Ex-Civil Service head wanted Hancock removed as health secretary in pandemic

Sedwill’s messages aren’t expletive-filled – but they’re still damaging

Amanda Akass is a politics and business correspondent

Amanda Akass

Political correspondent


Matt Hancock has been subject to vigorous criticism from many witnesses at the inquiry – particularly Dominic Cummings. But this afternoon we’ve had the extraordinary revelation that Lord Mark Sedwill as head of the civil service advised the prime minister that he should be sacked in May 2020.

Messages exchanged between the cabinet secretary and the man who would become his successor, Simon Case, are pretty damning: including “the British system doesn’t work if ministers lie” and “totally incompetent”. It’s not as course as Cummings’ descriptions of him as a “c***” and a “proven liar” – but the message is the same.

Asked how damaging this loss of confidence in Hancock was for the functioning of government, Sedwill doesn’t mince his words. “It was clearly damaging”, he explains, describing the impact of questions about his lack of “candour, overpromising, overconfidence, over assurance”.

Once again the former head of the Civil Service apologises for the language and comments he made in private conversations, acknowledging that “it was gallows humour, I recognise it was inappropriate even in a private exchange”.

Instead of Hancock, however, it was Sedwill who ended up having to leave government, just months after these conversations. The health secretary was hoisted by his own petard a year later, after breaking COVID rules in kissing an aide and being caught on camera.

But Sedwill’s overwhelming frustration with his Number 10 colleagues – and evident desire to leave – is clearly expressed in other messages exchanged with Case at the start of May, as they discuss whether Case would be willing to step in as his successor, and Case says he is not willing to work for Cummings.

Patrick Vallance, then the government’s chief scientific adviser, noted in his diary that Sedwill described the administration as “brutal and useless”.

A month later, Case messages Sedwill to say: “It is like taming wild animals. Nothing in my past experience has prepared me for this madness. The PM and the people he chooses to surround himself with are basically feral.” Sedwill replies: “I’ve got the bite marks.”

We’ve already had chapter and verse on the toxicity of the Johnson-Cummings Downing Street operation in the past few weeks of the inquiry – but for the two men who headed up the civil service during this period to describe their colleagues as feral is perhaps a new low.

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