I wanted to say how sorry I am to hear about the tribulations you endured as Deputy Cabinet Secretary during the pandemic. Your Covid Inquiry statement had an artful aspect though.
You were right to expose the appalling misogyny stalking the corridors of power. Overnight, the crisis massively ramped up a macho, sexist culture in which female staff found themselves patronised and ignored. As you suggest, it’s likely that this ‘Superhero Bunfight‘ culture you so aptly describe wouldn’t have arisen under May.
Brexit success was influential, you suggested, in setting a tone of virile, world-beating readiness to conquer any challenge. Johnson exuded foolish, misplaced, self-aggrandizing confidence that the UK would ‘sail through’ a pandemic, beautifully prepared.
So, it must have been worrying to discover that, as Lee Cain noted, Covid was the “wrong kind of crisis” for your PM. This unfortunate lack of fit left an organisational vacuum that was “terrifyingly shit” (Cain), with leadership and responsibility missing. Stuck in this debacle, some, like yourself, ‘tried to make the best of it’.
It must also have been tough to witness Hancock’s repeated failure to produce the pandemic plans he insisted were in place, and Johnson’s inability to grasp the basic science. Johnson’s own advisors lament:
But was this mess surprising? Your chosen PM viewed alarm about Northern Italy’s exploding Covid deaths in March 2020 as an over-reaction and the virus as “nature’s way of dealing with old people”. The influential callousness of a PM who would “let the bodies pile high” meant it was likely that we, the public, would be neglected.
Nor was it any wonder that you struggled to recall a single day when the guidance was followed properly, or that it took seven months to get hand sanitiser for PIN-pad doors.
Striking metaphors for the government’s outrageously shambolic pandemic ‘management’ just keep coming. One could describe it as a mirror image of Johnson’s own personality – incompetent, callous, chaotic, misogynistic, self-serving, dissembling, complacent, arrogant, morally indifferent and toxic.
Covid Inquiry reveals system and human frailty
Much was made of ‘system failings’. Cummings described an absence of inter-departmental co-ordination and organisation. You focussed on non-diversity and the predominance of white middle class males making decisions. Their “narrowed perspectives” belied a “lack of understanding” of prisons, NHS organisation, social care, and of the disproportionate effects of Covid on ethnic minorities, carers, single parents, women and children. Cummings also acknowledged governmental neglect of vulnerable groups such as children in care and domestic abuse victims.
But ‘appeals to the system’ do not get people off the moral hook, Ms MacNamara. More gender-diverse management would hopefully have produced more compassionate policies. But this doesn’t excuse the moral indifference shown by those in charge. If they had honoured their duty of care to us then, regardless of their gender, they would have taken the trouble to learn more about the institutions they oversaw and have been more honest to the press. Improving diversity isn’t a ‘cure all’ but must be part of a complete systemic and cultural overhaul, central to which is getting more decent people into power.
You alluded to human frailty to excuse the shambolic goings-on. Apologies were made for the natural desire of staffers to toe the line to keep their jobs, with particular social pressure on young staffers to conform. So very true, but this generosity wasn’t extended to ‘all-too-human’ behaviour outside the Westminster bubble. The university student who was fined £10K for a lockdown gathering was shown no mercy, and court fines are still being issued to lockdown rule breakers.
The government plans to ‘focus on the positives’ in the second half of the Covid Inquiry. We’ll hear, ad nauseam, about vaccine and furlough successes. The word ‘hindsight’ will be on overtime and, because a chunk of the government’s support-base was anti-lockdown, the exigency of suppression over mitigation will be fudged.
All these tactics will lend the government’s voters and the heavily courted ‘undecided’ group, a ‘comfort narrative’ where criticisms emerging from the Inquiry can be safely held in the ‘matter of opinion’ box. To ensure that this concluding positive spin becomes definitive, the press will be ordered to cover it unceasingly.
Miss Karaoke manoeuvres
We don’t doubt, Ms MacNamara, that the government’s pandemic management was crippled by disorganisation, sexism, and human weakness. Reading between the lines, we sensed this back in 2020. It is depressing to have our intuitions vindicated, and, like Mr Cain, we are ‘exhausted’ too. In fact, some of us – about a quarter of a million – didn’t even make it through. And this is where I have a problem.
Motives are complex and nuanced. The misogyny you document, Ms Macnamara, needed highlighting. Absolutely. But you also know that, by highlighting it, you have a sympathetic and receptive audience from over half the electorate. So, is this focus also serving opportunistically to push the pointing moral finger away?
To be honest, Ms Macnamara, I’m struggling to hear you in an especially angelic light since your ‘noble whistle blow’ about misogyny and other failures, distracts nicely from the fact that you:
- organised one of the parties during lockdown,
- wheeled in a karaoke machine for it,
- received a penalty notice,
- kept quiet about your party and others,
- only publicly acknowledged your involvement a year later when the Mirror rumbled you.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to single you out. So, let’s consider your actions as instances of a type. From out here in the real world we have to ask – what kind of bubble were you all in at the time, Ms MacNamara? When you left your parties, you’d have found yourselves in the deserted streets of utterly silent towns and cities. On the news, you’d see only ICUs and relentless stories on every harrowing permutation of grief and trauma – from solitary dying and solitary funerals to the acute hardships of legally-required social isolation. There’s simply no explanation for your behaviour except that you regarded yourselves as exceptional and exempt from the rules you dispensed to us.
Furthermore, not a single one of you whistle-blew about your actions for over a year. This makes you as complicit as the Downing Street security police and indicates that your intention was to keep the story buried for perpetuity. Without Pippa Crerar’s scoop we’d be none the wiser. Distancing yourself by blaming Johnson, the system, misogyny, or human frailty, simply doesn’t cut it. You were part of the carnage.
And yet, endowed with the confidence and eloquence of your excellent education, you, and others, use the Inquiry to duck and twist with elegantly contrived excuses and faux apologies. The shocking story of your rumbled parties slips effortlessly behind another, less personally recriminating, story about ‘failures beyond your control’.
At the end of the day
The Covid Inquiry is a hideous exposé of the government’s true view of us as collateral damage, and their privileged sense of entitlement and rule-exemption. Whereas, in normal times, they make token efforts to keep their inhumanity under wraps and their political correctness polished, the pandemic crisis brought out the ‘full Bullingdon’. Their chaotic, morally indifferent response was not an aberration. It tore the lid off their inner raison d’être for all to see and Partygate was its crowning moment of transparency.
So, Ms MacNamara, behind the excuses given so far at the Inquiry, the gas-lighting to come, and the comforting appeals to ‘lessons learnt’, one thing must be kept resolutely and unfailingly in sight. Your protective buck-passing, your burial of Partygate, and your eventual apology after being caught, makes you all culpable. This is what should be all over the headlines, Ms MacNamara, and is what we should not forget.
Editor’s note: See also The author’s previous article on this subject (18 January 2022)
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