Transcript of Module 2B Public Hearing on 07 March 2024.

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Good morning.

Ms Hitchman: My Lady, before we begin hearing evidence today, there is a correction to be put on the record.

In response to a Rule 10 question yesterday, Dr Llewelyn referred to the impact of austerity on local government over the last ten years, and he stated that the budget had been cut in real terms by about £900,000. Dr Llewelyn has clarified that the correct figure is in fact £900 million.

Lady Hallett: A slight difference.

Ms Hitchman: May I please call Jane Runeckles.

Ms Jane Runeckles


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Ms Hitchman: Please could you give your full name.

Ms Jane Runeckles: Jane Sarah Runeckles.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you for attending today and for assisting the Inquiry. You have kindly provided two witness statements for this module. The first is at INQ000320679, and this was signed on 20 October 2023, and it concerns your role as a special adviser during the pandemic.

The second statement is at INQ000274119, which was signed on 15 December 2023, and this concerns your use of informal or private communications.

Do both statements remain true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Ms Jane Runeckles: They do.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You are the head of the Welsh Government’s team of special advisers, a role to which you were appointed in December 2018. Alongside that role and since the start of the pandemic you have been the senior special adviser to the First Minister, and you remain in that office today.

Is that all correct?

Ms Jane Runeckles: That is.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of your background and career, you began working for the Welsh civil service in October 2003, when you were appointed as a special adviser by Rhodri Morgan, who was at that time the First Minister, and you provided direct support to the then Minister for the Environment, Planning and Countryside as well as the business minister; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: You remained a special adviser until December 2009, when Rhodri Morgan stepped down as First Minister, and you then worked part-time for the Wales Trades Union Congress between January 2010 and August 2015.

Subsequently you returned to the Welsh Government as a special adviser on secondment from the Wales TUC to support the then First Minister, Carwyn Jones.

You then returned to the Welsh Government special adviser team as a direct employee of the Welsh Government civil service in November 2016.

Is that all correct?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, Ms Runeckles.

I want to start by asking you some questions about the role of a special adviser within the Welsh Government.

As the head of the special adviser team, you have responsibility for 14 special advisers. These advisers provide support to the First Minister and to individual Welsh ministers; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Please can you briefly describe the roles and responsibilities of a special adviser in the Welsh Government outside of a crisis period such as the pandemic.

Ms Jane Runeckles: The role of the – of a special adviser is set out in the code, the special adviser code, which I’ve submitted as part of my evidence. It stipulates those areas that we can do, so primarily to convey the views of ministers and their interests to the civil service, to request documents and briefings for them, to hold meetings with civil servants and to engage with the wider civil service and external stakeholders.

We also have things we can’t do, so we cannot take any statutory or prerogative power decisions, we cannot have any part in decision-making around budgets, we cannot have any role in relation to the appointment or management of the civil service staff, and – we are there to listen.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, Ms Runeckles.

So it would be fair to summarise, as the name suggests, that the role of a special adviser is to advise but not to make any decisions?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: Turning now to 2020 onwards and the beginning of the Covid pandemic, please can you briefly outline how your roles and responsibilities as a special adviser changed.

Ms Jane Runeckles: I don’t know that they did change enormously. The fundamentals that I’ve just described remained true throughout the pandemic period.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You explain in your first witness statement that the structure of your team changed during the pandemic, and the team was rejigged to respond to the handling of the pandemic response in late March, and three new members of the team were introduced.

Please could you explain why you restructured your team in this way?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It was clear through March that the workload that the team were having to cope with was increasing steadily, and the First Minister, as a former special adviser himself, suggested that it would be useful to bring in additional support for the team, and the three people who we brought into the team at that point were all experienced special advisers and had served under previous First Ministers.

I also asked two members of the team to take a kind of more supervisory role in a way that isn’t ordinarily the case in the special adviser team, so there was one of my team who looked after the sort of public services elements and another member of my team who covered the economy and finance side and helped provide a focus for the other members of the special adviser team to be able to have somebody to contact.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You explain at paragraph 12 of your first witness statement that:

“It is unusual in the Whitehall context for special advisers to stay in post for as long as [you] have been …”

And as we noted earlier, you’ve worked for three First Ministers and have been a special adviser for nearly 20 years. You also say that:

“In the Welsh Government context, many of the team of special advisers have years of experience of working with the civil service and in Welsh public life.”

In your view, to what extent did that longevity of service of special advisers affect the Welsh Government’s decision-making?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It was not something I was particularly conscious of at the time, but having reflected on the experiences since, the relation – the fact that we had spent as long as we had understanding the ways in which government works, knowing the individuals with whom we relied heavily upon, certainly in the early months, and having relationships of trust with them, was extraordinarily beneficial.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Would it be fair to say that you had a very close working relationship with the First Minister?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Would it also be fair to say that there were very few people who were quite as close to the centre of Welsh Government decision-making during the pandemic as you were?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: What was your relationship with your counterparts in the UK Government and other devolved governments?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Until the pandemic, limited. I had very little contact with other special advisers. I had met the – my counterpart in the Scottish Government before Christmas in 2020 – in 2019, when the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales had done a joint press conference in relation to some Brexit-related activity. I had no real contact with the special advisers in the UK Government until the pandemic began.

Counsel Inquiry: And when the pandemic did begin, how would you describe those relationships?

Ms Jane Runeckles: The relationships with the UK Government special advisers were intermittent but quite – that’s not the right word – were frequent in the beginning, in the early months, both with the special adviser in the Wales Office and a special adviser in Number 10.

My relationships with them deteriorated over the first months of the pandemic and I would guess that by the summer of 2020 we weren’t really having any regular contact at all. My relationship with the special adviser to the First Minister of Scotland developed and continue – has continued.

Counsel Inquiry: When you say that your relationship with the UK Government special advisers deteriorated, what do you attribute as the cause of that deterioration?

Ms Jane Runeckles: The tensions between the actions taken by the Welsh Government and the actions taken by the UK Government sort of became more and more obvious, and once we reached the point through the beginning of May, certainly, and I suspect this is a period we’ll return to, and into the summer, the fact that the Welsh Government were taking decisions in a different way to the United Kingdom Government just meant that there was very little for us to talk about.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. And you’re correct to say that we’ll return to that period and the divergence between the governments later today.

I want to turn now to your attendance at meetings during the pandemic.

If we could please have on screen INQ000227534. This is a document that you have provided which sets out the various meetings you attended as an observer, and it’s fair to say, is it not, that save for a period between the end of November 2020 and some time in February or March 2021, when you were largely absent for personal reasons, you attended almost every cabinet meeting, ministerial call and meetings with the UK Government and the other devolved governments that the First Minister attended?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I did.

Counsel Inquiry: And you also attended numerous internal Welsh Government meetings, again as an observer; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I did.

Counsel Inquiry: You say in your first witness statement that you did not provide any written briefings for these meetings. Is it right, then, that the advice you provided was mainly verbal throughout the entire period of the pandemic?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I will have contributed to papers that went to the meetings in internal Welsh Government civil service meetings. I would have had conversations with officials in the run-up to those papers being produced. But in terms of written advice for those meetings, that was not my role.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to turn now to look at the Welsh Government’s initial understanding of and response to Covid-19, and looking first at January and February 2020.

In his witness statement to this module, the First Minister says that by 24 January 2020, he had been advised by Sir Frank Atherton that there was a significant risk that the virus would arrive in Wales.

Do you recall whether the First Minister shared that information with you at the time?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I do not, no.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry understands that Mr Drakeford attended his first COBR meeting on 18 February 2020, and the Welsh Government was represented at earlier COBR meetings by the Minister for Health and Social Services. Why did the First Minister not attend the first three COBR meetings, notwithstanding those comments from his Chief Medical Officer?

Ms Jane Runeckles: The first couple of COBR meetings, the invitations for the COBR meetings will have come through to the First Minister’s office, the First Minister would determine under other circumstances which minister was the most appropriate person to attend, and in the very early days this was a matter that was being dealt with by the Health and Social Services team and the health minister was the most appropriate person to attend.

Counsel Inquiry: Would you provide any advice to the First Minister on his attendance at meetings such as COBR?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I would certainly have had conversations with him about that, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you recall if you had conversations about those first three COBR meetings?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Covid-19 was not discussed by the Welsh Cabinet until 25 February. Again, in light of the advice from the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, did that surprise you?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No. There had been a number of written statements by the minister for health by this time, and the minister for health was keeping the First Minister updated informally, as was Dr Frank Atherton.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

The First Minister said in his written evidence to Module 2 that looking back on matters, and given what we know now, there is strong evidence to suggest that more stringent action could and should have been taken sooner.

And that, for the record, is at paragraph 17 of INQ000273747.

Do you agree with Mr Drakeford’s assessment?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Moving now to March 2020, I’d like to look at the cabinet minutes from a meeting on 4 March 2020.

This is at INQ000048789.

You are listed as an attendee there.

There is a note at the top of these minutes that states:

“Cabinet will wish to note that these minutes, except those items in italics, will be published in week commencing 13th April 2020.”

This is an instruction that appears on many cabinet minutes, obviously with a different date of publication. Why is it that italicised items are not to be published?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It’s something you may need to ask the cabinet secretary, but I understand that there are items – this happens in relation to matters such as those when they’re discussing finance, and those where they’re discussing matters that it would be inappropriate to be put into the public domain at such an early point in the publication.

The Welsh Government has published minutes of cabinet meetings for a very long time, it was one of the decisions taken by the first First Minister I worked for.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. If we could turn to page 3 of this document, and paragraph 2.6, the first sentence says:

“Modelling by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggested that under the reasonable worst case scenario, 80% of the population would be infected.”

Then the final sentence says:

“The same modelling suggested somewhere in the region of 25,000 deaths.”

Then looking at paragraph 2.7, this says:

“In terms of timescale, an increase in cases was expected over the coming weeks, with significant escalation in April and possibly intensification into May and June before the number of new infections started to drop.”

Just returning to what you said about italicised items being inappropriate to put in the public domain, in your view why were these two items not published in the minutes that were published on 13 April 2020?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I’m afraid I … I’m not sure that I’m the best person to answer this question. I was certainly aware of the figures set out in 2.6, and I distinctly remember the discussions around the reasonable worst-case scenario at this point and the significance of them.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Are you able to comment on whether this was the first time that the cabinet was informed about the SAGE planning assumptions?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I … I don’t know.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You explain at paragraph 28 of your first witness statement that in around March 2020 there were an increasing number of meetings with the cabinet, the Minister for Health and Social Services, the chief executive of the NHS, the CMO and others to discuss measures being taken specifically in the NHS in Wales but also preparedness in other sectors. What was the level of your involvement in those meetings?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Sorry, what was the date you gave?

Counsel Inquiry: From March 2020.

Ms Jane Runeckles: Oh, okay. My involvement would have been to have sat and to have listened and to have picked up any action points that were appropriate for me to do.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You attended a Covid-19 core group meeting on 11 March 2020.

The minutes of that meeting are at INQ000215171.

Again, at the top it states that those minutes are “Not for publication”. Are you able to comment on why that’s the case?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: There is a discussion here about various topics, including whether to cancel routine hospital and GP appointments, and the policy on mass gatherings, and there are a number of questions raised. At paragraph 12 the minutes note that:

“Ministers agreed that there was a need to address the questions that had been raised as soon as possible.”

Why were these questions not addressed in the meeting itself?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I … I suspect that the minute refers to the fact that there was action that would need to be taken following the meeting rather than in the meeting itself.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to turn now to INQ000303227.

This is a WhatsApp group entitled “AG Quintet”, which includes Shan Morgan, Andrew Goodall, Andrew Slade and Tracey Burke.

If we turn to page 4, at the bottom of the page, Dame Shan says as follows on 17 March 2020:

“Thanks all for an excellent CovExCo. Saw Jane R afterwards. She’s concerned about new COBR Ministerial structures and lack of DAs.”

In her oral evidence to the Inquiry earlier this week, Dame Shan stated that she thought that you and the First Minister were concerned about the predictability of communications and engagement structures with the UK Government. Is that an accurate summary of your concerns?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Why did you think that?

Ms Jane Runeckles: By – by this point, we – there was no real notice of when the COBR meetings were going to happen, what the agendas for those meetings would be, until very close, sometimes 10, 15 minutes before the meetings began, and the First Minister was becoming concerned about the levels of engagement that he felt were necessary due to the urgency of the situation we were in.

Counsel Inquiry: That is a point to which we will return later in your evidence.

I want to turn to look in further detail at the degree of co-ordination between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. You explain in your statement at paragraph 38 that the potential for divergence between the four parts of the United Kingdom was referred to by the First Minister at COBR on 9 March 2020, and this possible divergence was already evident by the Scottish Government’s indication at COBR that on 12 March 2020 that it intended to ban gatherings of more than 500 people.

What was your advice to the First Minister in March 2020 as to the adoption of a four nations approach to a lockdown?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I was absolutely clear, as he was, that the four nations approach was the preferable way for us to be responding to the emerging situation.

Counsel Inquiry: And why was that?

Ms Jane Runeckles: An obvious point, the United Kingdom’s an island and –

Lady Hallett: Well, three parts of it are.

Ms Jane Runeckles: That’s an absolutely fair point. I apologise to Northern Ireland for my slip-up.

The – and also I think that the most important point was that we didn’t at that point, in any way, shape or form, anticipate that we would be in a situation where we would end up taking the kind of decisions that we did under the 1984 Act.

Ms Hitchman: At paragraph 54 of your first witness statement, you say that:

“It was becoming clear towards the end of April [2020] that divergence from the UK Government decision-making might be necessary.”

And you say that:

“A number of things had happened that had put pressure on the relationship, including the opening of a test centre in Cardiff City football stadium by the UK Government without any consultation with the Welsh Government …”

And you say that that created “significant difficulties with data”.

I want to just look at that specific example of the test centre in Cardiff City football stadium.

If we could have onscreen INQ000216485, and this is an email chain between Dr John Boulton of Public Health Wales and other public health officials.

Given you’re not included as a recipient in this chain, I won’t go into it in too much detail, but I just want to ask you about a couple of points.

Dr Boulton sets out the background to the set-up of the testing facility, and under the heading “Situation” he says that he was contacted on 30 March to arrange a call to discuss the UK-wide key worker testing strategy, and that contact was from Deloitte Consulting.

Then he goes on to say that a call took place on 1 April 2020, at 3 pm, in which he was told that they had set up a testing facility in Cardiff City Stadium and were ready to accept key workers for testing the following day.

Then Mr Boulton says:

“I asked them to stand down the facility until further discussion and clarity had been sought.”

He goes on to say, under “Background” that:

“It doesn’t appear that any communication to [Public Health Wales] or Welsh Government had taken place prior to this call, nobody in Wales knew they were coming it appears.”

What was the reaction of this decision by the First Minister and other ministers for whom you advised?

Ms Jane Runeckles: They were very shocked, and dismayed, really, that we were in a situation where a private company had opened a testing centre, that the way in which the NHS in Wales collects data hadn’t been taken into account, and the fact that any of the responses or the positive tests that came through that test centre, as far as we could see, wouldn’t be fed through into NHS records and into the data collection that we were responsible for.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you ever receive any information as to why there had been no communications with Public Health Wales or the Welsh Government?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: You set out in considerable detail in your first statement the ways in which the UK Government began to diverge from the devolved governments, including, for example, the UK Government changing their messaging from Stay at Home to Stay Alert on 10 May 2020.

On this point, can we have on screen, INQ000222864.

This is a note that you prepared for the First Minister on 4 May 2020; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Before we go into the contents of the note, how often would you produce documents like this for the First Minister?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Very rarely. I have two examples during the period the Inquiry’s covering.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If we could turn to page 2, you set out there what you think that the First Minister’s schedule might look like for the week ahead and you say:

“… (avoiding as much as I can the dreaded ‘supposition’ I was so rude about earlier).”

Could you explain what you mean by that?

Ms Jane Runeckles: There are a number of things in here that are bracketed later on in relation to Wednesday and Thursday where we are making suppositions about what might happen in relation to engagement with the Welsh Government. We, at the point I wrote the note, which was Monday, I think, the 4th, were unclear as to what that engagement would look like for the rest of the week.

Counsel Inquiry: So we can take it that mean that the Welsh Government were not being told when COBR meetings might happen; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And we’ll come back to look at COBR meetings in a moment.

You then state, later in your document, that:

“UK Gvt announcement on continuation of current restrictions (again supposition) with further announcement to follow on Sunday.”

Then further down the page, you say:

“Question from the comms side is going to be – do we go hell for leather on our plans on Thursday/Friday (ahead of UK Gvt) or do we do something Sunday (again ahead of UK Gvt) or do we go for Monday (after UK Gvt).”

Can you explain why these were the options that you were proposing to the First Minister?

Ms Jane Runeckles: So I don’t know that these are necessarily the options that I personally was proposing. I think it’s clear that it was a conversation that was being had beyond me. But the important point really is the 21-day review period was due to finish on the Thursday, which would have been the date that – the decisions – cabinet would have been taking the decisions, so the decision was around – in this case is around whether or not the First Minister does the announcement as close to the decision-making point as possible, or whether he holds back the announcement of that decision so that the UK Government has gone and made the announcements they were going to make first.

Counsel Inquiry: This is, as you say in the note, a question from the comms side. The Inquiry will be hearing from Toby Mason later today, but please could you give your view on the extent to which the Welsh Government’s communication and public health messaging from this point onwards diverged from that of the UK Government?

Ms Jane Runeckles: This is a very key period in this context from my point of view. A number of things – I think I refer in the first couple of paragraphs of the note that the fact that we had only really become aware in the days before this period that SAGE was considering a series of questions from the Cabinet Office, from the UK Government, in relation to how to move out of restrictions and asked SAGE to do a series of modelling around some exact scenarios, and these scenarios were very England-focused, and it was difficult for us to make assessment, similar assessments at that point on the basis of the information that was – they were being asked to provide because of the England focus.

Sorry, I’m not sure I’ve answered your question.

Counsel Inquiry: No, that’s a point that we will return to, about the involvement of SAGE in advising the Welsh Government.

Ms Jane Runeckles: It was about divergence, wasn’t it? The reason this – it just is a very significant point at which it was becoming more and more apparent that the differences between the way in which – the approach that we and the UK Government were going to take was going to be necessary.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Just returning to your note, further down the page, you then say:

“Whatever we do, I think we can be more confident now that we aren’t heading into a big collision course with them (certainly in the short term) and that is obviously a good thing for a number of reasons. We will need to retain the ‘Welsh solutions to Welsh circumstances’ approach, particularly in relation to schools where it feels very little we will end up in a different place.”

Please could you just explain what you mean by this.

Ms Jane Runeckles: We were – the First Minister was absolutely not looking for disagreements to be played out in a public arena as far as they possibly – when they – when they didn’t need to be, and we were trying to avoid being in a situation where that was the case.

In terms of the schools point, the information that SAGE and – I’m sorry if I’m jumping ahead – but the information that SAGE had been asked to look at in relation to England very heavily focused around the re-opening of schools, and we were in a different place, both with local – our relationship with local government and in the relationship with the teaching unions and based on the scientific and the health advice that the First Minister and the ministers were receiving about the sort of more gradual re-opening, and the focus on schools was one aspect of that.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Just to follow that, so you at this stage got the impression that the UK Government were keener on re-opening schools –

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Lady Hallett: – and the Welsh Government was more cautious about re-opening schools?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Certainly that was what the evidence was suggesting to us that we should do.

Lady Hallett: When you say the evidence, that evidence was medical, biomedical evidence, or did it include the various other harms that are caused by closing schools?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I’m not … so both were a consideration. I haven’t reviewed the paperwork around this in any detail. From memory the balancing of the considerations that was going on at that point wasn’t suggesting that there should be a – the impact of what would happen, were schools to re-open at that point, wasn’t still fully understood, and so the advice that was being given to the First Minister and others was that we shouldn’t be looking at that yet.

Lady Hallett: So my question is: was the First Minister getting advice on the potential for harm for young people, children, being denied access to schools, to social development, to education, to learning, all the rest of it?

Ms Jane Runeckles: My recollection was absolutely, yes.

Lady Hallett: He was?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Ms Hitchman: I’d just like to pick up on that point. You say later in your witness statement, at paragraph 47(f), that, regarding the closure of schools and education settings, you facilitated discussions between officials, local authority leaders and support staff and trade union representatives to ensure that they had an opportunity to discuss emerging evidence with scientific advisers and to ensure that ministers had feedback to inform future decisions.

You don’t mention here that you facilitated any discussions with children or parents. Do you recall whether their views were sought?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I know that many – that certainly the minister for education and First Minister and a number of ministers engaged in activities with children and young people, they had sessions of the youth parliament, specifically to hear views of young people, and a number of other fora, I couldn’t recollect the exact details of.

This – my specific involvement in relation to the support staff trade unions was around a period where there were a number of concerns from the support staff trade unions particularly, and the support staff unions had felt and had been in contact with us that their views weren’t being taken into account. So it was specifically the support staff trade unions rather than the kind of more conventional teaching trade unions I refer to.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If we could turn now to INQ000222865.

This is a briefing note that you wrote to the First Minister on 9 June 2020; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You say about halfway down the first page:

“If we therefore have some ‘money in the bank’ to introduce further relaxations, how are we making these judgements? I know that there were a number of impact assessments being done but fundamentally the balance of these things will come down (as it has at every other point in this process) to very fine judgements.”

Please could you explain how you were providing advice on those very fine judgements.

Ms Jane Runeckles: I’m not sure that I was specifically providing advice on those very fine judgements, I think that this note just sets out what some of those things are, and I think it’s important for me to say that this note was a very short part of an extraordinarily large number of other documents that the First Minister would have considered at this time.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Then a little further down the page, you say:

“There are also some significant dates that we have been talking about, including the question as to whether we change from 21 days to 28. Personally, I really don’t think it matters. We are not going to be able to easily align with the [UK Government] and to that end all we [are] really buying are a couple of days for officials to try and pretend we will be better prepared.”

What do you mean at the end where you say “try and be better prepared”?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Everything at this point – this is another significant and very difficult moment in what – the decisions that the First Minister and the Welsh ministers were trying to take. Coming out of the lockdown in some ways was an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances. There wasn’t a blueprint for how this was done and there were an extraordinarily difficult number of issues and balances that needed to be considered.

If you ask me whether or not we were prepared, I would have to say no, I don’t … this hadn’t been done before.

Lady Hallett: What is the reference “21 days to 28”?

Ms Jane Runeckles: The UK Government moved from considering the regulations every 21 days to 28 days, and there was advice from the civil service to the First Minister that we should consider doing the same. He was very clear that he wanted to maintain the 21-day rhythm. It was something that the public were beginning to understand and recognise, and the structure that it provided him, in terms of not only making the public announcement and the public understanding and being very clear about that, but also the series of meetings that happened in between, the cycle of meetings with officials, with external stakeholders, with the Social Partnership Council and others, was beginning to become understood and became a key feature of the way in which he communicated that with the public.

Ms Hitchman: And finally on the topic of divergence, you conclude in your first witness statement by saying that:

“Overall, divergence between the decisions taken by Welsh ministers and the UK Government (and other parts of the United Kingdom) was necessary for Welsh ministers to properly discharge their functions.”

And then you say:

“Welsh Ministers have a responsibility to discharge those functions on the basis of the advice that they receive.”

Can we take it from that final sentence that you were advising Welsh ministers to diverge from the UK approach?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No. I think what I was trying to say in that sentence was that, once the decision to use the 1984 Act had been taken, that the Welsh ministers have statutory responsibilities in terms of the exercising of those functions and that those functions needed to be undertaken based on the advice that they were provided by the civil service.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to turn now to look at a point that we’ve briefly touched upon, which is the Welsh Government’s involvement in COBR meetings.

At paragraph 40 of your first witness statement you say that:

“The control of the COBR meetings and the production of papers for it rest exclusively in the hands of the UK Government. The First Minister did not see COBR papers until very close to the time of the meetings and it was often unclear what the agenda would be until just before the start of those meetings.”

How did this late circulation of COBR papers that you describe affect your ability to advise the First Minister?

Ms Jane Runeckles: So it would – it is not and would not have been the case that I would have been providing advice ahead of COBR meetings or to the First Minister in relation to COBR meetings, except possibly in relation to any of the kind of wider political considerations.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you have any views as to why those papers were provided at such short notice?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: If we could, please, turn to INQ000222503.

This is an email chain dated 22 March 2020, and the first paragraph includes an action point for you which states:

“Emphasise to No 10 that we must have a predictable schedule for COBRA and its sub-groups …”

Could you briefly explain, please, how this action point came about?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I believe that I called the special adviser at Number 10, with whom I was already having conversations relatively regularly at this point.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry understands that in early April the First Minister was pressing the UK Government to convene a COBR meeting in good time before 16 April, which was the date by which the first 21-day review needed to be carried out, so that the four nations could discuss a further set of co-ordinated announcements; is that correct?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So would it be fair to say that your attempts to secure a predictable schedule for those COBR meetings fell on deaf ears?

Ms Jane Runeckles: They certainly weren’t successful.

Counsel Inquiry: Turning back to your first witness statement, you say that:

“The tensions that had emerged between the Welsh Government and the UK Government … were very much evident in the run up to this period [the Welsh firebreak] and I noted at a discussion … on 31 October where I asked if there would be a COBR meeting and noted ‘how many times do we have to ask?’”

Is it fair to say, then, that by October 2020 the Welsh Government was still not receiving adequate notice of COBR meetings?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: During the pandemic, you made notes in a series of notebooks; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Were the notes that you made a contemporaneous note or were they made after the event?

Ms Jane Runeckles: They were contemporaneous.

Counsel Inquiry: Could we turn to one of those entries, at INQ000327611.

At page 2, this is dated at the top 31 July 2020, and looking down the page, there’s an entry timed 9.20 am, and you say:

“Phone call with Jack Stenner – Sadiq K.”

Is it correct that Mr Stenner was special adviser to Sadiq Khan?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You record as follows:

“no straight data showing problems but sense that things could change [very, very] quickly.”

What was that in reference to?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Was the date of this 31 July?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Jane Runeckles: I assume it will have been case levels, numbers of positive tests.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Then just further down you say:

“no longer any contact with [UK Government] – cut out completely.”

Again, what was that in reference to?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I believe that was Jack telling me that Sadiq’s office had – no longer had any contact with the UK Government, that they had been cut out completely.

Counsel Inquiry: How would you describe the contact between the Welsh Government and the UK Government at this time?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Sporadic. From a political point of view. I can’t speak for how – what the contact with the civil – between the civil servants was.

Counsel Inquiry: You say at paragraph 62 of your witness statement that discussions with the UK Government moved towards conversations about issues such as how the Joint Biosecurity Centre was going to work and how genuinely joint it was.

Could you just explain what you mean by that?

Ms Jane Runeckles: When we first learnt of the creation of the Joint Biosecurity Centre, I recall the First Minister having been given information about what its purpose was and that there were – there was genuine welcome for its creation. There were some concerns expressed about how joint, in relation to the involvement of the devolved governments, it would be. Largely these evaporated.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

The Inquiry understands that on 3 June 2021 there was a meeting between the First Minister and the Prime Minister, you describe this in your first witness statement as a “Summit”, at which the Prime Minister committed to resetting the intergovernmental arrangements. You note in your witness statement that the First Minister told the Prime Minister that he believed that the fissures in the UK Government were growing rather than contracting. Was that something that you discussed with the First Minister?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: At this point, how would you describe the relationship between the First Minister and the then Prime Minister, Mr Johnson?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Well, their contact was infrequent, and I believe the First Minister had a genuine, sincerely held concern that some of the actions of the United Kingdom Government, in relation to the way they had handled some of the earlier period, was a genuine threat to the future of the United Kingdom.

Counsel Inquiry: As we have touched upon, the First Minister was an advocate for a reliable and regular pattern of contact between all four nations during the pandemic, and we know that there were no Joint Ministerial Committee plenary meetings at all during the pandemic; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We also know that the principal point of contact was Michael Gove, initially in his capacity as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and later as Secretary of State for Levelling Up and the Constitution, and regular calls between Mr Gove and the First Ministers of the devolved administrations started in June 2020; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: In your view, were these calls with Mr Gove a suitable substitute for a more codified set of arrangements?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Why not?

Ms Jane Runeckles: They were an informal opportunity for the first ministers and the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland to explore issues, but they were not areas in which – they were not meetings where sort of significant decisions at a four nations basis were taken place.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Did anything change as regards intergovernmental relations after that June 2021 summit?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Lady Hallett: You say that they weren’t meetings where significant decisions on a four nations basis could take place, but from what I’ve heard, given the different approaches in Scotland, as you said, Wales and, I may hear, in Northern Ireland, is it likely that had those meetings been held there would have been any decisions taken on a four nations basis, because people weren’t agreeing?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I do think there’s a period in the run-up to the firebreak and post that period, in the run-up to Christmas, where there was a significant effort to try to re-align the decisions that had been taken previously, and I certainly believe in the case of the First Minister for whom I work that he would have at earlier stages liked that to be the case.

Lady Hallett: I think my question really is: that may well be in a perfect world, but, given we’re not in a perfect world, had those meetings taken place, the Prime Minister and first ministers and deputy First Minister, would it have made any difference, because they weren’t going to agree, were they?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Is there an alternative universe where this was possible? I think there probably is.

Lady Hallett: Beyond my terms of reference, I think.

Ms Hitchman: I want to turn now to a point that you’ve already touched upon, which is your role in relation to medical and scientific expertise, and whilst of course you did not personally provide medical and scientific advice, a key part of your role, as you say in your witness statement, was to listen and, when points required escalation to ministers, to consider both the speed of that escalation and whether escalation was needed outside of the formal meeting structures that were in place.

Is that a fair summary?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Presumably we’re talking there about advice from the Welsh Government or Welsh bodies such as Public Health Wales; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes, my contact with Public Health Wales was limited. I don’t recall whether by this point I – the HPAG subgroup had been created, which was one of the ways in which I did have more regular contact with officials from Public Health Wales. I guess in the context I was referring to Dr Frank Atherton and the chief scientific advisers for health.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

There was a point in May 2020 when the First Minister wrote to Sir Patrick Vallance, as chair of SAGE, outlining the desire of the Welsh Government to engage more actively in the work that SAGE was undertaking.

If we could just pull up that letter, which is INQ000299310, it’s dated 26 May. In your view, and this is a point that you’ve already touched upon, but in relation to this letter specifically, why was it necessary for the First Minister to write to Sir Patrick in this way?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I did refer to this briefly earlier. It was very noticeable to us towards the end of April and into the beginning of May that some of the work that was being undertaken by SAGE – I’m sure there was other work beyond this, but some of the work that was being undertaken by SAGE on modelling in relation to easements from the lockdown was being undertaken based on a set of questions that were being asked to them by the UK Government Cabinet Office, which reflected very specific England-focused questions, something that I think Nicola Sturgeon raises in a meeting with the UK Government, I think it’s around this time, where she discussed the different term dates in Scotland being a particular consideration. But it was those kinds of issues that we were concerned about.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to take you now to a WhatsApp chain, which is at INQ000303220.

This is from a group titled “DrakeSpAds” and includes various people, including yourself.

Is it fair to assume that the group was what it says on the tin, it was the First Minister’s special advisers?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: If we turn to page 11, and about halfway down the page, Tom Woodward says as follows:

“Is it just me, or do we as a government need more scientists? Are we looking to recruit more? In England even the departments have their own scientists, while it feels like we all have to bother the same 3 people for everything and I feel rather guilty about it! Obviously not that sustainable if this continues for years.”

Pausing there, are they Dr Atherton, as Chief Medical Officer, Dr Orford as Chief Scientific Adviser, and Fliss Bennee, co-chair of TAG and deputy director for digital data and technology?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I would assume so, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: The next message in the chat is an hour and a half later and relates to a separate meeting. Why was Mr Woodward’s point here about the need for more scientists not addressed?

Ms Jane Runeckles: As I’m sure we’ll come on to, this was a very informal conversation and I’m not sure that Tom was looking for an answer, or that I was qualified to give him one.

Counsel Inquiry: And what is your view of Mr Woodward’s point that more scientists in the government were needed?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I suspect that the point that Tom was making – where are we? 22 June – related to the fact that we had at this point an enormous number of meetings taking place, both internally and with external stakeholders, and we relied very heavily on the three of those – those three people to attend those meetings, and to explain the evidence that they were hearing.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to turn now to look at the methods of communication that you used to conduct government business during the pandemic.

You say in your second witness statement that from 1 January 2020 to 31 May 2022 you used your personal mobile phone to send WhatsApp messages; is that right?

Ms Jane Runeckles: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: You explain that there were three groups that were routinely used: a ministers’ WhatsApp group – is that the DrakeSpAds that we have just looked at?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Separate – forgive me – a special adviser WhatsApp group, which is the DrakeSpAds WhatsApp group; and a WhatsApp group with a small team of Welsh Government lawyers?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that final group the Coronavirus legal hotline group?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: There are a number of Welsh Government policies and documents that were in place dealing with the use of informal communications, including text messages and WhatsApp, and the Inquiry heard evidence from Dame Shan Morgan about many of those policies. I won’t go into detail about them, but I just want to take you to two and ask you about two aspects of your use of your personal mobile phone and WhatsApp.

If I could take you first to a document from January 2020, which is a SIRO notice, senior information risk owner, and this is at INQ000396686, and on page 3, under the heading “WhatsApp”, it state:

“In the same way that personal email accounts cannot be use to undertaking Welsh Government business, personal WhatsApp accounts may not be used for Welsh Government business.”

Were you aware that conducting Welsh Government business through a personal WhatsApp account was prohibited?

Ms Jane Runeckles: So I think there’s two things to say, the first one is I have asked the civil service to confirm that I received this notice, because I did not recognise it when it was provided to me by the Inquiry, and I have had confirmation that I was not on the distribution list to be sent this email.

However, I do recognise that I was – well, I knew that I was not in a position to use my personal phone for Welsh Government formal decision-making, and I do not believe that that was the case. The groups that I’ve discussed were used for admin purposes and for team morale. This was a point at which my team was no longer in the office and it was something that we did use to keep in contact and to keep the team together.

Counsel Inquiry: We will return in a moment to –

Lady Hallett: Before you move on, if I may, Ms Hitchman.

But isn’t using your personal phone for admin purposes using it for Welsh Government business?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Lady Hallett: So you were using it wrongly?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Ms Hitchman: Thank you, my Lady.

We’ll return in a moment, Ms Runeckles, to a couple of examples in those WhatsApp groups. But I just want to look first at another document, which relates to the preservation of conversations for record-keeping purposes.

That’s at INQ000396685.

This is the Welsh Government Information Management and Governance Policy published in August 2018.

On page 17, at paragraph 6.6, it states at the top there:

“Text or ‘instant messages’ are electronic mail and messaging systems used for the purposes of communication between individuals. Staff should be aware that when using their [Welsh Government] phones in this way they are in fact creating ‘public records’. Staff using private phones for [Welsh Government] business may also be creating public records. The ephemeral nature of text messages (and instant messaging) heightens the need for users to be aware that they may be creating records using this application, and to properly manage and preserve record content.”

Were you aware of this policy?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes. I don’t know that I was sent this document in the same way, but it would be wrong of me to assume that I wasn’t aware of the general points.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to turn now to a few examples of your use of WhatsApp during the pandemic.

If we could turn to the ministerial WhatsApp group.

That’s at INQ000303219.

And is it right that this group includes you and ministers including Kirsty Williams, Rebecca Evans, Julie James and others?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: If we can turn to the final page, page 73, on 25 November 2021, you turned on disappearing messages, and the consequence of that was that messages in the chat would disappear seven days after they were sent, except where they were kept.

In her evidence to this module, Dame Shan Morgan expressed her surprise that you turned on disappearing messages, notwithstanding the guidance that we have just discussed.

In light of that guidance, and your acceptance that you were aware of the requirement to preserve records, why did you turn on disappearing messages?

Ms Jane Runeckles: My Lady, I think this is something I’ve reflected on a lot, and I think it would be very useful for people who hold the kind of role that I hold in the future for there to be some clear recommendations about this.

I do not believe that there is any evidence of decision-making in any of these groups, and I think that in areas where we were using this tool, and possibly I should have been using Teams and creating a chat function on Teams, which was the method that the Welsh Government does recommend – I wasn’t sure I knew how in March 2020, but – and the Welsh Government record-keeping in that regard requires that those messages are deleted after 30 days.

The 2009 document that I also have part of my evidence pack makes it clear in relation to telephone conversations that ministers have records of telephone conversations between ministers and don’t need to have formal records kept when they’re looking at policy development or in relation to responding to events that happen quickly, and I think that there is a distinction in my mind between the formal records and the decision-making processes that ministers undertook and this kind of communication. But I’m aware that there is a lot of interest in this topic.

Lady Hallett: Well, in the hearings for 2A in Scotland, I think it was agreed by some of the witnesses that it’s not just decision-making that should be recorded, and that’s really what the document to which Ms Hitchman just took you indicates, that it goes beyond decision-making. And the importance of keeping records, as I’m sure you appreciate, is not just for the purposes of an inquiry of this kind, but for public accountability.

Ms Jane Runeckles: I – I’m – obviously understand the need to take this in terms of future activity.

Ms Hitchman: You just mentioned in your response the 2009 document. I think you are referring to the guidance on private office records.

That’s at INQ000396684, if we could just pull that up briefly.

At paragraph 5, at the bottom of the page, it says that:

“The records of Special Advisers require separate consideration … Where Special Advisers have a wider role in the department and have an impact on official business the records originated by a Special Adviser should be retained by the department.”

Save where, it goes on to say, their records only mirror those existing elsewhere.

So would you accept that even in your role as a special adviser, you had an obligation to record conversations via WhatsApp?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I would have interpreted the important part of this as being “where they had an impact on official business”.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to take you to one more WhatsApp conversation which is the coronavirus legal hotline.

That’s at INQ000331038.

And this WhatsApp group includes you, other special advisers and –

Ms Jane Runeckles: There’s no other special advisers on this group, I heard that said yesterday, it’s only me.

Counsel Inquiry: Forgive me. So this includes you and Welsh Government lawyers?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: If we could turn to page 90, and at page 90 – forgive me.


Counsel Inquiry: There’s an extract here where Helen Lentle says – this is 17 September 2020:

“Have RobO …”

Presumably that’s a reference to Rob Orford.

“… revealed his big news yet??”

You say – you respond with a question mark.

Dylan Hughes says:

“The ‘important information’ from Sage.”

Helen Lentle responds:

“That what Fliss …”

And presumably that’s a reference to Fliss Bennee, who we’ve already discussed.

“… said then. Lockdown.”

And you respond:

“Fliss just said they recommend a short national lockdown. We are all ignoring her.”

What did you mean by that?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I don’t recall.

Counsel Inquiry: Why were you having a conversation about something as important as another national lockdown on WhatsApp rather than via official government channels?

Ms Jane Runeckles: My notebook on 18 September records a conversation I had with Fliss specifically on this point, and there are a considerable number of official records of meetings that happen in the subsequent days and weeks on this point, and I don’t believe that we were not taking this seriously.

Counsel Inquiry: If we turn to the final page of this chat, disappearing messages are turned on on 15 June 2021, that wasn’t by you but by another member of the chat. Do you know why disappearing messages were turned on on this legal advice chat?

Ms Jane Runeckles: No.

Counsel Inquiry: I just have a couple more questions for you, Ms Runeckles.

At paragraph 35 of your statement you state that you were involved in discussions with the education minister leading to the decision on 18 March 2020 that schools would close early for the Easter holidays, and there’s also a ministerial advice dated 20 March 2020 – and we won’t pull it up but, for the record, that’s INQ000145342 – which sets out the advice to the minister on this point.

Focusing on this period alone, would you agree that the discussion and decision was based perhaps – perhaps understandably – on infection control, but that in doing so there was no consideration or discussion of impacts of the Rights of Children Measure 2011 or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Ms Jane Runeckles: I don’t think it would be fair to say there was no consideration, and there were certainly discussions about the impact on children of the decision that the minister for education took.

Counsel Inquiry: Would you agree that there was no discussion involving or consulting the Children’s Commissioner for Wales?

Ms Jane Runeckles: At that point, no.

Counsel Inquiry: Would you agree that there was no discussion of the mitigation measures or support children may need at home if they were required to remain at home for a long term?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Would I agree that there was no consideration?

Counsel Inquiry: There was no discussion or consideration of those mitigation measures.

Ms Jane Runeckles: There absolutely was.

Ms Hitchman: Thank you, Ms Runeckles.

My Lady, I have no further questions.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Heaven, I think you have a question.

Questions From Ms Heaven

Ms Heaven: Good morning, Ms Runeckles, I represent the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru. Just one very short topic, and it’s divergence and justification. Just to indicate, we don’t need to get the statement up.

So you state at paragraph 60 of your witness statement that 11 May 2020 was the point at which Wales and the UK Government began to diverge in pace and messaging, so it was around this time, that’s what you indicate.

Now, a narrative has been presented to this Inquiry in the witness statements generally from the Welsh Government that the Welsh Government was more cautious following the first lockdown, and it was more cautious and took a more gradual approach to re-opening of society as compared to the UK Government, and this has been presented as one of the justifications for not taking a four nations approach.

Now, on divergence, we obviously know that on 11 May in England the UK Government and Chris Whitty recommended that the public wear face coverings where social distancing wasn’t possible, but on 12 May Frank Atherton advised that face coverings was a matter of personal choice and he actually told the public that.

So do you agree that it isn’t entirely accurate, and I’m not suggesting you’re doing this, but it is from, generally, the statements, to categorise the Welsh Government as always cautious in that first easing of the lockdown, of the first lockdown, as compared to the UK Government being perhaps less cautious? Because clearly if we look at the approach on public messaging and face coverings in May, it’s right, isn’t it, that we can see the Welsh Government taking perhaps a less cautious approach than the UK Government, who were being a bit more precautionary? So do you agree on that topic, certainly it isn’t right to suggest that the Welsh Government were always more cautious? And I’m talking about that May period.

Ms Jane Runeckles: I don’t know that I have suggested that we were more cautious in the way that you describe, have I?

Ms Heaven: No, I’m not saying that necessarily you do. I mean, you indicate in your statement that in May there was a change in pace, that’s when you saw the divergence as beginning. But it is being suggested generally, I think in particularly the statement by the First Minister for Wales, Mr Drakeford, that Wales was more cautious following that first lockdown. So I’m just asking you whether you agree that, on the topic of face coverings, it would seem that the UK Government was more cautious than the Welsh Government at this time?

Ms Jane Runeckles: We certainly took a different position to the UK Government in relation to face coverings.

Ms Heaven: Okay, that’s fair enough. Well, thank you very much.

That’s my question, my Lady.

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: I just have one question I’d forgotten, and I’m sorry to take you back to the test centre, Ms Runeckles.

I understand the reaction if the Welsh Government had no idea that this test centre was being set up, I think I made that plain by my reaction yesterday, so I understand the reaction to the lack of notice and consultation, but given that you’re informed by the private company that they’ve set up a test centre and it can be available the next day for key workers, why turn down that opportunity as opposed to saying “Well, if you can provide us with the data” – you mentioned you wouldn’t get the data fed into the NHS; wouldn’t it have been better to accept the offer of the testing centre, with addition – with amendments?

Ms Jane Runeckles: That’s what happened.

Lady Hallett: That is what happened?

Ms Jane Runeckles: Yeah.

Lady Hallett: Right. Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Very well, I shall return at 11.35.

(11.18 am)

(A short break)

(11.35 am)

Lady Hallett: Yes.

Ms Cowen: My Lady, may I please call Toby Mason.

Mr Toby Mason

MR TOBY MASON (affirmed).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Ms Cowen: Thank you, Mr Mason.

Could you please begin by giving us your full name, please.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, my full name is Toby Rhys Mason.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. Thank you for assisting the Inquiry, both through the provision of your witness statement and for attending today.

If I can please remind you, when answering questions, please keep your voice up and try to speak slowly so our stenographer is able to keep pace with your answers, thank you.

You have produced a witness statement for this module of the Inquiry. That witness statement is at INQ000340123 and that statement has been signed by you on 2 November 2023. Is this statement true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Mr Toby Mason: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Mr Mason, you were appointed as head of strategic communications for the Welsh Government in January 2014; is that right?

Mr Toby Mason: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: To be clear, your role is not a political appointment, is it, you are in fact a civil servant?

Mr Toby Mason: That’s correct, I am a civil servant.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Prior to your appointment as head of strategic communications, you were news organiser in the BBC Wales political unit based in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay; is that right?

Mr Toby Mason: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

So you were ultimately responsible for all aspects of the Welsh Government’s external communications and you were head of the profession for communications during the pandemic?

Mr Toby Mason: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: In his statement to the Inquiry, Dr Andrew Goodall has summarised the structure of the communications team, and from this statement the Inquiry understands that the central communications division had four components. These components were: the press office, which provides press support for the First Minister, Counsel General and other governmental ministers; the corporate digital team, which is responsible for the operation and content production of the Welsh Government’s corporate digital channels; cabinet communications, which delivers major national events; and the central design team which provides services such as graphic design and typesetting.

Is that correct?

Mr Toby Mason: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Is it correct that as of approximately September 2022 there were about 144 posts within the Welsh Government and only two of these posts were part of the communications profession, and these posts were either within the central communications division or working to departmental heads of communication; is that right?

Mr Toby Mason: There are 140 posts within the communications profession.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, thank you.

You explain in your witness statement that the communication division’s principal role in the overall Covid response was to provide communications and handling advice to decision-makers and to communicate those decisions as clearly as possible. Is that correct?

Mr Toby Mason: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: In Dr Goodall’s statement he states:

“The Welsh Government’s approach to public health communications throughout the pandemic was governed by the principles of clarity, transparency, honesty and giving people all the key information needed to keep themselves and their families safe at every stage.”

Do you agree with that characterisation?

Mr Toby Mason: Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I’m now going to ask you about the role of the communications profession during the pandemic.

In your witness statement, you explain that from the outset of the pandemic, ministers and senior officials within the Welsh Government recognised the importance of clear and consistent communications.

You say in your statement that communications advice and guidance was provided as frequently as possible to inform policy and decision-making by both ministers and officials.

Can I please ask, what form did this advice and guidance take?

Mr Toby Mason: It took a wide variety of forms. Every paper that went to cabinet had a communications section within it that would be signed off along with the rest of the cabinet paper. I would also provide more specific papers to cabinet on particular aspects of communications handling.

Our Keep Wales Safe campaign, which we’ll probably come on to later, every major kind of iteration of that and every change in messaging was communicated to cabinet so that they understood the overall strategy that we had for the kind of communications approach. And then, of course, there was the more kind of informal communications, handling advice to ministers, for example briefings before press conferences.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

What sources was your advice based upon?

Mr Toby Mason: So, we drew information from a wide variety of sources. Behavioural insights was important and we had a representative on the RCBI, and you heard from Professor Ann John, so that was incredibly useful.

We undertook extensive tracker polling during the pandemic, which gave us insight into people’s level of trust in the Welsh Government, people’s understanding and compliance with the rules at any given time, but we also undertook focus groups and they were really important for us in engaging people’s sentiment towards their safety, towards the government actions, and they enabled us, I think, to put together quite a broad set of advice that ministers could then consider as part of their decision-making process.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You also explain in your witness statement that your team worked closely with the Public Health Wales communications team, given their responsibility for public health information provision.

Could you please describe your relationship with the Public Health Wales communications team in a little more detail?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, of course.

So Public Health Wales, at the very outset of the pandemic, the four nations pandemic communication plan was triggered and it was very clear that Public Health Wales at that point were the lead in informing the public on –

Counsel Inquiry: I’m just going to interject, Mr Mason. I don’t mean to interrupt you, but can I just ask you to slow down a little bit. I can feel that your pace is picking up a bit. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, you were talking about the four nations communications plan.

Mr Toby Mason: So Public Health Wales, along with the health communications section of the Welsh Government, worked effectively as one team in the early stages of the pandemic in order to provide public health advice to people in Wales. That was done on a – very much a four nations basis. As the pandemic progressed and as the Welsh Government began to put in place its own rules and regulations, then obviously the role of government communications and ministerial communications began to increase dramatically, but Public Health Wales were always a very important component of our overall strategy, because they had the clinical expertise and, as we know, during a pandemic it’s really important to have those trusted clinical non-political voices to the public. So they were really important.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

How regularly did you provide advice to Welsh ministers, would you say?

Mr Toby Mason: As I said in my earlier answer, every cabinet paper would have a communications section, some obviously were more relevant than others, but, I mean, on a kind of informal basis, on a kind of daily basis, when we as the communications leads interacted with ministers, that’s the advice we would provide, but there were more formal touchpoints too.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

In your witness statement you say that as well as attending cabinet you attended meetings of the ExCovid group, the Health Protection Advisory Group, and other senior meetings within the government structure.

Do you think you had sufficient involvement in key meetings and groups during the pandemic?

Mr Toby Mason: I can say I absolutely did. The importance of communication as one of the key components of the government’s response was absolutely recognised by the First Minister, by ministers, by successive permanent secretaries and by senior officials. I think it was really important that we had a seat at the table at those meetings. You’ll see from the minutes that I contributed. And one of the things I think we were able to do was bring a degree of external perspective to those discussions through feeding in the focus group results, the social listening activities that we did as well, and I felt that was quite a – that was a very important part of –

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. We will talk about some of those later on, but thank you.

At paragraph 48 of your witness statement you say that there was initially no dedicated budget for communications. Are you able to say why that was?

Mr Toby Mason: So the way at that point communications budgeting worked across the government is that each policy area, when they were undertaking communications, for example climate change communications, the communications budget would come out of that to pay for that activity. So as we went into the pandemic, the – what effectively happened was that the health communications team, who looked after the – initially the Stay Home, Save Lives aspect of the campaign that was run jointly with the UK Government, would have budget in order to promote that in Wales alongside the UK Government. But then, and we’ve spoken obviously about divergence, in May 2020 the budgets for the distinctively Welsh Keep Wales Safe campaign ramped up dramatically and I think reached £12 million in 2021, I understand, which is, you know, a very substantial amount of money for us.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

To the extent that you haven’t already answered this question, can you say what impact did the initial lack of budget for communications have on the effectiveness of the communications strategy employed?

Mr Toby Mason: I would say that in the early stages, given the four nations approach, the buying power of the UK Government across the UK meant that we were playing to some extent a kind of supporting and, you know, helping role in terms of, for example, making sure that material in Wales was bilingual. The ramping up of budgets that I talked about happened pretty rapidly once the divergence happened.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I would now like to turn to the approach taken by your team to communication with vulnerable and at-risk groups and those who were digitally excluded.

Before we start, can you please summarise what is meant by digitally excluded.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, this is a group of the population who either don’t have access to internet, social media or struggle to kind of navigate that, and there’s pretty robust data on that group.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. Are you able to say what proportion of the Welsh population would be considered to be digitally excluded?

Mr Toby Mason: And this is from recollection, but I think we are looking at around about a third of the over 75s, but that just gives a kind of indication.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You explain in your witness statement that:

“Advice and evidence on the direct impact of NPIs on particular groups was principally a matter for colleagues in policy and science areas, and subsequent consideration by Cabinet on the balancing of relative harms.”

You note, however, that:

“… the ‘at risk’ and vulnerable groups, who may have been digitally excluded, were an important and distinct audience for our communications, which sought to reach groups such as these via the channels most accessible to them.”

Please can you explain how you sought to reach these groups, and can you please be mindful when answering this question of efforts made to include older people in this strategy.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, absolutely.

I’ll give three very, very brief examples, if I may, of the breadth of the communications work that we did.

So children and young people were really important. They don’t necessarily consume news in the way that maybe adults do, and for that we made quite extensive use of TikTok, which was not a channel that we’d used as a government much at all, but that’s where a lot of attention was, so we would actually take on influencers to carry our public health messages to that group.

We also had, and I referred to this in my statement, community teams who were on the ground in multi-ethnic, multicultural communities, speaking directly to people, because one of the insights that we had was that sometimes government is not necessarily the right conduit for government messages.

And then the third aspect, and this is – goes to the points that we were making, we printed leaflets, we were pretty old-fashioned. We simplified the messages as much as possible and, you know, this was something that the Minister for Social Justice in particular was very, very – you know, held our feet to the fire. So those leaflets were distributed through all our kind of networks of contacts, to GP surgeries, to community centres, but we also undertook all Wales door drops, so we were reaching 1.4 million households.

I hope that gives you a kind of breadth of – we – you know, if it was – if we were able to reach people via channel, we would use it.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: I just want to say one very brief thing, the importance of the daily press conferences –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: – they were a game-changer for us, and the decision of BBC Wales to televise those really, I think, made a huge difference, because they were – we were able to reach, then, people who may have been digitally excluded.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Sorry to interrupt.

By door drops, do you mean sticking them through people’s letterboxes?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, you effectively contract Royal Mail to deliver one to every household in Wales.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Cowen: Thank you.

I’m going to remind you again just to keep your voice slow, and I’m sorry to keep reminding you, but please bear that in mind.

You’ve touched on this in your answer actually to the previous question but you do note in your witness statement that there was emerging evidence of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and so particular effort was made to engage with these audiences.

Can you describe anything further that you may have done subsequent to what you described in your earlier answer regarding steps taken by your department to engage with these audiences?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, absolutely, we partnered with a lot of organisations who had particular insights into these communities. We took on a specialist consultancy at one point really to kind of hone how we were doing. I think the work of the Covid-19 race advisory board chaired by Professor Ogbonna was really useful and was a very useful challenge to us. And I think one of the main things we did was, you know, work with community leaders. As I said, a trusted conduit for our messages.

Counsel Inquiry: Overall in your view to what extent did the Welsh Government adequately engage with at-risk and minoritised groups?

Mr Toby Mason: I believe we did. You can always do better and there were learnings for us throughout the pandemic, but I think as you can see from the statement and the documents that I’ve exhibited we did, I feel, as much as we could.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: If you’re moving on, when you say you could have done better with hindsight, what might you have done better?

Mr Toby Mason: I think that that deep kind of community engagement, we could have expanded potentially those street teams. They were in a number of areas during the pandemic. I think – yeah, I think that was – that would be the main thing. And just how important that was in terms of particularly around the vaccination programme.

Ms Cowen: Thank you.

There is no mention of any particular efforts made by your team to reach disabled communities in your statement. Are you able to express a view on why that might be, given that disabled people face significant barriers to accessing information during the pandemic and also faced significant digital exclusion?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. That is an omission, I think. We – as with all kind of groups, they were really important. We had the shielding cohort, the shielding group of people, they were written to directly by the Chief Medical Officer on a number of times during the pandemic, and we – during the press conferences, the First Minister and others would address that kind of group directly. But, you know, we were focused on getting the broadest set of messages out to the broadest number of people throughout the pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: So just to be completely clear, when you say that that was an omission, do you mean that that’s an omission from your statement rather than the strategy?

Mr Toby Mason: I think it’s an omission from the statement. I think we were cognisant of that.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I’m now going to ask about engagement across the four nations in terms of communications. You explain in your statement that using the devolved Public Health Act 1984 as the underpinning legislation for NPIs meant that there was always the potential for policy divergence between UK nations, and you say that this made liaison between communications teams in each of the four nations particularly important.

How did you ensure that your team had an effective relationship with the UK Government and other devolved governments?

Mr Toby Mason: This was absolutely – an absolutely vital part of my and my team’s role in this. A lot has been spoken about the potential for confusion due to different rules in different parts of the UK. Very high, if not the top of our list, was to ensure that people in Wales understood the rules that applied to them and what the government’s messages were.

As I said, at the early stages of the pandemic, in fact up until, and it’s been again rehearsed in front of the Inquiry, mid-May 2020, there was – we were in lockstep in communications terms as much as we were in policy terms. Maybe the tone of government communications was different, but it was very, very clear what the core underlying public health messages were. During that period I think liaison was constructive and worked well. The big issue came at the COBR in mid-May –

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just pause you there.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: We may come to the COBR meeting slightly later. I just want to be clear, you have emphasised the importance of effective liaison. Can I just ask, what did you do to ensure that your team had effective liaison at the relevant time?

Mr Toby Mason: No, absolutely. There was liaison at all levels of the communications teams throughout the pandemic. I had contact with the UK Government’s director of communications. The health – our health communications teams were very closely involved with DHSC, Public Health England and the other devolved administrations. But the really critical point was, once the divergence took place, we formalised a four nations communications group of senior leaders, myself, the head of the UK Government’s Covid communications hub and the other devolveds, and that would be a really, really important learning from the pandemic to establish early. I cannot stress that enough.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

The Inquiry understands from your statement that the formal engagement that you describe was in fact a weekly meeting with the head of the Cabinet Office Covid hub and other senior staff. The Inquiry understands that minutes were not taken of these meetings; is that right?

Mr Toby Mason: I don’t have meeting – minutes of those meetings. It may be that – they were convened by Cabinet Office and the Covid hub. They may have minutes of the meetings. My role was very much to kind of feed back, almost in real time, to colleagues working on Welsh Government communications and campaigns, what the latest thinking and direction of travel was in Whitehall.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

In your statement you say that you do not recall any substantial changes to Welsh Government communications strategies as a result of these meetings or any changes to the UK Government communications strategies as a result of their impact upon Wales.

Now, you’ve already explained that you think a key learning point would be to, in the event of a future crisis, set up this meeting again, so it’s clear that –

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – you think it is of value. Can you please explain why you think this group was particularly beneficial?

Mr Toby Mason: Yeah, if I can just clarify on the strategies, what I’m talking about there is the kind of top-level approach, communications approach.

So we had a very distinctive approach in Wales, the UK Government took a slightly different tone and approach in their communications, and while it was useful to understand what was behind those, these meetings weren’t about us telling them “You should change your” –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: There was none of that. Sorry, the question was in terms of?

Counsel Inquiry: It’s what you think the benefit of –

Mr Toby Mason: Oh.

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry, what you think the benefit of this group was.

Mr Toby Mason: Yeah – oh, it was – I think there were – there were, just very quickly, a number of things. Particularly once we got into 2021 there was really good or much better advance sharing of UK Government campaign materials, that would run in Wales. So we were able to look at them and advise the UK Government that if there were things in there that ran counter to the rules that were in place in Wales, that they could try at least to not run them in Wales. That was a really important point. And there was quite an important kind of pastoral point as well. You know, we were all working under quite a degree of stress and, you know, it incredibly useful and supportive to talk to colleagues who were in similar positions in the other governments of the UK.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

In your witness statement you give the example of the Hands, Face, Space … Air campaign of March 2021 as illustrating the complexity of trying to get message alignment based on changing rules in each of the four nations. Can you please explain why this was such an instance of complexity?

Mr Toby Mason: I think again, going back to that top line of – hands, face, space, air are the key protective behaviours that people needed to adopt, based on scientific and medical advice, during the pandemic.

We had no particular issue with UK Government communications and campaigns running in Wales because so long as they were reinforcing the absolutely key behaviours that people needed to keep the prevalence of the virus down, that was a good thing.

The problem was all the content that sat underneath there. So if you had images of, say, people gathering outdoors and it was clearly more than six people gathering outdoors, the rule in Wales at that time might have been no more than six people can gather outdoors. So that was the work.

And I have to say that Cabinet Office civil service colleagues were really diligent in terms of trying to do that, but we were dealing with hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of content at any given time.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If I can please now turn to document INQ000282302.

Mr Toby Mason: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: I see you perhaps recognise this document?

Mr Toby Mason: This is exactly what we were just talking about.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, well, you may need to help me explain this.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: In your statement you say that this document was a spreadsheet that was circulated by the UK Government relating to communications activities they planned to carry out.

Can you recall when this spreadsheet was circulated?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. This would have been – so that phase 1, 29 March in column 3, column A, would have been, I think, 2021, and this indicate – this is a really good example of the fact that, after a year, we did get to a point where Cabinet Office and the UK Government were very cognisant of the issues that were being caused by pieces of content –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: – giving the wrong impression to people in different nations. But this is a tiny part of an even bigger and more complicated spreadsheet that we’ve – I wanted to exhibit this just to illustrate the care that was taken perhaps in the latter stages of the –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: – pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You explain in your witness statement that this spreadsheet was circulated and you or your office were asked to input changes that would need to be made to reflect the variations in rules across the four nations.

If we can, please, look to lines 1 and 2 first really, moving across line 1, at column B and C, which have a yellow background, we can see that the cells are labelled “Wales”, with column B being a yes/no option and column C being headed “Dates”. We can see, moving across line 1, that these column headings are replicated for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and then there are further columns relating to UK-wide matters.

Can we please look at line 26 of the spreadsheet, please. So at column A, we can see the phrase “MEETING UP AGAIN?” Is this row, therefore, about messaging relating to meeting up again?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. This would have been, I think, the – a piece of content that was encouraging people, as we came out of the more onerous restrictions, to meet up safely.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

There’s then more detail provided in column I of line 26, so if we can just scan along to that, please.

Now, still on the topic of meeting up again, column I states that in Scotland, things depend on a child’s age. In Wales, it’s noted:

“Yes, but it should be clear that there are two households – also change line ‘stick to groups of six from a maximum of two households’.”

So can you just explain what meaning should be taken from this entry in the spreadsheet, please.

Mr Toby Mason: The meaning that should be taken from this entry is that that piece of content would have been, would have had the representation of a group of people, probably given it’s around meeting up. What we were effectively saying to the UK Government was: if this piece of content is to run in Wales, this is our – these are the rules that it need to clearly depict to avoid confusing –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Thank you.

Lady Hallett: But if you – sorry to interrupt. But if you take a UK campaign, make it specific to Wales, which I understand the importance to the people of Wales, but then does it have relevance to England?

Mr Toby Mason: So without going too deeply into kind of media buying – so, for example, with digital campaigns, you can – you can have a number of different “meeting up again” pieces of content and they can be sold into – that one piece could be sold into Welsh-facing –

Lady Hallett: So you can tweak it to fit your different audiences?

Mr Toby Mason: You could. And then that one is – would be sold into media that people in Wales might see. You know, WalesOnline, ITV Wales, and it could be differentiated.

One of the big problems we have, if I can just make this point, the problem was that the UK Government, obviously the scale of what they were doing in terms of their media buying, their budgets, was huge. If you buy a cover wrap for The Times newspaper, so the all-encompassing, there’s no Welsh edition of The Times. That is sold in Cardiff in the same way that it’s sold in London. That’s –

Lady Hallett: So you get the same cover wrap?

Mr Toby Mason: Which would refer to English –

Lady Hallett: Yes, I follow.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Cowen: Thank you.

Thank you for your explanation of this line on the spreadsheet. We’ve now looked at one line out of the 29 lines that are on the spreadsheet. Now, I appreciate some of the heading ones are column headings, but there are 29 lines, each line reflects a topic about which public communication was anticipated. Would it be fair to say that at this point the policies across the four nations were so different that clear communications to the public were becoming increasingly difficult?

Mr Toby Mason: There certainly were differences, as you can say. Some of them were sequencing differences, some were more substantive.

I think – and the focus group data and the polling data I think do bear this out – that from a reasonably early period after May 2020 people in Wales became quite attuned, in fact very attuned, I think, to the fact that the rules that they were being asked to follow may differ, and I think that was the overwhelming kind of imperative that we had in our communications, was just to illustrate those as clearly as possible.

I do come back to the press conferences, they were absolutely vital. The First Minister always made it clear that if people tuned in at 12.30 every day they would hear from the Welsh Government on the key messages, the progress of the virus, and any changes to Wales would be announced by the First Minister, not by ministers in London.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

You explain in your witness statement that there were occasions during the pandemic where communications and campaign materials from the UK Government were published in Wales against the wishes of Welsh ministers, and you cite the introduction of the Stay Alert messaging which was introduced in England in May of 2020 as an example of this.

You state that:

“At this point the UK Government’s media buying strategy was UK-wide.”

And you state that it’s your recollection that both the First Minister and the First Minister of Scotland expressed opposition to the Stay Alert messaging at the COBR meeting which took place on the afternoon of 10 May 2020, and expressed a view that campaign material featuring this should not be run by the UK Government in either Scotland or Wales, given the key message in those nations at that point was to stay home.

Mr Toby Mason: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: You state that you were not given advance notice of the Stay Alert campaign prior to its introduction in England and that your recollection was that the first you were aware of this campaign was when you saw it in the Sunday Telegraph on the morning of Sunday 10 May, which was the day of the COBR meeting itself.

Can we please bring up document INQ000281683, please.

This is an email dated 5 May 2020, which you sent to various officials in the Welsh Government, and in this email you summarise a conversation you had with the director of UK Government communications.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: At the fifth paragraph of the email, you state:

“It is pretty clear that after Thursday/Sunday that from the [UK Government] side ‘stay home, save lives’ has gone, all marketing collateral will be removed – the question is what it is replaced with. Could be something as simple as ‘Stay Safe’ as a strapline, with a series of sub-headings around the measures that people and businesses can take (not verbatim but an indication).”

Is it your recollection that the Stay Alert campaign was not discussed in detail in this conversation with the director of the UK Government’s communications team?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. Just to be clear that this was the Tuesday of the week that ended with the COBR on the Sunday, just to give a sense of where we are with this.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: It’s my sense that actually the UK Government had not by this stage settled on what – their kind of campaign approach, so I wouldn’t say there was an attempt not to tell me.

What you see in this email is, I think, pennies dropping in Wales and in the UK Government that the theoretical potential for divergence is about to become real, and you touched on this with Jane Runeckles earlier on.

So my response to that was obviously to make sure that there was a clear record of this conversation, but then what we did was accelerate the development of our own Keep Wales Safe brand. Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS was going to be withdrawn. So this was the kind of impetus for that.

On the point about Stay Alert, yes, I recall conversations very early on that Sunday morning, as we saw the Sunday Telegraph, and it was a kind of “Oh, that’s what they’re going with”. It was then included in the papers for the COBR meeting that we received a couple of hours before on Sunday.

Neither the First Minister of Wales nor the First Minister of Scotland were content with that. That led to comms colleagues in the UK Government having to unpick very rapidly – sorry to use media buying again, but their media buying strategy.

But that was also the reason, I think, that the four nations directors of comms group was set up, was in order to try to avoid that crunch that happened on Sunday’s COBR.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Now, there might be an issue as to whether formal notice of the proposed policy change was given, but even if notice was not given, do you think the Welsh Government could have been more proactive in liaising with the UK Government to agree a communications strategy around this policy change?

Mr Toby Mason: Well, as you can see, we were discussing it at very kind of senior levels. It may not be in this email, but I think it might be on the next page of the email that there was an action from the GPS – yes, if I can read –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Toby Mason: – “For awareness, this is an action from yesterday’s GPS MIG, which may have prompted the call. Home Office and their counterparts in devolved administrations to ensure there is clear public communication of potential differences following Thursday’s review.”

And that was the process. But I think, you know, policy was being decided very close to the wire. Equally, kind of, communications followed that as well.

Counsel Inquiry: You may have answered this already, but just to cover the point, would you agree that the Welsh Government bears some responsibility for confusion around public messaging at this point?

Mr Toby Mason: I don’t believe so. We were very clear: we spoke to the people of Wales. And we spoke to them through our channels, through the press conferences, through all the interviews that, you know, the First Minister and other ministers did. We made sure that we didn’t confine that to Welsh media. So the First Minister would do hundreds of interviews and – you know, Good Morning Britain, you know, BBC Breakfast, BBC network, and what we were trying to do, from this – well, before this but particularly from this stage onwards, was really to educate the London media about the reality of what a devolved pandemic was going to look like, and we invested really quite a bit of resource into doing that. And to be fair, as time went on, I think the London – the UK-based media that we see in Wales did become much better at reflecting the differences across the four nations.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

We’re actually going to come to that point now. I’m going to ask you about some questions about differentiation in communications campaigns.

You note in your witness statement the issue of English-specific campaigns being launched in UK-wide publications. You explain that:

“In light of this, the Cabinet Office made efforts at very short notice to restrict the media buying to England only, but this gave an early indication of the complexity of delivering different messages to different parts of the UK.”

Is it fair then to say that the Cabinet Office did attempt to help the Welsh Government and the other devolved nations when it became aware of issues such as these?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, they did. And I have to say, my relations – as I say in my statement, but for the record, my relations with civil servants in Cabinet Office and other devolved administrations, even when there were policy differences between administrations, were always polite, respectful and we worked very well together.

Cabinet Office I think did what they could. I think one area of frustration, I think it’s picked up by Professor Henderson in her report to Module 2, was quite frequently the UK Government, the Downing Street briefings, even when they were on devolved matters, barely referenced England, and of course those were broadcast across the BBC and other outlets that cover the whole of Wales, and we did make strenuous efforts at every level, including First Ministerial, to try to appeal to them to be more clear.

We didn’t have that problem in the sense that it was very clear that, you know, we were speaking to people in – people in Wales.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Could we now, please, look at document INQ000282289, please. Thank you.

This is a report summarising the findings of a focus group and the report is dated 21 May 2020. If we turn to page 3 of this document, please, and the first and second bullet points there, they state that:

“Participants voiced regret and concern that the UK is no longer taking a joined-up approach to managing the pandemic across all four nations.

“All participants voiced a strong preference for a joined-up, UK-wide … [Document read] … leading to an increase in the spread of the virus.”

What was your view of this feedback at the time, that being May 2020?

Mr Toby Mason: So this was a really important kind of way of taking the temperature. I think the point I would make is that the Welsh Government’s preference was for a joined-up UK-wide response, where there would be greater, you know, co-ordination of approaches between the four nations. I think, as Jane Runeckles said earlier on, once the 1984 Public Health Act is brought in, then divergence becomes a theoretical and then a practical possibility.

I do – I do think – I think later in this focus group I think the participants were also very clear that they favoured the Welsh more cautious approach to what was happening in England, and I think that’s quite important to note.

I don’t think – if you look at the report as a whole, that is not a criticism of the Welsh Government, but they are voicing a preference that the situation we are now in is potentially complex and confusing.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you take any steps to address the point raised by this feedback at the time?

Mr Toby Mason: We just redoubled our efforts to make sure that people in Wales had clarity about the rules as they applied to them.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Of course it isn’t just differences between what the Welsh Government were doing and the UK Government were doing, Scotland did things differently.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. Yes, no, that’s entirely true. I mean, the big issue that we had was the porosity of the media border, particularly between England and Wales, but yes, from a citizens’ point of view there would also be – you know, the First Minister of Scotland would be on the 6 o’clock news announcing a slightly different, be it sequencing or set of rules. Yes.

Ms Cowen: Thank you.

I’d now like to turn to ask you about Wales-specific communication during the pandemic.

You explain in your witness statement that you took a decision that communications within specific pandemic related programmes would be undertaken using the overarching Keep Wales Safe brand in order to build on the trust and recognition that that campaign had accrued. That campaign was developed by the Welsh Government in May of 2020, as what you term a distinctively Welsh brand to communicate the regulations in Wales.

Can you please explain how you arrived at the decision to launch the Keep Wales Safe brand?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. So this goes back to the email that we saw earlier on, which was, at the point of divergence, we couldn’t simply – at that point it was not tenable or correct to follow UK Government messaging, and if there was to be broader divergence, then it needed to be very clear to people in Wales who – that we were speaking to them.

Keep Wales Safe was a phrase that I think the First Minister had been using in some of his even quite early press conferences, and what we found interesting was, in our focus groups, when we asked people “What do you want? What do you want from your government?” overwhelmingly they said “We want to be kept safe and we want our families to be safe”.

So we then worked that up very rapidly in May into a campaign, we tested that back with the focus groups, and there was – they said “Yes, this speaks to us in terms of a Welsh identity but also, you know, the imperative that we want”. And I think that enabled us to have an umbrella brand across all our, kind of, communications activities across all sectors.

The really important thing with Keep Wales Safe is that we flexed it at different times. So we were looking at the data modelling from TAC and TAG, and if it became clear that there was a large potential second or even third wave coming, we would be flexing our campaign planning to have a much harder edged approach. So maybe in the summer months it would be “Let’s keep Wales safe together”, with that very cautious but more permissive view on meeting up.

In the winter, when prevalence was higher, we moved to a much harder edged “Disrupt the transmission to keep Wales safe”. So we, yeah, we found it to be a really, kind of, useful – you know, a really powerful approach.

And I just would also say how bought in our public sector partners were to it, because we did it in a way that enabled them to adapt that content very easily for their kind of local areas with an overarching national brand.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I would just like to pick up on one thing that you talked about earlier in your statement, that was the use of social listening reports.

Can we please bring up document INQ000282290, please.

Now, this is an example of a social listening report. It’s from 2 November 2020. If we go to page 1 of the document, under the heading “Topic mentions in Wales”, we can see there the nature of the summaries produced by the social listening research. If we can go to the bottom of page 1, under the heading “Firebreak”, we can then see snapshots of the top issues that have been picked up on.

Is it fair to say that the social listening exercise produces a very high-level summary and then pulls out specific quotations?

You mentioned earlier that you thought these reports were particularly useful – can you explain, is that right? Did you mean to say that or have I misconstrued you?

Mr Toby Mason: No, they were useful. I think with social monitoring they are a useful general indicator of sentiment, but I think we would never advise ministers and our senior officials, you know, to treat them as being necessarily representative of public sentiment as a whole. It is a useful additional and quite immediate tool, alongside polling and focus groups, but also the feedback that we were getting from our partners as to sentiment on the ground in relation to –

Counsel Inquiry: I see.

Mr Toby Mason: – for example, compliance with regulations.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I’d now like to ask some specific questions about the public messaging campaigns implemented during the pandemic.

If I may, please, begin by asking: why was the focus of public messaging on protecting the NHS and not on other sectors, for example care homes ?

Mr Toby Mason: So that campaign was very much a UK Government campaign, that’s … it was launched I think in – you know, in March. I – my understanding is that the – from what I’ve read, the polling that they were doing, because they did even more kind of polling and focus grouping than we did, indicated that the – a primary driver of people’s behaviours were to protect the NHS and, in order to gain the kind of compliance with the regulations and the stay-home rules, that that would be the primary driver. But we weren’t closely involved in the development of that campaign, we assisted with the way that it ran in Wales.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Second, were communications always delivered in the Welsh language? Do you consider there was parity with English language communications?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. We took bilingualism – well, we have a statutory responsibility as a government to communicate in both languages and not treat one less favourably than the other. Yeah, it was – and one of the things that we did was, and we’ve kind of built on this since the pandemic, is rather than just slavishly translate English into Welsh, you can actually have more, kind of, Welsh idioms that would appeal to, kind of, Welsh speakers as well. So, yes, it was a really important part of our work.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. Reports provided to the Inquiry have also commented on how the government’s use of the term “following the science” was very damaging. To what extent was this a message that featured in the Welsh Government’s communications strategy?

Mr Toby Mason: I wouldn’t necessarily say it was part of the strategy. It was used by ministers at, kind of, press conferences and in interviews. From my point of view, having seen how carefully ministers weighed the, kind of, scientific and medical advice that was in front of them, they – that was their decision to use that.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you have a view on the impact of – that kind of messaging had on the accountability of political decision-makers and the public perception of who made decisions?

Mr Toby Mason: I think it was very, very clear who was accountable for the decisions made in Wales through our communications.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I’d now like to ask some questions about the effectiveness of Wales’ communications strategy.

You explain in your witness statement that your focus group work and your polling enabled you to assess the extent to which the messages and communications were resonating with the public, and the extent to which people were accessing those messages and the likely reaction to potential future restrictions in different circumstances.

Can we please bring up document INQ000066103, please.

This is a further focus group report, and this group – this report, sorry, is dated 13 May of 2020.

Could we please turn to page 2. Thank you, I see that we have that.

That is a summary of the key findings. I would just like to look at two in particular.

The first is at paragraph 4, and that states that:

“Despite some initial confusion, participants felt the distinction between UK and Welsh Governmental announcements is relatively clear.”

To what extent do you consider that that was due to your communications strategy?

Mr Toby Mason: As I’ve said to the Inquiry, that was our objective and it was – it was good to see that being reflected in the – back to us in the focus groups.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Could we now, please, bring up document INQ000327735, please.

This is Dr Goodall’s statement.

Can we, please, turn to paragraph 463, which is at page 115 of the statement. Thank you.

In this part of Dr Goodall’s statement, he summarises the reach of the Keep Wales Safe campaign. He states that it was significant:

“… for example, between April and September 2021, it reached the following percentages of the Welsh population …”

And there is therein set out a breakdown of different groups and how the messaging was being received.

Of note, in relation to the C2, D and E groups, the reach is 93.45%, that’s in fact the lowest percentage in the summary. Why do you think the campaign had the lowest reach amongst individuals in those groups?

Mr Toby Mason: I couldn’t say for sure. What I would say is that these reach numbers are very, very high across the board for any other campaign that a government would run. I’m not sure, it could be a mix of the media buy, but – no, these are very, very high numbers generally.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If we then, please, look at paragraph 464 of the statement, that’s at page 116, thank you.

This states that in the tracker poll carried out in mid-August of 2021, awareness of Keep Wales Safe peaked at 81% of all adults in Wales.

Do you have a view on why this figure is lower than the figures in the previous paragraph?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes. So reach – reach is a theoretical percentage that is generated by – if a campaign runs across these channels at this frequency, that is what the reach of the campaign is. Awareness, which is really important, is more along the lines of: if you ask people to spontaneously say what is the Welsh Government’s key message or what is their campaign, if they reply to you “It’s Keep Wales Safe”, that is the awareness level, and 81% is very good for that, for any campaign.

Lady Hallett: So, putting it – again, sorry, to go back to Scotland, but just so I’m following. So I heard a bit in Scotland about the FACTS campaign and so, had I looked at the reach figures, they might have been quite high because that was the theoretical number that the campaign –

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Lady Hallett: But then when people were asked if they understood what FACTS stood for –

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Lady Hallett: – they didn’t.

Mr Toby Mason: They didn’t. So that would be –

Lady Hallett: So that’s the awareness figure?

Mr Toby Mason: That would be more on the awareness figure, yes. I mean, our decision was we used Keep Wales Safe as an umbrella brand, as I said, and the protective behaviours would sit underneath there rather than have an acronym.

Lady Hallett: Sorry to interrupt.

Ms Cowen: Thank you.

If I could now ask for document INQ000388424 is brought up, please.

I’m sorry, I think that’s probably a mistake.

Lady Hallett: It’s all been redacted.

Ms Cowen: Sections of it have.

If I can ask you, please, to look at a message on page 2, please, and this is a message of 14 March 2020 that is timed at 14.48.39.

This is a message between you and Shan Morgan on WhatsApp, and in this message there is reference to concerns being raised about co-ordination and inconsistency of approach between different parts of the government.

Mr Toby Mason: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: I don’t propose to read the message out, but you can see certainly the text of the message and the concerns that are raised regarding co-ordination.

Do you agree that co-ordination and consistency between the different parts of the Welsh Government at a time of increasing concern around the virus was vitally important?

Mr Toby Mason: My recollection of this period was, it wasn’t so much co-ordination of the government’s approach to tackling the virus, my recollection is that different – we were at a stage when the questions around whether people should work from home or not were becoming very, very live. I think it was more there were some departments that were telling their staff “You should work from home”, others saying “No, come into the office”, I think, and I think the concern – because we had to be, you know, an exemplar, as a Welsh Government, in terms of that, and I think – I think it was more around, kind of, the internal processes.

Counsel Inquiry: So would you agree that an inconsistent approach from within the Welsh Government would have also been confusing for the public and would impact on public perception as regards the severity of the virus and trust in the government?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, I think that was the concern.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I please then just ask you to look at the message at 14.57.07. Shan Morgan therefore says:

“OK – Thanks. Sometimes inconsistency is actually flexibility.”

Why would you agree with that statement given what you’ve just said?

Mr Toby Mason: It … this was a – so there were people … I think a blanket work from home – there were – there were some of us who attended the office throughout most of the pandemic on the basis that there needed to be really close – and things were moving so quickly that there needed to be really close, kind of, co-ordination, so I guess there was an element of there needed to be some flexibility that people – people could. But, you know, I think the point about consistency is really important.

Ms Cowen: Thank you very much.

Thank you, my Lady, that concludes my questions.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much.

I think there’s a question or questions.

Questions From Ms Heaven

Ms Heaven: Good afternoon, I think, Mr Mason. My name is Kirsten Heaven and I represent the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru. So can I start with the topic of face coverings, please.

The day is 9 June and it’s the day of Vaughan Gething’s press statements on face coverings. No doubt you will remember that, but just to give us all a quick reminder: five days before, the UK Government had announced face coverings were mandatory on public transport in England, and in this statement obviously we know Vaughan Gething is simply saying that face coverings will be recommended where social distancing is not possible.

You’re nodding your head, no doubt you remember that well.

Mr Toby Mason: I do.

Ms Heaven: Thank you. So we have some very clear divergence there.

Before I ask you about your email communications on that day trying to sort out the press statement, can I just ask you to confirm – we’ve seen some WhatsApps, I put them to Shan Morgan, we understand they’re with you but your number, I think, was redacted.

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, that’s correct.

Ms Heaven: Yes. So can I just ask you, just if we could bring them up on screen, just so we can confirm you are the person speaking to Shan Morgan.

It’s INQ000388424-004.

My Lady this is the communication around banging of heads on the morning of the 9th and “face mask militancy”.


Ms Heaven: So if we can just zoom in, please, it’s quite hard to see, it’s at the very bottom. There we go:

“Hope all goes well at the press conference – it all sounded a bit muddled …”

Then we think it’s you said:

“A number of heads banged ahead together … thrown as narrow a ring around it has I possibly can to avoid all the knock ons. Still pretty worried. Transport colleagues in the loop from the TFW side.”

Is that you?

Mr Toby Mason: That is, yes.

Ms Heaven: Thank you very much. Well, I’m not going to ask you about that.

Mr Toby Mason: Ah, okay.

Ms Heaven: It’s just to correct the record so that we know that it’s the director of communications that’s speaking to Shan Morgan.

Mr Toby Mason: Yeah.

Ms Heaven: So, again, before I get the email up that I’m allowed to ask you about, a little bit more context.

5 June, the World Health Organisation publishes advice on face coverings, and we know that it recommended that government should be saying that you should wear a face covering, but it also recommended medical masks for vulnerable populations. So that was people over 60 with underlying health conditions.

So let’s look at the series of emails between yourself, Fliss Bennee and others trying to sort out the press statement on the day Vaughan Gething gives his announcement.

So it’s INQ000215458, and it’s 0007, please. Sorry, let’s start at 0006.

Now, this is the email from yourself there. I’m just going to read it to you. Has it come up on the screen? This is the –

Mr Toby Mason: – yes.

Ms Heaven: So you say:

“I’m really concerned about the handling of the 1230 press conference following the 9am call. I don’t believe … [Document read] … sectoral guidance, developed with stakeholders …”

Okay. Now, you appear to be concerned here that if the Welsh Government were to go out in public on 9 June, so in other words Vaughan Gething, and on the website, and tell the vulnerable people in Wales that the WHO are now recommending that they should have medical grade masks, that this would cause really major implications for policy; is that right? That was your concern at this point in time?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, that’s what the email says, yes.

Ms Heaven: What we know eventually happened is that a press statement went out. I think probably Vaughan Gething has given his statement to the public. He makes no mention that the WHO are telling vulnerable people to have medical masks. We’ll come on to that in a moment.

But the press statement that goes on to the government website is just a few pages up. So if you scroll up, please, there is a few iterations but the final version that goes out is at 002, and it goes on to 003.

So if we can just look at 002 there:

“Three-layer face coverings …”

And 003, it goes down.

Now, we don’t need to read it but you can take it from me that there is no reference in this press statement to the fact that the WHO were recommending that vulnerable people should have access to medical masks.

Can you assist us with why that was the case and was that on your advice, that that information should not go to the Welsh public?

Mr Toby Mason: So, I’m kind of reading this as we go along.

Ms Heaven: I appreciate that, yes.

Mr Toby Mason: If we were – this statement says we’re following WHO advice, I would assume that that recommendation is that people in Wales should wear three-layer face coverings. In the previous email that we looked at there was reference to a TAG paper, the Technical Advisory Group paper.

Ms Heaven: Yes, I’ll come on to that in a moment, because that piece of information is also missing from the TAG paper and I was going to ask you about that separately.

Mr Toby Mason: Okay.

Ms Heaven: If we just focus on the initial question –

Mr Toby Mason: Yes.

Ms Heaven: – which is that the WHO, we know, was saying vulnerable people had to have access to medical grade masks. It’s missing from Vaughan Gething’s press statement, it’s missing from the press statement on the Welsh Government website. So I’m just seeking your assistance as to whether or not that was on your advice, because obviously I’ve just read to you an email which says that the issue of medical grade masks “will be pushed beyond today”.

So I’m just seeking to understand, is that something that you advised needed to stay out of the press statements, needed to not be given to the Welsh public and pushed to a later date?

Mr Toby Mason: I – we have this email – I don’t know what the sequence of events were on this morning. What I do know is that while there were, kind of – I could give communications advice about the way particular things would land, ultimately this would have been signed off by Fliss Bennee and others as being the correct government position.

Ms Heaven: Would you accept from me, looking at your email, it’s very clear, isn’t it, that you knew that the WHO were talking about vulnerable people needing access to medical grade masks? You obviously knew that on that day, didn’t you? It’s in your email.

Mr Toby Mason: I presume I did from the email. I don’t – again, I haven’t gone back and looked at the WHO advice itself at this stage.

Ms Heaven: Would you have drafted Vaughan Gething’s statement to the press that day?

Mr Toby Mason: No.

Ms Heaven: Who would have drafted that then?

Mr Toby Mason: It would have been drafted by the relevant press officer, I think.

Ms Heaven: And I did say I was going to assist you on the TAG paper. So the TAG paper that was eventually published on 9 June made no reference to the WHO recommendation that vulnerable people should have access to medical masks. Now, that was the final version that was published. But what I want to understand from you is: do you recollect, was there an earlier version of the TAG paper which did talk about vulnerable people having access to medical masks?

The reason I ask you that is because if we look at your email again, and that’s at 0007, it does reference the TAG paper “bringing a huge number of queries and demands like the provision of medical grade masks to vulnerable people”.

So that would seem to suggest that at one point there was a TAG paper talking about vulnerable people having medical masks, and that that might have then been removed from the one that was eventually published. Can you assist on that?

Mr Toby Mason: So I was not closely involved with development of TAG papers, I didn’t sit on TAG, I don’t – I don’t recall. This is kind of a note after a discussion. But, again, whatever TAG published in the end was their responsibility.

Ms Heaven: Okay. And you could only work on that, presumably, because you’re not the scientist, essentially?

Mr Toby Mason: I’m definitely not a scientist.

Ms Heaven: No.

My Lady, I’ve got one more question. Have I got time?

Lady Hallett: Yes, certainly.

Ms Heaven: Let’s just get through these very quickly then, so – they’re just straight questions, you’ll be pleased to hear.

Why were media communications initially so focused on hand washing, with no focus on Covid-19 being airborne and asymptomatic? So we’re looking here at March to June 2020.

Mr Toby Mason: That was the scientific advice from SAGE and the chief medical officers at the time.

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Again, was there any discussion on public messaging around mitigation for airborne or asymptomatic transmission? So do you remember when that discussion came in?

Mr Toby Mason: Ventilation – I don’t remember exactly when ventilation became a greater issue, I remember it becoming more and more important. And that’s why I think we referred to it earlier on, HF – Hands, Face, Space … Air came in. I would say on that that we incorporated that into our messaging, but it was a good example, that the UK Government worked up a campaign called let’s Stop Covid Hanging Around, it was quite a dramatic campaign, and that was an example of a campaign that we were very happy to run in Wales by the UK Government because it addressed one of the key emerging preventative behaviours.

Ms Heaven: Finally, in late 2021 the Welsh Government ran its Stop Covid Hanging Around campaign and that was by that stage to stress that Covid was airborne, so did you ensure that the Welsh Government’s communication on this was aligned with Public Health Wales and NHS Wales communications to challenge any misleading or confusing guidance from Public Health Wales that might not have aligned with what the Welsh Government were saying?

Mr Toby Mason: I wasn’t aware of any advice that didn’t align with that. As I say, this was a good example of, as the science developed and the understanding of the virus developed, the communications adapted with it.

Ms Heaven: Okay, thank you very much.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Ms Heaven.

Ms Foubister.

Questions From Ms Foubister

Ms Foubister: Thank you, my Lady.

Good morning, Mr Mason, I represent John’s Campaign and Care Rights UK.

In your witness statement and today you’ve spoken about communication with the vulnerable groups, and you referred to particular efforts with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities given the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on them.

Were you aware that Covid-19 and its response had a disproportionate impact on the care sector, for example that in the first three months of the pandemic nearly 40% of Covid deaths were of people in care homes?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, I mean, the issue of care homes was very live within the government, yes.

Ms Foubister: What particular efforts were made to communicate with those involved in the care sector, be it carers, people being cared for at home or living in care homes? Were particular efforts made, and if so what were then?

Mr Toby Mason: So if I divide that into two quick parts. Obviously all our campaign work around preventative behaviours was aimed at the entire population, which would include those working in care homes. Where there were more specific, kind of, technical, sector-specific advice to those working in care homes and those operating care homes, they would have come on a, kind of, stakeholder basis from the director of social services within the Welsh Government out into those – out into that sector.

Ms Foubister: So you refer to specific stakeholder perspective from the director of social services. What communications would have come from them in relation to things that might affect the care sector?

Mr Toby Mason: I don’t know specifically, my role was around the kind of – the entirety of external communications, but I would imagine that there was – that information – as knowledge of the virus and its impact developed, that there would be communication at that level between the Welsh Government, Care Forum Wales and the sector more generally.

Ms Foubister: So it wasn’t part of your role specifically to deal with communications for the care sector specifically?

Mr Toby Mason: No.

Ms Foubister: Are you aware that concerns have been raised that communications relevant to the care sector were inconsistent, confusing and unclear?

Mr Toby Mason: I wasn’t aware of that specifically.

Ms Foubister: Then you might not be able to help with my next question, but do you have any ideas about what could be done to improve clarity of communications with the care sector?

Mr Toby Mason: I don’t – I don’t, in terms of that sort of specific sector. What I do know is that we tried at all times to be very, very clear in all our communications to the whole country about what the level of risk was and the steps people could take to protect themselves.

Ms Foubister: Did you have any expert advice on the communication needs of people in the care sector?

Mr Toby Mason: Not to my knowledge.

Ms Foubister: Finally, was there a single person who was responsible for ensuring that guidance and communications relating to restrictions were clear and consistent?

Mr Toby Mason: Do you mean for the care sector or more generally?

Ms Foubister: In general or the care sector specifically.

Mr Toby Mason: In general terms, we as a government had a collective responsibility for making sure that the communications around regulations and behaviours were clear. On the care sector more specifically, that would sit, I think, with probably the relevant Welsh Government department or the local authority director of social services.

Ms Foubister: Do you think it might be helpful going forward for there to be someone specific targeted with ensuring clear consistency in communications for future situations like this?

Mr Toby Mason: Yes, I mean, I – that was ultimately my responsibility and the responsibility of the wider government.

Ms Foubister: Thank you.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much.

Thank you very much, Mr Mason. I think we’ve put

you through the difficult task of marking your own

homework for long enough, so thank you for your help.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: I shall return at 1.45.

(12.50 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: I hope we haven’t kept you waiting.

The Witness: Not at all.

Mr Poole: Can I call Simon Hart, please.

Mr Simon Hart

MR SIMON HART (sworn).

Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2B

Mr Poole: Could you please start by giving us your full


Mr Simon Hart: Yes, Simon Anthony Hart.

Lead 2B: Mr Hart, thank you for attending today and for your

evidence and assisting the Tribunal.

If I can ask you to just keep your voice up so that

I can hear you, so that everyone hears you, but also so

your evidence can be recorded.

If I do ask you something that you don’t understand,

just ask me to rephrase it.

If we could, please, have a look at your witness

statement, please, at INQ000270271.

That is dated 30 August. Now, we just need to make one correction to that.

If we can have paragraph 12, thank you very much.

You refer in the second and third sentence there to attending a tabletop exercise held on 12 February 2020, but I understand, having considered this further and having seen the minutes of that tabletop, you can now confirm that you did not attend that exercise, so we should just score through those second and third sentences of that paragraph; is that right?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: Subject to those corrections, are the contents of those statements true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: Mr Hart, you are currently the Chief Whip of the House of Commons, and MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. You previously, though, served as Secretary of State for Wales from December 2019 until July 2022; is that right?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: It’s in that capacity, as Secretary of State for Wales, that you were asked to provide a statement to this module. If I can, I would like to ask some general questions about the role of the Secretary of State for Wales and also the Wales Office, before moving on to

explore with you the relationship between the

UK Government and the Welsh Government during the


So during the period with which we are concerned,

namely January 2020 to May 2022, you were the

Secretary of State for Wales and David TC Davies was the

Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Wales; is that


Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: You tell us at paragraph 8 of your witness statement

that the office of the Secretary of State Wales has only

a very small number of policy responsibilities, you say

most notably as custodians of the Welsh devolution

settlement, ensuring its smooth and effective operation.

Now, the Inquiry last week heard evidence from

Professor Wincott about the devolution settlement.

I don’t want to get into a discussion with you about

devolution. It is right, though, as Secretary of State

for Wales, you were responsible, were you not, for

representing Wales’ interests in matters that are

reserved to the UK Government?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: You were also responsible for ensuring that the concerns

and priorities of Wales are taken into account in the

decision-making of the UK Government; is that right?

Mr Simon Hart: That’s also correct.

Lead 2B: In your witness statement, you say:

“[The Wales Office] was not responsible for making key policy or operational decisions in response to the pandemic … in England or Wales …”

But you say you had a:

“… crucial role during the Specified Period in ensuring Wales was fully considered in UK Government decision making relating to the pandemic response, feeding in views and opinions from Wales and, so far as we were able, ensuring co-operative working between the UK Government and the Welsh Government.”

Is that right?

Mr Simon Hart: That’s also right.

Lead 2B: And that’s how you saw your role during the relevant period?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: The Secretary of State for Wales is a member of the UK Cabinet; correct?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: You also attended COBR meetings during the pandemic?

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: Was the expectation that you would serve effectively as the voice of Wales at UK Cabinet meetings?

Mr Simon Hart: Not exclusively, because Welsh Government was – not at a lot of the COBR meetings, but at cabinet, yes.

Lead 2B: So at cabinet you are the voice for Wales –

Mr Simon Hart: Correct.

Lead 2B: – but at COBR, because it wasn’t just you representing Wales there, sometimes it would be the First Minister, the minister for health?

Mr Simon Hart: Indeed.

Lead 2B: I want to ask you next some questions about intergovernmental relations, and that’s a topic I’ll come back to a bit later on when I look at certain periods during the pandemic, but just generally I think you were aware that the UK Government and the devolved administrations concluded at an intergovernmental review of intergovernmental relations – it was January 2022 that a report was published.

If we can have INQ000083215, thank you. First page, third paragraph, please.

As it says in this paragraph:

“Following a review of intergovernmental relations this document sets out new structures and ways of working.”

If I can just have a look at, I think it’s page 3, paragraph 11, we see there these new what are called “Engagement Structures”, so in other words the intergovernmental relations framework that is to supersede the Joint Ministerial Committee system, and this provides a three-tier committee structure.

So top tier of engagement we have the Prime Minister and heads of devolved governments council. Then if we can zoom out we can see the middle tiers there consistent of a general inter-ministerial standing committee, and the finance inter-ministerial standing committee. And then if we can zoom out again, the lowest tier is – consists of inter-ministerial groups.

Just help me, where does the Wales Office fit into this new three-tier committee structure?

Mr Simon Hart: It fits into all of it, if that’s not an evasive answer, because the Wales Office has different levels of responsibility, different levels of ministerial rank, as you said, starting with cabinet but also across a lot – a number of cabinet committees and other government committees as well.

It’s also – its relationship with other government departments, OGR – OGTs, I think we call them, is quite relevant in all of this, because we – therefore there is a sort of interlocking role that the Wales Office plays. But actually most of it is all conducted at official level. I think some of it’s – only two ministers, as you know, in the Wales – so most of this is done at official level, and that spreads across all three of those tiers.

Lead 2B: Do you have a view how this new set of arrangements set out and described here, this three-tier system, whether that would be effective at managing intergovernmental relations were there to be a future pandemic?

Mr Simon Hart: It’s – one of the things I think we will come to is whether the process and the outcomes totally overlapped. I’m not sure that this current structure necessarily does – would achieve that, for reasons that we’ll come to. I think it’s a step in the right direction. I think the arrival, actually, of Michael Gove on the scene to oversee these processes did make a profound difference to the way the various governments in the UK worked together. So I think it’s an important piece of work, but I don’t think it’s the magic solution that everybody’s looking for, either in terms of pandemic control or indeed any of the other policy areas which we wrestle with and where devolution ends and where reserved matter begin. And I think one of the things which dawned on us during all of this is nothing is truly devolved and nothing is truly reserved.

Lead 2B: You have touched on the calls with Michael Gove, the so-called CDL calls.

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah.

Lead 2B: You’re aware that the First Minister was a very vocal advocate for what he described as a reliable and regular pattern of contact between all four nations, and the Inquiry’s heard evidence that those CDL calls, the calls between First Ministers of the devolved administrations and Mr Gove, began in around June 2020.

You attended those calls; is that right?

Mr Simon Hart: Yep.

Lead 2B: Now, given that Mr Gove was leading on those calls on behalf of the UK Government, what was the purpose of your attendance on those calls?

Mr Simon Hart: He tried to include as many different, I suppose, political stakeholders, you could call them, as possible, so it made absolute sense to him that any government department which had a – which was active in any of the devolved nations should be part of those calls. For example – I think DWP, for example, would have been a part of that, say, as a major part of the Welsh economy. So he would have had as many people – the cast list was always quite big, but it was deliberately big.

Lead 2B: Would the cast list change depending on the topic that was to be discussed on the call or was the cast list effectively –

Mr Simon Hart: It might do by a – but not by much –

Lead 2B: But you –

Mr Simon Hart: – might be occasions – I think there would have been occasions, actually, when we weren’t included but Welsh Government were. I definitely remember that in COBR, there were occasions when it was considered that the most crucial decision-making body would have been Welsh Government, therefore there wasn’t any point in the Wales Office being there. That was fine, completely accepted that, and that was a decision which was taken just according to the agenda and the way in which the disease control was going at the time.

Mr Poole: Mr Hart, you’re talking quite quickly and I’m told that the stenographer is finding it quite difficult to record your evidence.

Lady Hallett: It’s very difficult to change one’s speech patterns, I know.

Mr Simon Hart: I shall slow down.

Lady Hallett: I think you just have to breathe a lot more.

Mr Poole: Now, the First Minister in his written evidence to the Inquiry has described these meetings, so these meetings and calls with Mr Gove, as working well, because, he says, all participants came together looking to share information, solve problems and work together on agendas of common concern.

Do you share the view of the First Minister?

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah, I think by and large that’s fairly accurate. I think in many respects they worked better than a lot of people were anticipating. Also, given there was a wide range of views on our Covid response, expressed by a lot of people with some very polarised political opinions, it was remarkable that they worked as well as they did.

Lead 2B: So this is possibly one of the more positive examples of intergovernmental relations during the course of the pandemic?

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah, I think I’d agree with that.

Lead 2B: Mr Johnson has said in his written evidence to the Inquiry that he chose not to meet with the First Ministers because, in his view, this would have been optically wrong for fear that this would give a false impression that the UK was a federal state. Now, wearing your Secretary of State hat, what’s your reaction to that statement of Mr Johnson’s?

Mr Simon Hart: I think it made sense. It made sense at the time and when I re-read it now it still makes sense. There had to be some kind of structure. There was probably no structure that everybody would have agreed with, but if the PM was the field marshal, Gove was the general, and there needed to be some kind of pyramid which people understood and could refer to, and it was quite right that, with CDL, Michael Gove being – having the wide responsibility that he did, it was actually much more productive for him to be the person who chaired those meetings and who had those direct relationships with the First Ministers than the Prime Minister himself. I think it made perfect sense.

Lead 2B: Now, as Secretary of State for Wales, you obviously want to ensure that the concerns and priorities of Wales are taken into account in the decision-making of the UK Government, and as we discussed earlier that was one of your roles as Secretary of State for Wales.

Did you consider these calls with Mr Gove an adequate replacement for meetings that would have taken place, for example, under the JBC(sic)?

Mr Simon Hart: Well, the manner in which they took place, which was largely remote, was inevitable because we were subject to Covid restrictions.

I thought the meetings were quite productive. Gove chaired them well. They covered the subjects which we needed to cover and there was significant official activity in the run-up and in the aftermath of those meetings. So even though the meetings themselves might have been relatively brief and reasonably crisp, what they covered and the decisions they reached were, as I say, by and large one of those activities of activity I don’t remember too many people complaining about at the time.

Lead 2B: I think, just for the transcript, I think I said JBC; I obviously mean JMC.

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah.

Lead 2B: Now, we’ll come to look at some of the letters you exchanged with the First Minister during the pandemic a little later in your evidence, but how often would you actually speak with the First Minister of Wales during the pandemic?

Mr Simon Hart: Quite rarely. We would have been on the same calls from time to time. We would have been in the same COBR meetings from time to time. Did we have a regular dialogue of phone calls on a, you know, pre-determined date? No, we didn’t. But actually I don’t think we needed to, and I think sometimes there’s a sort of belief that – in my world – that meetings are the cure for everything, but actually we met when we needed to. People met when they needed to, hopefully no more, and certainly no less. So, yeah, we spoke, but, as I say, there was no regular pattern to that.

Lead 2B: In light of your answer to that question it might be that you agree with the First Minister on this point. The First Minister in his written evidence has described you as being peripheral to his interaction with the UK Government. Now, have you got any comment on that?

Mr Simon Hart: It’s an interesting expression. I don’t necessarily disagree with it because the point of contact was CDL to the First Minister, so that was fine. We were there, ourselves, the Scottish secretary, and one or two of those were there for a slightly different reason, so that – I’m not parochial about that point. I think I might have phrased it differently but I don’t disagree fundamentally.

Lead 2B: I would like to ask you next about the period leading up to the first national lockdown. The impression one gets from reading your witness statement is that it wasn’t until mid-March that, to use your words, the gears of governments changed and the focus shifted to managing the pandemic. Is that a fair reading of your evidence?

Mr Simon Hart: Oh, it was definitely the case that in the early stages of awareness, when the nation, the UK, became aware of the pandemic, and what it was capable of, and what the worst-case scenario could look like, then that process started to speed up –

Lead 2B: Sorry to interrupt you, just stopping you there, when do you say that was, that people became aware, within government, about reasonable worst-case scenario and that there would be a need to speed up the response?

Mr Simon Hart: The moment when the severity of what was heading in our direction became really apparent, I think, was in the first COBR meeting that was called. And I will have to refer to the notes as to when that was. But the first COBR meeting was when all of the – I think, pretty well the whole cabinet plus Welsh Government and many others were in the room, and I think it was at that stage that Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty explained in pretty stark terms what was – what was likely – what was possible, what might happen. I think at that moment everybody refocused and put a significant amount more priority into whichever element of disease control or avoidance that we were responsible for, and everything else got parked while we were trying to – while we were trying to achieve that.

Lead 2B: Now, obviously that first COBR meeting was well before mid-March and it’s – just going back to your statement, where you say that it wasn’t until mid-March that the gears of governments changed.

Just before I ask the question, just to be clear, when you say the gears of governments, plural, changed are you talking here UK Government, Welsh Government or both?

Mr Simon Hart: I think it’s both. I can’t – I’m not here to speak for Welsh Government but I think it’s both because – you know, governments don’t do 0 to 60 very quickly, they’re big machines, they’re inherently and frustratingly slow, and even with the – even with the urgency with which we knew we had to address this, and the realisation that there was an emergency probably already upon us, let alone heading our way, still the machine takes a bit of time to get up to the, you know, appropriate speed.

Could argue that – you know, when was that? Did it happen at all? And we could talk about that. But the effort started early on, but the machine, the lag time would have been a few weeks, yeah.

Lead 2B: Because obviously mid-March is but a week before the national lockdown on 23 March, so does it not strike you as worrying that it wasn’t until mid-March that the gears of governments changed?

Mr Simon Hart: I – with the benefit of hindsight, could we have done things differently? Could we have done things faster? I think that’s something which clearly this Inquiry will reach a conclusion on. I do remember the numerous meetings at the time, either in COBR or in Cabinet, or in the margins of all of those meetings, meetings – internal meetings with officials in the Wales Office and other departments at the time. I just … I remember everybody coming to terms with what the lockdown actually meant. Nobody in government has ever done anything like that before. Nobody had really been faced with what the economic consequences, what the social consequences were of what we were heading towards, and that sense of inevitability, that we were about to embark on something that nobody in the – nobody in any of the countries affected by Covid had ever done before.

So we were aware of what the sort of medical risk was, we were also becoming increasingly aware of what the economic risk was, and trying to find a balance which protected the economy, protected people’s livelihoods and jobs at the same time as managing disease control. And there was a – I just remember a very – a passage of time when we were – there was an expression at the time, if you remember, which was about “following the science”, and I think that was often misinterpreted as just follow the medical science, that was the only science out there to follow. There was behavioural science too, and we were conscious of and worried of how much public patience that we could demand and expect when we went into lockdown.

So although it wasn’t quite your question, that question about did we go into lockdown too late, too soon, right time, was as much governed by what we thought we could expect of the public, as it was some of the medical advice that Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were giving at the time. It was a very fine balance, and a lot of difference of opinions on that. And, you know, history will now relate as to whether that balance was right and, if we did it again, would we come to a different timing conclusion.

Lead 2B: Now obviously, Mr Hart, we’re concerned in this aspect of the Inquiry with the Welsh Government’s core decision-making during the pandemic, and you mention in your witness statement that you in fact had to give evidence to a Senedd committee on 9 March, I think you say, and you make a point of saying in your witness statement:

“There was nothing unusual in this event other than to note, in hindsight, the complete lack of any mention of the growing pandemic …”

Then you also go on to say that in this period, January to March, your engagement with Welsh ministers was nothing out of the ordinary and that your feeling at the time was one was getting on with business as usual.

So the sense one gets from your witness statement is that your understanding was the Welsh Government were not engaging with the pandemic at this stage up until, as you say, mid-March, when the gears of governments changed. Is that right?

Mr Simon Hart: I think it would be wrong to deduce from that that there was any complacency on the part of Welsh Government in their defence. I think there was – I can’t underestimate how much, at the time, people were learning as we went along. I just cannot underestimate the fact that this was territory nobody, literally nobody, had ever been in before. And my recollection of it was that, as people became aware of the risks and understood more about the disease and what it was capable of, everybody I came across, whether they were politicians or whether they were officials, whether they were volunteers, members of the public or anything else, more and more people literally devoted every hour of the day and every ounce of their energy to trying to do their bit to do the right thing at the right time.

And sometimes in the recollection of this it almost seems like people, sort of, didn’t care or they made callous decisions for thoughtless reasons, whether it’s – whether it was Welsh Government, who I know you take evidence from, or anybody else I saw, but particularly the civil service and officials, I – we might have made some profound mistakes but the desire to try to get this right was very evident very early on, as soon as people became aware of what was – as I say, the expression I use – what was heading our way.

Lead 2B: In your statement talking about your role you say:

“[It] evolved, increasingly, to that of a critical friend of the Welsh Government …”

So perhaps acting as a critical friend of the Welsh Government, do you think that the Welsh Government was slow to recognise the seriousness of Covid in the period January to March 2020?

Mr Simon Hart: I think, by the way, we were a critical friend of UK Government too, it was our job to be able to report into other departments, and indeed Number 10, of our experiences and observations from what was going on in Wales, so it wasn’t exclusively for the benefit of Welsh Government.

Given where we were and given the manner with which we were – the way in which we were addressing the disease, which was through public health legislation rather than through civil contingencies legislation, I don’t think I could sit here in all honesty and say that Welsh Government were deliberately slow on the uptake. I think Welsh Government reacted, given the resources and knowledge that it had at the time, probably much the same as other governments. That may one day be concluded as being too little, too late. That’s not for me to conclude. But I didn’t witness anything which would enable me to say – to give you an affirmative answer on that.

Lead 2B: You’ve mentioned the legislative choice that was made in your previous answer, so the fact that the Civil Contingencies Act was not used but public health powers were used to respond to the pandemic, and you say in your witness statement that, whilst this had the advantage of bespoke approaches being adopted to respond to the particular circumstances of the pandemic in each nation, you say it had the disadvantage of a confusing plethora of different requirements and restrictions establishing internal borders in the UK which had not existed to the same extent previously.

Now, the Inquiry has heard evidence in Module 2, in particular from Mr Johnson, who in his view said that the UK, in the event of a future pandemic, should be treated as a single epidemiological unit, and the best approach is a UK-wide one with no differences between the four nations.

Do you share that view?

Mr Simon Hart: I shared it at the time and, looking back now, I’m even more emphatically of that belief.

And it looks from the First Minister’s written evidence that he’s not a million miles away from that position either. He, I think, expresses surprise that the crisis wasn’t dealt with by way of civil contingencies legislation. I think that’s quite early on in his own evidence. And if there was a single thing – if there was a single sentence which I could conclude my evidence to you, it would be that. It is that area, it is that decision, which, if we were to do it again, I would do differently, more so than pretty well everything else.

Lead 2B: When you say “do it differently”, so not use public health powers, and the quid pro quo would be, what, to use the Civil Contingencies Act?

Mr Simon Hart: I remember a minister in COBR when the debate took place very early on and the question was raised about: do we proceed on the basis of public health legislation or civil contingencies? And the conclusion was reached that it was more appropriate via public health legislation.

I think, if my memory serves me right, because that would only need to go to Parliament for renewal less frequently than civil contingencies legislation would. I think we would have had to update civil contingencies legislation more frequently than we would public health, so the decision was reached. And I remember a minister just saying in the meeting “If this isn’t a civil contingencies emergency I don’t know what is”. And so there was some question right at the start about whether – about which road we should go down. And it may not have changed – if we had done that, by the way, it may not have changed the outcome, there might have still been decisions which were taken which might not have been, with the benefit of hindsight, the right ones, but what we would have been able to do is present, I think, a much more consistent and much simpler, much plainer set of proposals, restrictions, principles than we were able to do subsequently.

And I’m not obviously pointing a finger of blame. It was inevitable, once we had three, four different administrations, all with sort of slightly different ideas about how to deal with this, but a population which was very fluid, this was going to lead to problems. And I found it increasingly disturbing that we were looking at the problem through the lens of a political boundary, geographical boundary, between England and Wales, in my case, rather than looking at the population and the way the population and the economy crosses the border, without – without a second thought for that kind of thing.

And, you know, as I say, I’ve concluded on many occasions if I had the power to change it that’s what I would have done.

Lead 2B: Now, one of the obvious implications of using public health powers, as you allude to, is divergence, and you make the point in your witness statement, you say in the early phase of the national lockdown all four nations worked closely together, but by May 2020 you say you had become “concerned about the risk of this unity of purpose starting to fray”, and you specifically identify the Prime Minister’s announcement of 10 May. So that’s the announcement where the UK Government changed its overarching public health message from Stay Home, Save Lives to Stay Alert, Save Lives but the decision was taken in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland to keep the message of Stay Home, Save Lives.

Now, it would be right, would it not, that 10 May was a real turning point in terms of four nation co-ordination?

Mr Simon Hart: I’m not sure who is making that assertion.

I go back to what I said earlier on. This was a period of intense and unpredictable activity, and I think there were moments when the relationship between four nations worked well and there were moments when it didn’t. I think that was entirely to be expected. It might well have been the case if we’d been under civil contingencies legislation as well, who knows. And if there was another, God forbid, pandemic, I have absolutely no doubt that there would be similar tensions.

We were – we were – we were fighting something nobody had ever had any experience of doing before, and the idea that that could be kind of seamlessly resolved by just a series of more regular meetings is for the birds. This was always going to be very, very complex, very, very contentious, it was going to trigger all sorts of political and practical rows.

So, turning point, there were high points, there were low points, but I don’t think there was a turning point.

Lead 2B: You say in your witness statement that increasingly over time you were left with the feeling that Welsh ministers actively sought differentiation in their approach, compared to the UK Government’s in England, and you say “for no other reason than to be different and to set Wales apart from other nations in the UK”, so in other words you thought Wales were being different for the sake of being different?

Mr Simon Hart: It was – I – I’m afraid with – more in sadness than anger, I do believe that to be the case, because if you approached the whole thing from the point of view of outcomes rather than processes, it was difficult to see any evidence which suggested that the outcomes were going to be or were any different as a result of some of the divergent policies which were emerging.

The rates of spread, all of the things which we read about with increasing horror every day were largely the same over the whole of the UK. You could make some perfectly reasonable differentiations based on population dynamics and that sort of thing, but the idea that there was any significant geographical difference between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England wasn’t supported by evidence, in my view.

And so – and where you have a population, and we frequently used to publicly have this debate at the time, where there’s 100,000 people every day of every week who are going over the border from England to Wales for work purposes or medical purposes or whatever it might be, we were picking up, and we were simply representing the views of quite a lot of stakeholders, quite a lot of stakeholders in the Welsh economy at the time, we were picking up increasing frustration from people saying “I don’t understand the difference, I don’t know whether” – I mean, when I used to go to London, I mean, I remember Great Western used to send out a tannoy message halfway under the Severn Tunnel saying “Put on your mask”, or “Take off your mask”.

Anything which led to confusion, anything that led to contempt, anything that led to sort of lack of confidence in the process that was in place were potentially dangerous, in my view, and that’s why we were articulating the views, to UK Government as well as Welsh Government, that we should stick as closely as we possibly could to similar measures across the whole of the UK as was possible, and every time we diverged from that, I – rather than save lives, I think what it did is cause confusion.

Lead 2B: Now, confusing public messaging is one thing, but here aren’t you going further than that, you’re saying that the Welsh Government’s motivation for making decisions was simply to be different for the sake of being different; is that really what you’re suggesting?

Mr Simon Hart: It was unquestionably a reflection of what people within Wales were telling us and Welsh stakeholders were telling us, the Welsh economy was telling us. And in the absence of any evidence to suggest that the divergence was going to have the effect that it was argued, then it was difficult to reach any other conclusion from time to time.

So I don’t say this with any sense of glee. I think in a moment of national, international emergency like this was, I think the risk of that being the only conclusion that people could reach was heightened and what genuinely worried me was if that’s where people – what people were thinking, then their enthusiasm, if there was such a thing, for complying with the regulations was going to be compromised. And that ultimately was bad for everybody. And that’s why we said what we did.

Lead 2B: If we can please have a look at a document, it’s an email read-out of a meeting that you had with Ken Skates on 26 March 2020.

It’s INQ000128940.

If we can have a look, please, at the second bullet point:

“[Secretary of State] …”

So this is you, Mr Hart:

“… thanks [Ken Skates] for this, but says there have been some occasions where [Welsh Government] has decided to do things differently without immediate clarity as to what differences have been pursued. [Secretary of State] raises diversion on business rates and definitions of key workers, particularly in cross-border areas. These can look like political opportunism, even though, there are likely valid reasons for divergence.”

So you appear there to concede that whilst it might look like the Welsh Government are simply making decisions for the sake of being different, there are likely to be valid reasons for divergence. Do you stand by that?

Mr Simon Hart: I was – I thought Ken Skates, by the way, was one of the standout performers in Welsh Government during this process, and he was somebody who was able to leave any party political differences well behind him in our shared desire to reach the right place.

I think this was me being as tactful as I possibly could in the circumstances, but I think if Ken was here he would – we talked about this a lot. If there were valid reasons for divergence, I’m not completely sure what they were, and more importantly I’m not completely sure what effect they had.

Lead 2B: We’ve talked about the Prime Minister’s announcements, so the change of UK Government policy to – from Stay Home to Stay Alert.

The public statement the Prime Minister made – we can see it, it’s INQ000065338 – we don’t need to read it but just to make the point that this change of policy obviously applied to England only, yet if we were to read that statement, you can take it from me that there is very little in there to suggest that these were England-only measures, and that was a concern we heard from Toby Mason a moment ago.

My question is simply this, Mr Hart, that was a concern raised by the Welsh Government; did you take any steps as Secretary of State for Wales the voice of Wales in the UK Cabinet to ensure that UK Government public health communications were clearer when they were only meant to apply to England?

Mr Simon Hart: Frequently I remember our sort of comms people talking to the media about making clear what was Wales only, what was UK-wide, what was England-only. It was an ongoing problem, it would often occur every day.

And it absolutely illustrates the point I was trying to make about the civil contingencies route, because we were frequently in situations where BBC Wales for example would be reporting the First Minister’s position minutes before there was a press conference in London with the Prime Minister making his comments, and any gap in between those two things was immediately seized on by people who were either angry or confused. Neither of those sentiments was helpful as far as disease control was concerned.

And it absolutely illustrates why I think if we were to relive this pretty dreadful time we’d need to do it on a UK-wide basis, because the idea that there was an England-only problem or a Wales-only problem is nonsense, it was a UK – it was a global problem but it was definitely a UK problem, and the idea that we could subdivide it into even smaller responses I think just made the situation more complicated than it needed to be.

Lead 2B: On 2 April 2020 you spoke to Vaughan Gething, and we’ve got a note of that call.

It’s INQ000256824.

And it’s I think eight lines up from the bottom of that email on that first page:

“SH said he felt he had a role to scrutinise/interrogate decisions whilst not wanting to get in the way.”

Then if we can go further up that email chain, I think it’s seven lines down in the second email, Vaughan Gething says that he:

“… did not pick an argument over [your] self-appointed scrutiny role.”

Now, we discussed obviously the role of the Secretary of State for Wales earlier on; was scrutinising and interrogating decisions of the Welsh Government really part of your role?

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah. I think it was. Absolutely I think it was. We were having representations from individuals, professionals, public servants, businesses, all the time, every day of every week, asking us –

Lead 2B: Within – sorry to interrupt you. Within Wales?

Mr Simon Hart: To the Wales Office. In Wales, yes. Welsh businesses, Welsh public servants coming to us saying “Please represent our views to Welsh Government”. So that’s exactly what we did. And I think it’s – in precisely the same way, by the way, as I think Welsh Government were not shy in doing when it came to UK Government decisions, and there’s quite a lot of references in the media to an ongoing critique being provided by the First Minister of Boris Johnson during this time.

And I actually – I don’t object to that. I mean, I think it caused a bit of confusion, which I do object to, but I think the idea that any of us should be above or beyond some degree of scrutiny is – is – I don’t feel comfortable with that at all, and frankly we should all, you know, in our – in our roles we should be prepared for a bit of that, and I think in a moment like this it’s absolutely right that we should say “Hang on a minute, are you sure you’ve got this right?” That’s all that was.

Lead 2B: Moving into April, we know that on 24 April the Welsh Government published “Leading Wales out of the coronavirus pandemic: a framework to recovery”. Don’t need that to be displayed, but on the same day you wrote to the First Minister, and if we could have your letter – it’s INQ000256843 – like to look at the third paragraph, please.

This is talking about that framework, a framework for recovery, and you say:

“As written, the framework alludes to the possibility of a separate path for Wales out of the lockdown.”

Then the next paragraph, please, if we zoom out and zoom back in, bottom of that page:

“I also note that the framework does not mention the UK Government once, despite us being a key partner of the Welsh Government as we respond to the outbreak. This will not go unnoticed. Our Governments are working well together and I believe we need to demonstrate our continuing commitment to do so.”

What do you mean when you say “This will not go unnoticed”? By whom will it not go unnoticed?

Mr Simon Hart: People who were increasingly concerned that there was a disconnect between UK Gov and Welsh Government, and it wanted to at least have the confidence that there was a joined up collegiate approach, not only to the economic package but also to disease control, as indicated in reference to military support in there.

And I just thought it would have been helpful, rather than sort of feeling indignant for being left out, I just thought it’d be helpful for the public to know that the full joined up might of the UK and Welsh Government was acting in lockstep in order to achieve these aims. I thought that would have been a helpful observation to make. And it would have – it would have minimised the opportunity for the media to suggest that there was more – more of a division than was the case. So I thought it was a helpful suggestion that – in a comms sense, which we should have signed up to.

Lead 2B: Would it be fair to describe this as a bit of a shot across the Welsh Government bows to fall into line?

Mr Simon Hart: No, not really. No, no, no, no. I think that – I don’t think people should see demons where demons don’t exist. We were, as I’ve said before, in a period of very intense activity, and I think it is perfectly reasonable for UK Government and devolved government during that time to challenge each other, to try to better understand the reasons behind and the evidence behind divergence, if divergence is necessary. Perfectly happy to do that in relative privacy of an exchange of letters, but I don’t think – I don’t think that it was necessarily unsurprising that from time to time that could be contrived as being inflammatory. It wasn’t intended to be inflammatory but I think the idea that we should, you know, shine a light at each other’s policy areas and activities from time to time is – is part and parcel of a response to a crisis of this magnitude.

Lead 2B: Now, this letter, and we don’t need to go to the relevant part of it, but it refers to the “Military Aid to Civil Authorities process”. Can you just very briefly explain what that process is for us.

Mr Simon Hart: It’s basically where Welsh Government come to us requesting assistance from the Ministry of Defence, normally in the form of personnel, more often than not for ambulance support with the Welsh ambulance service and also through the vaccination programme.

And each time that a request was made for X number of service personnel to assist with the vaccine roll-out or the medical response, that required a sign-off from the MoD and from the Wales Office. That was the same in Scotland as well as in Wales, and I don’t think there was a single occasion where we declined a MACA request.

Lead 2B: So all requests were approved?

Mr Simon Hart: I’m pretty certain. Right at the end, I think there might have been a MACA request or two where the number bid for wasn’t met but – for example, there might have been 100 personnel bid for, the MoD was able to release 50 or 75. Those are my – I’ve just made up those numbers, but there was sometimes a bit of a deal to be done, simply because of the availability of personnel at the time.

Lead 2B: Do you consider that the MACA process worked well during the pandemic?

Mr Simon Hart: I think it worked fantastically well. I think it was one of those examples of where everybody sort of got over themselves and were able to join in a common endeavour. And the MoD – I remember being vaccinated myself from a guy from – seconded to Tenby from Cambridge and was incredibly proud of the work they did, really felt he was contributing to the “war effort”, as he described it. And those kind of examples were – I think, you know, raised the morale of everybody in the area and who was affected by them.

Lead 2B: Just staying on the topic of intergovernmental relations, part of your – I think it’s paragraph 39 of your witness statement.

Perhaps we could have this displayed, so it’s INQ000270271.

And it’s page 9 of your witness statement, paragraph 39. You refer to some correspondence between yourself and the First Minister during this period, so we’re now in May 2020, and you say:

“It also became increasingly clear to me that the open and unified ‘big tent’ approach of the UK Government since the start of the first national lockdown, whereby Ministers from the devolved administrations had been invited to attend a wide range of UK Cabinet meetings including COBR-M and various Ministerial Implementation Groups (MIGs), was not being reciprocated by the Welsh Government.”

Was it your view that co-operation between the two governments was essentially a bit of a one-way street?

Mr Simon Hart: It felt a bit like that at times, and – it didn’t cause us sleepless nights, I might add, and we weren’t exactly looking for extra meetings to go to, there were plenty to choose from. What we thought it would – what we were trying to achieve here was the ability to turn to the press, turn to the public in Wales to say, you know, we are arm in arm. UK Government Welsh Government arm in arm.

And we thought the best way or one way of doing that was to be in the same room, not necessarily with a speaking part or a vote or a power of veto or anything like that, just to be there. In the same way that the First Minister and others attended COBR meetings, we thought it would be helpful if David TC Davies, who we mentioned earlier on, was able to attend a weekly meeting in Cardiff or something like that. We thought optically that would be quite beneficial.

It turned out that view wasn’t shared, but we gave it a go.

Lead 2B: I think it’s right, isn’t it, that the First Minister wrote to you and effectively said “You’re welcome to come along to meetings but only when reserved matters are on the agenda”?

Mr Simon Hart: And, with great respect, I think it sort of slightly shines a light on the problem. In Covid there was no such thing as devolved or reserved. You know, every penny of Covid support, every soldier who turned up to help the vaccination programme, every measure that was put in place was actually funded by UK Government. And that’s not a boast, it’s just the way that it is. And so none of this – nothing would have happened without the – without the whole of the UK Government operation behind.

Even if I accept that there were some areas of devolved activity with which we have no immediate responsibility – which I’m, you know, in many respects happy to accept – that didn’t mean that there wasn’t some value from having the same people in the same room so that we could turn to the public and turn to the professional services in Wales and say “Don’t worry we’re not allowing some political differences to get in the way of decision-making here”. And I thought that would be helpful and I believe that to be the case still today.

Lead 2B: The ministerial implementation groups which we heard a bit about were wound down middle of 2020, and that was done without any consultation with the devolved administrations, and the First Minister had reason to write to you setting out his concerns about that.

We don’t need to bring the letter up, it was a letter on 22 June 2020 where he said:

“… I am concerned about the way that machinery is being wound down and the intermittent contact in recent weeks.”

That concern having been raised with you, what did you do to ensure that those concerns were factored into UK Government decision-making?

Mr Simon Hart: From memory – I have to rely on memory here – we at that stage were reverting to the model that existed before the pandemic, and I don’t think there was – I don’t think as far as Michael Gove was concerned, as the Minister for the Union, there was any particular decision taken that liaison with, the relationship with Welsh Government or Scottish Government was in any way going to be reduced, it was just taking on a – it was just, in a sense, taking on a new format.

And this is going to sound a bit chippy, it’s not meant to be, you know, I think there’s a huge difference between sort of outcomes and process here and, if I was to be respectfully critical of the First Minister, there was an awful lot of focus on process, and I think that was – you know, as if every problem in the world could be resolved by a meeting. And I think, you know, Michael Gove’s view was: no, we need to – you know, implementation and outcomes are what really matters and we will therefore – you know, we will evolve this relationship. But the idea, if indeed it is implied, that somehow there was a sort of sidelining exercise going on, is, you know, nothing – I don’t recognise that.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry’s received evidence from a number of Welsh ministers and Welsh officials to the effect that meetings with their UK Government counterparts were often at short notice, sometimes without an agenda or papers, and that the general feeling was that meetings were held with the devolved administrations effectively to inform them of decisions already made rather than as a forum for joint decision-making. Is that something that you recognise?

Mr Simon Hart: Is that in the context of Covid or just more widely?

Lead 2B: During the pandemic, particularly in the context of MIGs and then MIGs being replaced by Covid-O and Covid-S, and intergovernmental relations generally.

Mr Simon Hart: I thought – I thought the complaint was that meetings didn’t exist, but apparently the meetings did exist.

Lead 2B: Well, we know – we know – we have CDL, we had MIGs, they were replaced by Covid-O, Covid-S, some Welsh officials were only invited to aspects of those meetings, you had CDL calls, so there’s no issue that there were meetings.

Mr Simon Hart: But this is what, you know – this is why I feel strongly about civil contingencies thing because, you know, there are areas which are devolved and there are areas which are reserved and that’s fine, you know, for example defence, foreign affairs are reserved matters, health is devolved, but where you have – where you have military assistance in the delivery of health, then the lines get blurred. And I’m not aware and I don’t remember during the pandemic any Welsh ministers ever saying to me – I stand to be corrected by the way – that they had had an unsatisfactory meeting with a particular colleague and could I do something about it. Most of the time I think people recognised, as I’ve said before, that a large number of people were working as hard as they could in dealing with a very unknown enemy and that if there were slip-ups or if there were meetings which should have gone on longer or should have been curtailed sooner and if there were – if there was something wrong with the process, nine times out of ten it wasn’t as a result of some kind of contempt for devolved government, it was probably just the fog of war.

Lead 2B: Change topic and ask you some questions about travel restrictions next. So we know that in September 2020 rates of infection were rapidly rising in Wales. Local health protection areas, essentially local lockdowns were put in place in a number of areas, and the Inquiry’s received evidence that those local lockdowns were not as effective at slowing the rate of infection as they had hoped and more stringent measures needed to be brought in. You then have the Welsh firebreak which came into effect Friday 23 October for two weeks.

And the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister on 28 September – I don’t propose to have the letter displayed – but he then had to write again on 13 October, and in that second letter the First Minister noted that … hasn’t had a response to the 28 September letter but he goes on to urge the Prime Minister to introduce regulations in England to restrict travel from high prevalence areas because guidance had not proved effective. And then the day after that you get a similar letter, or the Prime Minister received a similar letter from Nicola Sturgeon on behalf of the Scottish Government.

If we can just have a look at your letter of 15 October, it’s INQ000256870, and the first line says you are seeking “urgent clarification of issues arising from your recent announcement”, about travel from England into Wales.

I suppose, just pausing there, when you wrote this letter on 15 October were you aware of this – these two unanswered letters written by the First Minister to the Prime Minister about this very issue?

Mr Simon Hart: Can’t remember. Sorry.

Lead 2B: Third paragraph, second sentence, you say:

“As far as the evidence you rely on is concerned: this, too, needs to pass scrutiny.”

When you say “pass scrutiny”, do you mean by the UK Government, by the Senedd, by who?

Mr Simon Hart: I think the … I think by the public, actually, who were increasingly anxious to understand upon what evidence any of these decisions were taken, not necessarily members of the public who were fundamentally against lockdown, by the way, but people who had strong views in both directions. And again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this – it is these kind of difficulties that arise as a result of different policies in different parts of a small island.

Lead 2B: If we just have a look at the First Minister’s response to your letter.

It’s INQ000226115, please.

It’s 19 October, so the First Minister explains that the regulations mirror restrictions already in place in local health protection areas but he goes on to explain that the decision has been made on the advice of the CMO for Wales, that’s Dr Atherton, and we see he quotes – it’s the fourth paragraph there – Dr Atherton’s advice:

“‘I fully support the proposal to restrict travel from high-Covid transmission areas to protect the public health of people living in areas which have lower rates of virus in circulation; often areas which are remote or less densely populated. This is a sensible and necessary approach in line with the existing restrictions for travel that are in place for the 17 health protection areas across the country’.”

I mean, do you accept that the Welsh Government was effectively following scientific advice in the decision it made regarding the travel restrictions?

Mr Simon Hart: It was following – it was following Dr Atherton’s comments, that’s not really – but I don’t think that was really our point at the time. Our point at the time is that there were different bits of advice that UK Government was relying on and we were – and people who were travelling around the UK rather than just around England or just around Wales were confused about the fact that there were two conflicting bits of advice and no supporting, necessarily – so visible and compelling – supporting evidence of one over the other or vice versa. Therein lies the problem.

And the moment – we were concerned the moment there is any confusion about these things is when the – you lose public confidence and people start thinking “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do or where I’m supposed to do it or where the rules kick in or where they don’t”.

And I thought it was quite revealing, but not in a sinister way, the lengthy exchange in WhatsApp messages amongst – which is part of the evidence pack – between Welsh ministers, members of Mark Drakeford’s own Cabinet were expressing a surprisingly large amount of confusion themselves as to what they were able to do.

So this is not sort of some, you know, a high-handed sort of UK Gov critique. Mark’s own team were WhatsApping each other saying, “I don’t actually fully understand the rules”, “Can anybody tell me if I can go from here to there?”, “Not sure if it’s a work event or not”, “Not sure if I’m covered by …”, “Do I have to wear a mask?” All of that is laid out in some detail in their WhatsApp exchanges. And that’s not a criticism, it’s an observation in fact that there was significant confusion. And then if you had – if your travel or your work happened to take you across the border, let’s say you live in Montgomeryshire but your medical care is provided by the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in England, those were dilemmas people were having every single day, “I’m not quite sure when I move into another jurisdiction what rules …” As a result of all of that, people just reverse out of the whole thing, and that’s where the confusion arises.

Lady Hallett: I’m afraid the stenographer’s struggling, Mr Hart.

Mr Simon Hart: I’m so sorry.

Lady Hallett: We’ve got several – multitudinous “unclears” on the [draft] transcript, so for those who are following the transcript, if you could slow down, we’d be really grateful.

Mr Simon Hart: Of course.

Mr Poole: Mr Hart, just moving topic, I want to ask you a few questions about PPE.

Now, PPE is going to be dealt with in a later module, so, again, these are just some high-level questions anchored in a couple of documents.

If we can have a look at the 31 March letter that you wrote to the First Minister.

It’s INQ000113643.

And you – it’s the last paragraph on that page, you asked:

“Second, we are, as you know, making excellent progress in ordering more ventilators and PPE and in sourcing new opportunities to manufacture them. It would be helpful to know the Welsh Government’s outstanding needs in this regard. I would be grateful for this information even if you have already fed it in via other routes.”

Then you wrote again about PPE, it’s 14 April, that is INQ000113621. And I think I’m looking at the – yes, so it’s the fourth – it’s the last paragraph of the first page and over the page, you say:

“It is because we need to meet this challenge as four united nations that I am writing to highlight the breadth of UK Government support that is at your disposal should you wish to use it. Not only do we need plan effectively and distribute supplies equitably but we also need to do so at speed. Whilst it is your Government’s responsibility to quantify and distribute the PPE equipment that is needed across Wales, I wanted to reassure you that we in UK Government will continue to do whatever we can to assist you in that operation.”

My question is simply this: did you have concerns about the provision of PPE in Wales at any stage during the pandemic?

Mr Simon Hart: I think we all did, we had concerns over PPE across the whole of the UK, and part of that was because there were concerns about PPE across the whole of the planet where Covid was an issue. Normally you can tap into an undisturbed market. In this instance, because everybody’s market was disturbed in terms of the provision of these items, that became a whole lot more difficult.

What I do recall very clearly, particularly on the point about ventilators, was at one stage – I was in a meeting with Matt Hancock and Vaughan Gething when this was raised – at one stage there was a belief that ventilators were probably the most important item that we could acquire in volume in order to help people who were the worst affected by the disease. It was literally within about a fortnight of that that the medical advice had moved on and had begun to focus much more on earlier intervention with patients, and so the urgency around ventilators had subsided a bit, but we also knew that we were buying PPE in vast quantities as a UK Government and I just thought it was a helpful thing to be able to make the offer to Welsh Government, and if they were deficient in any of these items it was worth talking to us because we were – had people all over the world trying to buy stuff in in volume. That said, not necessarily knowing that it would be used, as in the ventilator case, but we – so we thought that would be a helpful – a helpful offer to make.

Lead 2B: Mr Hart, finally just some questions about your engagement with local authorities in Wales.

You say in your witness statement that throughout the pandemic you met with a range of stakeholders in Wales without Ken Skates or any other Welsh ministers being present and those were meetings, I think I’m right in saying, with Welsh local authorities, police forces and business sector. How did those meetings feed into your engagement with the Welsh Government?

Mr Simon Hart: I think, from memory, certainly the businesses and I think there’s an annex in one of the evidence packs about the businesses that I’d met – normally at their invitation, I should add – who had changed their business model often to make PPE or to do, manufacture things like hand sanitiser, and wanted to be able to market their – market their achievement as much as their product actually. A lot of these people do something that they consider to be of huge public service, which it was. These were not people who were, you know, onto a good thing and making money, but they were doing what they thought was right, which was responding to the call for help. And so it was always extraordinarily uplifting to go to some of these factories, a sort of gin distillery making a hand sanitiser. But the pride with which the owners and workforce displayed for what they were doing was, you know, one of the sort of few good bits about all of this.

In terms of police, I don’t remember quite – we used to have frequent – frequent – bi-monthly meetings with the chief constables as a matter of course. I suspect during this particular period they were more focused on the enforcement of regulation obviously than they would normally.

And local authorities, similar but not particularly specific. But where there were concerns, I think for example my own local authority had a particularly difficult time with some of the travel restrictions, being a coastal constituency, a lot of people coming in and out, there was quite a lot of pressure on the local authority around enforcement, and indeed the police for that matter. But where necessary we would feed that back into UK Government departments and where necessary back into Welsh Government departments. But I don’t remember any particular sort of rub on that, I think it was all conducted at a – in a reasonably civilised way.

Mr Poole: Mr Hart, they’re all my questions for you, but there are some questions from core participants.

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: Just before Ms Heaven asks any questions that I’ve given permission for, could I ask you this, Mr Hart: going back to one of the earliest questions that Mr Poole asked you, talking about a new system, obviously attempt’s been made to come up with a new system. It looks a pretty complicated system to me, but –

Mr Simon Hart: The IGR, the intergovernmental –

Lady Hallett: The one about several tiers and –

Mr Simon Hart: Yes.

Lady Hallett: Right, and titles that weren’t exactly easy to remember. But can we just put to aside normal circumstances, what structure do you think would be best placed to serve the people of Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in an emergency if you’re going to get the right involvement of the devolved nations with the UK Government? Have you thought about what would be the best structure, or do you think the Gove type structure was the –

Mr Simon Hart: I have. I think there’s structure and there’s process. The process, which I mentioned, is civil contingencies legislation. And I think, but stand to be corrected, that under civil contingency planning – regimes already in place, for example there are – there’s a structure for what happens in the event of – fill in the relevant gap, that I think already exists. I think the Cabinet Office will, if there was a major terrorist event, for example, in Wales or some kind of climatic catastrophe or some kind of – or some kind of pandemic, civil contingency regime already exists. I couldn’t tell you necessarily what it is but it’s undoubtedly simpler than the one we were looking at earlier.

And I do believe it needs to be simple. I don’t think it is particularly simple. I think it’s, as I say, too much orientated around process and not orientated enough around outcomes.

And I could – you know, if you gave me ten minutes and a piece of paper I could draw you one which would be simple and effective. I haven’t been asked to do that, by the way, but I would because I think it is – I think it is possible, and I suspect the Cabinet Office have said “Here’s one we made earlier”.

Lady Hallett: I receive written evidence all the time and take into account both written and oral evidence, Mr Hart, so if you want to consider yourself commissioned to come up with a possible –

The Witness: Okay.

Lady Hallett: – it would be interesting.

Thank you, Ms Heaven.

Questions From Ms Heaven

Ms Heaven: Thank you, my Lady.

Good afternoon, Mr Hart, I ask questions on behalf of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru.

Can I start by asking you about a document, please, so I’m going to bring something up on the screen.

It’s INQ000414516.

If you can just indicate when that’s come up.

This is a tweet that you published on 1 November 2020 from X, Twitter formerly known, where you state as follows:

“The furlough scheme has protected 400,000 jobs across Wales & will now continue until Dec. Welsh Gov didn’t ask for a furlough extension, they asked for a different scheme to be brought forward having already been told that it was impossible.”

Then you do a little hand emoji down to the letter that Mark Drakeford, First Minister for Wales, had written to the Prime Minister, and then you say:

“It’s disingenuous. Work with us Mark?”

If we just scroll down, for completeness, we see that’s 1 November, and the letter itself which is 16 October 2020. It’s the request that we know went to the Prime Minister is then below.

So my first question is this: would you agree with me that as Secretary of State for Wales to publish a tweet firstly calling the First Minister for Wales disingenuous and, secondly, publishing what seems to be private correspondence between the First Minister for Wales and the then Prime Minister of the UK Government was deeply inappropriate and obviously liable to damage the UK Government’s relationships with the Welsh Government at a time when the country was facing an unprecedented national emergency?

So do you agree with that?

Mr Simon Hart: I don’t, I don’t think you would expect me to and I don’t, and I think part of the reason I say that, and these things are always borderline calls and it’s – and Twitter is never probably the ideal platform on which to have these disagreements, I recognise that, but this particular situation about financial support was especially frustrating given –

Ms Heaven: I don’t want to cut you off. I’m absolutely going to come to the substance.

Mr Simon Hart: Sure.

Ms Heaven: I will be asking you about the substance of the concern. But just focusing on the way you did it, just so I’m clear, you’re not accepting that it was inappropriate and indeed damaging to the relations for it to be put on X in the way you did; you’re not accepting that, are you?

Mr Simon Hart: No, because we – and I could point you to numerous moments when Mark Drakeford made some very derogatory comments about Boris Johnson. I think to some extent – it may be regrettable but it’s an impossible situation to –

Ms Heaven: You’re the Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr Simon Hart: Yes, and he’s the First Minister of Wales dealing with the Prime Minister, and – and saying that he had abandoned science and was interested only in protecting England rather than Wales. Quite inflammatory comments, but we accept that. But in the heat of these situations I think these things get said. What’s important is what happens as a result of these lively and occasionally quite combative – what happens is the outcomes that matter. I’m not offended by the numerous occasions that I’ve been critiqued by Welsh Government, and by Mark in particular, and I don’t think he should be too sensitive to a bit of challenge from now and again in public.

Ms Heaven: Were you asked by those in Downing Street to publish this tweet or did you do it of your own volition?

Mr Simon Hart: Oh, definitely –

Lady Hallett: Just before you go on, you said it was the then Prime Minister; it was the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It’s when Mr Sunak –

Ms Heaven: Yes.

Lady Hallett: – was Chancellor.

Ms Heaven: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: So –

Ms Heaven: The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, so that we’re absolutely clear. I think you are.

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah. No, I understand.

Ms Heaven: It’s a letter to Rishi –

Mr Simon Hart: No, I understand.

Ms Heaven: – Sunak, the then Chancellor.

Mr Simon Hart: I was given a free hand in much of my comms. I didn’t – I didn’t operate to Downing Street orders.

Ms Heaven: But was this tweet – were you asked to put this tweet out, or did you do it of your own volition?

Mr Simon Hart: I don’t think so, no.

Ms Heaven: Was this a one-off, then, or was this reflective of how you conducted relations, as Secretary of State for Wales, with the Welsh Government?

Mr Simon Hart: No, we – as I say, most of the time we had a relationship which varied from very good to tolerable, depending on the subject of the day, we’ve had some very good – we’ve had, as I say, some very good relationships over a number of things. From time to time, there’s a sort of red line that they think I’ve crossed and I think they’ve crossed and it’s, I don’t think, entirely unhealthy that we shouldn’t be able to have those arguments in public.

Ms Heaven: All right.

Can we move on to the substance, then, because it is important.

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah.

Ms Heaven: Can you explain, then, what had caused this tweet? Because obviously something’s caused it. I mean, what had the Welsh Government and/or Mark Drakeford been saying, can you remember? I know we’ve got the letter here.

Mr Simon Hart: Yeah.

Ms Heaven: But had something been said in public, then, that you thought was misleading? And what did you mean by “Work with us Mark?”

Mr Simon Hart: It was the suggestion that UK Government had made a political choice by not providing the funding that Mark Drakeford had asked for in the manner that he had asked for it in October of 2020.

Ms Heaven: Well –

Mr Simon Hart: Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem – and this was a source of much frustration at the time – the problem was the process. I keep going back to that. The Treasury were more than – would have been more than happy to have done their level best to comply with the request, they had already told Welsh Government they couldn’t operate to the timescale that they were asking for, and yet still the announcement was made; and then, on the back of that, on the back of the letter from the Chancellor saying “Look, I’m sorry I can’t meet that”, as it says here …

Ms Heaven: The response –

Mr Simon Hart: – “… secretary and I reference in our briefing with the devolved administrations … advance of the announcement, we are unable to bring the claims date for the expansion of the job support scheme forward from 1 November to 23 October due to the limitation of HMRC delivery timetables.”

However, it was portrayed as a political decision of us, if you like, just short-changing Wales. Nothing could be further from the truth, and that was – when I used the word “disingenuous”, it was not entirely in a fit of pique, it was because Welsh Government knew that we had already said, “We can’t manage these timetables”, and –

Ms Heaven: So –

Mr Simon Hart: – that was the problem.

Ms Heaven: Sorry to interrupt you. So presumably the concern was that the request came just too late to the date when the firebreak was going to be potentially implemented; if it had come earlier, there would have been more scope to help?

Mr Simon Hart: Absolutely, I think if – literally by a matter of – almost by a matter of days –

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Mr Simon Hart: – if there’d been earlier warning, if we could’ve turned the Treasury machine round, the Treasury was pushing vast sums of money out of the door, wouldn’t have been remotely concerned about it, just couldn’t do it in the timescale.

Ms Heaven: 12 October was the SAGE meeting where firebreak was raised by Mr Drakeford with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. We know on that date there was no request for extra funding. Would that have been – if it had been requested on that date, would that have been –

Mr Simon Hart: The request –

Ms Heaven: Sorry, COBR on –

Mr Simon Hart: The request for funding was on 16 October –

Ms Heaven: That’s right.

Mr Simon Hart: – I think and the reply from the Chancellor –

Ms Heaven: Just to be clear –

Mr Simon Hart: – was on the 19th.

Ms Heaven: – there had been a COBR on 12 October where Mr Drakeford had attended and firebreak had been discussed, but there was no request for funding.

Mr Simon Hart: But not as far as I’m aware.

Ms Heaven: So if it had been requested on the 12th, would that have been enough time or is that something you can’t answer?

Mr Simon Hart: It would have been much more likely to have succeeded. It was – the only matter is I remember the Chancellor being quite sort of frustrated because he wanted to help, and would have done. There was no political or ideological reason why we wouldn’t have wanted to help. We wanted to be able to do that, it was simply the timescale. And so it was then frustrating to –

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Mr Simon Hart: – watch all of this unfold on the media and, I’m afraid, people in or close to Welsh Government portraying this as UK Government making a conscious decision to deprive Wales of the funding – and it’s not true.

Ms Heaven: Can I just very quickly ask you for clarity on one more thing, because you’re the only person we can ask, and it’s in the opening statement of the Welsh Government that this Inquiry’s received, just to see if you can assist with what they reference, because it’s the first time we’ve seen it. I’ll just read it out:

“Mr Sunak in his evidence on 11 December 2023 suggested that the Welsh Government could have used the upfront guarantee of additional funding … [Document read] … never a practical possibility.”

Then they say this:

“The problem was not solely about the amount of money provided by the UK Government … [Document read] … and the availability of operational support from HMRC.”

Now, are you able to assist on what the Welsh Government mean there by “the availability of operational support from HMRC”? What’s the relevance of that to –

Mr Simon Hart: I’m neither Welsh Government nor HMRC, so I think you’ll have to –

Ms Heaven: Fair enough.

Mr Simon Hart: – ask them that. All I do know is one of the few institutions not to be criticised during Covid is HMRC and the Treasury, because they achieved remarkable things in getting a large amount of money out, including to Welsh Government, and unlike Barnett, which is normally done in sort of a retrospective manner, all of the Barnett consequential money for Wales was upfronted exactly to deal with some of the problems that Welsh Government encountered, but the particular thing I just want to emphasise particularly, the suggestion that a political decision was made to deprive Wales of money, that is what triggered my – my – my slightly barbed comments on Twitter.

Ms Heaven: Well, thank you very much, those are my questions.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Heaven.

I think that completes the questions, Mr Poole?

Mr Poole: My Lady, it does.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Mr Hart. I know it’s a very busy time for all politicians, so I’m grateful for your help.

The Witness: Thank you very much.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Very well, I think that’s as far as we can go today.

Mr Poole: It is.

Lady Hallett: 10 o’clock on Monday, please. Thank you.

(3.08 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Monday, 11 March 2024)