‘Eat out to help out’ launched without telling official in charge, Covid inquiry hears

<span>Simon Case, arriving to give evidence to the Covid inquiry in London. He likened No 10 during the pandemic to ‘a rats’ nest’.</span><span>Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA</span>
Simon Case, arriving to give evidence to the Covid inquiry in London. He likened No 10 during the pandemic to ‘a rats’ nest’.Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

The UK’s most senior civil servant has set out the chaos at the heart of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street, saying good officials were “just being smashed to pieces” while he was not warned in advance about the “eat out to help out” scheme.

In a day of often damning testimony to the inquiry into the pandemic, Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, said Johnson’s No 10 had been involved in the “worst governing ever seen” in the UK.

While Case also sought to defend Johnson’s decision-making style, he described a sometimes toxic culture at the heart of government, agreeing there had been a “culture of fear” around Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser.

In another revelation, Case, who remains cabinet secretary, said he had accidentally deleted nine tranches of group WhatsApp messages while trying to transfer them from his phone, after not seeking IT help. The inquiry managed to obtain them from others in the group.

The inquiry had previously heard that the “eat out to help out” scheme, which subsidised people to dine at restaurants and cafes in summer 2020 and has been blamed for a renewed spread of the virus, was announced without the knowledge of the government’s two main scientific experts.

Asked if he knew that Patrick Vallance, who was the government’s chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, were in the dark about the plan, devised by Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor at the time, Case replied: “I wasn’t aware of ‘eat out to help out’ until it was announced either.”

Case was then the lead civil servant at No 10, in charge of Covid policy, and weeks away from becoming cabinet secretary.

Questioned by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, about the sometimes chaotic nature of Johnson’s No 10, Case, who had been due to give evidence in autumn before he took a leave of absence from his job due to illness, twice became emotional.

When Keith asked about what he said was Case’s view in a witness statement and in WhatsApp messages that the “government failed at a number of fundamental levels and contributed to the worst governing, to use your words, ever seen”, Case was silent for some time.

He then replied that the WhatsApp messages were “not a roundly considered view”, adding: “There were some dark days when it felt that we just couldn’t get it right.”

The hearing was also shown WhatsApp messages from April 2020 between Case and Helen MacNamara, then also a top official, in which Case complained: “We seem to be making everything complicated”.

Case recounted to MacNamara “some minor tussle about who I reported to”, saying: “That really shouldn’t be important in the middle of a mega-crisis.” He added: “Crisis + pygmies = toxic behaviour.”

Asked about the atmosphere at the time, Case said that reviewing his evidence about the period had been hard “because it reminds me quite how difficult it was that good people were working incredibly hard in impossible circumstances, with choices where it seems there was never … a right answer”.

This was made worse by the dysfunction, he said: “Good people were just being smashed to pieces. That’s what I saw.”

In other messages between the pair, in April 2020, MacNamara referred to one aspect of the working culture saying: “The arrogance and the waste. And the contempt for cabinet.” In another message, MacNamara, who in her testimony to the inquiry was damning about a culture of misogyny, called Johnson’s Downing Street “the most actively sexist environment I have ever worked in”.

Case was asked by Keith whether it was fair to describe a “culture of fear” around Cummings, and “the chaos and the unwillingness of other people to work with him as a result”. Case replied: “That’s all true.”

The inquiry also heard that one unnamed person had declined to work in Downing Street because of this, saying: “The setup in No 10 is too mad to touch.”

Case also said polls showed Cummings’ lockdown-breaching trip to Durham and Barnard Castle in March 2020 had damaged public confidence in the government response. That, and later parties in and around Downing Street, “sort of feels like a terrible insult” to bereaved families, he added.

Messages from Case seen by the inquiry in the autumn showed him being damning about Johnson’s Downing Street, saying some people were “mad” and “poisonous”.

Asked about this by Keith, Case slightly rowed back on his criticism, saying it dated from a time when he “barely” knew Johnson and “didn’t really understand how he took decisions”.

What seemed chaotic was that the then prime minister “very much wanting the debate to play out in front of him – competition for ideas and views. I think that is really how he made decisions,” Case said.

However, the hearing also heard that at one point, Case messaged Johnson to urge him to stand up more to Sunak in meetings, saying: “It can’t always be you agreeing with Rishi.”