Speaking before the COVID Inquiry, Helen MacNamara, who was Deputy Cabinet Secretary, revealed that Johnson seemed to be uncomfortable with these emergency response gatherings, as he preferred to remain in his study, feeling that these meetings were not in his usual domain.
This sentiment was reflected in his absence from five Cobra meetings at the outset of 2020, a period when the government faced criticism for its inadequate preparations for the pandemic.
This week, the Covid Inquiry is set to hear testimonies from some of the highest-ranking officials at the time, including figures like Dominic Cummings, former communications chief Lee Cain, and Helen MacNamara herself.
In a pre-submitted witness statement, MacNamara highlighted the challenges faced by the government in ramping up their response. She expressed the view that the system operated at a suboptimal level of urgency throughout, emphasizing that there was a pressing need to accelerate their efforts. She noted that the crisis escalated rapidly in early March, necessitating a swift and agile response.
However, MacNamara also acknowledged the delicate balancing act of maintaining public confidence while catching up on lost ground. Looking back, she believes it might have been beneficial to communicate more widely within Whitehall about the severity of the situation.
MacNamara, the second-highest-ranking civil servant at the time, disclosed that the initial two weeks of March 2020 were preoccupied with what seemed like routine affairs, a fact that appears peculiar in retrospect. She cited her involvement in other matters, such as addressing allegations of bullying by the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and contemplating a government proposal to relocate the House of Lords to York.
In her statement, MacNamara also touched on Johnson’s attitude towards Cobra meetings, officially known as Cabinet Office Briefing Room meetings. She explained that Johnson never fully embraced this decision-making structure, finding it incongruent with his preferred working style. The setting, located in the basement of the Cabinet Office, was evidently at odds with his customary workspace. Unusually for a Prime Minister in her experience, Johnson seemed to regard it as unfamiliar territory. As the Covid-19 situation escalated, it became increasingly clear that this setup was ill-suited for the Prime Minister to engage in the necessary depth of discussions and pose the crucial questions.
In February 2021, MacNamara concluded her tenure in the civil service and transitioned to a role at the Premier League. However, she later resigned from this position as well.
It’s worth noting that in April of the previous year, MacNamara issued an apology for what she termed an “error of judgment.” This was in relation to her attendance at a lockdown-breaking party held in the Cabinet Office in June 2020. The event, which was organized as a farewell for another civil servant, was later detailed in the Sue Gray report.
MacNamara was identified as the individual who introduced a karaoke element to the gathering. Described as a “raucous” affair that extended into the early hours of the morning, the party regrettably concluded with one individual becoming ill and two others involved in a physical altercation.