In Depth

Civil service bracing for coronavirus inquiry - here’s what could happen next

Officials fear being ‘thrown under the bus’ to protect Boris Johnson’s Downing Street team

Whitehall is bracing for a public inquiry into the government’s coronavirus response, amid swirling rumours about the oncoming restructuring long-championed by Boris Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings.

After it was revealed yesterday that the government had spent £150m on 50m unusable face masks from a little-known investment company, the National Audit Office has said that it will investigate government contracts for protective equipment, The Times reports.

That investigation could serve as a dress rehearsal for a wider inquiry, promised by the prime minister to “seek to learn the lessons of this pandemic”.

‘Blame game’ begins

The decision made during the pandemic response will be put under the microscope during any inquiry, but the “fight over whether officials gave the wrong advice or ministers took the wrong decisions has already begun”, Politico says.

“A breakdown of trust between senior officials and Downing Street” has led to the belief among senior officials that “Whitehall could be thrown under the bus in an effort to save Boris Johnson and his top team”, the site adds.

“Obviously the blame game has been going on almost as long as the virus and has been gathering force,” one former official told Politico. “As the epidemic wanes, the blame game is going to get more intense. I think the civil service is absolutely expecting that.”

Critics of Downing Street’s outbreak response have claimed that departing Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill was made the “fall guy” for the slow response. While the prime minister was in hospital with coronavirus, Sedwill “played an important role in holding things together at the heart of government”, the Independent reports. 

Sedwill “told ministers, bluntly, that they could not afford the luxury of petty squabbles while the team captain was off the pitch”, writes the paper’s political columnist Andrew Grice.

But in the fallout, Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service and civil servants’s union, accused Number 10 “or those around it” of working to “undermine” the ex-diplomat.

Speaking to The Guardian, Kerslake said that “from some of the press briefing that had obviously gone on that the civil service is being made the fall guy for mistakes made in the handling of the pandemic”.

With an inquiry now on the horizon, the fear in Whitehall is that Sedwill could have been the first of many civil servants to be used as “flak jackets” for Johnson’s cabinet ministers.

“I’ve never seen people so averse to putting things in an email,” a senior civil servant told Politico, referring to those working at the top of the government being “reluctant to attach their names to decisions around the pandemic”.

“Before we hit Covid, that is what people around No.10 were doing - they were throwing civil servants regularly under the bus,” Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union for civil servants, told the site. “So I don’t think it’s an unfounded concern.”

Could there be political blowback?

Up to 250 London families whose loved ones died with coronavirus have demanded an urgent investigation into the handling of the pandemic.

Unlike the inquiry that Johnson has promised at some point down the road, they want an “initial rapid phase of a public inquiry to identify shortcomings and any changes that are needed now”, the London Evening Standard reports.

Jo Goodman, founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus last week that her father died after a letter informing him to shield arrived too late, arguing that the government did “far too little, far too late for him”.

Any inquiry into the government’s decisions would likely trigger political backlash for Johnson, which The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee argues is “why he is dodging a coronavirus inquiry”.

Toynbee says the government “should be alarmed by the articulate voices of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice”, adding that an inquiry could “expose the lethal blunders that left Britain ‘world-beating’ in Covid-19 mistakes”.

Johnson is “rightly afraid of the power of their critique of serial failings in coping with the pandemic”, she adds, a critique that would be amplified by a formal inquiry.

However, Claire Foges, an ex-speechwriter for David Cameron, argues that an inquiry is a “great get-out clause for the government, a way to deflect difficult questions and criticisms”.

“By making themselves open to scrutiny in the future, they are releasing themselves from proper scrutiny now,” Foges writes in The Times. “I cannot see the coronavirus inquiry producing outcomes as practically useful or emotionally important.

“Instead it will be one of those monster inquiries with an incredibly broad remit, doomed to meander on for years.”

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