Boris Johnson's failure to lead made governing during the pandemic 'impossible', according to newly released WhatsApp messages sent by the cabinet secretary. Romilly Weeks reports on the latest details to emerge from the Covid inquiry.
Words by Lewis Denison, Westminster Producer
Boris Johnson is said to have asked Rishi Sunak during the pandemic why the economy was being destroyed “for people who will die anyway soon” in the days before the country went into lockdown, the Covid inquiry has heard.
The inquiry heard a note read from the diary of the former private secretary to the prime minister for public services, Imran Shafi. The note is claimed to have been from a meeting between Mr Johnson and then-chancellor Mr Sunak in March 2020.
The inquiry heard there were meetings between the pair on March 19 and 20.
Mr Shafi’s diary note read: “We’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large ppl (taken to mean large numbers of people) who will die – why are we destroying economy for people who will die anyway soon.”
When Mr Shafi was asked by inquiry counsel, Hugo Keith KC, who said those words, he replied: “I can’t say for sure, I think it was the former prime minister”.
The term “bed blockers” was also used, something Mr Keith said appeared to refer to people in hospital, the elderly, the infirm or the ill.
Mr Shafi said: “I think that was a term that was also widely used in DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) and the NHS of people who didn’t need to be in hospital.”
The official inquiry also revealed Mr Johnson's leadership style was heavily criticised by his inner circle during the coronavirus pandemic.
Former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, ex-communications director Lee Cain and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case all despaired at his decision making, with the latter saying it made the UK "look like a terrible, tragic joke".
Their outrage at Mr Johnson's pandemic performance was revealed when the Covid-19 inquiry was shown WhatsApp exchanges from a group containing the trio, during the testimony of his former principal private secretary Martin Reynolds.
Asked about this perception of Mr Johnson, Mr Reynolds told the inquiry: “I think it’s fair to say the prime minister did, as it were, blow hot and cold on some issues.”
It was also revealed that Mr Reynolds turned on the "disappearing messages" function on a separate WhatsApp group, containing Mr Johnson, just weeks before the Covid-19 inquiry was announced.
He is the first of what inquiry chair Baroness Hallet described as "high profile and important witnesses", who will give evidence this week.
Others include ex-Number 10 director of communications Lee Cain and top adviser Dominic Cummings, who are expected to appear on Tuesday morning.
'He cannot lead... I cannot cope'
While it was Mr Reynolds giving evidence to the Covid-19 inquiry on Monday, some of the evidence most telling about the pandemic response came from WhatsApp messages sent by others.
In autumn 2020, Cabinet Secretary Mr Case wrote on a WhatsApp group with Mr Cain and Mr Cummings that he was "at the end of my tether" with Mr Johnson, pointing out that he "changes direction" every day.
"He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach," he went on, "the team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day."
Mr Case said this approach was making governing "impossible".
Mr Cummings said he "totally agreed", adding that Mr Johnson was "careering around" and "creating chaos".
The exchange explained why Mr Cummings describes Mr Johnson as the "trolley" - because he veers all over the place.
Mr Case added: “This gov't doesn’t have the credibility needed to be imposing stuff within only days of deciding not too (sic). We look like a terrible, tragic joke… I cannot cope with this.”
'Party Marty' apologises for BYOB invite
Mr Reynolds apologised "unreservedly" for sending an email to government staff inviting them to drinks in Number 10 during a lockdown and reminding them to bring their own booze (BYOB).
The civil servant, who became known as "Party Marty" for sending the invite, said: “I would first like to say how deeply sorry I am for my part in those events and for the email message, which went out that day.
“And I would like to apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused.”
He claimed, however, that sending the invite did not have a substantial impact on public confidence.
"It actually broke into the news about 15 months later," he continued. "So while I totally accept… I was totally wrong in the way I sent the email around and for the event, I think the impact on public confidence – although obviously now in terms of public confidence, more generally it did have a serious impact – in terms of the pandemic at that time it was less, it had less impact."
Top official turned on WhatsApp's disappearing messages function
The inquiry also heard how Mr Reynolds turned on the "disappearing messages" function in a WhatsApp group with the prime minister and other key advisers.
Mr Reynolds said he was unable to recall why he'd decided to use a feature which deletes messages after seven days, just weeks before the official inquiry was announced.
Mr Reynolds denied the action was taken in a bid to conceal communications within the WhatsApp group, titled “PM Updates”, from the inquiry but accepted the inquiry was being discussed before disappearing messages were switched on.
He speculated the function may have been switched on in a bid to deter leaks.
Asked why he had turned the function on, Mr Reynolds said: “I can guess or I can speculate, but I cannot recall exactly why I did so.”
He continued: “This WhatsApp group was very different from any other WhatsApp group on my phone, in that it was essentially funneling information into the prime minister and out, and all of that was recorded separately in hard copy or in email form – including the prime minister’s comments.
“So, that flow of information of updating him on developments was recorded properly on our systems.
“I can speculate as to why I might have done it. As I said at the start, I have kept all my other WhatsApps for the relevant period and handed them over, so I don’t believe it was intended to prevent the inquiry from having sight of this.
“It could, for example, have been because I was worried of someone screenshotting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them.”
The function was turned on, on April 15, 2021, and less than a month later the inquiry was announced, on May 12.
The use of disappearing WhatsApp messages is permitted as civil servants and ministerial private offices are required to record and log official decisions for the official record, Downing Street has said.
Boris Johnson 'was unaware' WhatsApp messages would be shared with inquiry
It was also revealed at the Covid inquiry that Mr Johnson did not appear to realise his WhatsApp messages would eventually be made public.
A conversation between Mr Reynolds and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case from December 2021 was shown to the inquiry on Monday.
A message from Mr Case read: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.”
Mr Reynolds replied: “Agree – thanks for your help.”
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Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Mr Reynolds was asked by Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, what that “battle” was about.
Mr Reynolds said: “I cannot recall, but I imagine that the prime minister – I’m afraid I can only speculate – but I imagine he hadn’t realised that all of his WhatApps would become public via the Covid Inquiry.”
The inquiry heard that Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Mr Cummings had suggested that in February and March 2020 there was “an untoward degree of optimism bias on the part of the prime minister”.
Boris Johnson was 'optimistic that Covid could be like swine flu'
The inquiry heard that Mr Cummings had suggested that in February and March 2020 there was “an untoward degree of optimism bias on the part of the prime minister”.
Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, put it to Martin Reynolds it had been suggested there appeared to be “a sense of ‘well, the worst is not going to happen, we may be overreacting here, it could be swine flu’.”
Asked if there was any basis to that suggestion, Mr Reynolds said the paperwork provided in late February had a “sort of reassuring message”.
He added: “In terms of the prime minister’s perspective, I think he is instinctively optimistic, but I also think that he instinctively believes that as a leader it’s important to project confidence and ability to deal with things.”