact tracing and isolation would buy any more than a short delay?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall in exactly those terms, although if that were contained, for example, in one of the daily situation reports, the CRIPs, as they became known, then I might have glanced at it. What I did understand, I think it was at that time, was the advice that closing the borders – obviously there’s more to it than that phrase – would only have a short – the effect would be only a fairly short delay in terms of the spread of the virus. I seem to recall five days was the number mentioned. But I wouldn’t suggest, Mr Keith, I was aware of those additional layers to that question.

Lead Inquiry: And so the reality was, wasn’t it, at the highest levels of government, that the fact of the absence of a capability, the absence of a practical means of control was known, but perhaps the ramifications, the consequences of that knowledge were not fully thought through?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Or not fully understood, I think.

Lead Inquiry: Or not fully understood.

There was a stocktake meeting between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on 4 February, which you attended.

Could we have INQ000146558.

The letter from the private secretary to the Prime Minister, to the DHSC, deals with or sets out the issues which were debated at that meeting. The letter appears to indicate that coronavirus was only addressed by way of a “short update”, at which or during which:

“… the Prime Minister stressed the need to continue to explain our stance to maintain public confidence in the plan. On further travel restrictions, [the] Secretary of State was engaging … [overseas] colleagues …”

And there was a request to “keep Number 10 closely involved”.

By virtue of the matters under consideration, the maintenance of public confidence, what could be done about travel restrictions and proportionality, the seriousness of the crisis by 4 February doesn’t appear to be reflected in that debate.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think it’s the seriousness of the crisis that it became, but it wasn’t apparent at that time. There had been a Cabinet meeting, I think, on 31 January in which, if I remember correctly, the Chief Medical Officer, as well as the Health Secretary, had briefed, certainly the Health Secretary did, and at that time the advice was that the probability of a worst case, reasonable worst case, was about 10%.

So I think what you see here is a good summary of a brief discussion. The purpose of the meeting was essentially a bilateral about the manifesto plans for healthcare, as you’ll see from the remainder, and the focus at that time – and I think this is reflected in the COBR minutes around that time – was very much on travel restrictions and on essentially trying to impede the virus from reaching the United Kingdom.

Lead Inquiry: Following the meeting, you entered into a WhatsApp debate with Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary to the DHSC – could we have INQ000292665 – where you debate the accuracy of a figure for the deaths that would occur under the reasonable worst-case scenario. You say this:

“600k deaths? That’s twice the number I was given yesterday. We almost ended up with stupid decisions being taken in an informal meeting.”

What stupid decisions are you referring to there?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall exactly. I think my – I genuinely don’t. My concern would have been numbers moving around. 300,000 deaths is an extraordinary number, and every single one of those is an individual tragedy, so it wasn’t a question in that sense that 300 was in any sense less significant than 6. But it was that if numbers kept moving around, how much confidence could we have in what we were being told. I don’t recall exactly what the decision might have – might have been.

Lead Inquiry: The impression that that observation gives, Lord Sedwill, is that you were concerned with decisions that you might construe as being an overreaction being taken, or that there was a decision being taken to respond to the crisis that you felt was inappropriate.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t know. I suspect it might have been frustration at numbers moving around and the risk, therefore, that decisions would not be taken in an orderly way if we were being told different – different things. I don’t – I don’t recall exactly what – what it might have been. I wouldn’t – sorry, I needed to slow down.

Lead Inquiry: Well –

Lord Mark Sedwill: I wouldn’t have expected a substantive decision about managing the virus to be different on the basis of whether it was 300,000 or 600,000 in the reasonable worst case. It was – it would have been more a question of knowing, frankly, whether we had any confidence about what we were being told.

Lead Inquiry: May I press you on this –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Please.

Lead Inquiry: – Lord Sedwill. You yourself draw a clear distinction between the substantive decision-making process, which you describe as “stupid decisions being taken”, and the issue about the correctness of the figures themselves. So this – the reference to decisions on the face of this communication is not a reference to the validity of the figures, it is to do with the decisions that may be taken as a result of the figures which the government was being provided with?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It’s possible, Mr Keith, as I – this is a very brief WhatsApp exchange where I’m clearly expressing some frustration. I genuinely have no recollection of what the decisions might have been, so –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – it might – these might have been significant decisions, they might have been insignificant decisions, I simply don’t know.

Lead Inquiry: In relation to the figures, the reasonable worst-case scenario under the government’s own National Security Risk Assessment process, with which of course, as the National Security Adviser, you were extremely familiar, was 820,000 deaths, that was the reasonable worst-case scenario for the worst type of flu pandemic?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: So why, given that fact, and given that the government was aware that the infection fatality rate of coronavirus was likely to be around 1%, and that the majority of the population would be infected, were you so sceptical concerning Mr Cummings’ assertion that the reasonable worst-case scenario for the number of deaths was higher than that which you had yourself presumed it to be?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I would have been sceptical at almost any random piece of information entering into a meeting that I hadn’t seen properly analysed. So, as I said, I don’t think the – that any significant decision would have been different, whether the number were 300, 600 or the 820 to which you refer, because all of them require extraordinary measures. As I say, I genuinely can’t remember the basis for this, but looking at – looking at that and knowing the kind of conversation I might have had with Chris Wormald, I would have been worried that a sudden change of number would have triggered a … a – you know, an ill considered decision.

Lead Inquiry: As it happened, and as of course the government knew, the infection fatality rate was around 1%. With the population of the United Kingdom being what it is, the absence of control, community spread, and assuming that between 50% to 80% of the population become infected, 1% of that infected part of the population is indeed in the ballpark of the figures that Mr Cummings was referring to. So why – well, was there a basis – what was the mathematical basis for questioning his approach? Did you sit down and work out what the figures might be based on the infection fatality rate and the infection rate?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No. As the first message says, “That’s twice the number I was given yesterday”, so presumably someone doing all of that analysis would have given me the number of 300 and, as you see in the response, the Chief Medical Officer, according to the response, thought the reasonable worst case was 1 to 300,000, and I wouldn’t have felt qualified to make a simple arithmetic calculation, because a lot, of course, would have depended on – I know we’ll come back to this – which cohort of the population was infected by the virus and whether it was possible to protect – quarantine and protect those most at risk.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Lord Mark Sedwill: But that would have been –

Lead Inquiry: This, of course, is a reasonable worst-case scenario –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – based upon population figures as well.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: On the –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Certainly that was the – clearly, from this, that was a number I was given, presumably from the expert.

Lead Inquiry: On 5 February, the next day, there was a COBR.


There were a number of ministers in attendance and there were a number of officials from Number 10. If we go over the page I think we can see two officials from Number 10, Imran Shafi and Sir Ed Lister, as he then was.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: Page 5, paragraph 2, provides the update given by the Chief Medical Officer:

“On average, individuals who had died as a result of the novel coronavirus had spent between seven to ten days in hospital before dying …

“The two most high-risk groups appeared to be the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses.”

Then this, the fourth bullet point:

“The fatality rate estimate remained at 2-3 per cent.”

So in fact quite high, although it doesn’t say whether that is the infection fatality rate or the case fatality rate, and they’re different because it depends on whether you’re drawing a ratio against –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: – the population as a whole or just those persons who happen already to be infected.

This COBR meeting again is notable for the absence of any sophisticated debate about the absence of control, control mechanisms to stop the spread of the virus from the United Kingdom, once it leaves China. You would say presumably that level of information was simply not provided by the experts who were providing the information to COBR?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t know. I think the experts would have provided quite extensive information, these COBRs tended to have quite an extensive pack as part of the reading for them, the CRIP, the situation update, et cetera, and that would contain SAGE, the latest SAGE advice and analysis. I recall those were quite extensive documents, and I think some of them have been referenced by the Inquiry. So my presumption is not that the information was there, but that the focus of the COBR was on the immediate measures to be taken, and at that stage, in early February, it was still very much on travel.

Lead Inquiry: At a Cabinet meeting on 6 February – INQ000056137 – the Prime Minister cautioned against economic damage that would be caused by a political overreaction to the crisis. We can see the attendees on the first page.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yep.

Lead Inquiry: “Summing-up …”

I am afraid I can’t recall which page it is on.

“… THE PRIME MINISTER said that confidence was … contagious [as well as a virus], and it was important that the Government remained measured in its response.”

There we go, thank you very much:

“… THE PRIME MINISTER said that confidence was also contagious, and it was important that the Government remain measured in its response. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care had taken the right tone. Often the significant economic damage of a crisis came from political overreaction rather than the problem itself. This had been true of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).”

The tenor of that Cabinet meeting, therefore, Lord Sedwill, appears to have been: it’s all right, we mustn’t overreact, play it cautious, we mustn’t damage confidence and we mustn’t cause economic damage, rather than focusing on the seriousness of the virus itself.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Well, you see how the Prime Minister summed that up following a Cabinet discussion. I think again this goes to the point I made earlier, I’m just trying to explain it really, is this foreground/background point, that if you look earlier in that Cabinet minute it is still the case that the scientific advice is essentially suggesting that the worst-case scenario is unlikely, is indeed very unlikely, and so that undoubtedly will have informed the way ministers were thinking about this. And the Prime Minister, in that summary, is trying to balance the tensions.

Mr Keith: My Lady, is that a …

Lady Hallett: You say that the members of the Cabinet were focusing on the worst case, but if the worst case is 800,000 deaths, a bad case, which isn’t the worst case, could be 500,000 deaths, so I’m not understanding why there’s always this focus always on the reasonable worst-case scenario, how about a fairly predictable scenario –

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think that is right –

Lady Hallett: – where lots of people will, sadly, die?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think that is right, my Lady, and I think there is a question here about – I think as Mr Keith touched on earlier, about whether focusing on reasonable worst case skews the analysis and discussion.

One of the things we tried to do in the national security arena was to look at a range of scenarios. You can’t do too many because it becomes unmanageable, but we’d look at reasonable worst case, essentially a best case, and then a sort of a minimum acceptable, if you like, in order to do that. And I think we do need to look at the way that we address some of these kind of crises.

I don’t think Cabinet – the point I was making, my Lady, was not that Cabinet was focused on the reasonable worst case, the COBR process clearly was, and in terms of the measures that might need to be taken. Cabinet was essentially being briefed not on a scenario, but on what the situation was at that time, and the probability that something like the reasonable worst case was still very unlikely.

As you say, had that briefing suggested that the probability of a quarter of the number of casualties was significantly higher, I think that would have changed the way that ministers thought about it.

Lady Hallett: But no one put to ministers: don’t think about the reasonable worst-case scenario, think about asking me, if I’m the adviser, say, what is the probability of this virus coming to the UK and causing an awful lot of unnecessary deaths? Isn’t that the probability factor one should be looking at, not the reasonable worst-case scenario probability?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Exactly, you put it very well, I think. I think we’re making the same point, that the – there was too much focus, including in the briefings to Cabinet, on the reasonable worst case rather than from the deep experts, “Here’s what I think will happen”.

Lady Hallett: Yes, exactly.

Mr Keith: And it’s the same dichotomy, isn’t it, reflected in that briefing in the second COBR from the Chief Medical Officer? He says:

“This is the reasonable worst-case scenario, however in reality the real scenarios are the following …”

And that dividing line blurred throughout the course of this time.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed, Mr Keith, and if you look at – it was set out in that meeting, but not in those terms in some of the Cabinet and other meetings of that ilk.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much. We’ll break now. I hope you were warned that we take regular breaks.

The Witness: Indeed.

Lady Hallett: I shall return at 11.30.

(11.15 am)

(A short break)

(11.30 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Lord Sedwill, the Inquiry has received evidence that between 14 February and 24 February the Prime Minister was, for part of that time, in Chevening, and returned to Downing Street on two or three occasions; he continued to receive boxes, notes and the like, but that there were no emails or notes relating to coronavirus provided to him during that time, that ten-day period; there were certainly no COBRs convened to do with coronavirus, there was no Cabinet meeting and no strategy meeting.

Were you conscious at that time of the drop in the tempo of government relating to the coronavirus crisis?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Not the absence of a – of COBR meetings, for example. I would have expected that to continue. That would have been a Parliamentary recess. It was – it would have been natural for other business, as you say, the tempo to drop, but I would have expected the work to continue.

Lead Inquiry: It does rather appear as if the rate of work dropped. There don’t appear to have been many strategy papers produced in that time, if any, any notes from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. SAGE continued, but there doesn’t appear, at the higher level of government, to have been much by way of a throughput of work on coronavirus for those ten days. That’s rather regrettable?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I would have expected it to continue, yes.

Lead Inquiry: On 28 February, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat produced a paper.


It’s a paper to the Prime Minister from the head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Katharine Hammond. In paragraph 1 she said:

“Covid-19 looks increasingly likely to become a global pandemic, although this is not yet certain.”

Certainty of a global pandemic was not really the threshold, though, was it?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, I presume that reflected the expert advice she was receiving.

Lead Inquiry: The approach in the United Kingdom is “currently to contain the small number of cases here and reassure the public”.

The approach may have been that, but the practical means to do so were, as you have agreed, absent, were they not?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The kind of measures that were available to East Asian countries, as we’ve discussed, were not available. I think – so this was essentially reflecting the overall approach, as you see the underlying – the underlinings there of “contain, delay, mitigate”, so I presume she’s reflecting there the overall – what one might call the overall “contain” framework for that phase of dealing with the pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: There is there, is there not, an acceptance that the virus cannot be stopped from entering the United Kingdom, that it will spread, and that all that can be done is to delay the onset of the peak and mitigate the worst aspects of it?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: Paragraph 6, and this goes back to my Lady’s point concerning the reasonable worst-case scenario debate, quite detailed information is given about what the reasonable worst-case scenario is, and the detail of that information makes absolutely plain that, whilst it is still described as the reasonable worst-case scenario, this is what is going to happen.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t think it was completely clear that this was what was going to happen at that point. I think at the same time, I think it is in one of the two witness statements, there’s a conversation between the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Health Secretary which still says the probability of the reasonable worst case is about 1 in 5.

But to go to the point you’ve made, and my Lady made just before the break, I think one of the lessons of this is that we shouldn’t be overfocused on reasonable worst case, we should be focused on the range of cases and the likelihood of impact.

Lead Inquiry: But it’s more stark than that, Lord Sedwill. If the author of this report is recognising that all that can be done is that the peak will be delayed and the worst part, the worst aspects, the worst impact of the pandemic mitigated, then there is, is there not, a recognition that large parts of the population will indeed be infected and a huge number of people will die?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The first part is clearly true, and that reflected the scientific advice at the time. No one had immunity; there was therefore, as I think I mentioned earlier, a presumption that it would spread through the population and, as this says, infect 80%.

Whether – the number of deaths, of course, would depend on how we managed it, and that brings us to questions around alternative strategies, to lockdowns and so on, because what was also clear by this point was the differential impact on different cohorts. We touched on that earlier, but I think, if I remember rightly, the – for example, the mortality among those infected who were over 80 was 8% or more, the mortality among children infected was still at 0%, that doesn’t mean zero, but 0%.

So the numbers that might die would depend on the policy response.

Lead Inquiry: But the whole point behind the mitigation strategy was to squash the sombrero, to squash the peak, to delay the peak, to level it off. Whichever way you cut it, there were going to be vast numbers of dead.

Lord Mark Sedwill: It was – that was what the scientific advice told us, and the question about flattening out the peak was partly about seeking to push that into the summer months when the virus would be – the advice was the virus would be less deadly, and to ensure that those who had a serious case could be managed, the NHS had the capacity to manage those who had a serious case, and thus minimise the number of deaths through treatment, et cetera.

Lead Inquiry: The fatal sombrero would still be there, it would only be squashed?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed, Mr Keith, the – it was – the scientific advice was, as we’ve, I think, both said, that not that the virus could be stopped, but that its spread and serious incidence could only be managed.

Lead Inquiry: That therefore being the case, Lord Sedwill, why at this date, on 28 February, were not levels of alarm raised higher than they were?

Lord Mark Sedwill: They should have been.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Was it, as some witnesses have suggested, just that elements of the government just believed it wasn’t going to happen, that there was optimism bias?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That is a fair point. I think it’s hard, looking back, to recall quite how extraordinary were the measures we later took. They were unconscionable at the time. And therefore I think your point about the instinctive human reaction is true. I think it’s also the case – sorry, I’m probably going too fast, I apologise.

I keep trying to remember to slow down.

I think it was also the case at the end of February, the number of cases in the UK was, on the data available, still very small, I think 19 on the 28th, although I believe it was actually about four times that, but at the time they believed that.

So one can understand how non-experts not familiar with exponential movement might have misunderstood the pace at which the disease was moving.

Lead Inquiry: Did you speak to the Prime Minister directly in the first week of March about the level, the necessary level of alarm that was required to be raised, about how serious this problem was?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall any specific discussion, but I – but there were meetings in the first week of March. I would – I was certainly in those meetings with the Prime Minister, and so we would have discussed all of that. I can’t – I couldn’t tell you exactly what comment I might have made. I would normally leave that to the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientific Adviser, to set that out, but I might well have done so.

Lead Inquiry: In terms of his general response, evidence has been received by the Inquiry to the effect that he expressed the view that he didn’t think it was a big deal, he wasn’t sure anything could be done, it might be like swine flu. Regardless of the individual words purportedly used, what was the general tenor of his reaction?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think that’s he is an optimistic person, I think that optimism bias you mentioned a moment ago probably did reflect his overall stance at that point.

Lead Inquiry: On 3 March the government published its sole action plan for the handling of Covid, called the Covid action plan, INQ000182380.

We know from paragraph 3.9, the page for which I regret to say I can’t recall, that it provided for a series of steps or stages: contain, delay, mitigate.

Helen MacNamara in her witness statement says:

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

Would you agree?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Would you also agree that by the date of 3 March control had, in reality, already been lost?

Lord Mark Sedwill: We didn’t understand that at the time, but – and indeed that wasn’t the advice I think SAGE gave us at the time – but, given what we discovered only ten days – less than ten days later, then the disease must have been moving faster and was more widespread than we knew at that time, yes.

Lead Inquiry: SPI-M-O had on the day before, 2 March, formally confirmed that there was sustained community transmission in the United Kingdom. So it was known. Why wasn’t the government aware when it published this document that control had been lost by virtue of the sustained community transmission?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That message can’t have been communicated through the system properly to the top of government.

Lead Inquiry: Evidence has been given also to the Inquiry that around this time the Cabinet Office and Number 10 in particular tried to ascertain what there was by way of planning from line departments, from other government departments, and the emails sent from Mr Cummings, and from text messages or WhatsApp messages he sent, it’s clear that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat had not been able to, firstly, provide a central plan other than this action document, or been able to obtain plans from the other line departments and provide them to Number 10.

That was a serious error or serious flaw, was it not?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The CCS, the secretariat, wasn’t resourced to hold all of these plans across many departments, the – the governing concept was of lead government departments who were responsible not only for their own plans but for ensuring that other departments who would be supporting them on a risk area for which they were responsible had plans in place.

The fact that CCS were asking for plans and they were not being received was a – clearly an indication, as Helen MacNamara set out, that the operational plans sitting behind this published plan were not in the right shape.

Lead Inquiry: Line departments had plans for their own internal governance, how their own departments should be reorganised or recalibrated to deal with those parts of government which, in the face of the crisis, would need to be managed. But there were no central overall plans held by the Cabinet Office or Number 10 or anywhere else saying, “This is what we need to do, this is what we should do to address this emerging crisis”?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, that’s correct. Departments would have to have – would be required to have two sets of plans. My letter to heads of departments is essentially a reminder to them – a few days later, was a reminder to them of that.

First is their own business continuity plans, managing their own operations, ensuring they can still provide the public services for which they’re responsible, notwithstanding the impact of the crisis, so being able to operate with 20% staff absences, et cetera. But they’re also required to have plans for their sectors. And of course those aren’t operational in quite the same way, but in support of the lead department, which is required to hold the overall plan.

Lead Inquiry: The DHSC had no plans sectorally for those areas of the country and those areas of government for which it was responsible, and the Cabinet Office had no plans or documents which co-ordinated the plans from the line departments, brought them together or refined them, did they?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No. And that is one of the lessons, I think, of this period of the crisis.

Lady Hallett: Can you explain, Mr Keith, what you mean by “no plans sector equally”.

Mr Keith: Lord Sedwill, you will do it far better than I. Is this the position, that a department might, for example, say, “Well, in a crisis we need to have a plan for how we recalibrate our staff, our working arrangements, how we set up a crisis response machinery inside our department, and this is how we, the department, operate”, but it is also responsible, sectorally, for, in the case of the DHSC, the NHS or the care sector, ie there is an additional responsibility to draw up plans across the wider parts of government in those areas sectorally for which that department is responsible?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct, Mr Keith, and I think your example of the social care sector is particularly pertinent because of the fragmented nature of that sector. DHSC had oversight of it but no direct control, and it’s provided through a mixture of public and private, national, local, third sector, et cetera. So a complex sector. I suspect we may come back to this point. But the contingency planning should have covered that sector, even though it wasn’t directly within the department’s responsibility.

Department for Work and Pensions, to take a different example, would have a plan for continuing to be able to pay benefits.

Lead Inquiry: In terms of the civil contingencies obligations upon that government, the complete absence of whole-government plans dealing with the various parts of the country that would be impacted by this virus was a very serious flaw indeed, was it not?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed. And when we realised that about a week later, as you’ve said already, Mr Keith, we had to take extraordinary action to ensure that plans and programmes of that kind were put in place and at speed.

Lead Inquiry: In an email dated 5 March – INQ000285989, page 1 and then 2 – Mark Sweeney, who was a director general in the Cabinet Office, says at (a):

“- I think Secretariat role here beyond CCS has three aspects:

“(a) making sure that the various social, domestic and economic policy decisions flowing from Covid-19 are prepped and taken in a sensible way.”

So Mr Sweeney appears to be saying, basically, there are a large number of extremely complex moving parts to this crisis and there has to be some way of preparing for bringing them together and enabling the decision-makers to draw the threads together to make the best possible decisions.

If we then go down to page 2, we can see that Mr Sweeney says in the last line of that email:

“PRIVATELY, Mark has called this meeting because he is concerned about (a).”

Are you Mark?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: What was your concern about the absence of a proper means by which these various threads could be drawn together for the benefit of the decision-makers?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I was conscious by that point that – and perhaps, I think, almost certainly should have been earlier – that the CCS and COBR machinery couldn’t bear the weight of the whole-of-government effort that this now required, and therefore wanted the whole Cabinet secretariat essentially to, putting it bluntly, drop everything or drop nearly everything else and get on to this. So that’s why I would have called that meeting and I think that’s what Mark Sweeney is referring to.

Lead Inquiry: The CCS and COBR are, of course, within the Cabinet Office?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed, they’re part of the secretariat, but there’s much – there’s a lot else too.

Lead Inquiry: Their failings were failings of the Cabinet Office, were they not?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I wouldn’t describe their – their failures, they were – they did not have the capability and capacity to do what by then was required. And of course that’s part of the Cabinet Office and its overall response, I accept that.

Lead Inquiry: Their very function was to be able to respond effectively, speedily, to whatever crisis might befall the nation, they are the government’s primary crisis machinery elements. They could not cope with the crisis that they were confronted with?

Lord Mark Sedwill: They could not cope with a crisis that – of this scale, by that point. This was a once in a century event. They had – they were essentially designed, as I think you’ve heard from other witnesses, to deal with more limited, more time-bound crises, whether those were national security issues or floods, et cetera, and by this stage it was clear that this was of a wholly different magnitude and beyond CCS’s capacity and capability.

Lead Inquiry: You know – and you were, of course, the National Security Adviser – that the Tier 1 risk in the government’s own National Security Risk Assessment process is a serious pandemic causing a reasonable worst-case scenario of 820,000 deaths. They knew that the most important, the most serious risk of all was this risk. Why were they not ready?

Lord Mark Sedwill: They didn’t – they didn’t have the capacity to deal with this on their own at this scale, and so if I think about other issues that CCS have dealt with, it is normal that they will support the government through the initial phase of a crisis. For example, the Grenfell fire, a much, much more limited issue, that was dealt with in COBR by CCS, but the response was then handed over to the Department for Communities and Local Government, as the lead department for issues of that kind, fairly swiftly.

A crisis of this scale, one would expect the same to happen, because CCS need to retain capacity in case there’s a concurrent crisis. So it isn’t the case that CCS would be expected to run this all the way through, one would normally expect it to move to a lead department. And of course COBR was chaired by the lead secretary of state. By this stage it became clear and should have become clear to me as well as others earlier, and in the end this is my responsibility, that we needed to reinforce the machinery at the centre of government in order to deal with a crisis of this scale and speed.

Lead Inquiry: Lord Sedwill, with respect, it wasn’t an issue of the CCS and COBR not being able to run the whole crisis or run it all the way through. In the beginning stages of the crisis, the machinery of government dealing with crises was unable to cope with the very Tier 1 risk which it had been enjoined for years to be able to address. It had no real whole-government plans. It failed to understand that there was an absence of control, that the virus would inevitably come, and there were no practical means of stopping it. None of those issues were addressed by the very crisis machinery designed to address them.

Lord Mark Sedwill: The crisis machinery would not have realised – at the time the people involved would not have realised that at that time. And I think – I don’t know whether you want to come on this, I think you may want to come on to lessons learned later, but I would draw some of those, I would draw some other lessons as well, about preparedness going into this crisis and capability going into this crisis, which certainly I – and, I don’t think, the government as a whole – didn’t appreciate at the time.

Lead Inquiry: On 13 March you submitted advice to the Prime Minister recommending changes to the machinery of government. Was that the advice which recommended the institution of meetings daily at 9.15 and also the setting up of what we’ve heard are the ministerial implementation groups, the four groups dealing with health, general public services, economic and business response, and international?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: There is an email between, I think, yourself and Mr Lidington, the deputy principal private secretary to you.

INQ000285996, page 2.

We can see there an email from Mr Cummings saying:

“We need 815 no10 meeting in CAB room [in the Cabinet Office room], chaired by me or lee [Lee Cain] …”

And then he goes on to say –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – that that morning’s meeting had involved a lot of people “baffled about POLICY and unable to make decisions or even knowing who is in charge of key policy areas”.

You respond to this suggestion from Mr Cummings as to who is going to chair this meeting on page 1:

“Mark Sedwill [middle of the page]: OK. Fine for Mark S …”

That must be Mark Sweeney?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: “… etc to go, but we are not running a dictatorship here and the PM is not taking nationally significant decisions with a bunch of No10 SpAds and no ministers, no operational experts and no scientists. If necessary, I will take over the 8:15 slot and chair a daily meeting myself.”

Might your concern have been generated more by issues of process and form rather than substance? Mr Cummings was plainly concerned that there needed to be a properly run, properly managed and effective meeting to get on top of this terrible crisis.

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, it wasn’t about process, it was about making sure that decisions taken were taken with the right input, and as you see – I’d completely forgotten I’d written this email, Mr Keith, but it expresses pretty pungently, I accept, my view about collective government.

Lead Inquiry: Was it in your mind when you recommended this change of machinery of government to the Prime Minister that the devolved administrations could play a proper role in the crisis response and engage with the United Kingdom Government at these meetings, or at least part or some of these meetings?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That was very important to me. One of the things I’d made a priority as Cabinet Secretary was strong relationships, both institutional and personal, with the devolved administrations. I’d spent time with each of their First Ministers, always told them I was their Cabinet Secretary as well, they should think of me as supporting them as well. And so I did want to ensure that the MIGs, for example, contained the devolved administrations, recognising that different decisions were taken in different jurisdictions, but clearly the more collaboration and co-ordination the better.

Lead Inquiry: And so that the Inquiry may understand the position correctly: the devolved administrations were invited to attend the ministerial implementation groups; was that a right or was that an invitation?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It would be an invitation. Cabinet committees do not normally involve devolved administrations, for obvious reasons. They weren’t included routinely in the international one because that’s an entirely reserved matter, but they were asked to join the others. And the expectation was that they were included, it wasn’t just they would be invited ad hoc, they were part of that process, that’s – that was very much the intention.

Lead Inquiry: After 13 March, COBR still continued to convene, did it not, therefore may we presume that the devolved administrations continued to attend COBR whenever it sat thereafter?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed. That – by then COBR was taking place – was being hosted, from the Cabinet Room usually, on Zoom or Teams, and the devolved administrations would routinely be there. And in fact, although the shorthand we’ve used for it is COBR, actually if you look at the minutes of it we called it the “C-19 Ministerial”, I think, and we’d essentially created the Cabinet committee structure around it.

Lead Inquiry: Was there also a third process by which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster would meet with members of the devolved administrations periodically?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. It was one of his ministerial responsibilities and he’d also developed political relationships with the devolved administrations and so that was something he took on.

Lead Inquiry: Your statement recognises that there were occasional frictions in the relationship between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved administrations, due firstly to the structures and styles of governance within the United Kingdom and, secondly, what you describe as the differing perspectives of the individual devolved administrations.

What is the Inquiry to make of that degree of tension? Ultimately, did the United Kingdom and the devolved administrations speak from a relatively uniform position? Were they broadly in alignment? How much did that degree of tension or friction matter ultimately?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think in that phase of the crisis the alignment was striking. It became paradoxically more difficult later when the difficulty of the decisions was considerably less acute than it was at that phase going into the first lockdown. And the point I was making was these were rival political parties, a Conservative government in London, a Labour administration in Cardiff, Scottish Nationalists in Edinburgh and, of course, a coalition in Northern Ireland, with very different perspectives and, as I knew from my experience with them, very different personal governance styles by the First Ministers.

So actually I think in that phase of it, the alignment and willingness to align was striking. It became higher friction later.

Lead Inquiry: There were obviously a wide range of decisions that the United Kingdom Government had to take, ranging from, as it transpired, the decision to impose the first national lockdown, but also, in the week beforehand, a decision about the closure of schools, the social restrictions short of a lockdown, and there were also issues about public communications.

The evidence appears to indicate that there were particular frictions revolving around public communications, because of course the United Kingdom Prime Minister, when he addresses the nation, is bound to have an impact on all parts of the nation. And secondly, there was an issue about the closure of schools, because of course schooling is a devolved matter.

But in relation to the heart of the decision-making that the government had to engage in, the lockdown decision, was there any significant or any degree of divergence?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall any degree of divergence. I think the points you make about communications and schools are correct, and it’s worth just recalling that we didn’t call it “lockdown” at that time. What we’ve now come to know as lockdown essentially came in two tranches, one on 16 March, which was largely voluntary and advisory, about isolation, social distancing, working from home, and then subsequently the full stay-at-home message, which we then came to know as lockdown, about a week later. And the devolved administrations and government in London essentially all moved in lockstep through that, through those two decisions.

Lead Inquiry: The Inquiry is aware that of course the 23 March decision was a decision requesting the country to stay at home, but it was of course one that was backed by force of law.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: That is why it’s the lockdown decision.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah. Exactly. All I’m saying, Mr Keith, is we didn’t – I don’t think at the time, if you look at the papers at the time, we didn’t use the word “lockdown” –

Lead Inquiry: No, indeed.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – until afterwards, when all of these had come together.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed you did not.

Without going into the detail of the change in strategy, the evidence shows that there was an emerging understanding that the mitigation strategy would lead to the NHS being overwhelmed, and an emerging understanding that the squashing of the sombrero, the levelling off of the highest part of the peak, an attempt to delay the peak, would lead the country into the abyss, and it was necessary to apply much harsher, more stringent suppression measures to really get on top of the virus and to control it.

Would it be fair to say that you were concerned about the change in strategy?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, I didn’t see it at the time as a switch, as we’ve heard, from plan A to plan B. That SAGE had essentially said a week or so before, I think, that certain measures, those taken on 16 March, would be necessary. Their own data coming up through the formal system said in that first week of March that the disease was wider spread and accelerating faster than they believed, and so through that process there was essentially – what I understood to be the case was – apologies if I haven’t quite remembered the word you used, but essentially an acceleration, an intensification of the measures to stamp down harder on the progression of the disease to keep serious incidents within the NHS’s capacity to cope.

In parallel, the team in Number 10 reached the same conclusion and essentially took the Prime Minister through to that, but the formal decisions were taken on the basis of the SAGE evidence, et cetera, in a UK COBR I think on the evening of 15 March.

Lead Inquiry: But there was a change, was there not? There was an understanding that herd immunity, which was a necessary part of a mitigation strategy, could not, would not work because it failed to apply the necessary degree of control?

Lord Mark Sedwill: By that stage, clearly, because the disease was so much more widespread through the population, the question of alternative approaches, whether suppression and control, that we’ve talked about, or a segmentation approach, were no longer practicable, even if they had been, and so therefore that was the only option available.

Lead Inquiry: So there was a change?

Lord Mark Sedwill: There was a change. As I say, I understood it at the time as an acceleration and intensification of measures that SAGE had already alerted us would be necessary rather than a switch from plan A to plan B, but there was – yes, there was, of course, a change, it’s whether it was a complete change or, as I say, an acceleration, et cetera.

Lead Inquiry: Was it in the context of that change, Lord Sedwill, that you made your reference to chickenpox parties? Which, out of fairness, I must ask you about –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: – because you’ve heard the evidence about it. It’s important that you have the opportunity of saying whatever you want to say about the context in which that remark was made.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Well, that remark was made before the meetings of 13 to 16 March and the change of approach, the … and I should say at no point did I believe that coronavirus was only of the same seriousness as chickenpox, I knew it was a much more serious disease. That was not the point I was trying to make. And as soon as I realised, I think, from Ben Warner’s reaction, that that’s what he thought I was suggesting, I dropped it because I realised the analogy was causing confusion.

Lead Inquiry: Were you seeking to make a different point, which is that: were people to be allowed to become infected with chickenpox, they would therefore be allowing themselves to become vulnerable to a virus, and – that particular virus – and in the context of coronavirus if the policy being pursued is one of herd immunity, whereby putting aside those people who were necessarily shielded or segmented, the remainder of the population would necessarily be infected, that that was simply a recognition of the reality of that strategy?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That’s a fair summary, Mr Keith, I was essentially trying to address this question we’ve touched on several times, which was the judgement that it was inevitable that the virus would spread through the population, and what I was trying to examine was: was there a way of managing that, given its highly differential impact, that ensured that it spread through those for whom the disease was likely to be unpleasant rather than dangerous, and that we could quarantine and shield those for whom it would be dangerous?

If I may, though, there’s a point I might just make to the families. These were private exchanges, and I certainly had not expected this to become public, and I understand how, and in particular the interpretation that’s been put on it, that it must have come across that someone in my role was both sort of heartless and thoughtless about this, and I genuinely am neither, but I do understand the distress that must have caused and I apologise for that, because it certainly wouldn’t have been my intention, and of course I wasn’t the one who made it public.

Lead Inquiry: During this change, as I have suggested to you, or acceleration, as I think you would prefer to put it, there were two particular WhatsApp messages sent by Mr Cummings to Mr Johnson – we won’t put them up but they’re dated 12 and 14 March, you know which ones they are – in which they debate and appear to agree that the Cabinet Office and you personally were off the pace. The context in which those emails arise is plainly a debate about whether or not you personally had understood the seriousness of the crisis.

So against the context, against the background, or in the context or against the background that there was an acceleration of understanding or a change in strategy, however you put it, might it have been the position, Lord Sedwill, that you were slower to appreciate the seriousness, the terrible predicament that the country was in than some others in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It is possible. It is also possible that I would have – I might have created that impression. I think the – the WhatsApps you refer to came after a telephone call I had with the Prime Minister over that weekend, and after he’d had a session, which I hadn’t attended, with his inner circle, of which they had discussed this switch from what they called plan A to plan B, and of course I hadn’t caught up with that because I wasn’t aware of it, and so I guess that might have been behind some of that.

But I think there’s another point here I think it’s just worth noting about how I saw my role particularly at that time. I felt I had to provide leadership to a system that was on the edge of panic at that point, and I didn’t have the luxury of, even in private, saying, “We’re doomed, the system’s broken, everyone is useless”, because even if I’d said that in private it would have spread across the system and risked causing panic. So what I saw my job as was to provide – to stay calm, no matter – notwithstanding my own anxieties, but to stay calm and to project confidence – not overconfidence, but confidence – in the people who were working their way through this that we would find a way through. Because I was very conscious that even the most resilient people would be facing pressure at home and pressure at work, and if those two things come together even the most resilient people can struggle, and I needed to try to lead those people though this extraordinary and terrifying moment.

I can understand, therefore, to some who were not taking that approach, it might have seemed I was off the pace.

Lead Inquiry: In any event, it is a poor reflection of the resilience of the system at the heart of government that the Prime Minister and his chief adviser should have made such claims at all against the Cabinet Secretary. He is the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Secretary.

Lord Mark Sedwill: The government’s Cabinet Secretary.

Lead Inquiry: The government’s Cabinet Secretary.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I’m not sure it’s a poor reflection on the resilience or whether it’s just a reflection of the stress that those key players were under. You’d have to ask them.

Lead Inquiry: Does what you have said about the fact that you wanted to try to lead and perhaps reduce the level of tension and pressure and try to keep a grip on the system, does that all explain why Sir Patrick Vallance had said repeatedly in his dairies that at a meeting, which we assess must have been one of the meetings on Sunday 15 March, that you were furious, alternatively gave him a very sour look, alternatively gave him an evil eye, when Sir Patrick Vallance advocated strongly the change in strategy or, as you would say, the acceleration?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I certainly don’t remember being furious, and I can’t speak for – of course he didn’t tell me at the time that I pulled a face, so I can’t really speak for that. I’m a diplomat so we try to maintain some control over our facial expressions. And I wasn’t furious, I think I did – I probably did feel – I was worried about confusion. We had essentially two things coming together on that Sunday, as we’ve touched on already. First was this sense from the Prime Minister’s own team, and it’s to their credit they realised this, you heard from Ben Warner a few days ago, that the disease was moving faster and was more widespread than we had believed, and they took the Prime Minister through that in private in the normal way, and talked about a complete change of strategy, and then the formal process, as I’ve said, the SAGE process coming up through the Chief Scientific Adviser, was really talking about bringing forward measures that they had already said would be needed within a matter of weeks.

I guess I would be – I was worried as we went into the formal meetings that we needed to impose some order on that. So if it looked disorderly, I guess I might well have pulled a face.

Lead Inquiry: Might it have been that you were unimpressed by the clear attack on the strategy, the herd immunity strategy to which you yourself were personally, as we’ve seen from the email, quite wedded?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I wasn’t wedded to it. I think my – I realised by then that there was no alternative, it was reluctant – and by the way, it’s really important that – you asked in my Rule 9 request about red teams, I don’t know whether you want to pursue that in more detail, but it is really important that policy is challenged and that alternatives are considered, whether the suppression approach you’ve discussed already or this segmentation approach that I was talking about.

But it was clear by that weekend that none of those other options was viable, we didn’t have the capabilities in place that would be necessary to even make them viable, a shielding programme for example, critical to either of those alternatives, let alone the test and trace programme that we’ve touched on already. And therefore I was quite clear that the government had no choice but to accelerate into these measures. And fundamentally the job of the Cabinet Secretary is to advise, but then to step back and let ministers take decisions. I’m – I have been in government – I was in government a long time. Governments did not always take decisions that I might have taken if I were in their shoes, but on this occasion they did.

Lead Inquiry: Of course on 23 March the national measures with which we’re all too familiar were announced. I’m not going to ask you about the run-up to that. It’s clear from the evidence the Inquiry’s heard that over the weekend of 21 and 22 March it became apparent that compliance was not what it should be, that the measures instituted on 16 March were proving to be inadequate to stem the spread of the virus.

But I want to ask you instead about the process, given that you were Cabinet Secretary, by which the decision to impose that lockdown, if we may use that word, was made.

On Sunday 22 March there were two strategy meetings in Number 10, there was a meeting at 3 o’clock on shielding, there was then a meeting at 6.15, Covid-19 strategy, three-month healthcare strategy and Covid-19 Bill debate. There was then another meeting at 19.40, a post-Covid strategy meeting.

Evidence has been received by the Inquiry to the effect that in practice the debate which took place on that Sunday culminated in a decision or a recognition that the current measures were inadequate and the full lockdown had to be imposed.

It’s clear from the chronology that on the Monday the Prime Minister set aside preparation time to address the nation in the evening, and of course he did so address the nation. It’s therefore apparent that the decision to impose the lockdown for which he would be required to address the nation had been taken before that prep time, at 14.05. But the COBR meeting at which the decision to impose the national lockdown did not take place until 5 o’clock, after he had prepared his evening address, and the Cabinet meeting, which as you yourself confirmed is the ultimate decision-making body in His Majesty or then Her Majesty’s government, did not take place until 10.30 the following day.

In terms of the constitutional propriety of that course, it does appear as if the practical decision to impose a lockdown was effectively taken and resolved on that Sunday, and it was therefore not a decision which was taken by COBR or Cabinet, they merely served to endorse a decision which had already been taken.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think that is largely correct. I presume that parallel processes were happening in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, there was a lot of communication between them, so the COBR was, if I recall correctly, again a UK-wide COBR at which all of that was discussed, and as you’ve said the practical decision was taken in a Covid-S meeting earlier that day, and that was – I think that was appropriate, it was a Cabinet committee, it had collective responsibility rights, other ministers attended. It wouldn’t, I think, have been practical, given the pace required by that point, to intensify the measures, to have tried to convene all the wider formal structures, but I was comfortable at the time it was constitutionally proper. And the COBR was essentially a co-ordination meeting rather than a decision meeting because all four governments had reached essentially the same conclusion.

Lead Inquiry: Do you accept that the government should have appreciated sooner than it did that the NHS would be overwhelmed, which of course was the trigger for the decision to impose the national lockdown, and the measures the week before?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think I would – I’d go further, I would accept that in almost all of these cases we should have realised earlier.

Lead Inquiry: Had the risk to the NHS been appreciated sooner, it would have been open to the government, would it not, to introduce the measures that it did introduce on 16 March at an earlier stage, when the incidence of virus was lower; correct?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. That wasn’t the scientific advice, of course, but of course, you’re right, the government could have done so.

Lead Inquiry: And had it done so, although we will never know, there must therefore remain the possibility that those measures, if introduced earlier, would have avoided the need for the national lockdown?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It’s possible, but I think, Mr Keith, what I would recommend there is that we really should ask – I don’t know whether the Inquiry is intending to do so, my Lady, but we would need really deep academic research to make those judgements around the counterfactuals. I think it’s a reasonable supposition, I’ve read a lot of the other witness statements. I don’t know whether it would have been – I’m highly sceptical that it would have been possible to avoid the lockdown altogether. It might well have been possible for it to have been less prolonged and, of course, what we don’t know is the effect on the overall number of deaths. But my presumption, having read other witness statements – it’s not something which I’ve ever felt qualified to judge independently – is that earlier would have been better.

Lead Inquiry: We’re not looking for your epidemiological answer. The question presumes that there will only ever be the possibility and that it can never be known. But as the Cabinet Secretary at that time, as a person intimately involved in these momentous decisions, how could you not have a view as to whether or not, if those earlier steps had been taken earlier, a different course might have been open to the government?

Lord Mark Sedwill: As I’ve said, I agree. I’ve looked at the other statements, I’m – all I’m trying to do is suggest – I’m – I’m not – I don’t want to try to impose a judgement now, as a non-expert, on the decisions we took at the time. The decisions that the government took at the time were based on the scientific advice they were getting. Clearly, and you’ve heard this from people much more expert than I, had those decisions been taken earlier, then the – particularly given we didn’t know how fast the disease was moving, it would have had a greater impact on that accelerating curve earlier and, one presumes, a positive effect on lockdown, casualties, et cetera.

Whether we would have been able to avoid a lockdown, which I think was the initial premise of your question, I’m much more sceptical about that. I think it’s much more likely to have been about its duration.

Lead Inquiry: It is obvious from the chronology that the ultimate decision was taken on that Sunday and endorsed on the Monday and Tuesday, once it became clear that the measures of 16 March were proving to be inadequate. What debate was there on that Sunday, the weekend of 21 and 22 March, and on the Monday, as to how much time should be given further to see what behavioural changes might occur in the population at large so as to reduce the need for a mandatory stay-at-home order, to obviate the need for the ultimate sanction?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall much debate at all, but there may be documents, Mr Keith, that correct that recollection. My recollection is that – and I think I refer to this in my witness statement – is that when the 16 March measures were taken, there was an explicit recognition that they would need to be assessed and I think we were warned that that would take some time. 21 days I think we were told at the time, but I might not be correct about that.

What was – the advice was very clear, as I recall, from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser by the end of that week that we needed to go further. It wasn’t just compliance, I don’t think they were just looking at compliance, the evidence of that was – it was apocryphal as well as data, it was – actually they could just see that the numbers were not changing as fast as they would wish and R was not dropping below 1, and so I don’t think there was much debate, they essentially said “It isn’t working, we need to go further”.

Lead Inquiry: The measures weren’t working, that is clear, and you will recall of course that that weekend there were press reports of people attending parks –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Exactly.

Lead Inquiry: – and large numbers of people spending the weekend in public. To what extent was it understood that the population had already taken upon itself to change its behaviour?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It was clear that groups of the population, cohorts of the population were changing behaviour and others weren’t. And in a different approach the advisory-targeted approach that we’ve discussed already that I was earlier on keen to explore, that might have been okay, but by that stage, given how widespread the disease had become, it was clear that that essentially voluntary approach where people made their own judgements wasn’t adequate and the lockdown had to be imposed.

Lead Inquiry: But the only difference between a voluntary restriction and a mandatory one is the force of law applied to the latter. If the population was changing its behaviour, then those social restrictions would be taking effect and would be applicable by virtue of that behavioural change, why did no one say, or perhaps they did, “Let’s wait three or four more days, perhaps get closer to the 21-day expiry period from 16 March and see whether or not those behavioural changes will gather pace, will develop, and therefore obviate the need for a mandatory order”?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It’s the – it’s almost the mirror image of the conversation we were having earlier. Having realised as we came into the weekend of 13 and 16 March that the government had not reacted quickly enough because the disease was further advanced than the government believed and we believed, there was no appetite to take any further risk. And so of course in theory it would have been possible to have delivered the stay-at-home message as an advisory rather than as a mandatory message, but there was some evidence – some evidence emerging, again much of it – some of it anecdotal, that, having advised people to stay away from crowded indoor spaces like pubs and so on, that they weren’t. And I don’t know whether it was a focus group, I seem to remember one of the Number 10 team saying, “What we’re hearing is: if you meant us to stay away from the pubs, you close the pubs”. So there was a sense that it was necessary to actually impose mandatory measures given how quickly the disease was moving in order to minimise that risk.

Lead Inquiry: Lord Sedwill, to use your words, was it not a mirror image of what had taken place before? The government, having underreacted in early March by failing to implement measures short of a lockdown at an earlier stage, when the incidence was lower and they may be thought to have had more effect, overreacted on the 23rd and went the whole way, as opposed to allowing the data and the information about the behavioural changes brought by the 16 March measures to develop?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Governments were making an invidious risk judgement throughout that – or series of risk judgements throughout that period, and were, of course, following scientific advice.

The advice going into the 23 March decision was clear that the disease was still exponential, R was still above 1, and therefore it’s difficult to see how the government could have done anything else than take measures recommended by the experts, stay at home, et cetera, necessary to bring R below 1. And you will be aware, I think, Mr Keith, that there is I think – I can’t recall whether it was in a Cabinet or – I think it might have been in the Cabinet the day after that where the Chief Medical Officer says he doesn’t know whether even those measures will be sufficient and cautions against releasing them too quickly. So even those most extreme measures we couldn’t be confident – government couldn’t be confident were going to be enough to bring R below 1.

Lead Inquiry: You have, if I may say so, very fairly identified the flaws, if flaws they were, in the decision-making process in early March. You identify in your statement an additional issue which is that the DHSC was neither structured nor resourced for a public health crisis of this magnitude, and you also refer, of course, to the arguably inadequate critical care capacity for public health in this country.

Would you agree the proposition that had the DHSC been better structured and resourced for a public health crisis and had the United Kingdom’s critical care capacity been better, the government would have had more options open to it, or at least one alternative option to a lockdown open to it in early March?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. And I would add the point we were discussing earlier about contact tracing, et cetera, I think there was a range of capabilities and capacity that would have provided more options at the early stage of the pandemic, agreed.

Lead Inquiry: Now, following the lockdown decision, the Prime Minister, as is very well known, fell ill, fell gravely ill, and Dominic Raab MP, the First Secretary, deputised for the Prime Minister.

The evidence from Mr Raab’s statement, and of course he will be giving evidence in due course in the Inquiry, and also from Helen MacNamara’s statement, is that the arrangements for Mr Raab to deputise were simply a reflection of an oral agreement reached between him and Mr Johnson; is that correct?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think for him that was the case. He understood that he was the stand-in, but actually there was more to it than that in at least my own understanding of it, yes.

Lead Inquiry: And what was that?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Well, we have in the national security area a more formal system of deputies for the Prime Minister in a national security crisis so that it’s possible to maintain what’s known as positive political control of things like the nuclear deterrent or decisions about incipient terrorist threats and so on, and it’s one of the first conversations the National Security Adviser and actually often the Cabinet Secretary as well, when whose jobs are separate, has with an incoming Prime Minister. Indeed I brief leaders of the opposition on it during election campaigns: they need to have decided who those people will be.

And as First Secretary, Dominic Raab was the primary deputy for the Prime Minister in cases of that kind.

Lead Inquiry: So are you saying – I apologise for interrupting.

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, sorry.

Lead Inquiry: – that in that manual or guidance, it specifically provides that the First Secretary will deputise or may deputise, as opposed to simply being a guidance that deals with the functions of whoever it is that does deputise?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The guidance was not, for example, contained within the Cabinet Manual at that stage, the one that had been drafted about a decade earlier, and I recall Helen MacNamara and I having a discussion months before saying we really must put it into the next version.

The decisions – it doesn’t go the office of First Secretary. There hasn’t always been a First Secretary, sometimes there is a Deputy Prime Minister, sometimes the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the – essentially the designated most senior minister, and in national security it isn’t just one person it’s usually three or four. But in this case it was clear that Dominic Raab was the alternate if the Prime Minister were incommunicado or incapacitated.

Lead Inquiry: In April 2020 did that guidance provide that in the event of illness of the Prime Minister it was the First Secretary who would deputise?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I was very clear that was the case, yes.

Lead Inquiry: When the Prime Minister returned from his illness and took up the reins of government again, to what extent do you assess that he was affected by his illness?

You, in the course of a lengthy WhatsApp debate about his propensity to change his mind and to back and veer when making decisions, quite charitably ask whether or not indeed he might have been affected by his illness when making government decisions in May – April, May, June.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, his – there are two points here, I think. There is the broader question – I don’t know whether you want to come back to it with me, but you have touched on with others – about his decision-making style and –

Lead Inquiry: We’ll come back to that.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Okay, so I’ll leave that aside.

I was concerned. It took him a long time to recover. He’d had a very serious bout of this. I was lucky, I had a mild bout, and even I had some Long Covid symptoms, respiratory symptoms, later. So I wasn’t concerned so much about his decision-making style, separate question, it was about stamina really.

Lead Inquiry: By late April it had become clear that the lockdown was working, it was effective in reducing the spread of the virus, and the R basic number had been reduced below 1 –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – to a long way below 1.

You produced a letter for the Prime Minister dated 23 April.


We can see that it comes from you, the Cabinet Secretary, addressed to the Prime Minister, “C19: NEXT STEPS”. You set out a summary of papers which had been produced for the Prime Minister by the Cabinet Office Covid-19 strategy unit, and if we go to paragraph 5 on page 2, we can see that you say:

“So far, we have segmented the population into the shielded 1 [and a half million] and everyone else, and, in practice, since everyone has locked down, the distinction has been more about support than behaviour.”

So two points. Firstly, the reference to the distinction being more about support than behaviour, is that a reflection of the fact that because the whole population was under a lockdown, there was less of a need to shield those who were being shielded because they were being necessarily shielded by virtue of the reduction in the overall incidence rate of the virus?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Not quite, if I may. It was more about the support, food parcels, et cetera, for the – those who were most vulnerable to the disease, who really needed, as well as the stay at home, only go out for provisions once a week, you know, one hour’s exercise, et cetera, actually were in a more stringent version of that. So what I was talking about, that – that essentially we’d quarantined the entire country.

Lead Inquiry: So behaviourally –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Everyone –

Lead Inquiry: – there’s less distinction between –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Exactly.

Lead Inquiry: – shielded and non-shielded?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The shielded, whom we might in a different strategy have quarantined and shielded, were getting that support of necessities, et cetera. That was really the point I was driving at.

Lead Inquiry: Secondly, in the same sentence you used the words “segmented” and “shielded”. Is there a difference? Is shielding perhaps the, I don’t know, the word that better reflects the practicalities of a segmentation process, that is to say physically shielding people, and segmentation is the doctrinal word?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It’s – it’s almost verb and adjective, that we are – a complete sentence might have said: we’ve segmented the population into the shielded 1.5 million and the unshielded rest. Shielding was about the programmes that we were providing to take care of the vulnerable, and segmentation was just a description of the distinction, I guess, between the two.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

On 7 May Cabinet endorsed the phased release aspect of the lockdown.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: There had obviously been published a roadmap and there was a course which the government was resolved to take in terms of sequentially and gradually releasing the constraints of the lockdown.

In her statement, Helen MacNamara suggests that that roadmap was published without any real Cabinet collective agreement process. In your own statement you say ministers endorsed the phased release of the lockdown. To what extent was that roadmap and release actually debated and decided by Cabinet?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It had been developed through the course of April, when the Prime Minister was away, under the leadership of the First Secretary in a series of ministerial meetings known as the quad, the chairs of the MIGs, with some input from other ministers. My recollection is it was discussed in the Cabinet meetings he’d chaired at the same time, but I don’t have that evidence to hand.

And the – again, to the best of my recollection, essentially there was an agreement in principle that that roadmap – among that group of ministers, that that roadmap would proceed, subject to endorsement by the Prime Minister and Cabinet when he returned.

So there was a sense in which it was conditional but the roadmap had essentially been worked through by the First Secretary and that group of ministers.

Lead Inquiry: You would say the degree of debate was appropriate?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It was intensive.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000136756 is the further note for the Prime Minister dated 10 May, “C19 Campaign: Next Phase”:

“For a while [this is paragraph 1], we thought the UK was doing better than other countries. Now we fear we are going worse … there will likely have been significant demographic and cultural reasons for the differential impact.”

Briefly, what was it, in your opinion, that we had done worse?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It was really a reflection of the emergent data about excess deaths, and we of course were warned by the Chief Medical Officer and others that we wouldn’t know until later, given the differential counting methods, et cetera, but there had been a sense, and you’ve heard this in other evidence, in the early spring that that the UK was in better shape, we’d been told our pandemic plans were excellent, et cetera, and that emergent data by that stage suggested that excess deaths in the UK were higher than broadly comparable countries, and I think it was probably a reflection of that. And I think there was a lot of media coverage of that at that time.

Lead Inquiry: Page 2 at paragraphs 3 to 6, you outline some of the areas in which, in your assessment, the system of government, particularly with reference to the DHSC and Public Health England, had failed the country. Is this section reflective of what you have subsequently described as the way in which the DHSC was under-resourced, under-structured and incapable of dealing with the fragmented nature of the provision of healthcare and social care in this country?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, in effect that sentence was a summary of this thinking. And the point I’m making, I think it’s really important to note this, I know it’s more a Module 1 point, was this was the result of decisions taken by several governments over many years. I think the House of Lords report refers to a real terms cut over about the previous five years in public health budgets across England of about 10%, for example. But that was just a single example of a broader … the outcome of a series of decisions all essentially sensible in their own terms but that had resulted in this position going into the pandemic.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

In late May, the government was obliged to make decisions about the degree to which the lockdown would be released and how fast it would go through –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – the successive phases, and on 22 May you communicated with Simon Case, then a permanent secretary in Number 10 – INQ000303245, at page 2 – and you respond to a WhatsApp from Simon Case. He says:

“Away from more Dom drama, we had a good meeting earlier with [the Prime Minister]. He and Rishi readily agreed a package, quite quickly. Your call [he is referring to you there] about not including Patrick and Chris was genius – it removed that dynamic.”

Lord Sedwill, is that reference to the plan, suggested apparently by you to Simon Case, that Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Chris Whitty should not be present at a meeting at which a package for lockdown release would be debated, because you and Simon Case didn’t want the Prime Minister to feel the full force of scientific advice which was very well known, in the case of Sir Patrick and Sir Chris, to lean towards applying the maximum degree of care and caution when releasing the country from the lockdown measures?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, it wasn’t. And if you look at the last sentence of Simon Case’s WhatsApp to me, he says:

“Patrick V [Vallance] happy with it …”

So I can’t recall the exact sequence, but my presumption is that we would have done a lot of – probably Simon would have done a lot of work in advance of the meeting between the Prime Minister and Chancellor to make sure that whatever was on the table was acceptable to the experts, and this was just a question of managing a meeting of that kind where the Prime Minister and Chancellor were in different – came to it in different positions, and so it was just about managing the dynamics of an informal meeting. But if you look at the actual substance of it, the substance was something that the scientists supported.

Lead Inquiry: Patrick Vallance was happy with the outcome, with whatever was agreed. The reference to “dynamic” and Simon Case’s praise for your suggestion that the meeting not include Patrick and Chris, and he describes it as being “genius”, again was that because you simply didn’t wish Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty to directly engage with the Prime Minister, to speak to him directly, lest their approach to the necessary caution that had to be applied might prevail, might win the day?

Lady Hallett: I’m sure that’s a fair question, Mr Keith.

But you tell me, Lord Sedwill, is that a fair question?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I will have a go, thank you, my Lady, but let me have a go at answering it within that boundary that you’ve implied.

I suspect, I don’t recall exactly – this is – you know, this was clearly a conversation I’d had with him earlier. You’ve heard from others that the Prime Minister was often at his best in small meetings. There would have been a difference of view between him and the Chancellor at this point. I think the Prime Minister actually had already been briefed extensively by the – Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty. It wasn’t that they didn’t have access to the Prime Minister. They had plenty of access to him. This would have simply been about handling the meeting and presumably trying to ensure that the dynamics of that meeting were more productive. That the Chancellor wasn’t coming into a meeting feeling that his perspective was going to be overwhelmed by essentially a cohort of people sitting the other side of the table, that they could have a genuine one-to-one discussion.

I’m comforted, as I said, that Patrick Vallance’s being content with what they agreed, it must have been the case, therefore, given the Chancellor would have presumably been pushing for some – to go further faster, that the Prime Minister had whatever advice he needed from Patrick Vallance firmly in his mind.

I think that is probably about as far as I can go, Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: All right, well, I’m not going to harry you further on that.

INQ000303245 –

Lady Hallett: Are you moving to a different matter or the same –

Mr Keith: A different document. So, my Lady, that’s a convenient point.

Lady Hallett: I hope you’re all right to come back this afternoon, Lord Sedwill, I’m afraid it looks like, because there are also some questions from the core participants.

The Witness: So I understand, my Lady, of course.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

1.50, please.

(12.50 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.50 pm)

Lady Hallett: Yes, Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: On 22 July, Lord Sedwill, you had a WhatsApp conversation with Simon Case in which you debated what you’ve described as a cunning route into segmentation.

Could we have up INQ000303245 at page 10.

Where you refer to, at 16.24:

“The only answer I can see beyond the existing mitigations … is Stalinist segmentation. The virus kills the old and sick. The lockdown hits the young and healthy. We have to confront that brutal truth and organise for it, notwithstanding CW’s …”

Is that Chris Whitty on this occasion?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I presume so.

Lead Inquiry: “… scepticism about the practicalities.”

If we go forward to page 11 to set the context, we can see at 11.21, in the middle of the page:

“Mark Sedwill: I had a good session with the data people while in Oxford. There might be a cunning route into segmentation if you want to discuss.”

And then Simon Case says this, at 11.24:

“We agreed with [the Prime Minister] and [the Chancellor] yesterday to set up a little cell in the taskforce to draw up a plan for segmentation … they said they were up for it …”

Then at 11.29, at the end of your WhatsApp, having described the sort of rating process or the system which might be considered:

“I don’t but …”

But I think you mean “buy”:

“… the SAGE argument that it’s all too difficult.”

Simon Case:

“Neither PM nor [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] buy SAGE argument either. And I am just not sure this is a SAGE issue. This is about political will and implementation of policy (and then personal behaviour) not science.”

Mark Sedwill:


Two questions. Firstly, the Inquiry has heard evidence about how in August and September the Covid Taskforce looked specifically at the issue of segmentation and whether it was practically possible, as, of course, an alternative to the more stringent sort of intervention which might otherwise be utilised. Is this the genesis, do you think, of that policy work done by the Covid Taskforce?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I wouldn’t necessarily claim the genesis, but a contribution to it I would hope.

Lead Inquiry: Secondly, it is clear from Mr Case’s observation, with which you agree with the use of the word “exactly”, that to the extent that Mr Case was describing the government’s decision to investigate segmentation, describing it as “political will and implementation of policy”, the government really wasn’t following the science here at all. SAGE plainly advises and did advise on the need for shielding, on the epidemiological necessity and on the epidemiological consequences of shielding. Why were you trying to – or why were you agreeing that SAGE and its position and its arguments should be dismissed in this way?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Not so much dismissed, but not necessarily accepted without challenge. Shielding, as we discussed earlier, effective shielding would be a crucial element of any segmentation approach, essentially quarantining and protecting those for whom the disease was dangerous, whilst managing its spread, as we’ve discussed before, through those for whom it was unpleasant. And the differential impact of the disease was even more striking – striking by this point. I think the number of under 50s who had been hospitalised was even smaller than had been expected, et cetera.

That doesn’t, of course, mean younger people, particularly those with comorbidities, weren’t at risk, but with sufficient critical care capacity, et cetera, they could be properly treated, and so that was the question.

The reason – the reason here was essentially it was again testing whether, now we had better knowledge of the disease, more capabilities in place, was there a – was there a way of taking on that – taking on that different approach. And I think it is right that is fundamentally a policy question rather than a scientific one. The scientists would have to advise, but you would have to take that advice into account whilst working out: is there a policy route through this?

Lead Inquiry: The fact that SAGE had advanced an argument at all is evidence, is it not, that the government had asked SAGE for its view? You were opining upon the fact that, in your opinion, SAGE’s argument was that it was too difficult, so you had asked SAGE to address this issue?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I can’t recall whether there was – the nature of the commission to SAGE. I just – I just don’t know. It would probably have been through the CMO and the Chief Scientific Adviser. My recollection is that SAGE produced some formal advice in early September, I think, I think it came almost at the time of my final Cabinet, on exactly this question. So there must have been a commission to SAGE. I can’t – I don’t know whether that followed from this discussion or whether I was simply inferring from what I knew from SAGE that – their position at this point.

Lady Hallett: When you say “on this question”, do you mean the question of segmentation?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, my Lady, yeah.

Mr Keith: But having asked SAGE for its view, however it was commissioned, SAGE having proffered its view, having also declared that the government was in a general sense – and I appreciate it’s a general sense only – following the science, it is rather curious that by characterising this debate as a policy or a political issue, SAGE’s opinion was in principle simply rejected as being, well, just too difficult.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t think – I don’t think rejected, but I think by that stage the government had actually said, I think in a Cabinet meeting in a discussion about 2 metres versus 1 metre distancing, et cetera, that – I think there was more recognition – and of course we were in much calmer waters by this stage, at least temporarily – there was a recognition by ministers that scientific expertise was an input but wasn’t – unlike going into the first lockdown, wasn’t necessarily the only determinant of government policy.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Moving on to another topic, the WhatsApps between yourself and Simon Case in another regard demonstrated a debate that you had about the process by which Leicester and other places were placed under local restrictions following the exit from the national lockdown. So that is to say in June and July of 2020.

If we could have up, please, INQ000303245, at page 7, at 21.24 – I can’t – yes, thank you very much.

Towards the top of the page, Simon Case:

“… local leaders were refusing to accept legitimacy of PHE data. Chris Whitty has to argue with Mayor and others earlier today … The legitimacy of the gov’t to be accepted has been so dangerously eroded it seems (for fairly obvious reasons).”

Shortly, in what way did you understand Mr Case to be suggesting that the legitimacy of the government had been eroded? In what way did you understand him to be saying it had been eroded?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I presume that related to the Barnard Castle incident and the government’s response to it.

Lead Inquiry: So the Barnard Castle incident, comprising the whole affair and the press conference, was having an impact on 29 June in relation to the government’s dealings with local mayors?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. And that – I presume that’s what we were referring to there.

And just on the Barnard Castle incident, I don’t – I think it isn’t fair just to focus on the incident and indeed Mr Cummings’ own press conference. In some ways that was the – that was contained and managed. I don’t know whether we’re going to come back to this, but I was particularly concerned about the reaction of the Health Secretary and the Attorney General, afterwards, to it, where I felt they were undermining the legal framework in some of their communications, and we had to get that under control. But I felt –

Lead Inquiry: We’ll come back to that.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Right. But it would have been the whole Barnard Castle incident, not just the incident itself and Mr Cummings’ press conference, it was a broader question, I think.

Lead Inquiry: At 22.02.27, you say:

“Mayor actually a class act. Hancock trying to scapegoat him. Who do you believe?”

Lord Sedwill, why did you not believe the Secretary of State, himself a Minister of the Crown?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I felt, and I know we may come back to this, it felt to me by that point that, rather than treating the mayor as essentially a partner in governance, he was being treated as a political opponent and there was a politicised approach, and this is obviously a very shorthand discussion of the kind one might have on the phone – it’s important to remember that, it is only a WhatsApp exchange – and, as you see, I’m asking Simon Case, who was obviously on this full-time by this stage, what was behind all of that.

Lead Inquiry: I’m not concerned with the debate between Mr Hancock and the local mayor.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: I’m referring specifically to you posing the question: who do you believe? You are putting the candour or the honesty or the reasonableness of the belief in the local mayor or Mr Hancock into issue. One of them was your colleague, a Secretary of State, a Minister of the Crown. That is rather a surprising, is it not?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes. But one was also a senior local government figure, and of course all of these, if you’re the Cabinet Secretary, are important.

Lead Inquiry: Further down the page, we can see at 22.17, you say:

“Be careful of trusting CW’s judgement on this.”

Is that Chris Whitty or Chris Wormald?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I presume Chris Wormald, and I don’t quite know why I would have said that, but I presume that’s who I’m referring to.

Lead Inquiry: “The big problem is Hancock.”

Then further down the page, at 22.21.53:

“But I mostly blame Hancock. Deja vu. That was how we spent the early Spring?”

Then Mr Case says at 22.46:

“I have only just realised that we have no senior DHSC officials anywhere near this. Where was Matt’s Perm Sec or lead DG? We are engaging with PHE, the Clinicians, etc. But there is no one around driving the policy side of operational lockdown on Matt’s behalf. Weird absence.”

And you say:

“Welcome to the last six months.”

So two points, please. Firstly, the process by which Mr Hancock’s truthfulness or candour or lack of candour or general approach, however one describes it, and it’s obviously a matter for the Inquiry, was not an issue that was confined to perhaps one or two individuals or, notably, Mr Cummings; there was a general issue, a general problem surrounding Mr Hancock; is that a fair summary?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, and you heard from Helen MacNamara on that last week.

Lead Inquiry: And secondly, this issue of: “where was Matt’s perm secretary”, there’s a “weird absence”. Was there at the same time a problem functionally with the operation of the DHSC insofar as, on the civil service side of things, there were failures to produce policy or to stand up and be counted when it came to negotiating policy or producing material that central government and the Cabinet Office and Number 10 requested?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It looks from what Simon Case is saying in that text that that – that’s the case. He’s clearly concerned that DHSC at an official and expert level is not on top of the Leicester – the Leicester question.

I think that was probably the first time that element of it had been drawn to my attention. By then we had the Covid Taskforce, as you’ve – as you said.

And I think what this exchange is revealing is just how challenging it was for them as well in dealing with a situation when their secretary of state is essentially in quite a high profile political row with the local mayor.

Lead Inquiry: Another topic. You proposed in late May the establishment of Covid-O and Covid-S. We know that because Helen MacNamara and Simon Case produced an advice dated 22 May which recommended the establishment of those committees., and a great deal of evidence has been received by the Inquiry in relation to their operation.

Why did you propose that there be this division between Covid-S and Covid-O, Covid strategy, Covid operational, and to the extent that Covid-O was concerned with the drawing up of policy and operational matters and everything short of strategising, was that not duplicative of the Covid Taskforce, as to which we’ve heard considerable evidence from Mr Ridley as to the broad range of its functions?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Covid-O and Covid-S were Cabinet committees, so essentially ministerial committees with officials attending to support. The taskforce was the official group essentially combining teams who had hitherto been in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, the C-19 Secretariat, et cetera, into a single official group. So they were distinct. The taskforce was the group of officials led by Simon Case and Covid-O and Covid-S were Cabinet committees.

There was obvious risk of duplication between S and O. I wouldn’t necessarily – although we called them strategy and operations, in some ways it was the big decisions the Prime Minister needed to be personally involved in in Covid-S, and Covid-O, those that he could leave to a wider group of ministers, chaired by Michael Gove as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. And essentially it replicated the model that we’d applied to Brexit the previous year where Brexit – overall Brexit policy was driven in a group chaired by the Prime Minister, XS, and no-deal planning, et cetera, was led in a group chaired by Michael Gove as CDL, XO. So it was a straight replica of a model we knew worked for that Prime Minister.

Lead Inquiry: The Covid response machinery was not, of course, the same as the machinery dealing – in its entirety, dealing with the preparation for a no-deal Brexit.

Lord Mark Sedwill: No. No. There were echoes, though.

Lead Inquiry: There were overlaps, and of course you took the Covid-O, Covid-S structure from XO and XS. Did you find in reality that there was a degree of duplication between O and S and, in terms of the non-ministerial officials who attended Covid-O and the CTF, that there was a degree of overlap?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I imagine there was some. I don’t recall anyone bringing it to my attention as a problem that needed to be resolved. The taskforce would have supported both those Cabinet committees.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

May the Inquiry presume that, from the need to rearrange the arrangements in the heart of the Cabinet Office in May, from what of course we now know to be the report produced by Helen MacNamara in relation to the working practices and the toxicity of the atmosphere and so on and so forth, that there were matters that were fundamentally wrong with the operation of the Cabinet Office between February and May?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think it’s important to look at the sequence there. The taskforce, Covid-O, Covid-S, were established when we were in calmer waters, we were coming out of the first lockdown, had a much better understanding, et cetera, and they were planning the future. Whereas when we established the MIGs we were going into the – into the storm, if you like, of the first lockdown and of course seeking to accelerate preparations that weren’t ready for that lockdown. And so we’ve got to be careful not to overdo the distinctions between them, they were operating in different circumstances.

In terms of the officials and the institutional culture, the first point I should make is the report that Helen MacNamara and Martin Reynolds did was triggered by me, and I think the phrase “superhero bunfight” was actually used by my private secretary with me and I essentially said, “Right, we’d better get on to this”.

I think the reason that – the reason – there were some reasons for that. Going into the lockdown, into that intense phase, I was conscious that we would lose people, there’d be people off sick, isolating, mental health issues and so on, and therefore I deliberately over-resourced, I deliberately ensured that each DG had a primary function and a sort of understudy function as well, so that when someone became ill, if they weren’t able to operate from home, they would be – there wouldn’t be a break in service, if you like.

As people returned to work, there were clearly some tensions around that, some people had been there throughout, some people were new, some people returned after illness, and it was necessary by that stage to restore a more normal way of operating. But I think it was right to over-resource going in. That was certainly my experience of other crises: worry about – worry less about overlaps and more about gaps.

Lead Inquiry: The Prime Minister’s own chief adviser has described, as you know well, the Cabinet Office, for which you bore ultimate responsibility, as a “dumpster fire”, as being bloated, with too many senior levels, too many director generals, duplication, confusion, huge numbers of communication and engagement staff, and, on the functional side, as essentially failing in its core function, which was to synthesise data, information, policy from other government departments, to liaise with them, to broker between them and to hold the heart of government together.

What do you say?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Some of that, but not most of it, is fair. As – I’ve explained why there was deliberately some duplication going in: I felt it was necessary to over-resource. I’ve also heard him say we had the wrong people in the wrong jobs, and yet in particular the key directors general who worked on Covid clearly had the confidence of the Number 10 machine because they were either retained or in some cases promoted into other roles for them.

The Cabinet Office, the wider Cabinet Office, outside the Cabinet secretariat, I don’t know whether he was referring to – to some of that, but we sought – we sought to clarify that as we went, it was necessary – we had to set up three dozen programmes across government to try to ensure the government was able to respond to the crisis as it moved at pace in March. Inevitably there was quite a lot of friction around that, and we sought to knock that into shape through the course of March and into April.

Lead Inquiry: We have – you have given evidence in relation to the failure at the heart of government to appreciate that there was an absence of cross-government planning, to bring the departmental planning such as it was into shape and into the centre. There was a failure to appreciate, to become aware, in sufficient time, of the scale of the crisis, there was only a dawning realisation of the systemic problems at the heart of the DHSC, the primary lead government department at the heart of this public health crisis.

Those were all failures which occurred within the Cabinet Office and on your watch. Do you agree?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, and we sought to address them as soon as we realised that we had those issues.

Lead Inquiry: Turning to the Prime Minister, you will be aware, of course, of the evidence received by the Inquiry that – given by his director of communications – this was the wrong crisis for this Prime Minister’s skillset, and, to summarise the criticisms from Mr Cummings, for all his undoubted political skills, Mr Johnson’s propensity to oscillate, to be unable to manage a cohesive team, and to direct government machinery consistently and effectively. Are those opinions with which you agree?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I recognise them, but I wouldn’t express it that way myself, and indeed I think there’s a separate point here, which is essentially, you know, in essence a question – a question for me, which is: as I said in my witness statement, Mr Keith, part of my job was to build around any Prime Minister a mechanism or a set of mechanisms that enabled them to both make decisions and then those decisions to be enacted effectively, and I certainly didn’t think, you know, it was – it would have been responsible to say, “Oh, well, the Prime Minister’s way of working isn’t effective in these circumstances”, and then throw my hands up. It was my job to make it work. I can –

Lead Inquiry: No one is suggesting otherwise.

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, indeed. No – thank you.

So, just briefly, one of the reasons I sought to create forcing mechanisms, collective governance mechanisms, was that I knew that the process in Number 10 was a dialectic. I’d seen this with the Prime Minister before – of course notoriously in 2016, but actually in the autumn of 2019: he would be gung-ho for no-deal Brexit in one moment and much more reflective and trying to identify the landing zone for a deal, particularly in private, say with me, in another moment, and I recognise that was – Lord Lister touched on this – how he – that dialectic is how he got to big decisions.

It’s exhausting for the people in his inner circle, but my job was to try to ensure that we had a mechanism around that which I used, essentially the collective governance mechanisms, which would force a decision and, once that decision was made, ensure that the government stuck to it.

Lead Inquiry: You recognise, of course, that there is a considerable amount of evidence from the evening notes from Sir Patrick Vallance, from Mr Cummings’ evidence, from the evidence of officials and advisers in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office that there were problems concerning Mr Johnson’s leadership, his oscillation, his ability to build an effective and cohesive team. To the extent that your obligation was to build a system around him that would enable proper decision-making, facilitate his job as Prime Minister, doesn’t the fact that these complaints and these concerns continued throughout February, March, April, May, all the way through to the end of 2020, show that your attempts to build a corrective system failed?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, I don’t agree with that. They’re complaining about how he got to decisions, and how he operated with his inner circle, and I didn’t think there was any way I could change that, this was the way he operated. My job was essentially to create a system which insulated the rest of Whitehall and turned whatever process of getting to a decision in the centre of government into regular government decisions and business, and the main mechanisms I used for that, as I said, was trying to ensure the last group of people from whom he would hear would be his Cabinet colleagues and in collective agreement. I didn’t think I could address the underlying question, that was just going to happen. My job was to take that and try to make sure that the rest of the system worked nonetheless.

Lead Inquiry: The very fact that the Cabinet Secretary has to insulate his own Prime Minister, the Prime Minister, from the rest of Whitehall is a sorry reflection of the workings of government at that level.

Lord Mark Sedwill: It was a very challenging period. But, as I said, my job was not to judge the way a Prime Minister makes a decision, they’re democratically elected, it was to try to ensure that however they got to the decisions and however much stray voltage there was at the centre, and there was an awful lot, that the system of government worked. And I sought to try to achieve that particularly on the big decisions the government took going into and coming out of the lockdowns.

Lead Inquiry: My suggestion to you, Lord Sedwill, is that to a large extent your worthy efforts failed. Notably, in August 2020, Sir Patrick Vallance records in his evening notes these words:

“Sedwill came back saying ‘this administration is brutal and useless’.”

Did you say those words?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t recall doing so, and I don’t – I can’t actually recall what might have prompted it, but I have no doubt – I don’t doubt Sir Patrick’s memory. It must have been a moment of acute frustration with something, I don’t know what.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000303245, some further WhatsApp messages between yourself and Mr Case in May 2020, page 1.

We don’t need to go through them all in detail, but if you look at, by way of example, 08.29.32, Mr Case and you are debating whether or not he is prepared to do a job in Downing Street. He says:

“… I am not willing to agree to do any job back in this version of the centre without guarantees/honest conversations with the PM about behaviours. I will work for you and the PM. I will not work [for] Dom.”

There are then repeated references to you saying:

“Reinforcing my conversation with the PM about behaviours [very] helpful.”

Simon Case:

“… there are … guarantees about behaviour …”

At 22.25 he says:

“… I am … appalled that the PM has done all this and caused all of this damage …”

That’s at 22.25.32.

Thank you.

Then on pages 2, 6 and 9 of this group, there are further references to the behaviour in Downing Street, the people that the Prime Minister has surrounded himself with, references to them being:

“… so mad … they are … madly self-defeating. I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well equipped to run the country”.

Who, when you said “these people” were you and Mr Case referring to?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t – did I say “these people”? I’m not sure. I think, anyway –

Lead Inquiry: “The PM and the people he chooses to surround himself with are basically feral.”

You say:

“I have the bite marks.”

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: Who were those people?

Lord Mark Sedwill: As you will see, Mr Keith, there is sometimes some gallows humour in some of these –

Lead Inquiry: Well, indeed.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – WhatsApps. I think – so these – that first exchange came after a point where there had been very severe friction between me and the Prime Minister and his immediate team. Martin Reynolds’ witness statement refers to it, although the Prime Minister at no point expressed a loss of confidence. This is a little later.

I think this is the Prime Minister and some of his immediate team. I don’t – and –

Lead Inquiry: We can take the document off the screen, I think.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – and Lord Lister referred to some of this yesterday.

Lead Inquiry: It is apparent from Mr Case’s hesitation at taking the job of being permanent secretary in Number 10, and ultimately Cabinet Secretary, that the behaviour, as he perceived it and as you perceived it, of people in Downing Street, was positively affecting his willingness to take that role. You were aware that the behaviour, whatever it was and from whomsoever it was coming, was affecting the stability of the working arrangements in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. You were aware that it was affecting the stability of the civil service at the highest point of government.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. Those were very serious matters indeed, given particularly that the government was in the maw of the beast facing this crisis?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Correct. And I think you put to Lord Lister yesterday a remark from me in another WhatsApp with Simon Case in which I think I say something like “It is difficult to get people to march to the sound of gunfire if you shoot them in the back”. That is a strong statement about the institutional culture.

Lead Inquiry: I want to be clear about this, this pervasive atmosphere, the behaviour, the working practices, they were having, were they not, a direct impact on the efficacy, efficiency of the system, the ability of the government to make proper, timely and appropriate decisions?

Lord Mark Sedwill: We sought to minimise the real effect on the big decisions, and we discussed that a few moments ago, I thought that was my job to do that. So there was no doubt, it was a very stressful issue, the institutional behaviour at the centre, the stray voltage, et cetera.

I think broadly speaking, in terms of the really big decisions and the timeliness of them, given that that government and other governments who didn’t have that behaviour right at the centre made decisions broadly speaking at the same time, I think there is a question as to whether we were not successful in ensuring that actually the right decisions were taken at the right time notwithstanding the particular challenges of that regime.

Lead Inquiry: Another issue was the absence of female perspective. INQ000303245, page 10.

Mark Sedwill:

“PP’s interjection …”

Is that a reference to Priti Patel?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “… a reminder that we need more of the female perspective.”

That’s at 16.24.28, just before the gap. Thank you very much.

Helen MacNamara in her evidence, or rather in her written statement, has noted that there was in government, in Number 10, a striking absence of humanity or perspective about people or families or how people actually lived.

Would you agree?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, and in a – I did bring this up in one of the – it may even be, Mr Keith, in one of the documents we’ve already looked at. I recall commenting about lockdowns, that the experience of lockdown for those lucky enough to have a garden, a laptop, Ocado, et cetera, was wholly different to that of a single mother living in a bedsit with a cleaning job across town. I was acutely concerned about that.

Lead Inquiry: Turning lastly in this context to Mr Hancock himself, as I promised I would, Mr Cummings says that at one point you said to him, “The British system does not work if ministers lie”, and the – document INQ000303245 – WhatsApp messages between you and Simon Case, again, at page 3, shows that you and he discussed – 19.11.04, you say:

“Totally incompetent. They don’t even understand the [regulations] they authorise.”

At page 5, you refer to the “DHSC’s laissez faire attitude”. This is 11.01.


“It’s been [quite] a pattern. Matt overpromising, underdelivering and Chris on the touch line. I had hoped we’d corrected it.”

And on page 7 there are references by you to “Hancock all over the place” and to questions about his candour and his grip as well as his tendency to overpromise.

Give us, please, an understanding of how damaging, how destructive this loss of confidence in Mr Hancock was in the context of the United Kingdom Government facing a health crisis of this magnitude, and there being a fundamental lack of confidence in the ability of the Secretary of State for Health to do what was required?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Clearly damaging, and I did raise – I don’t remember the exact terms, I didn’t keep contemporaneous notes, I did raise really three questions with the Prime Minister throughout those months. One was about Mr Hancock’s candour, and you heard from Chris Wormald, you’ve just referenced it, overpromising, overconfident, over-assurance, we had to use the programme management office to double-check what we were being told, to – so that we could try to make sure there wasn’t an effect in terms of – we did understand what the programmes were, actually on track as they – as we were hearing, for example. And some of that continued.

The second issue was this question of – particularly after the Barnard Castle incident, of politicising, where I was – I expressed myself at a time when my own relations with the Prime Minister were quite strained, as you have seen, quite sharply about the risk to the legal framework that public statements from – the Health Secretary and indeed the then Attorney General were making. And I felt we saw some more of that in the Leicester affair.

And then I did have a conversation with the Prime Minister in the summer. These are very normal and, except in the circumstances of this Inquiry, entirely private conversations between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary and, in this case, the Number 10 permanent secretary, but obviously I understand the unique circumstances of the Inquiry, about whether he was the right person to lead the next phase, whatever the PM’s judgement about him, on the basis that I’d already said I felt structural reform of Health and Social Care was necessary.

Lead Inquiry: You told the Prime Minister to sack Mr Hancock?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I don’t think I used that word with him, but I did use it in a WhatsApp with Simon Case.

Lead Inquiry: And you described it thus “to save lives and protect the NHS”?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That was a – that was gallows humour. That’s an echo, I mean, in a – and I realise – you know, I realise of course inappropriate even in a private exchange, not something I would have ever expected to be public. I was echoing the – it was gallows humour echoing the slogan, the communications –

Lead Inquiry: Of course.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – of earlier on, so that is not to be over-interpreted.

Lead Inquiry: No, but the words “I told the Prime Minister to sack Mr Hancock” reflect the seriousness of the position and the grave position in which the government had found itself, of being unable to have confidence in its Secretary of State?

Lord Mark Sedwill: That would have followed the conversation I would have had with the Prime Minister about whether a change would be right for the next phase. Of course, as I said, I had raised my concerns with the Prime Minister. That was not intended for him to remove Mr Hancock but to take a grip on the issue. In the end the Prime Minister has to make these judgements.

Lead Inquiry: As it happens, in his witness statement to this Inquiry, at paragraph 699, Mr Johnson says:

“I did not have any concerns regarding the performance of any Cabinet Minister, including Matt Hancock. I do not think that I received any advice from Sir Mark Sedwill that Matt should be removed.”

What do you say to that?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I can see how he might remember it that way. I did not provide formal advice to the Prime Minister. So there are occasions when a Cabinet Secretary has to give advice to a Prime Minister about the status of a minister, particularly if there has been a breach of the Ministerial Code, and I did have to give both prime ministers I served advice in that way. So that’s formal advice, written, et cetera.

These were, as I’ve just expressed, conversations about Mr Hancock. I don’t think I would have used the word “sack” with the Prime Minister himself, although I acknowledge I said it to Mr Case, but he would have been under no illusions as to my view about what was best for moving forward.

Lead Inquiry: You left him under no doubt whatsoever that he would be better advised to replace Mr Hancock with another minister as Secretary of State for Health?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lead Inquiry: A different topic, almost there, Lord Sedwill. Legislation.

The Inquiry understands that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was not used as a basis for the Covid legislation or regulations. As it happened, the main Coronavirus Act was passed by Parliament on 25 March and received Royal Assent the same day. It had been through every stage in the House of Commons and the House of Lords on a single day, 23 March.

In the event, the government used, in England at any rate, the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 as the overarching legislation under which to promulgate the statutory instrument, the secondary legislation, that was the coronavirus regulations.

So, firstly, having passed the Coronavirus Bill and it having passed into law as the Act, why was a 1964 Act used as the overarching legislation for the main coronavirus legislation – regulations?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The Coronavirus Act went beyond that, so there were other provisions in it.

Lead Inquiry: There were.

Lord Mark Sedwill: In that specific case, I think at the time it was because the – we were already essentially more familiar with the Public Health Act. There was a need to move extremely quickly to put those into law and create the legal certainty, in particular the police needed to enforce the regulations. So a judgement was just made that it would be simpler and give better legal clarity to use existing rather than brand new legislation that hadn’t yet essentially been fully implemented.

Lead Inquiry: The Inquiry is curious, because it’s received evidence in Module 1 of course that a great deal of time and energy was devoted to a pandemic –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – flu Bill that then became the Coronavirus Bill –

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – which then became the Act, but in the actuality, in the event, if wasn’t even used for the primary regulations in those first few days?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, the Public Health Act wasn’t, and on reflection it may have been possible to have drafted a different version of the Coronavirus Bill so that the powers didn’t overlap between the two pieces of legislation.

Lead Inquiry: And the Civil Contingencies Act wasn’t used, was it, because of the very unusual and draconian nature of the powers in part 2 of that Act which require ministers, if they use that Act to issue regulations, to appoint emergency coordinators for each part of the United Kingdom, and obviously there are very real concerns about the civil liberties aspects of such a step.

Was that what caused ministers to shy from using the Civil Contingencies Act and instead then to use the Coronavirus Act and the Public Health Act?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It would have been a factor. Another factor, though, and probably the more important, was that the Civil Contingencies Act is only to be used if there is no legislative alternative, in a sense if there is simply no time, because it allows ministers to make – essentially make law by decree. And then of course that has to be reviewed by Parliament at a very regular – very regular intervals. But the underlying premise is that that can only happen if there simply isn’t the time or opportunity to create an alternative vehicle and, for the reasons you set out, there was in this case.

Lead Inquiry: Finally, you had of course, as you have indicated, a most difficult conversation with Mr Johnson on or around 14 May 2020, when you agreed to move on later in the year to end being Cabinet Secretary, in September.

Regardless of the whys and wherefores of how you came to agree to such a move or why it happened, do you think that the means of your departure, the nature of that decision and that meeting, and the way in which you came to leave, affected the stability of the civil service and the higher echelons of government?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I should just note just for the record the decision wasn’t taken in that meeting, there was a discussion in that meeting. For the reasons you said, I think there’s no need to go through all of the toing and froing, a lot of it is in the WhatsApps and other messages. The final decision, which I took, was in early June.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Lord Mark Sedwill: With his agreement. And that goes to the point you’ve raised. I was conscious that the departure of a Cabinet Secretary particularly – although we were in a calmer period, but particularly in these circumstances, would undoubtedly be destabilising, and many of my colleagues urged me to stay on, fight through the next, you know, set of pressure and stick it out. I was also conscious, however, having had over a year of it, that it was also destabilising for the system to have constant hostile attacks on the Cabinet Secretary and also the office of the Cabinet Secretary, and that pre-dated Mr Johnson but it was particularly his government, but it had become particularly acute. Distortions, leaks, some cases just things that were simply untrue. There was a story put out that in his absence I had conspired with I don’t know who to postpone the implementation of Brexit. I mean, completely untrue. Completely untrue.

And so I was conscious that that was also destabilising for the civil service and this – First Division Association and others talked about that. In the end, there were – it was personally wearing as well. There only so much lightning any lightning conductor can take. But in the end I concluded that a fresh Cabinet Secretary appointed by that Prime Minister and his team, they’d have to stop that, those anonymous attacks, et cetera, would have to stop, and therefore I might be the opportunity for a fresh start. And so on balance I concluded, for both professional as well as personal reasons, that it was the right time to go.

Lead Inquiry: But those attacks were internecine, they were coming from your own side?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Helen MacNamara says in her statement, and perhaps we should give her the final word:

“It made those in the Civil Service in the centre less confident about challenging: no one was safe if the Cabinet Secretary was not, and dealing with the unravelling preoccupied a number of us for critical weeks.”

Mr Cummings says it was a bomb:

“From a government level it kind of kicked week after week after week of debilitating argument across the system.”

Putting aside the issue of whether or not he was entitled to express that view at all, would you agree with the sentiments of both those witnesses?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I would, but, as I said, there was the countervailing factor of what – the destabilising behaviour already, and that’s why I made the judgement I did that it was the right time to go.

Mr Keith: Thank you very much.

The Witness: Thanks, Mr Keith.

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: There are some questions from the core participants, but just before, at the risk of indulging in another seminar as we nearly did with Lord Lister yesterday.

In times of national emergency – I am afraid I think I probably speak on behalf of the average citizen – I just assumed that there would be structures in place that suddenly you would have a – whether it’s COBR for a national emergency, but there would be other structures beneath the main structure that would just slip into place. But I’m not getting the feeling that that’s what happened. You ended up with the ministerial implementation groups, and then they got replaced by the taskforce, Covid-O, Covid-S.

Should there be a system whereby there is in the Cabinet Manual, “In times of national emergency, this is what’s going to happen”, so that everybody knows where they’re going and what they’re going to be doing?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, I think there should. I think it’s important, my Lady, just to remember the scale of this crisis. This was the biggest crisis the country had faced since World War II, and government is reshaped by crises of that scale. It’s inevitable that it will be. And for the most part the crisis management machinery for – whether it’s for floods or terrorist attacks or foot and mouth et cetera works reasonably well, and there’s very big questions for governments about how much resource they’re prepared to devote to contingent capability, and we discussed –

Lady Hallett: Buying insurance?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yeah, exactly. But we discussed the type of capabilities that did not exist in health and social care, those are not trivial capabilities in which to invest, and of course in many cases those capabilities are still not there, if we were hit by another pandemic today for example. So those are big choices.

I do think, though, my Lady, there is – your point is a good one, that I think the Cabinet Manual should have more material on this, so that it’s more familiar to the whole of government, not just the crisis experts, if you like. And I think, for example, if we take the example of the MIGs, it’s obviously a matter for you, but if we were faced by another crisis of this scale, having a group looking at the issue itself, in this case health, having a group looking at public services and their impact and continuity of public services, having a group looking at the economy, having a group looking at the international, those would be sensible ways to organise ourselves, frankly, whatever we call them. And making sure the devolved administrations are properly engaged I think the same is true as well. Obviously one needs to make those things work effectively and we had to amend as we went, but I agree that this is something that government I hope has already learnt some lessons ahead of your own, my Lady, about this, and I hope some of that work is in hand.

Lady Hallett: But when you have those different committees, I mean, there is so much overlap. And having got used to having meetings involving, dare I say it, officials, I know that before any meeting takes place there’s probably an officials’ meeting and theres’s a probably pre-briefing meeting and a briefing meeting. And if you have all these different committees – so public services is one MIG, and then Health is another – well, isn’t Health a public service? I mean, they overlap in so many different ways, don’t they, and therefore involve duplication?

Lord Mark Sedwill: We drew up the terms of reference so that there were fairly clear boundaries between them, and in truth the move from the MIGs to Covid-O in particular, there was slightly less to that than has sometimes been apparent, in that the international one was wrapped back into the National Security Council, which hadn’t really met, and the economic one was wrapped into the government’s existing economic committee, Cabinet committee, which also hadn’t met. Regrettably that meant that the DAs were no longer directly involved in the same way, so in some ways it was a merger of the health and public services MIGs was really what happened with the creation of the Covid-O structure.

And I think there’s just a judgement about the phasing of this. I think going into the lockdown there was so much work to do across government. Because we didn’t have all the plans and programmes we needed – there were three dozen programmes, of which a minority were in health across the whole of government. If it had been a single ministerial committee trying to deal with all of that, they would have been in constant session. But you’re right, my Lady, it’s a judgement about how you divvy things up, when you put them together, and obviously trying to make sure that the culture is of collaboration and high trust and so on, so that the boundary issues – boundaries are interfaces, not barriers.

Lady Hallett: And when you divided – I think I might have said my final question, but anyway, my Inquiry, I’ll change the rules.

When you have different bodies doing different aspects, how do you make sure that the final decision-makers on obviously the most important, the key decisions, which is what Module 2 is all about, that they do have all the factors there that they can balance, so that you have the – obviously the SAGE advice, the economic advice, the socioeconomic advice, the health advice – how do you, as Cabinet Secretary ensure that your ultimate decision-maker, Prime Minister and Cabinet, or decision-makers, get all those balancing factors and that weight is paid to all of them?

Lord Mark Sedwill: The key to that, my Lady, is that it is Cabinet or at least a Cabinet committee at which the key departments involved are represented, so that – for example, the impact of any decision on the provision of benefits, it’s really important the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is in the room, at the table, and he or she will have been briefed by their department, not just on what they think about the main crisis but on what the impact would be for them and how they’re going to manage it. The same with the Treasury, obviously, and others.

So the departmental structure means that ministers should be coming both as members of the Cabinet but advocates for the sector or sectors for which they are responsible, and that all of that – all of that input is brought into a collective decision. That’s why collective decision-making is generally better than decisions being made by a small cohort right at the very centre.

Lady Hallett: You’ve pre-empted what will be my final comment, not question, which is: but that does depend on the collective decision-making taking place.

Lord Mark Sedwill: Indeed.

Lady Hallett: Right. Sorry to have pre-empted some of our questions.

Ms Mitchell, I think you’re going next.

Questions From Ms Mitchell KC

Ms Mitchell: Lord Sedwill, I appear as instructed by Aamer Anwar & Company for the Scottish Covid Bereaved.

I too wish to ask some questions about structures in place and making sure that the devolved administrations are properly engaged, which is what you’ve just reflected on.

You’ve identified in your evidence so far that you sought to build strong relationships between the devolved administrations, both institutional and personal, and you indicated that you had conversations, for example, with Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister.

What I would like to know is: was there then or is there now any formal structure or forum for you, as Cabinet Secretary, to liaise with the heads of the civil service of the devolved administrations?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Yes, they – there’s, at the governmental level, as you’ll be very familiar, the Joint Ministerial Committee that brings them all together. The permanent secretaries for the Scottish, Welsh governments and Northern Ireland were all part of the permanent – the wider permanent secretaries group. So it’s known as “Wednesday morning colleagues” for reasons that are obvious, it just meets on a Wednesday, and I would always include them in – they were always, as of right, included in those meetings. It wasn’t something I’d decided. I would also have sort of informal get-togethers with the permanent secretaries of the devolved administrations because there were particular – in smaller groups, just the three or four of us – because there were obviously particular issues of concern to them. So there was the overarching structure which almost replicated Cabinet plus DAs, and then informal meetings as well.

Ms Mitchell KC: Well, I think you’ve probably pre-empted my next question because my next question was about whether or not there were structures that you would like to have been in place during the first period, the most, I suppose, difficult and fast-moving period of Covid striking our shores.

I ask that in particular because we’re aware that the joint ministerial committees were not being used.

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, they weren’t, but the ministerial COBRs I think almost all, I think maybe even all, in that phase included devolved administration ministers, and the staff work behind that at official level will certainly have done so.

So I think in that phase the liaison with the devolved administrations recognising that we were trying to move in lockstep in many areas which were devolved but maintain co-ordination. I think that worked pretty well. And of course they had their own chief medical officers and other – and they would meet as a group as well.

So I think the connective tissue in that first phase was pretty strong, at official level, at Chief Medical Officer level. And, as I said, the COBRs were UK COBRs.

Ms Mitchell KC: Can I ask, did that happen by happenstance or was there formal decision taken to form it that way?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do it any other way. I don’t recall anyone challenging it, certainly at that stage, and had they done so I would have replied robustly that this was necessary.

Ms Mitchell KC: If I can move on to another topic now, and that’s in relation to communications between the devolved administrations and the UK Government.

If I could have up on the screen INQ000250229, and that’s paragraph 147, page 39.

What you say, in just that first paragraph, was:

“I was conscious that, notwithstanding their divergent political agenda and differing styles of governance, the Prime Minister and the [devolved administrations] First Ministers had reached the same conclusions about the timing and nature of the first lockdown, its socioeconomic mitigations, and its release.”

Now, also you gave evidence this morning where you were being asked about when the decision for lockdown had been taken, and you were asked when that had been and you responded by agreeing to a proposition that my learned friend had put to you and said:

“I presume that parallel processes were happening in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, there was a lot of communication between them …”

What I’m just wanting to check is: is it the communication between the devolved administrations themselves or communications between the devolved administrations and the UK Government?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Both.

Ms Mitchell KC: Right.

Lord Mark Sedwill: I would have imagined that they might be talking among the three about their – all of their relationships with the UK Government, just given the obvious disparity. But there were certainly extensive and I think almost constant communication between officials in supporting ministers going into those meetings. They each – when I said “parallel processes”, I think we were talking about the decisions the Prime Minister reached over some of those crucial –

Ms Mitchell KC: Indeed.

Lord Mark Sedwill: – days. What I meant by that was that I assumed that, for example, the First Minister in Scotland would be with her team saying, “Right, what do we need to do? What’s the situation in Scotland?”

London was further ahead than the rest of the country; she probably asked whether Scotland was a bit behind and did she have more time, I don’t know, but that’s the kind of thing I would have expected. And then it was brought together in the ministerial UK COBRs which made the formal decisions and where the heads of all of the administrations were able to liaise. But there would have been intensive official contact beforehand.

Ms Mitchell KC: Indeed, thank you.

Were you aware of any representations from the Scottish Government to introduce a mandatory lockdown prior to the date of lockdown, 23 March 2020?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, and nor indeed from anyone else.

Ms Mitchell: I’ve got no further questions, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Mitchell.

Mr Dayle, I think you’re going next.

Don’t worry about – Mr Dayle understands if you don’t face him. You’ll take your face away from the microphone if you turn around.

The Witness: Maybe I’ll turn for the question, my Lady, if that’s okay.

Questions From Mr Dayle

Mr Dayle: Thank you, my Lady.

Lord Sedwill, I ask questions on behalf of FEHMO, the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations. I have three short sets of questions.

As you may know, there were press reports of a disproportionate death rate for Covid within black, Asian and ethnic minority communities during the early stages of the pandemic. For example, The Guardian of April 10 reported that the first ten doctors to die were from BAME background.

So my first question is: how seriously was this issue taken at the Cabinet Office, if there was indeed awareness of this issue, during the months of March and April 2020?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Thank you. I think going into the first lockdown of course it was country and society wide, so in a sense there was no discussion about whether there would be different kinds of measures taken for different groups on ethnic or, indeed, other grounds. It was certainly a feature in considering the mitigations for the lockdown. So as we were developing programmes to deal with the consequences of lockdown for different groups we were certainly conscious of it. And, as you say, their – evidence did start to be made available quite early about differential impact.

It was quite challenging to understand whether that evidence was telling us something about the – about whether the virus had a purely ethnic differential impact, to do with ethnicity, or the degree to which that was overlain by social factors such as multigenerational households, denser living, and so on.

But certainly in mitigating the lockdown and in considering measures to come out we were conscious of those factors, and we were particularly conscious of the enforcement mechanisms. I recall in early April seeing some quite sobering data that suggested I think in London, for example – I – it was one of the ethnic minority communities, I can’t remember exactly which, had a much higher incidence of enforcement from the Metropolitan Police than the population as a whole, and that was clearly a concern, and of course not for the first time had one heard that kind of certain about the relations between police and certain communities. So we were conscious of all of these things.

Mr Dayle: Very well.

My second question, which I hope is not too much of a tutorial question, is: what were the mechanisms, formal and informal, for issues affecting certain population groups being raised with senior decision-makers?

Lord Mark Sedwill: In normal circumstances for a major policy decision there would have to be an equality impact assessment, and that is a standard process that involves consultation, interaction with community groups, academic research, et cetera, in order to make sure that a final decision by ministers on a policy matter properly understands and encompasses the potential impact on ethnic minorities but also other protected – other protected groups, whether for gender, sexuality or whatever it might be.

Going into the lockdown, of course, there was no time to be able to do any of that, and formal equality impact assessments are quite an involved process. So even as we were coming out it wouldn’t have been possible to do them on – in a timely way in the – what one might call the full fat version of an equality impact assessment. But I certainly would have expected the policy work, and I believe this was the case, to take account of those factors as choices were being put to ministers about, for example, that release of that first lockdown, which would have covered social, economic, ethnic and other factors, so that there was essentially an intelligent consideration of those.

Mr Dayle: Thank you.

My third and final question, which hopes for a clarification on a point of fact: how did the issue of disparate impacts on black, Asian and ethnic minority communities reach senior decision-makers, if it did?

Lord Mark Sedwill: It would be through the policy process. So one wouldn’t have a parallel process for this. I mean, of course there would be informal feedback. I mentioned to – in answer to one of Mr Keith’s questions earlier, I think, the role of Cabinet ministers as constituency MPs as well as ministers, and that’s a mechanism by which they can bring that perspective. But the policy process itself is designed to include those factors and therefore decisions coming to Cabinet or the Prime Minister or ministers should encompass all of those factors. That’s what a good policy process is designed to do.

Mr Dayle: Thank you, my Lady. Thank you –

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Dayle.

Mr Friedman is just there.

Questions From Mr Friedman KC

Mr Friedman: Good afternoon. I’m going to ask questions for four national disabled people’s organisations.

In July 2020, before leaving post, you gave a final valedictory lecture at Oxford University, and it’s exhibited at paragraph 150 of your statement, in which you endorsed the need to build back better, especially given Covid’s adverse effect on what you called the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

I can see you nodding, so you recall.

On that, we want to ask you, firstly, about consultation with groups from outside government and, secondly, about the way that government is internally organised when it comes to considering inequalities.

So first on outside consultation. There is a report from the Institute for Government that was in your evidence pack, and it’s titled Decision making in a crisis, First responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s up there, and can we go to page 50, please.

I want to look at the top paragraph first and the recommendation, as to “Bringing representatives of those affected by a decision into the room compensates for imperfect information”:

“It is inevitable in a crisis that decision making is centralised to some degree, as ministers want to act quickly and take control. But bringing non-government partners inside the tent helps compensate for the uncertainty created by imperfect information in a crisis, as well as building trust and creating allies to explain and defend [policies] … “

Then just down into the next paragraph, examples are then given as to those who would benefit from, in its words, being “brought into the tent”, and they’re things and organisations like business groups and unions, with regard to decisions.

That creates a benefit of knowing about ground intelligence and goodwill and trust.

So firstly, do you agree with that recommendation, and, as you said in your own final lecture in particular, that governments should work much more to, I’m going to use your words, co-design its policies with those affected by them.

Lord Mark Sedwill: The short answer is yes, and I think the IFG report sets it out very well.

We didn’t touch on it in detail in my earlier evidence but as we were planning the release from the first lockdown a major part of that was engagement – sorry I won’t look around from the microphone – was engagement with businesses and other representative groups to create the safer workplaces programme. That was one of that three dozen programmes I referred to.

And of course that should, as I said earlier, to the earlier question, in any good policy process involve engagement with other representative groups, including, of course, of different and, particularly in these circumstances, different groups of the most vulnerable in society. But co-design, absolutely, I believe better policy results from that.

Mr Friedman KC: And you have effectively pre-empted my second question, but just to make clear to my Lady, because, in a sense, the reference to business groups and unions might be described as old-style corporatist references. I mean, all policies presumably speak to business groups and unions. But I think – well, you’ve made a face, maybe they don’t enough. That’s another set of questions. But I think you’re making clear, are you not, that especially in what we are looking at in this Inquiry, it is now high time to develop those kind of enhanced approaches to the consultation and engagement with representatives from civil society, social groups such as disabled peoples and of course others that are represented in this Inquiry; do you agree with that?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Absolutely, and I would hope with modern technology it is easier perhaps to do that in a more dynamic way than perhaps would have been through traditional methods, but the fundamental point is one I agree with.

Mr Friedman KC: Can I then turn to internal government – I’m going to say again – structures, back to that, but a more particular question. The Inquiry is aware of how the machinery of government divides responsibilities for categories of inequality across a range of ministerial portfolios with no dedicated department of state. So, for instance, we are just about to hear from Mr Tomlinson, the previous Minister for Disabled People, who was located in a junior position in the Department of Work and Pensions with no direct leadership of the Cabinet Disability Unit, and other core participants who – for instance, that for children, race and ethnic minorities and violence against women and girls – can point to variants of the same problem.

In terms of building back better, would the future solution lie in the creation of an equality department with a secretary of state, or would you suggest some other structure and change of approach?

Lord Mark Sedwill: I think I would leave the decisions on departments of state for governments to take. It is – they reflect the priorities and the way that a Prime Minister wishes to organise government, the manifesto on which they’re elected, and I think I shouldn’t presume to second guess that, because that would be something that would be, as I say, subject to a manifesto and an election.

The reason for having ministers not necessarily co-located in a department with, for example, the units, and you mentioned the disabled unit, is because the responsibility moves between ministers regrettably too quickly, but that’s been a feature of our system recently, and what we didn’t want to do was move departmental units around. So there was a decision taken some years ago to essentially create some stability in the units responsible for these various issues whilst allowing prime ministers to appoint a minister for the disabled, a minister for women, a minister for other groups, and support them wherever they might be located.

Again, it’s a judgement call, one can make a case for doing it differently. There’s clearly a case, as you suggest, for a department of equality, but I’m afraid I will punt that one into the political level of decision-making because it must reflect the priorities of an incoming government.

Mr Friedman KC: Last question on that. If that’s your stance, and we understand why you would take that stance, is it fair to say that the nature of the system as it was in Covid did pose some challenges for holistic views, for instance to those who were socially vulnerable and the likes of the matters that we raised in the first set of questions?

Lord Mark Sedwill: Undoubtedly it posed challenges, but I think if you look at the material exhibited alongside my witness statement, I think every Cabinet discussion, for example, of Covid referenced the impact on vulnerable groups. And we weren’t just thinking about the medically vulnerable to Covid itself – actually the reason Simon Case, I brought Simon Case in – the first job I asked him to do when he came in from the royal household was to set up a programme of support for the group – groups we called essentially the “socially vulnerable”, in other words not those who are medically vulnerable to Covid but who were socially vulnerable to the impact of lockdown, and we wanted to make sure we had programmes in place to support them as well.

So I think it was – it ran through the work we were doing but of course it will be for my Lady to judge, I think maybe in the course of a later module, about its effectiveness, but certainly there was an attempt throughout, at least my period that first lockdown et cetera, to ensure we were considering and supporting the most vulnerable groups in society.

Mr Friedman KC: So just so we can be clear, though, your concerted work on that started with Simon Case coming in to partner on that?

Lord Mark Sedwill: No, that was – that was when he – he came in to essentially give some additional heft to a programme we had already begun. We set up, I think almost in parallel, programmes – we’ve discussed the shielding programme earlier, but programmes to support, provide necessities, et cetera, to the medically vulnerable, who needed a particularly stringent form of lockdown, quarantine, in effect quarantine, but we also recognised there were many people, people with complex needs, for whom lockdown generally would be challenging and we set up a separate programme for that. Simon took that on, but it pre-dated him.

Mr Friedman: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Friedman.

That completes the questions?

Mr Keith: It does.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Lord Sedwill. Thank you very much for staying as long as you have and for your patience, I hope we haven’t trespassed upon it too much.

The Witness: Thank you, my Lady.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Right, we need to break now. I shall return at 3.20.

(3.07 pm)

(A short break)

(3.20 pm)

Lady Hallett: Sorry to keep you waiting.

Mr Keating: My Lady, can we call Justin Tomlinson, please.

Mr Justin Tomlinson


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Lady Hallett: I undertake we will complete your evidence today, having kept you waiting.

Mr Keating: That’s a promise, a guarantee we will finish today.

Thank you so much for making yourself available today, thank you for your patience this morning and waiting, and thank you for your statement and assisting the Inquiry with its investigations.

Just a few things before we start. If we both can keep our voices up. Secondly, avoid overspeaking because there is a note being kept of your evidence. And pace, pace of answers, if we could try to monitor that pace and not speak too fast, I think it will assist the record, which is being kept.

The statement you see before us, and thank you for providing that. It’s dated 7 August 2023, with 67 exhibits, and you have had an opportunity to see that and you’ve signed that statement with a declaration that it’s true to the best of your knowledge belief; is that correct?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes, that’s right.

Counsel Inquiry: In relation to why you are here to assist the Inquiry, it’s regarding your role as Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, and you held that role between January 2020 and 16 September 2021, so the three lockdowns was during the period when you held that position.

To assist you, I want to outline how we’re going to deal with your oral evidence today, building upon your written evidence. Two parts. The first part is structural, dealing with your role as a minister of state, the Disability Unit, which we’ll discuss in a moment, and how that fits into governmental decision-making. It shouldn’t take us too much time. That’s the first part.

The second part I want to explore some key events with you, and we’ll deal with them in chronological order, and there is three broad themes I want you to consider, and then we will cover them as we go through that time period.

Firstly, visibility, was there sufficient visibility insight and data regarding the needs of disabled people during the pandemic.

Secondly, engagement. Was the engagement that was undertaken – and there was engagement which was undertaken – was that sufficient and did that fit into decision-making?

Lastly, delay. Were the needs of disabled people sufficiently and promptly considered during the pandemic?

So there are three areas I would like us to cover in part 2. I know your statement covers the other areas.

And the last promise today, you have had one already, is that at the end I’ll give you the opportunity to add anything you think which is significant to assist the Inquiry with its investigations, and we’ll deal with lessons learnt. Okay?

Briefly, your professional background we see at paragraph 5 of your statement. You became an MP in 2010, Member of Parliament. In 2015 you were appointed by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to serve as the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Disabled People. It’s at paragraph 6.

Then at paragraph 7 we know that you rejoined Government as a minister within the Department for Work and Pensions, first as an undersecretary and then later as a minister of state, a Minister for Disabled People, Health – in April 2019, and that’s the role we’re going to ask you about.

Before the pandemic took place. So against that background, part 1, structure.

So the role of minister, firstly the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, it’s within the Department for Work and Pensions. I think you were described – you may not have heard – as having junior position, a short time ago, but it was the second most senior ministerial position within the DWP; is that correct?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: That’s right. So the first time I served as the Minister for Disabled People, I was a parliamentary undersecretary. When I returned the second time the role had been upgraded to minister of state, so I was, in effect, number two in the Department of Work and Pensions.

Counsel Inquiry: And the Secretary of State, the most senior minister within that department, and at Cabinet level, was Thérèse Coffey at that stage?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the size of the group, disabled people, that interests you were seeking to represent is huge?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m just going to draw upon a document which is within your exhibits but 21% of people in Britain are disabled? That’s 14.1 million people. Of that, 8% are children, and 19% of the working age population and 44% of the pension age adults –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – category.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Just to be clear, that’s disabled or those with long-term health conditions, and it’s predominantly our bodies and minds can’t quite keep up with us with age, because what surprises a lot of people is the prevalence later in age rather than necessarily born with either of those.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes?

Lady Hallett: You said 21% in Britain, I don’t know how precise we have to be, by that do you mean England, Wales, Scotland or just England?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes, yes.

Mr Keating: It’s my terminology, I think we should say the United Kingdom. I was quoting –

Lady Hallett: So it is the United Kingdom, it includes Northern Ireland?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: There is variations, so there’s a greater prevalence in Wales and possibly Scotland, I can’t really remember, but certainly 21 – one in five was the stat that we would generally use.

Mr Keating: We may see, and we may touch upon that document in a moment, but on any basis, as you say, one in five, a substantial proportion of the population.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of your role as that minister, if we have a – if you could bring up paragraph 2(a), so go back to page 1, please, thank you very much. Thank you.

Your responsibilities as minister of state, it says:

“some specific disability policy and cross-government responsibility for disabled people.”

Can I focus on that just for a moment. When you say “some specific disability” responsibility, what do you mean – why the qualification?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So for example I was solely responsible for disability benefits. At that time that would amount to about £13.6 billion worth of government expenditure. That was predominantly through my DWP role.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: But in other areas I would make representations on behalf of disabled people to other responsible departments. So, for example, if I’d had a stakeholder meeting and they raised accessible train stations, then I would relay that to the Department for Transport, who are ultimately responsible for how accessible stations are or aren’t.

Counsel Inquiry: So to use your terminology in the statement, you, in effect, were the champion of disability rights within government?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: The second part of your role I want to touch upon is oversight of the DU, that’s the Disability Unit. We’ll touch upon that in a moment and perhaps we can – I can deal with that now. It’s at paragraph 9 of your statement and you describe the Disability Unit. And this is actually quite a relevant part structurally of how the interests of disabled people are represented within government. This was formed in November 2019 and:

“It brought together the Office for Disability Issues …”

In relation to the Office for Disability Issues, that was within DWP?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And that’s when you were in your ministerial post, and then that became the Disability Unit and migrated over into the Cabinet Office?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And at the beginning of the pandemic it was the Disability Unit and then by September 2020, if I understand your written evidence –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – it became part of the Equality Hub?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that a fair summary?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes, yes, it is.

Counsel Inquiry: And the Equality Hub, as an umbrella, covered Disability Unit –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – the Race Disparity Unit, and also the Government Equalities Office?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And there is, of course, a Minister for Equalities. And your role was to assist with that migration?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Perhaps you may have not heard but Lord Sedwill perhaps touch upon the rationale why the Disability Unit was brought into existence and brought into the Cabinet Office, and see if you agree with this, the rationale was to bring some stability to coverage of those interests, to counterbalance ministerial change or churn, not his word. That’s the context we’ve had. Perhaps you could tell me your understanding –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So my understanding and my recollection is Cabinet Office is the eyes and ears of the machinery of government, and whilst I was based in DWP, any stakeholder engagement would invariably bring up issues that were beyond DWP’s scope and responsibility, and it was more efficient, from a Cabinet Office angle, to then go and chase up the relevant departments to either flag the issue, seek resolution, et cetera. And so it was a move I was very supportive of. And then it sort of – being part of the Equality Hub also made sense because there was a lot of co-working, particularly around data and sharing that. So it made sense.

It was – it was a different building, so as a minister it was the inconvenience of being spread across two, but I absolutely understood the decision behind that and it was one I supported.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of your role, you had oversight –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – of the Disability Unit. Did you have direct responsibility for the Disability Unit?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes, though it did sit within – ultimately within the Equality Hub, which was the responsibility of a different secretary of state to my own, so I wouldn’t have done the operational day-to-day things, but I would have – certainly in any stakeholder engagement the Disability Unit would have been present and they would have taken the responsibility of chasing that up with the relevant departments, relevant ministers.

And I have to say they were an impressive unit who were very, very efficient at taking up any of the challenges and issues that were raised.

Counsel Inquiry: The last aspect of this part 1 of your evidence is, with two hats on, you are now outside government –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and with lessons learned or how we can improve things going forward, with that mindset, was there, do you think, at the time, or looking back, a drawback that you were a minister, not a minister of state, in the DWP and not a minister within the Cabinet Office?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: And I think that’s fair to dig into because I’ve looked at many of the submissions that have come in and this has been raised, and it’s a difficult – I can’t give a definitive answer because there is advantages and disadvantages.

Disability benefits is £13.6 billion at the time of Covid, it’s greater now, 2.1 million people, and so for many people with disabilities and long-term health conditions that would be the absolute priority for a minister, because if financial stability wasn’t in place the consequences could be catastrophic.

But counter to that, Cabinet Office is better placed for cross-government work, because it is the eyes and engines. So I can’t give a definitive answer because there is advantages and disadvantages to both. Both can work, but, having stepped out, I think probably a disability minister probably would be better placed in Cabinet Office, and I think the disability benefits can run – be run still from DWP as part of the wider benefits, but there would be some downside to that because there would be less focus.

Counsel Inquiry: So what we would have in this alternative structure would be a minister for equalities?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Which ideally would be somebody who was a secretary of state, so at Cabinet Office level, and then underneath that the minister for disabilities, and then with liaison between the minister of disabilities and the DWP to ensure the important financial support remains?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Last point in terms of your involvement during the Covid response, as a minister of state but not a Cabinet – a secretary of state, it’s right, isn’t it, that you – on the whole, there is some exceptions which we will turn to, you did not attend COBR or Cabinet or the ministerial implementation groups or the Covid-O groups, as – overall that was the position?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, that’s right.

Counsel Inquiry: There is exceptions, which we’ll turn to.

In terms of the interests of disabled people, how were they represented and raised at COBR –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – at the relative MIG –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – or Covid-O?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So there are a number of strands. So, first of all, my Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, was exceptionally hard working, took her role very seriously, so she was keen to attend COBR as the senior member of the department. She would have daily meetings, so all ministers within DWP could flag issues. She was very receptive to issues being raised, which she would then take up if they needed to be. There were occasions where I attended where there were specific disability-related issues.

And then the way that government works is the civil servants take those issues up, try to get them resolved, and generally either if they have been resolved they were flagged back to ministers, so we knew for future stakeholder engagement, or if there were issues they would be brought back to ministers who could then either escalate them to other ministers who were responsible, and that would generally work.

And again, I have to pay tribute that the civil servants – and I know there has been a lot of scrutiny around this – the civil servants always served me well in all the roles. Whether it was the Disability Unit or DWP, things were taken very seriously.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Well, let’s move on to part 2, and we can touch upon the application of that in a little bit more detail.

The first heading is around the time of lockdown or the lead-up to lockdown in March 2020, and you set out in your statement, we don’t need to turn to it, that you were not directly involved in the UK Government’s initial strategy in the period from January to March 2020, including the decision to use lockdown. That’s correct, isn’t it?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And we’ve heard already evidence regarding the shielding programme which was set up at pace, and that was not something that you or the Disability Unit was involved in or had input in relation to?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Not that I recall, no.

Counsel Inquiry: No.

In the narrative I’d like to pick up and turn to a document, INQ000187670.

This is a statement issued – a joint statement by you and other ministers on 31 March 2020.

Perhaps if we could turn to page 2, please. And again, turn over. Lovely, thank you.

That may be a rogue reference, so we can take that off the screen.

But it’s touched upon in your statement at paragraph 71, in a joint statement, late March 2020, and in that it starts off with the following text, that the government:

“… hugely values disabled people and is committed to ensuring that disabled people are supported during this challenging and worrying time.”

It may chime with your recollection, and you have had a chance to see these documents beforehand:

“We will do everything in our power to ensure the needs of disabled people are addressed.”

It’s with that – words of reassurance, it reflects upon the legislation which had just been implemented which had removed – and we’re not going to go into the pros or cons today, but had removed certain safeguards in relation to disabled people. Do you recall that?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: In what respect?

Counsel Inquiry: Well, in relation to the Coronavirus Act, there was certain provisions which had been lessened, safeguards which had been lessened because of the public emergency we were about to go – experience.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, but – and I’m conscious we’re not debating merits and demerits of things, but it was all about balance of limited resources in terms of workforce and making sure you prioritise the most vulnerable in society, because this was around social care if –

Counsel Inquiry: That’s correct, that’s exactly, yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Not in my realm, but that was my recollection of that.

Counsel Inquiry: It was a joint statement with you and the permanent Undersecretary of State for children and families, but the reassurance, which was the core message of this public statement, was that you were going to take decisive action to save as many lives as possible?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And also ensure the highest levels of support for disabled people –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – their carers and their families –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – during this challenging time?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: So that’s the context we have.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: So that was the statement of intent.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: If we can move on now, around that time, the Equality Hub and the Disability Unit were reacting to events as they emerged, and isn’t it right around that time a decision was made to move – redeploy 51 members from the Disability Unit to assist with the overall response to the pandemic?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, I mean, right across all of the areas I was responsible for.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: If you – disability benefits, the vast majority of our frontline staff were from a medical background, so they were in huge numbers seconded to support the NHS, the vaccine roll-out, bearing in mind the benefits – the disability benefits system was predicated on frontline physical assessments –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – so that presented immediate challenges. But actually within the Equality Hub a relatively small number compared to other areas of the Disability Unit were seconded and it certainly from my recollection didn’t impact on our ability to carry out engagement and stakeholder work. What it will have done is perhaps some of the longer-term work – beyond Covid, once we returned to normality – will have had to have been paused, but certainly for the immediate challenges of Covid I didn’t feel the Disability Unit were not in a position to serve out what they were –

Counsel Inquiry: That wasn’t in your experience –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – wasn’t an issue.

Counsel Inquiry: In fairness to you and the evidence we have elsewhere, there was a redeployment of staff initially, but then –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, came back.

Counsel Inquiry: – the Disability Unit were re-categorised as essential staff?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, and certainly the cohort of staff who would join me to support in stakeholder engagement, they were certainly kept.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

I’m going to move on now to 21 May 2020, and this is a paper which was prepared for the general public sector ministerial implementation group, the MIG.

It’s at INQ000083584, please. This one works, which is helpful.

This was entitled “The impact of COVID-19 on disabled people.”

If we could turn to page 3, please, so this is the documentation which was before the committee and there to assist you, and we see there that at page 3 “Findings”, top left:

“Further data on the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people will be key in guiding our response, eg health and employment.”

In terms – if we could scroll out, please, if that’s okay – one of the actions is to start to build the data picture that measures are impacting disabled people –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – disproportionately. So we see reference there, is that there is a need for greater data.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Lady Hallett: What’s the date of this?

Mr Keating: This is May 2020, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Keating: We see the far right is:

“DHSC is exploring existing datasets to gain greater insights into, eg, health impacts and deaths, and extending the scope of a PHE review into the risk of an outcomes of COVID-19 to cover disabled people.”

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Which we’ll touch upon in a moment.

At page 5 of this document, please, “Findings”:

“Accessible communications is vital …”

Something which is a feature of your statement, you recognise.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: A need for impact assessments, and to get further insight from lived experiences.

We see here, because engagement is another theme which we have in our evidence today, and something within your statement, feedback from stakeholders, some disability groups have expressed concern about particular cohorts not being helped through the shielding programme and that members are disadvantaged because the supermarkets are offering prioritised delivery slots for shielding individuals.

That’s the feedback, and we see the action there.

We’ve got the questions in relation to that, because I know you touch upon how you were one of the individuals which, in your role, liaised with DEFRA to help this.

Was there an issue around that time that those who were classified clinically extremely vulnerable, it omitted a significant amount of people who were also disabled and had significant vulnerabilities as well?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Is this in relation specifically to – just in general?

Counsel Inquiry: In general but also that was a difficulty, was it not, in relation to shielding, how there was support for those who were shielding –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – but also there was others who were not within the category of shielding –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and had been originally –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So there was an absolute understanding across government that those with underlying health conditions and disabilities were the most likely to be impacted by Covid in – from a health perspective, the wider impacts of the changes in terms of lockdowns, et cetera, so across government were supportive of that principle. We were reminding people that the better quality data the more accurate they can be. And as stakeholder engagement flagged issues, generally departments were very receptive to then take that up and then adjust. At no point were things like the list, the prioritisation list, ever set in stone and will never be moved, they were always evolving. I certainly recall when we first saw sight of the vaccination priority list the DHSC were very keen to take areas that may have been missed from their initial assumptions, and work with the stakeholder groups that we had already met with, and we could then signpost to the relevant people.

In fact, in that case, Minister Zahawi actually met with the Disability Charities Consortium and they were the – predominantly the leading health and disability charities, with many millions reach of members –

Counsel Inquiry: Well, that may be an opportunity to deal with the topic of engagement.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You mention in your statement that this was, in your view, an important part of your role –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and that the Disability Unit worked within government –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and with disabled people and organisations and charities, to use your words, to gain insight and encourage engagement with the government, and you set out four categories of stakeholders, which I’m going to summarise and then give you the opportunity –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, can I just add one quick thing there?

Counsel Inquiry: Of course.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: The Disability Unit would flag three things. One, issues that had been raised through their meetings, stakeholder engagement including with myself. Secondly where they offered solutions themselves and could therefore help speed up the response. An example I set out in my written statement was the DEFRA’s access to work – sorry, access to food –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – for which a number of the Disability Charities Consortium actually joined the taskforce, and they were able to utilise what they were getting on their telephone and online forums from their members and give that valuable insight that sped up the ability for them to come up with a response. And thirdly, to test out things because of their extra knowledge. And – and sorry, and finally, to then utilise their communications because not everybody was tuning in at the 6 o’clock daily news briefings, and many of these organisations had reach to groups of people who otherwise wouldn’t have been getting the government messages. And they were seen as trusted sources.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I’m going to take this even more shortly in relation to engagement because it’s set out in your statement the four different categories and organisations which you and the Disability Unit engaged with during that period of time.

In terms of the evaluation of that, first of all, did you, in your view, find that that level of engagement to be beneficial and feed through in the decision-making?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Hugely. Every minister is different about how they conduct themselves. I’ve always enjoyed stakeholder engagement, I’ve found it makes for better policy development, it provides you with insight that even the most academic policymakers, unless they’ve got that lived experience, would not necessarily appreciate. They road test things. There is nothing worse for a minister than spending 18 months developing what ultimately becomes legislation for somebody to then point out something that should have been noticed at the beginning and therefore you have wasted 18 months. And in the case as I gave with the access to food taskforce, it speeds up the process, because they bring that extra level of expertise.

Now, not all stakeholders agree, and stakeholders are critical, and ultimately as the minister you have to make a judgement, that’s why you’re in that role, and not all stakeholders will agree with that, but I think it made for a better – makes for better policy development. And it’s something that I passionately wanted to see not just for myself as a minister, but to be embedded as a given across government.

And again, you look at all of the instances where I’m on cross-government things, I’m always pushing for better data, because you – more accurate decisions, pushing for that engagement. Because why would you not want to have that insight, that level of challenge, that level of ideas? So it’s something that I was very passionate about. And separately that then links through to the theme of the National Disability Strategy.

Counsel Inquiry: We will loop back towards – at the end.

So in relation – obviously a passion and a value placed on engagement and wish for that to be successful.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Looking back now, do you consider that there was any deficiencies or areas for improvement with that engagement in terms of including other people or was it more reactive than proactive?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: There are always challenges. There is – as a minister, there is one of you, and I genuinely think you would be hard pressed to find a minister who probably did more stakeholder meetings. But there are thousands and thousands of disability charities, organisations, individuals, welfare advisers – and also staff on the frontline, they often have very valuable insight to be shared. I can’t, as an individual minister, be everywhere all of the time, because you also have your parliamentary business, and so we were always trying to evolve how we could meet with a diverse range.

When I first became a minister, it’s fair to say – this isn’t my first time as a junior minister – predominantly London-based organisations would get the lion’s share because they could logistically come in to Westminster. And so that was the thinking behind the regional stakeholder network that we set up, because that gave an opportunity for organisations in all corners of the United Kingdom, particularly through Teams and Zoom meetings, to be able to then feed in, and you wanted to just try to get a very, very good mix.

There are never enough hours in the day to meet everybody, and some stakeholders are better than others at utilising the time that they have, and where we could see particularly good insight, particularly good suggestions, we then, through the Disability Unit, would then flag that up to the ministers and say, “These are people who can help you be better departments, better design policy, and policy that will stand the test of time”.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

So we were on 20 May, 21 May at this meeting and we have looked at documents. I’m not going to invite you to turn to the minutes of the meeting but I can summarise the minutes of that meeting once we’ve seen the supporting documentation. And one of the minutes was that all departments support you, the Minister for Disabled People and the Disability Unit, to ensure that their communications are fully accessible?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And secondly, all departments to consider data gaps and the impacts of Covid-19 on disabled people.

So the need for more data recognised from that.

I’d like us to move on now in the timeline, please, to the summer of 2020, and in relation to the Office of National Statistics, ONS, you refer to the work they were doing –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – in your statements – we don’t need to turn to that – but you were not directly involved with the Disability Unit’s engagement with ONS during the summer?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: No, that’s operational.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to ask you a little bit more about how sighted you were on that work at that time. It may be operational but obviously you need to know the data and how that may impact policy.

How sighted were you as to data from ONS and how it impacted on disabled people?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So that would have been part of the – so I would regularly meet with my officials, whether that’s within DWP or the Disability Unit, and things were discussed. It was a given, not just for myself but everybody across government, that those with disabilities or long-term health conditions or any health – underlying health conditions would be at greater risk of the impacts of Covid.

Whilst the data – we were seeking better quality data to evidence base that, that was the working assumption across government. I do not recall a single meeting where somebody pushed back and said, “I think you’re asking too much because of that”. That was a presumption that was a given. It is always helpful to have more data as quickly as possible, that’s what the ONS do, and we supported calls – and we reminded government colleagues to use that as evidence based. Particularly when you are lobbying Treasury for extra money, lesson number 1 is: have evidence to support your bid.

Counsel Inquiry: So we have the meeting in May, the need for greater data, something as a working assumption you were mindful of the –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – adverse impacts the pandemic would have on disabled people, and we know that on 19 June ONS released data which, in broad terms, was an indicator of greater incidence of death in both male and female disability groups?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And it says, set out in very short term, that the causes are still being identified?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: So there was a degree of uncertainty –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – at that stage?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s move on in the timeline now, please, to 24 September 2020 and there is a Covid-O meeting. And in relation to that we could perhaps turn to one of the papers which has been prepared that’s INQ000090046, I think it’s right in front of us, thank you, and this is a paper in relation to disproportionately impacted groups that was presented at this Covid-O meeting.

And we see the first part and I anticipate we will see this again, so I’m going to deal with that material shortly but not wishing to minimise its importance, it sets out the significant impact on BAME groups –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – in relation to Covid, and includes older people and disabled people there?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And it talks about that these are communities at increased risk?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And next it refers to:

“Urgent action is needed to prevent the same issues being replicated that we are facing a second wave in infections.”

And that bold is not by us, that was within the document itself.

So clearly –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – urgent, pressing and the need for more information.

It says at number 2, please – thank you – on the same page:

“The recommendations in this paper would augment …”

Actually it’s page 2, not paragraph 2, thank you so much, if you could turn overleaf:

“The recommendations in this paper would augment and complement the work led by the Minister for Equalities in relation to COVID-19 disparities for BAME groups (commissioned following the [PHE] report published in early June), and address issues outside the remit of that work.”

You will recall the PHE report that – there was reference to that in a document we saw back in May. I want to ask you this: we know that Ms Badenoch was doing work in relation to the impact –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – in terms of ethnic minorities –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and that that was prompted by a PHE report in June, and we have heard evidence that was updated in August 2020.

Was it the case that, as identified here, that disabled people generally, which of course would include some –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – those who are within ethnic minority groups, but was it the case that disabled people were outside that work which had been done by the Minister for Equalities at that stage?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: No, I mean, this was predominantly looking around the lower take-up of vaccinations within certain cohorts of society –

Counsel Inquiry: Just pausing there, because I don’t want you to go on a –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – for us to be at cross-purposes. This is September 2020. Are we – we’re not really in vaccine territory.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: No, in terms of the messaging getting out – my apologies, yeah. And so this ultimately led on to identifying that the initial 6 o’clock briefings were not necessarily reaching as effectively certain cohorts of society, and this would then ultimately look at more bespoke ways, through community leaders, different ways of communicating.

And from a disability-specific perspective it was an opportunity for me to remind colleagues that – particularly through the DCC, the Disability Charities Consortium – their reach to their membership was many millions, and actually we should be utilising, across government, that reach to get specific messages to different groups.

Counsel Inquiry: Was it the case that the workstream for disabled people and finding out more information, more data, was in fact falling behind the work which was ongoing in relation to the adverse impacts on ethnic minority groups?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So my recollection is that it was the other way round, because that was already embedded into the thinking of DHSC. As I said, I don’t recall ever having a meeting where people pushed back on the assumption that those with underlying health conditions or disabilities were at greater risk of the impact of Covid.

Counsel Inquiry: This is where we have your working assumption which –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: When I say “we”, the government, society –

Counsel Inquiry: Of course.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: That was never in question as far as I’m aware.

Counsel Inquiry: Just to finish the question, the working assumption you referred to, but was it the case that there was a lack of further data to assist policymakers address the needs of disabled people at that stage, in September 2020?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: I don’t recall a specific in that.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s hard. Let’s work through the documents.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: I absolutely accept the point that you will always want the very best possible data. Data takes time to collect, so I’m not saying we had magical all-encompassing data at our disposal. But the fact we didn’t, didn’t in my mind lower the urgency that society and government, cross-government, understood around the areas of disability and health conditions.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve got four more date points we’re going to touch upon, I’m going to do those briefly, but if we go to the minutes of this meeting, which is INQ000090183, this is a – we see, I understand, I think you were – you are – you are present at that meeting. We can see your name there, Mr Tomlinson, on page 1.

And the stark toll of Covid was highlighted at that meeting.

If we turn to page 5, please.

We can see that at the second paragraph there is a reference to – you use the phraseology here:

“A BAME person was still more likely to die from coronavirus …”

It sets that out there.

Then if we come back out, please, just scroll out, thank you, further down, the third paragraph, it says this:

“… 60% of those who had died from coronavirus identified as disabled and, even once accounting for other risk factors, disabled people were 1.6 times more likely to die from coronavirus. Individuals were 70 times more likely to die if over the age of 80, compared to those under the age of 40 … men were twice as likely to die from coronavirus compared to women.”

So breathtaking numbers but how disabled people, that large cohort, was being disproportionately impacted by coronavirus.

And that’s something that you were aware of and it was influencing your work –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, because – I don’t profess to be a medical expert but if you have an underlying health condition you are more likely to suffer the impacts of Covid, and that’s seen with age, and the prevalence of disability and health conditions increases with age.

Counsel Inquiry: If we turn to 12 November 2020, and this is where there was more work being done ahead of the next Covid-O discussion on this topic.

And if we could turn to INQ000083918, please, it sets out the context of the meeting on 27 November.

The recommendations we see:

“Data commission to understand factors driving increased mortality risk …”

Engagement is touched upon, a national centre for digital access to assist making things more accessible as well.

If we turn to page 2, please, we see in the box:

“Available data and analysis on the question of disproportionate impacts of covid on disabled people has significant gaps … ONS data on social impact of covid is broken down by impairment, their current mortality data does not tell us what types of disabilities (impairments) are associated with an increased risk of death from COVID-19.”

And it says at the bottom of that paragraph:

“We are currently not clear what is driving the increased risk.”

And it says this, is that:

“These gaps mean:

“- we have insufficient information to inform COVID-19 policymaking for people with disabilities.”


“… if this is not addressed at pace, HMG faces a wider reputation risk of being too slow to act in spite of several credible reports of significant differential impacts.”

We can see that being the third bottom bullet point.

So in this paper, real concerns being expressed within government regarding these significant gaps and talking about reputational harm, but of course, as you would say, the interests of disabled people are paramount.

What was the concern at that stage and what was being done by government in relation to trying to get more data to address this?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So everybody accepted that better quality data allowed better quality targeting. Now, whether that is the prioritisation of services, access to vaccinations, from a DWP perspective at the very beginning, to make sure that financial stability was in place, there was an extra £500 million injected into the welfare system. With improved data were all the right people being targeted? Would you have chosen smaller cohorts but offered them more of that money?

And that’s what was underlying that.

The balance of that is, in the absence of absolute accurate data, there was a working assumption that those with underlying health conditions and disabilities absolutely would need that. And as time went on and data caught up, that provided more evidence to give more targeted support going forward.

Counsel Inquiry: The big question is: were you, was the government fast enough in commissioning that data and seeking out that data for disabled people? Or were they being forgotten or their interests not as progressed as other groups?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So, as I – as it’s not me who commissions the data – I can’t give you an absolute answer, but what I can say, in the absence of where absolute accurate perfect gold-plated data existed, it did not hold me back as a minister pushing for our share of additional support, additional prioritisation, because there was that working assumption.

And I’ve repeated this several times because I’ve also been a minister when it hasn’t been Covid, and I’ve gone with what I think are perfectly robust and very good, positive, tangible asks to government, Treasury, and have been turned away because I don’t have the evidence to back up my assumption.

In terms of asking for things, there was a very big difference between during the challenges of Covid for our asks and outside of Covid.

Counsel Inquiry: This is in the lead-up to a meeting on 8 December 2020, a Covid-O meeting, and you were present at that, and I’m going to summarise it. We don’t need to turn to the document, but it mirrors what we’ve seen: concerns regarding data and mortality, for understandable reasons, one could see in relation to that, and it touches upon also the indirect impacts of Covid as well, in terms of financial and mental health, which was seen as another impact on disabled people.

And does that accord with your understanding and your engagement that those were the indirect impacts as well?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes, absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the recommendations, and as we – at this stage in our timeline we’ve left lockdown 2, we are accelerating towards Christmas –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and we have lockdown 3, as we now know, on the horizon.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: The recommendation at Covid-O is more data –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – more testing and to help disabled people’s access to use digital technology, a concern that a number – a significant amount of disabled people were isolated and needed to be included.

In relation to that, that may be an opportunity to very briefly deal with communications.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: A lot it in your statement regarding accessible, and you say this, that the Equality Hub and the Disability Unit worked to support Cabinet Office communications to use – your phraseology – stakeholder knowledge to improve government communications. And you give an example about the British Sign Language, BSL, interpreter for press conferences. And in your statement, at paragraph 67(a), you recall that the product of this engagement was it was flagged to you that the British Government – I think probably it would be the UK Government, I’m citing your statement –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – daily press conferences did not have the benefit of the BSL interpreter, whereas the Scottish press conference did.

What did you do when that was raised with you?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: This was hugely frustrating. So I’ve highlighted many areas where the cross-government flagging of issues, quick resolutions, positive outcomes, this was on the other end of the spectrum. This was – right from the beginning of the stakeholder engagement this was one of the first issues that was flagged. It was flagged repeatedly not just by organisations like RNIB, though they would understandably – it was a key issue there, but the wider stakeholder, it was very topical, it was in the national news, in Parliamentary questions, in debates, this was being issued. And for me sometimes when you’re given an ask you know they’re going to be difficult, they come with a big financial cost, they’re complex cross-government – this was one of those which was an easy fix and it took far too long and I to this day still do not understand why we couldn’t have resolved that much quicker. It was done in the devolved –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – areas. And also eventually Lord Bethell sent a reply, I believe it was to RNIB, I believe –

Counsel Inquiry: There was correspondence –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – and he in effect said for social distancing reasons, but – I get that, but it could have been done in another room and then being done – which it was ultimately done for the online and the feeds that were provided to other news channels.

It was one of those – it could and should have been better, no doubt about it.

And for me, hugely frustrating, because in that stakeholder engagement you’ve got limited time and it was one we didn’t need to have to keep going over because it should have been just fixed as a given absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: So drawing it together, the starting point, there wasn’t a BSL signer at the outset at the press conferences, which were a very important mode of communication?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: After it was raised with you –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – it wasn’t raised within government, it was raised by you that there wasn’t a BSL –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – interpreter, the solution was a sort of hybrid where –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – a BSL interpreter was on BBC News –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – rather than on the main –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – BBC channel –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – at 6 o’clock, for example?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah. Should have been quicker and should have been an easy fix.

Counsel Inquiry: And the frustration which was conveyed to you was it felt that the needs of disabled people were not considered or were an afterthought; was that something that was conveyed to you?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: On that specific area?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: It was a frustration and I – believe me, I shared it.

Counsel Inquiry: Second point, and last point in relation to communications, you had engagement with the Royal National Institute of Blind People –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – in relation to problems as to accessibility of shielding letters –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – and information, and they raised that with you and government in April 2020. That resulted in revised guidance, and it says that it led to some improvements, I think a qualified recognition that there was an improvement. Does that –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, and they were fantastic. Government, at times, some of the communication that went out wasn’t fully accessible, and organisations like RNIB and many of the others, predominantly in the Disability Charities Consortium, have fantastic policy teams, expertise, because day-to-day they’re communicating with their own members in a format that is accessible to their members. And it was doubly frustrating because I would raise this at meetings and say, “Please make sure your accessible communic – your communications are accessible”. Nobody ever said, “No, minister, we want to deliberately make them unaccessible”. Nobody got up in a morning to deliberately to do that. But they don’t necessarily have either the expertise, and they were working at speed. And so we pushed, first of all to raise awareness, we offered the stakeholders as experts, let them check it over before it goes out, look at their guidelines, and, ultimately we managed to get a senior person inside the Cabinet Office to own this as an issue, who was well regarded by the wider stakeholders, she’d been chief executive of – a member of the Disability Charity Consortium, and that formed the rapid accessibility contact team. Because, again, there’s a balance between the urgency to get information out, and you don’t want a six-week lead time to check it, the exact font size and things like that. But I wanted to make sure that that would be a given, not just during Covid, but forever more, because to me it is an area that should be a given and, again, not as much as the BSL but it was up there in frustrations of relatively easy things to fix that we could and should have done better.

Counsel Inquiry: Two more areas I’d like your assistance upon. We’re going to be about five minutes, and then there is going to be questions from core participants to you.

We were, in this second part, dealing with the timeline, working through the need for data, we have gone through from May to summer, to September, November, December, and we have the publication of the cross-government Covid-19 disability measures which takes place on 28 January 2021. It’s touched upon in your statement at paragraph 61, but perhaps we could turn to the document itself. It’s INQ000083896.

This is a document which is there which references to publishing a package of cross-government measures. So INQ000083896. Thank you. So it’s addressed to you, we see the dates, which I’ve read already, and it wants a decision by 3 February:

“… which would allow us [you] to publish in advance of the next updated estimates of Covid-19 related deaths by disability status on 11 February.”

That’s referring to the ONS data which took place in February 2020.

If we just scroll down a little bit more and we can see paragraph 2, and this is a good way to convey the concerns expressed externally but recognised internally within the note from your department to you.

“There was growing stakeholder driven narrative that disabled people are being forgotten and left behind throughout the pandemic.”

It cites a letter to a number of ministers from SCOPE, a national organisation, in January 2020, how their work shows that “disabled people have routinely told us they have felt forgotten during the pandemic”, and it talks about and refers to how a significant amount of disabled people have died of Covid.

If we scroll out a bit, please. Thank you. What it says later on in that document is this feeds into media criticism such as the “We won’t be forgotten” campaign, which states one in four disabled people feel forgotten by the government, and Census, another national organisation, “Forgotten Families” campaign, which highlights the difficulties for families with children with complex needs.

Talking a lot here and just trying to draw out the recognition within the party – within the government of the concerns regarding this, and if we move on, please, to paragraph 11, further down in that document, please, and in suggesting that – the recommendations, it recognises the current media and stakeholder landscape on disability, and there has been a strong narrative from stakeholders echoed by the media that people feel left behind.

If we could turn overleaf, please, and it says there that there’s concern about this is too little too late. We can see in the third line:

“If ministers do decide to announce, there may be some criticism in some quarters for doing too little too late.”

In relation to that suggestion in the paper, were you mindful that there was concerns externally, from national disability organisations and from other stakeholder engagements, that disabled people felt left behind and what was done – and what was done was too little too late?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So in part, through the regular stakeholder engagement, issues were flagged, some were relatively straightforward to resolve, some shaped responses, both during Covid and beyond Covid, and there were outstanding issues, and there it highlights the impact of that slowness to have the BSL interpreters as a given as part of the daily conference, and the impact of that was greater than just the people that it was directly impacting on, and it was useful at all cross-government meetings for me to then remind ministers – that wouldn’t necessarily deal with disability issues on a day-to-day basis – that there were cohorts of the people that they would be impacting, and that there was a resource predominantly from that Disability Charities Consortium, SCOPE being highlighted, fantastic policy team, fully engaged chief executive. I met with them time and time again at different levels, so did our policy teams, and we were advocating their use. So if you were the Children’s Minister, that they could bring that extra level of expertise beyond your own department’s policy team, who wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the knock-on impacts of wider decisions that were taken, and finally to utilise their comms network of their own so that they could present changes, particularly where there’s additional support, particularly where there’s opportunities to be prioritised, et cetera, through their network to make sure those messages reached. Because it is clear in a 6 o’clock briefing you can’t fit everything in, and utilising those individual organisations to get very bespoke messages would then help to turn that dial on the underlying point that some people felt that they had been forgotten.

Counsel Inquiry: The final data point is we know in February 2021 the ONS data was announced, and we’ll touch upon it in a moment, but significant higher rate of mortality for disabled people. It really goes back to the final point on this is: were you satisfied – looking back now, and recognising the best efforts you and your colleagues in civil service were trying to do, was there sufficient visibility and insight about the impact of Covid on disabled people during the pandemic, in your view?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: In most areas. My role – the main – if you speak to the majority of disability stakeholders, the focus is invariably around disability benefits, at the time £13.6 billion, the logistical challenges to keep that system open, and we did that through automatic extension. So anybody who was at risk of coming off the benefit were automatically extended, providing financial stability, leaving our very finite resources to focus on new claimants, so nobody was left out, and claimants whose health condition had deteriorated so would be entitled to a higher level of financial support. And bearing in mind that this was a system predicated on physical assessments where people had to travel to a physical –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – assessment to bring forward initially telephone assessments and then video assessments, and that was – the stakeholder network were absolutely fantastic in giving me fast information about whether that was working, whether we were missing people, whether there were issues, and then ultimately they then wanted it to become a permanent feature, which it did, beyond Covid. And those areas, had they gone wrong, would have been absolutely catastrophic; the same as if Universal Credit had tripped over. These were systems that took a significant chunk of our focus because of the implications were unthinkable –

Counsel Inquiry: Just pausing there.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yep.

Counsel Inquiry: I need to break it up and give our stenographer a brief rest.

So in terms of your answer, you said in most places –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – there was visibility, and you –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – emphasised the importance of financial support.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And that was one of the indirect impacts –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – which was identified at a Covid-O meeting?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Visibility in most parts; where did you – looking back now, with a view to lessons learned, where was there a lack of visibility?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So the two areas around accessible communications, because for many departments a focus on disability would be a relatively small part of their bigger packages, which was why we then pushed so hard that they utilised particularly the Disability Charities Consortium, their policy teams, their research, their live updates, feedback from their members, to make sure there weren’t groups missed, things weren’t designed well, and to make sure that communications were accessible. Because, as I said, that – that was personally frustrating because, if I’m doing questions in the House, if I’m appearing at select committees, stakeholder meetings, you don’t want to have to deal with things that should just be a given. You don’t want to do it.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to follow through on my promise to give you the final opportunity to add, to assist her Ladyship in terms of lessons learned. Do you consider that there is a matter, additional matter, you want to mention which you consider is an area for recommendations or where the Inquiry can learn lessons?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Despite all of the challenges, there were benefits that came out in terms of, particularly around engagement, that ability for us to set up a regional stakeholder network, to get voices that weren’t just London’s – nothing against people from London, but perhaps issues that are faced in the northeast or Wales can sometimes be different – does genuinely make for better insight, speed up policy development, improve policy, and it was a message that I want government – of which I’m no longer a minister – I want the new versions of me to take as a given, to see it as an opportunity to be better ministers, to be a better government and produce better policies. And we saw that with the National Disability Strategy, we saw that with the health and disability green paper that was running alongside throughout Covid – and in the stakeholder meetings we would invariably cover all three topics – and also to never be precious about the agendas. It was very much, if I met with a stakeholder group it was for them to choose how they wanted to use that time, and many of the stakeholder groups would clearly put a lot of thought in and utilised that team very well, particularly around their offers, offers of, “We have an expertise in that area, disability employment for example, we can help you co-design something that will be much better”, and ministers need to be receptive of that. That’s why I enjoyed it, because it benefited myself as a minister and the wider government. People accepted that during Covid, and I hope that isn’t being lost as we’ve returned to normality.

Mr Keating: Thank you.

They’re all my questions, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Right.

Mr Keating: My Lady has given permission –

Lady Hallett: Yes, I have, and I think Mr Friedman and Ms Davies have moved so you don’t get a stiff neck.

Mr Friedman is going to ask some questions.

Questions From Mr Friedman KC

Mr Friedman: Thank you, Mr Tomlinson. I’m asking questions for four national disabled people’s organisations.

We start with the outset of the pandemic, please. You have told the chair that neither you or the Disability Unit were involved in decision-making, including around the shielding programme, from January to March. So at the outset of the pandemic, did you establish personally whether there was an existing emergency plan for disabled people?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Not that I recall.

Mr Friedman KC: Did there come a time when you realised what I think we know from the evidence, that there was none?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Not that I recall.

Mr Friedman KC: We’ve heard about the possible statement that was made by you and colleagues on 31 March. Just for reference, it’s at paragraph 79 of your statement. We don’t need to go there. I think the correct reference for the record is INQ000187624. But the essence of that was to provide reassurance to disabled people and perhaps others that were caring for them that, notwithstanding the easements and the like in the Care Act that had been brought in as a result of the coronavirus legislation, that ministers were poised to protect disabled people; that’s the essence of it, isn’t it?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah.

Mr Friedman KC: On that basis, and following on from some questioning of Lord Sedwill, why did it take until 21 May 2020 for a ministerial implementation group meeting, in this case the general public sector one, to have the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people as an agenda item?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Because that is not the only work in isolation. So, for example, disability benefits which, in the early evidence I’ve given, that was done straightaway, with 2.1 million people relying on either DLA, the legacy benefit, or personal independence, £13.6 billion worth of expenditure, that was done immediately alongside the changes to Universal Credit, the changes to access to work, the changes to access to carers’ allowance, with the many millions of carers in this country, changing the easements. So these sorts of meetings are flagging then topical issues, outstanding issues of the time, rather than an opportunity to list things that are already in train as a given, and there were many areas across government where that was the place. Things come forward in these meetings and it’s decided which is the relevant minister to represent their respective departments.

Mr Friedman KC: Well, I’m not going to go back on the evidence that you’ve given, quite thoroughly, about a satisfactory element is how everybody stood up, including you in your core job, at least the Department for Work and Pensions, and others around you to deal with benefits, and we’ve heard your evidence about that. But, broadly speaking, if there was a working assumption that everybody in government would know that disabled people would be at risk of both the virus itself but also the provisions brought in in response to the virus, was it too late for the key ministerial implementation group meeting to be looking at the impact on disabled people to wait until 21 May?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: No, I don’t think so, because you’re working on the assumption nothing was done until that point. As issues are raised, issues are fed in at speed, the whole process in responding was all done at speed across government. It is wrong to say nothing happens until a particular meeting. A meeting is a point in time where things are recorded, but issues – and I gave the DWP examples around the disability benefits because I don’t want to give you three hours’ worth of evidence – things happened before that and they were done at pace. That doesn’t mean everything happened, which is why you have these meetings, to hold different departments account and to formally put in writing agreed actions, and an opportunity to challenge other departments to up their game.

Mr Friedman KC: Well, let’s look quickly at that May document again and one last page of it, it’s INQ000083584 at page 7. Bottom of page 7. Is it up? No. Sorry, we’re just waiting. INQ000 – yes.

Just at the bottom of page 7:

“Next steps are that each department develops a plan for addressing key evidence gaps and agrees to meet the Disability Unit to discuss these plans for a further meeting in about six weeks.”

We have been through the rest of that document with the Chair. This is in May 2020.

Is this fair: this also is not a plan being presented to this ministerial group, it’s essentially a situational summary – I’m taking the whole document that we went through – and at its height it’s a plan to talk to departments about a plan to address key evidence gaps and in about six weeks?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: No, I don’t accept that.

Mr Friedman KC: You don’t?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: At six weeks you report back, but that doesn’t mean you sit – you agree an idea you want to do and then you sit on it for six weeks. Actions start straightaway.

Mr Friedman KC: No, I’m not asking you about what you’re doing, I’m asking you about a plan.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Right.

Mr Friedman KC: And –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Same thing.

Mr Friedman KC: First of all, are we right, we shouldn’t take this document of May 2020 as a whole, and suggest this is a plan? We can use different words, but it’s essentially a means to give this ministerial group meeting situational awareness – we have been through it already with Mr Keating – and then it ends by saying that “In about six weeks we’ll come back, and in the meantime we’ll get to departments to plan to address key gaps”?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: I don’t see it that – that’s a report back, but issues will have been covered in other meetings in between where they were particularly prevalent at the time. That’s just not how government works.

Mr Friedman KC: Right.

Can I look, please, with you, briefly at your contribution to the ministerial implementation group on 21 May 2020. The reference is INQ000083626. This is the note of the meeting, and can we go to page 5, please, where we see in the bottom section what should be the summary of your part in the meeting.

Can I just draw out some aspects of what is recorded there:

“Engagement with stakeholders suggests there is a positive view of the Covid-19 response, especially the pace at which new initiatives had been put in place.

“However, this work has highlighted the lack of data across government on disability issues, an example being the DEFRA food supply work, which is subject to a data lag.

“The minister affirmed that the Covid response presents both risks and opportunities for disabled people – some changes that would have taken years to implement in ‘normal times’ have been made possible very quickly.

“In terms of next steps – the minister said more work was needed from departments to go further on evidence, and that the Disability Unit will be in touch about this.”

Mr Tomlinson, our questions are along these lines: given at the outset of the pandemic there was no plan, in the sense of a coherent plan for disabled people, is this too sanguine a picture, at least in the way in which it summarised this committee? Because what is not said there is, “We have no comprehensive plan. We have been delayed in getting one. Whatever actions and successes we may have had, we absolutely need to have a plan and a package of measures now”.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Well, again you’re working on the assumption that nothing has happened at this point. So, many things were able to be done at pace at the beginning, again going back to the changes to the disability benefits, changes to access to work, changes to access the carers’ allowance, but it’s then putting into place the work beyond this point. Nobody disagrees that’s cross-government, that’s departments that are maybe not used to having to think of wider or more bespoke cohorts of people that they want to support. That’s the reason behind highlighting around the risks and opportunities, how some of the emergency changes that we would have made during Covid actually, through stakeholder feedback, becomes clear that they’re welcome changes and actually, once we return to normality, let’s keep those in place. Again, a good example of that was almost unheard of, work from home. That obviously came through in Covid, and that then opened the door to a new cohort of people who had previously not had a realistic expectation of being able to work – this is from a disability employment perspective – and we then wanted to then explore whether we would need to legislate to protect that going forward. But, as it turned out, in most cases employers saw that as a beneficial – and it stayed in place. So –

Mr Friedman KC: I just want to interrupt, because you’re talking about actions. I want to just make clear: is there a cross-government plan for disabled people in relation to the pandemic as of this time? We’re in 21 May 2020. Plan, not set of actions.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Well, it’s included in all of the wider government actions.

Mr Friedman KC: Right.

Can we then go forward to October and November in 2020, and we’ve already gone through the chronology. The ONS has gone through its summer work, and then there has been that meeting in September that we looked at with Mr Keating, with that breathtaking numbers of the 60% fatalities.

Can you look at the briefing for a meeting entitled “Disproportionate impacts of Covid on disabled people” prepared by the DU for you, and it’s dated 30 October. It’s INQ000083956.

Just on page 1, looking at paragraphs 3 and 4:

“The purpose is to discuss (i) data HMG has on disability … and then to (ii) consider interventions that HMG could seek to implement xGovernment to tackle the disproportionate impacts that COVID-19 has on disabled people.”

And this follows – this is paragraph 4 – a steer from the Prime Minister for much greater ambition from this work and subsequent commissions from Emran Mian – the Chair knows about him – from the Covid Taskforce, and a letter from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and they’re in the annexes A and B.

Can we go to annex B and Mr Gove’s letter. This is page 8, and this is in the briefing to you.

Now, second paragraph, it says:

“It will not now be possible to announce an ambitious package of interventions in the Minister for Equalities’ oral statement, scheduled for next week, in which she will announce publication of her first quarterly report … [on] disparities …”

That’s a reference to the work that Minister Badenoch was doing. Then it says, “This is a terrible missed opportunity”, in Mr Gove’s view.

Just down the bottom of the page, still page 8, internal page 7, there’s the reference to the 59.2% of those who have died from Covid as being disabled.

Across to the page 9, just after the bullet points, on disproportionate impacts there’s a reference to:

“Time is running out to mitigate risk for these groups in the second wave.”

Then last main paragraph:

“In addition to his headline ask for more ambition, [I think that’s the Prime Minister] I want you to draw your attention to his request to departments to consider options for improving outcomes for those with disabilities, ahead of a future COVID-O discussion. This is also extremely important work. I expect Secretaries of State to work with their departments to bring much more ambitious and far-reaching proposals to that discussion, as per the Prime Minister’s steer.”

Is it right that, in spite of that very strong steer attributed to the Prime Minister, in effect we have a situation where we’re now not six weeks on from May 2021, we’re several months on from May 2021 – sorry, 2020, I apologise.

We’re not six weeks on from May 2020, we’re several months on from May 2020, there’s been the very important issues arising for black, Asian and ethnic minority workers Minister Badenoch and Public Health England has talked about, and here we have, in this briefing to you, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Prime Minister – and it’s not a criticism obviously of you, we’re looking at the system – saying, “We just need a far more ambitious package in relation to disabled people”.

Is that the best way to read what is being asked for by those two key figures as of this date, 30 October?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Well, I see it differently. I see it that the Prime Minister, the then Prime Minister, took this area very seriously and, as a minister who worked cross-government, having the Prime Minister’s interest was a very powerful way to encourage other departments to act at pace and take it seriously. That underpinned the whole of the National Disability Strategy, that work that went alongside during Covid, in the sense that that really does focus other departments’ minds. I found that a helpful statement, and it goes back to my earlier answer that you misunderstand how governments work. It isn’t a case that you have a meeting, you discuss things and do nothing until the next meeting. It is a point in time, and work was always ongoing, and I found different government departments receptive to do things where they could, with exceptions, for example, the frustration over accessible communications, the BSL, and other things I will have highlighted in my evidence statement. So you and I –

Mr Friedman KC: Okay. We are disagreeing, that’s fine, but let’s take it further forward. The senior figures in government asked for a more ambitious package. Let’s go to 5 November 2020. INQ0000839137.

This is, at the top of it, page 1, “Disproportionately impacted groups (focus on disabled people) - 27th November”. It is from Emran Mian, who we know about, 5 November. We see the subject. It’s copied to, amongst others, HMT, you as the Minister for Disabled People, Sarah Baker, who leads in Disability Unit matters on this, Marcus Bell, Mr Gove himself, principal secretaries to Number 10 and Cabinet Office.

I just want to show you the section on page 2, under the words “Context”:

“At the 29 [November] meeting of COVID-O, the committee agreed to an ambitious package of measures to prevent transmission to and within groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, focusing in particular on ethnic minority communities. The Prime Minister and [Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster] also asked departments, in slower time, for a more ambitious package that can prevent disproportionate impacts from COVID-19 for people with disabilities.”

I’m not asking about actions, I’m asking for a plan to produce a broad coherent cross-government package, notwithstanding the terrible data about black, Asian and ethnic minority deaths required, what is meant here by delayed planning for disabled people for a more ambitious package to work on slower time?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So you’ve got two things. You’ve got the here and now, the immediate decisions that need to be taken, whether within our direct control or cross-government; and then the wider things, for example – again, using DWP as an example – where we’ve introduced telephone and video assessments as an emergency measure, to look at whether that could then become a permanent feature, the changes to statutory sick pay, the information given to employers around working from home, the changes we’ve made to access to the carers’ allowance. Are these features that we can then at a later date announce as ongoing permanent features? Because that goes back to my earlier point, or the earlier point that was raised around risks and opportunities, because there were – telephone and video assessments were a part of the health and disability green paper with a realistic timeline of probably five to ten years before it could have been implemented. We had to do them as part of the emergency response to Covid. That was happening, and that would continue to happen during Covid, but then at a separate pace there was then the discussion: well, actually, this seems to be well received by stakeholders, should this now remain a permanent feature? And in some of those cases, that was easy to do because they’re operation – you carry them on; others we would then need to bring legislation forward.

And you saw, post-Covid, as we returned to normality, there was various tidying-up pieces of legislation that turned emergency government actions into permanent features –

Mr Friedman KC: Well –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – and then this would have been – a lot of this would’ve been shaped by –

Mr Friedman KC: Mr Tomlinson –

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Hang on, hang on. A lot of this would’ve been shaped by the wonderful work of the various stakeholders who worked with us to give insight.

Mr Friedman KC: Mr Tomlinson, I’m asking you questions about what happened with the ambitious –

Lady Hallett: I’m afraid, Mr Friedman, I’m afraid you’re running out of time –

Mr Friedman: I understand.

Lady Hallett: There’s also problems with the stenographers.

Mr Friedman: I understand.

Let me then take you to 12 November 2020. I’m asking about the ambitious package that was called for. This is back to INQ000083918. This was – I’ll take it quickly – at paragraph 3, the package suggested:

“3.1. Data commission to understand factors driving increased mortality …

“… a National Panel of disabled people …”

To formally structure the point, and:

“A National Centre for Digital Access …”

Now, is it right – to take it quickly – 3.1 was not an actual organisation, it was to commission better data? How did you understand 3.1?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yeah, fine.

Mr Friedman KC: Pardon?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Mr Friedman KC: Yes. Is it right that 3.2 and 3.3, for whatever reason, did not go through?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So 3.2 ultimately went beyond my time as the minister. I actually, when I was going through all the evidence packs, it’s a question I have outstanding. I’m interested to know what did happen with that. So I can’t answer that –

Mr Friedman KC: I think you can take it from me that it didn’t.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Fine. And then, thirdly, the national centre for digital access, my recollection was that did not offer an immediate assistance and therefore would be part of normal departmental bidding for normal business. But, again, you are taking these things – this very narrow area in isolation, ignoring the wider work, for example the continuation of the £500 million cash injection into the welfare system. That in itself would be a big announcement, but it was a given, because we understood the urgency of doing it and did it at the start.

Mr Friedman KC: I understand.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: You’re taking things in a very narrow – and not quite following how governments work.

Mr Friedman KC: Well, you’ve said it to me several times, and you’ve told me about what the DWP did. But let me then finish with this: the Badenoch investigation on disparities. First of all, what is your answer, in terms of your understanding in real time, why disabled people were not included in Minister Badenoch’s investigation and what would be published reports across 2020?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: I don’t know.

Mr Friedman KC: On that, in December 2021, in her final report – I can just read it out – footnote 62, at INQ000089747 at page 32, says this:

“The impact of Covid-19 on disabled people continues to be monitored across government as part of a separate strand of work to ensure the needs of disabled people are considered in the government’s response to and the recovery from Covid-19.”

This is December 2021, essentially going into the second wave, when the footnote was published. Is that not too late, in December 2021, to say publicly to be monitoring disproportionate impact on disabled people without a plan?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: So we’ve already extensively covered that in my initial set of evidence, that that – it takes time to collate data, but it was data that was given as a working presumption across government and across society that those with underlying health conditions and disabilities would be at greater risk of the impacts of Covid. That was a given.

Lady Hallett: That’s it, Mr Friedman, I’m sorry.

Mr Friedman: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: You’ve had substantially over the time allotted.

Mr Friedman: Thank you, my Lady.

Thank you, Mr Tomlinson.

Lady Hallett: Sorry.

Mr Friedman: No, no. Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Ms Davies.

Questions From Ms Davies KC

Ms Davies: My Lady, I hope the stenographer will bear with us for five minutes.

Mr Tomlinson, I’m asking questions on behalf of Southall Black Sisters and Solace Women’s Aid and, as you probably know, they’re part of the broader violence against women and girls sector, and so my questions are on domestic abuse and disabled people.

The Inquiry has heard expert evidence, both written and oral, that disabled adults are around three times more likely to be subject to domestic abuse than non-disabled adults are; that women, disabled women are about twice as likely to have experienced sexual violence as non-disabled women; and in oral evidence Professors Shakespeare and Watson said that the stay-at-home orders would certainly have increased the vulnerability of disabled people to domestic abuse.

Given that, in the course of your attending the different stakeholders meetings that you’ve told us about, talking to the stakeholders, were you ever provided with information relating to disabled women being at more risk of domestic abuse?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Not specifically, but DWP as a collective around Universal Credit, other things, Women’s Aid, Refuge, other organisations had highlighted that broader point. So I would – I’m not surprised you’ve said that in the sense, if it was a given for the wider population that would then include one in five people who have a disability. But that, again, would be an example of where, had that come up, had you brought that to me in a stakeholder meeting, we(?) would’ve then relayed that to the equivalent of myself in the Home Office and said, “There’s a specific area of work to look at, if you feel that isn’t already being covered by the wider work around domestic abuse”. But that would have been a good example of where the Disability Unit would have then taken that and flagged that.

Ms Davies KC: You said “had it come up”; do you have any recollection of it coming up?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: I don’t, but remember in all of the wider stakeholder meetings, I’m not present in every one of the meetings, so it could have done. I don’t know how the mechanism works, they can go back and look at that. I would be surprised if it hadn’t, and I certainly know it came from Women’s Aid and Refuge and other organisations on the wider point about domestic violence, so I’m not surprised by what you’re saying.

Ms Davies KC: And do you have any personal recollection – it sounds as though you don’t – of that relaying happening to the Home Office?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: No –

Ms Davies KC: No.

Mr Justin Tomlinson: – but a huge amount will have happened through the regional(?) stakeholder network, the policy teams talking to the charities and organisations’ policy teams. So there’s many opportunities where something could do. If it is, there’s absolutely no reason why that issue would then not have been shared and flagged. Absolutely not. That’s bread and butter, exactly the sorts of issues that get taken up and then transferred to the relevant department.

Ms Davies KC: But you don’t remember that happening?

Mr Justin Tomlinson: Not in the meetings that I was present, sorry.

Ms Davies: No. Thank you very much.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Davies.

That completes the evidence for today, I think –

Mr Keating: It does, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: – Mr Keating?

Mr Keating: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Tomlinson. Sorry to keep you until –

The Witness: Of course.

Lady Hallett: – quite a late stage in these proceedings.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Very well, 10 o’clock tomorrow, please.

Mr Keating: Thank you, my Lady.

(4.50 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Thursday, 9 November 2023)