UK Covid inquiry reaches week of potentially damning testimony


After four months of hearings, the official Covid inquiry reaches a week of hugely significant and potentially damning testimony, evidence that could shine a deeply unforgiving light on the inner workings of Boris Johnson’s government.

Among the witnesses are Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, and Lee Cain, his ex-communications chief, plus a string of other senior aides and top civil servants of the time – several of whom first became known to the public because of illicit Covid parties.

These include Martin Reynolds, who was dubbed “Party Marty” after an email emerged showing he had invited more than 100 Downing Street staff to a “bring your own booze” event during the first lockdown.

Another is Helen MacNamara, the Johnson government’s head of ethics, who apologised for being fined over a lockdown-breaking staff leaving party in June 2020, for which she was said to have provided a karaoke machine.

One scheduled box-office witness, cabinet secretary Simon Case, the head of the civil service under Johnson and still in post, has been put back until later this year because of a medical procedure.

The four days of hearings, which include testimony from other close Johnson aides as well as NHS and health department chiefs, could also prove damaging for Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor at the time and intimately involved in the decisions.

There are two main political perils for Sunak: that he gets further drawn into what has already been troubling evidence about the pace at which Johnson’s government first responded to Covid; and that new revelations about parties revive public memories of the scandal.

The parallel second module of the inquiry, which looks at political governance and decision-making, has already shown a tendency to jump around in terms of chronology and narrative, unexpectedly providing revelations as messages and emails are displayed.

One such twist came in the last evidence session, on 19 October, when a string of September 2020 WhatsApp messages between Dame Angela McLean, now the government’s chief scientific adviser, and leading epidemiologist John Edmunds showed McLean referring to Sunak as “Dr Death the chancellor” because of the impact of his “eat out to help out” scheme.

This uncertainty will become all the greater because of the characters of some of those involved, not least Cummings, who has shown complete willingness to trash the reputation of Johnson, whom he calls “the shopping trolley” for his supposed abrupt veering between decisions.

While less known to the public than Cummings, Cain was also a hugely important figure inside No 10. A longtime aide to Johnson, the former journalist was his director of communications before he was pushed out alongside Cummings in November 2020