Covid Inquiry latest: Dominic Cummings' 'violent and misogynistic' WhatsApps 'horrible to read', says Helen MacNamara

A former top civil servant criticised by Dominic Cummings in expletive-laden WhatsApp messages said they were "horrible to read".

Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, is appearing before the Covid-19 Inquiry.

It was revealed to the inquiry on Tuesday that Mr Cummings had labelled Ms MacNamara "that c***" and said he would "handcuff her and escort her" from Downing Street.

"I don’t care how it's done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***," he wrote.

On Wednesday Ms MacNamara responded: "It's horrible to read, and both surprising and not surprising to me, I don’t know which is worse."

She said it was "disappointing" Boris Johnson, then as prime minister, didn’t pull Mr Cummings up on his "violent and misogynistic language".

She added that women in Number 10 and Cabinet Office felt they became "invisible overnight" during the pandemic.

Read latest updates below

Today's inquiry has finished

Wednesday 1 November 2023 17:25 , Jordan King

Today's inquiry, which heard from the UK's second-most senior civil servant, Helen MacNamara, and chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, Dr David Halpern, has concluded.

  • Here are some of the main takeaways:

  • Ms MacNamara said she would struggle to pick a day when everyone at Number 10 followed the Covid rules properly

  • She said female staff became "invisible overnight" amid a culture inside Number 10 being allegedly "toxic, sexist and macho"

  • Ms MacNamara called Mr Cummings' comments about "handcuffing her and escorting her out of the building" "difficult to read"

  • She also spoke about being disappointed that Boris Johnson did not call Mr Cummings up on his "violent and misogynistic language"

  • Discussing a 2020 lockdown party she was fined for attending, she said "it should never have happened"

  • Professor Halpern also painted a bleak picture, describing the government as "arrogant" and "over-confident"

  • He also said there were "lots of good people trying to do the right thing"

The Evening Standard will be back to cover tomorrow's hearing, which will hear from the former chief executive officer of NHS England, Baron Stevens, the secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care, Sir Christopher Wormald, and the former director for health protection at Public Health England, Dr Yvonne Doyle.

Dominic Cumming was 'blatantly breaking the rules' - Professor Halpern

Wednesday 1 November 2023 16:18 , Jordan King

Speaking about when Dominic Cummings drove 260 miles from London to Barnard Castle, Professor Halpern said his actions were "pretty blatantly breaking the rules" and "seeking to justify it".

He said the move was "very unhelpful" and "blew a hole" in public confidence.

'Stay alert' campaign didn't work - Professor Halpern

Wednesday 1 November 2023 16:13 , Jordan King

As the inquiry turned to discussions of the Government's initiatives during the pandemic, Professor Halpern said he did not think the "stay alert" campaign worked.

"It tells you to worry and doesn't tell you what to do," he said.

Inquiry hears from the chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team

Wednesday 1 November 2023 16:08 , Jordan King

The inquiry is now hearing from Dr David Halpern - the chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team.

He has spoken about his "cracking confidence" in leadership and said he was "quite shocked and depressed" about the government's preparedness for a pandemic.

A recap: Helen MacNamara's evidence today

Wednesday 1 November 2023 15:18 , Miriam Burrell

The former Deputy Cabinet Secretary and top civil servant has been sharing damning evidence all day of the "toxic" culture at Downing Street in 2020.

Here are the main points:

  • She said Dominic Cummings' messages about her were "violent and misogynistic"

  • She said there was an "absence of humanity" in Number 10 and "cold" decision making

  • A damning report she created into the culture at the top of Government showed how "women became invisible overnight"

  • Helen MacNamara said it felt like "living in a dystopian nightmare" while Boris Johnson and the Cabinet Secretary contracted Covid

  • Helen MacNamara has agreed with Patrick Vallance that Boris Johnson "didn't understand the science" about Covid

  • She said she never found an extensive plan on how to deal with the pandemic during her time in No10

  • Helen MacNamara spoke about how the Government had a "jovial" tone in early 2020 and a "breezy confidence" that the the UK "would do better than others" in its pandemic response

Education policy impacted by lack of diversity, MacNamara said

Wednesday 1 November 2023 14:45 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara has talked more about a lack of diverse life experience among Cabinet members during the pandemic and the impact it had on policy around schooling and education.

There wasn't enough experience among decision makers to think about children without privilege and the impact the pandemic had on school grading, Helen MacNamara said.

"You shouldn't as a state not know and understand the whole population, particularly people outside your day to day.

"It causes problems if you think your life is the same as anybody elses. It's fine to do that as an individual but as an institution it's really wrong."

Fears for an overwhelmed NHS

Wednesday 1 November 2023 14:37 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara was worried about how to deal with the NHS becoming overwhelmed in the winter in 2020.

In her statement provided to the inquiry, she said it was difficult to get the "right kind of engagement" from the NHS and others.

"There was an inbuilt reluctance" to accept that it was possible for the NHS to be overwhelmed, she said.

"We weren't concerned enough about the overall health of the population...compared with how many ambulances were lined up outside hospitals."

Boris Johnson thought issues of PPE fitting women wasn't a problem

Wednesday 1 November 2023 14:28 , Miriam Burrell

The issue of PPE not fitting women's bodies was raised "numerous times" with Cabinet, Helen MacNamara has told the inquiry.

She said she raised it with Boris Johnson but he didn't think it was a problem.

"I do remember feeling I couldn’t…there wasn’t much more I could do in pressing this point, if he thought it was fine it was the end of the road really," she said.

MacNamara and colleagues tried to raise diversity issues

Wednesday 1 November 2023 14:20 , Miriam Burrell

In an email exchange with a colleague, the inquiry heard how Helen MacNamara tried to flag issues faced by many women during the lockdowns that decision makers didn't seem to consider.

The issues included confusion about access to abortion, guidance on pregnancy and provisions for victims of domestic abuse.

She said these issues were overlooked as a result of a lack of diversity among decision makers.

Matt Hancock 'pretended to be cricketer batting away Government's woes'

Wednesday 1 November 2023 13:14 , Lydia Chantler-Hicks

Shortly before the inquiry broke for lunch, we heard how former health secretary Matt Hancock took up a mock cricket batsman’s stance pretending to bat away the pressures of Government at one point during the pandemic.

Counsel to inquiry Andrew O’Connell read from top civil servant Helen MacNamara’s witness statement, in which she asked the then-health secretary if he needed any extra support, after he had recently recovered from Covid and returned to Downing Street.

Reading from the statement, the KC said: “He reassured me that he was ‘loving responsibility’ and to demonstrate this took up a batsman’s stance outside the Cabinet room and said ‘they bowl them at me, I knock them away’.”

Hearing breaks for lunch

Wednesday 1 November 2023 12:57 , Lydia Chantler-Hicks

The hearing has now broken for lunch. It is due to return at 1.55pm.

Helen MacNamara claims Matt Hancock was not trusted by staff

Wednesday 1 November 2023 12:56 , Lydia Chantler-Hicks

Ms MacNamara is being quizzed about an apparent lack of faith she and other staffers developed in then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Asked if people did not trust Mr Hancock, she said: "It's definitely the view in government. I think it's fair to say it's what we experienced.

"I don't recall a situation where it was 'black was white', but definitely a pattern of being reassured that something was absolutely fine, and then discovering it was very, very far from fine.

"And that is sort of unusual inside Whitehall," she added. "In a cabinet government situation you don't usually get that. You don't get 'everything's OK' and then two weeks later [find] not only is everything not OK but it wasn't even there."

'Hundreds of civil servants could have been liable for Covid fines'

Wednesday 1 November 2023 12:49 , Lydia Chantler-Hicks

Helen MacNamara has suggested “hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers” could have been liable to being fined for breaches of coronavirus rules.

Given that Boris Johnson was fined for the birthday gathering in the Cabinet Room, if that was where police had drawn the line for what was acceptable, Ms MacNamara said: “I am certain that there are hundreds of civil servants and potentially ministers who in retrospect think they were the wrong side of that line”.

MacNamara 'regrets' organising karaoke machine for lockdown party

Wednesday 1 November 2023 12:43 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara said she "profoundly regrets" helping to organise a social gathering for Downing Street during lockdown.

She made headlines for providing a karaoke machine and was fined by the Metropolitan Police for her part in the leaving do.

"I absolutely thought it was important to have space to gather together and spend time together and that was because of the culture [staff] were working in.

"I was really worried about individuals breaking and suffering and whether they were going to be okay and I was saying none of that in excuse."

Cummings' messages 'violent and misogynistic'

Wednesday 1 November 2023 12:32 , Miriam Burrell

On Cummings' WhatsApp messages about her, Helen MacNamara said: "It's horrible to read, and both surprising and not surprising to me, I don’t know which is worse.

"He was frustrated with me at the time. I would absolutely own that. All I was doing was working in service of the prime minister and defending his interests.

"It wasn't a pleasant place to work."

She said it was "disappointing" that the prime minister at the time Boris Johnson didn’t pull Cummings up "on violent and misogynistic language".

She added: "It's miles away from what is right or proper or decent or what the country deserves."

His comments were "exactly the wrong attitude" towards the civil service, Ms MacNamara said.

Women became 'invisible overnight' in No10

Wednesday 1 November 2023 12:03 , Miriam Burrell

Women who had worked in No10 and the Cabinet Office reported feeling as though they "became invisible overnight", Helen MacNamara has said in her evidence.

The former top civil servant said she wasn't sure why this happened but women "had to turn their screens off" on Zoom calls, were "in the back row" and no women were talking "which was unusual".

Ms MacNamara said women "weren't treated with respect" and it was "awful".

She added that no women were contributing to policy disucssions, and expert women were not listened to or being looked over.

Debate and discussion was limited and "everything was contaminated by ego", she told the inquiry.

'Frightened' staff and 'messy and complicated' humans

Wednesday 1 November 2023 11:55 , Miriam Burrell

In May 2020 Helen MacNamara said she briefed the Cabinet Secretary on a report into the culture at the top of Government.

It found that junior women were being "talked over and ignored" and "bad behaviours" were being tolerated from senior leaders.

When asked about it during the inquiry, she said: "Human beings are messy and complicated" and people were "working outside of structures and competences".

She said staff were "frightened" and it's not surprising the environment "didn’t bring out the best in people".

'Living in dystopian nightmare': MacNamara on working during pandemic

Wednesday 1 November 2023 11:36 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara said it felt like "living in a dystopian nightmare" while Boris Johnson and the Cabinet Secretary attracted Covid-19.

She said the former prime minister "being so gravely ill was obviously awful".

"We felt very vulnerable if I'm honest."

MacNamara: 'Absence of humanity' in No10

Wednesday 1 November 2023 11:16 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara has said there was "an absence of humanity" in Number 10 and "cold" decision making during the pandemic.

As an example of this, she referred to the lack of planning for prisoners, their families and prison officers, and a "lack of care or comprehension" that they they needed looking after during the pandemic.

'We are going to kill thousands of people'

Wednesday 1 November 2023 11:00 , Miriam Burrell

The inquiry heard that Helen MacNamara said in a meeting: "We’re absolutely f***ed. This country is heading for a disaster. We are going to kill thousands of people."

The former top civil servant said the UK was "radically in the wrong place" in early 2020 and anxieties felt by the opposition at the time were "valid".

"It was a very scary experience but [there] wasn't any doubt in my mind at that point we were heading for total disaster."

Boris Johnson didn't understand the science behind Covid, MacNamara says

Wednesday 1 November 2023 10:53 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara has agreed with Patrick Vallance that Boris Johnson "didn't understand the science" about Covid-19.

The scientist said in his diaries that the former prime minister would often get the science wrong in press conferences, even on basic points such as infection rates and modelling.

When asked if she also witnessed Mr Johnson doing so, Ms MacNamara said "yes".

Helen MacNamara never found extensive Covid plan in No10

Wednesday 1 November 2023 10:45 , Miriam Burrell

The former deputy cabinet secretary said she never found an extensive plan from the Department of Health on how to deal with the pandemic during her time in No10.

Helen MacNamara said in early March 2020 she started asking around for a plan, and said it was "shocking" there wasn't one.

When asked what she meant by a plan, she compared it to the Government plans for a no deal Brexit.

'Striking' de facto assumption UK would be 'great' during pandemic

Wednesday 1 November 2023 10:31 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara has spoken about how the Government had a "jovial" tone in early 2020 and a "breezy confidence" that the the UK "would do better than others" in its pandemic response.

She felt "patronised" after raising concerns and worried about the "supreme confidence" she overhead in meetings.

She said it "jarred" with her.

Boris Johnson "was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should be careful of overcorrecting in advance on something that was unlikely to have a huge impact", she said in her statement.

Ms MacNamara told the inquiry the attitude was "striking" about the pandemic, which was "deeply worrying".

"There was a de-facto asumption that the UK wsa going to be great without any questioning," she added.

MacNamara: Govt 'on the backfoot' following Brexit

Wednesday 1 November 2023 10:18 , Miriam Burrell

The Government was already "on the backfoot when Covid struck", off the back of Brexit, Helen MacNamara has said.

She said many ministers and advisers were uncertain in their roles and there was no "business as usual" in Whitehall.

There were "unhealthy habits" and a "low trust environment" between civil servants and the Prime Minister's political team.

She added that the Government was unprepared not because of the country's decision to leave the EU, but because of Whitehall's response to the referendum.

'I hope things can be better as result of inquiry'

Wednesday 1 November 2023 10:15 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara has told the inquiry that she hopes "some things can be better as a result" of the Covid-19 Inquiry.

She has provided a statement that is more than 100 pages long, and admitted she spent a very long time preparing it.

She said that public inquiries are “essential” and it's important "there is a point of reflection".

"It has been a real effort to put the statement together…it feels like the least I could do in the circumstances," the former civil servant said.

"I hope some things can be better as a result."

Helen MacNamara begins giving evidence

Wednesday 1 November 2023 10:05 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara has now begun giving evidence at the Covid Inquiry.

She joined the Cabinet Office in 2018 and became Director General of Propriety and Ethics, and also Deputy Cabinet Secretary for a period of time.

What is the Covid Inquiry for?

Wednesday 1 November 2023 09:59 , Miriam Burrell

Political decisions made about lockdowns, travel restrictions, and social isolation during the coronavirus epidemic are being closely scrutinised.

The Government's actions will be evaluated throughout the covid crisis as the inquiry looks into significant decisions made in Westminster between January 2020 and February 2022, the time when the last Covid restrictions were relaxed in England.

There will be no guilt or innocence verdicts; the goal is to gain knowledge.

The investigation, headed by Baroness Heather Hallett, will also look into the choices made on border controls, work-from-home directives, mask-wearing guidance, and geographical limits, commonly referred to as the "tier system."Read more here.

What is Helen MacNamara's involvement in Partygate?

Wednesday 1 November 2023 09:49 , Miriam Burrell

The former senior Whitehall official was fined for bringing a karaoke machine to a leaving do held in the Cabinet Office in June 2020.

She said she was "sorry for the error of judgement shown".

She reportedly paid a £50 fine after police concluded she had broken Covid laws.

"I have accepted and paid the fixed penalty notice," she said at the time.

Ms MacNamara was among the initial group of people to be issued with fines following the Metropolitan Police investigation into Downing Street and Whitehall parties during Covid restrictions.

Inquiry has revealed a 'scandalously bad Government', former secretary says

Wednesday 1 November 2023 09:26 , Miriam Burrell

The Covid Inquiry has revealed a "scandalously bad Government" during the pandemic, former health secretary Stephen Dorrell told Sky News.

"I can think of no circumstance in which it’s appropriate for senior civil servants to engage in political gossip on WhatsApp with people to whom they’re supposed to be accountable, and also from whom they should maintain a degree of distance," he said this morning.

Boris Johnson to give 'full account' to inquiry

Wednesday 1 November 2023 09:00 , Miriam Burrell

Boris Johnson will give a "full account" of his actions during the pandemic to the Covid Inquiry, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has said.

He said the inquiry is seeing "very partial" evidence and it was up to Lady Justice Hallet to "sift through" all the information to "reach the conclusions".

Pressed about suggestions from Dominic Cummings that the Government was "dysfunctional" during the early days of the pandemic, Mr Downde said: "Different people, of course, will have different accounts of how it was conducted.

"We have laid the entire thing bare. We have said you can see absolutely everything."

Boris Johnson's final messages to Dominic Cummings revealed

Wednesday 1 November 2023 08:34 , Miriam Burrell

Yesteday the inquiry heard evidence from Boris Johnson's former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, and his many expletive-riddled WhatsApp messages.

He quit Downing Street in November 2020 and blocked Mr Johnson on WhatsApp shortly after.

In his final messages to Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson said Number 10 was plagued with a "disgusting orgy of narcissim".

Read more here.

Dominic Cummings (AFP via Getty Images)
Dominic Cummings (AFP via Getty Images)

Who is Helen MacNamara?

Wednesday 1 November 2023 08:23 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara played a key role in the Covid response as one of the country’s most senior officials.

The inquiry has already revealed that she authored a report in the early period of the pandemic on the culture at the top of Government.

It found that female staff were being "talked over and ignored" and "bad behaviours" were being tolerated from senior leaders.

Ms MacNamara also made headlines for providing a karaoke machine for a lockdown event in Downing Street.

She was fined by the Metropolitan Police for her part in the leaving do and issued an apology for her "error of judgment".

She took up a senior role at the Premier League following her civil service exit. She left after less than two years.


What's happening today?

Wednesday 1 November 2023 08:18 , Miriam Burrell

Helen MacNamara is first to give evidence to the Covid Inquiry in west London this morning.

The former deputy cabinet secretary will be folloewd by David Halpern, the former CEO of the Behavioural Insights Team.

10:00 am

  • Helen MacNamara (Former Deputy Cabinet Secretary)

2:00 pm

  • Doctor David Halpern (President and former Chief Executive Officer of the Behavioural Insights Team)