Calm takedown of Johnson's COVID Downing Street argues 'sexist' culture may have cost lives

After the many bombshells from Dominic Cummings's evidence yesterday, what we heard today was calm, but devastating.

Helen McNamara was the deputy cabinet secretary, the second most senior official in government and the most senior woman.

But she was operating in a system where women, she says, were not listened to or respected. In her evidence, she set out the full - and she believes deadly - implications of the "sexist" culture.

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Ms McNamara describes the early months of 2020 in which Boris Johnson and his political advisers were fixated on Brexit and failed to focus on the COVID pandemic even as it ripped through northern Italy.

Not only that, she said, they actively laughed at the prospect. She told the inquiry Johnson's team were "sitting there and laughing at the Italians" who they thought were "overreacting".

People in her world, parents in her class WhatsApp groups, she said, were wondering what the risks were, and she became increasingly worried.

But she said her concerns were brushed aside.

By mid-March, she had walked into the prime minister's office to deliver a warning that the country was "heading for disaster" and there was no plan or playbook for dealing with it.

Downing Street, under Boris Johnson, she said, was "sexist", "toxic" and "awful" in a way she had never experienced in government before.

Issues included having to make guidelines on football matches when they'd "never been to one".

And, she claims, Mr Johnson's government was in the dark about the difficulties faced by children at state schools, like her own.

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This led to an approach which lacked "humanity", the former top official said.

She wrote to female colleagues in April that she was compiling a list of issues which hadn't been considered during lockdown.

Pregnancy, access to abortion, childcare and the fact that standard PPE didn't fit women - who make up the majority of the NHS and care workforce - were among them.

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And domestic abuse was also largely ignored, she said. She told colleagues she could only conclude a lack of action on the issue had led to women losing their lives.

Another female director in Number 10 replied to say another under-discussed issue was race - were ethnic minorities being hit harder by COVID, as they were disproportionately in crowded areas and key worker jobs?

It would be many months before that question was answered.

Ms McNamara was the subject of vitriolic messages from Mr Cummings using four-letter words and descriptions of how he wanted to "handcuff" her.

She told the inquiry she was disappointed Mr Johnson didn't act on this "violent and misogynist language".

But more concerning was the fact that women were "invisible" from decision-making.