Boris Johnson’s No 10 was toxic, sexist and devoid of humanity, says ex-top civil servant

Boris Johnson oversaw a “toxic” culture of sexism and complacency at No 10 during the Covid crisis, according to scathing evidence given by a former top civil servant to the public inquiry.

Helen MacNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, said she could not recall “one day” when Covid rules were followed at No 10 or the Cabinet Office – claiming “hundreds” of officials and ministers broke the guidelines.

She also criticised an “absence of humanity” at No 10 and revealed officials there were “laughing at the Italians” who were overwhelmed in the early stages of the crisis – with Mr Johnson expressing a breezy confidence about the UK sailing through the pandemic.

The ex-top civil servant also said Mr Johnson did nothing to stop ex-No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings’ misogynist behaviour, after it emerged he had labelled her “that c***” and said he would “handcuff her and escort her” from Downing Street.

It came as:

  • Mr Johnson asked if Covid could be killed by blowing a hairdryer up the nose, according to new evidence from Mr Cummings.

  • The ex-PM is said to have told Mr Cummings to “dead cat” Covid because he was “sick” of the subject.

  • It emerged that it took seven months to get a hand sanitiser by the door between No 10 and the Cabinet Office

  • Matt Hancock was accused of having “nuclear” overconfidence and pretended to be a cricketer batting off challenges.

  • Mr Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip “blew a hole in public confidence”, said government’s behavioural expert.

Ms MacNamara said that on 13 March, a little over a week before the first lockdown, she warned Mr Cummings and others in Mr Johnson’s office that the country is “absolutely f*****” and “heading for a disaster” in which thousands of people would die.

She said her earlier warnings in January and February did not register with the PM. She added that in early Covid meetings Mr Johnson was “very confident that the UK would sail through”.

The former top official said there had been a “jovial tone” and that “sitting there and saying it was great and sort of laughing at the Italians was just ... it felt how it sounds”.

Helen MacNamara reveals ‘unbelievably bullish’ approach by Boris to Covid (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)
Helen MacNamara reveals ‘unbelievably bullish’ approach by Boris to Covid (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

Referring to the culture rule-breaking within government, Ms MacNamara said: “Actually, I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were followed properly inside that building,” she said of both No 10 and the Cabinet Office.

The former top civil servant also told the the inquiry: “I’m certain that there are hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers who in retrospect think they were the wrong side of that line.”

Ms MacNamara said in her written evidence that the “very obvious sexist treatment” that saw women overlooked and undermined at both No 10 and the Cabinet Office. “The dominant culture was macho and heroic,” she wrote.

She said there was a “toxic culture” when asked about Mr Cummings’ August 2020 messages referring to Ms MacNamara which said: “We cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown … while dodging stilettos from that c***”.

“It’s horrible to read,” she responded. “But it’s both surprising and not surprising to me.” She said she was disappointed Mr Johnson did not do more to stop such “violent and misogynistic language”.

In bombshell new written evidence from Mr Cummings that emerged on Wednesday, the former No 10 strategist claimed that Mr Johnson circulated a YouTube video – since taken down – of a man blowing a special hairdryer up his nose.

Describing it as a “low point”, Mr Cummings said the then-PM asked the government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer what they thought of the idea.

Mr Johnson also told Mr Cummings in the autumn of 2020 that he wanted him to “dead cat” Covid – find another big story to distract the public – because he was “sick” of the issue. The adviser told the PM that this would not work.

Boris Johnson accused of overseeing ‘toxic’ culture at No 10 (PA Wire)
Boris Johnson accused of overseeing ‘toxic’ culture at No 10 (PA Wire)

Mr Cummings also said Mr Johnson had to be stopped from going to see the Queen on 18 March - five days before the first lockdown. “I was desperate and said something like, ‘If you’ve got Covid and you kill the Queen you’re finished’.”

Mr Cummings claims that Carrie Johnson exacerbated the then-PM’s indecisiveness. But he also claims that Mr Johnson himself sometimes blamed her unfairly for U-turns that were “NOT her fault”.

He also repeated a suggestion that Mr Johnson was working on a book about William Shakespeare rather than the pandemic during a two-week holiday in February 2020.

In a further sign of farce, Ms MacNamara revealed that that it took seven months to get a hand sanitiser station by the door between No 10 and the Cabinet Office. She condemned Mr Johnson’s “following the science” mantra, since many at No 10 didn’t understand what the science was.

The ex-official also said that the UK was already on the back foot when Covid hit due to Brexit. She criticised the “monomaniacal” way Mr Johnson’s team focused on Brexit and then the 2019 election at the expense of planning.

Dominic Cummings provided new written evidence to Covid inquiry (EPA)
Dominic Cummings provided new written evidence to Covid inquiry (EPA)

She was also scathing about then health secretary Matt Hancock’s performance, after Mr Cummings referred to him as a liar. Backing up the claims, the ex-deputy cabinet secretary said she lost confidence in whether “what he [Mr Hancock] said was happening was actually happening” in the NHS.

Ms MacNamara suggested that Mr Hancock displayed “nuclear levels” of over-confidence. She recalled a “jarring” episode where the heath secretary adopted a cricket batsman’s pose – a way of showing how he would simply “knock away” questions about big Covid issues.

The ex-civil servant, who now works for the Premier League, made headlines for providing a karaoke machine for a lockdown event in No 10 in June 2020 and was fined for her part in the leaving do, which she called an “error of judgment”.

She told the inquiry she “definitely wasn’t partying in No 10” – but conceded that there should have been an admission that rules were broken, something Mr Johnson denied.

“My profound regret is for the damage that’s been caused to so many people because of it, as well as just the mortifying experience of seeing what that looks like and how rightly offended everybody is in retrospect,” said Ms MacNamara.

Meanwhile, Dr David Halpern – the chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the “nudge unit” – told the inquiry that Mr Cummings infamous Barnard Castle trip was “atrocious”. He said: “It blows a hole in public confidence if you break the rules and then try to wriggle out of it.”

Dr Halpern said it was a “mistake” to have used the term “herd immunity” in the early stages of the pandemic. And he revealed that then-No10 communications director Jack Doyle gave him the “hairdryer treatment” for using the term “cocooning” to refer to shielding older people.