Boris Johnson's work style during COVID 'very frustrating' and 'dysfunctional' - head of civil service

The UK's top civil servant has told the COVID inquiry he found Boris Johnson's style of working "very frustrating" and "dysfunctional".

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was facing questions on Thursday about highly critical WhatsApp messages from him that emerged during evidence to the inquiry last year.

He said he had a deep "regret" over sending scathing messages about Mr Johnson during the pandemic and said he did not initially understand how "personally" difficult the former PM found it to introduce COVID lockdowns, describing him as a "great communicator".

Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, asked about Mr Johnson's prime ministerial style, to which Mr Case said: "Each prime minister has their own approach to doing it and as I say, in my job, I found it very frustrating.

"I just don't think I understood how difficult he was finding it personally.

"I don't think I really understood how, at quite a deep ideological level, the prime minister found the mass locking up of the population - the harms.

"He was always particularly focusing on children and education, and the damage as he saw it that was being done to society through big decisions on the lockdowns."

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Mr Case said he had "intervened to try to get serious discussions off WhatsApp" during COVID.

On the day-to-day administration of government, Mr Case said: "It was definitely dysfunctional and it was difficult, oddly enough, sclerotic isn't quite the right word.

"If anything, the problem is it was almost too dynamic.

"It was difficult to settle on the course of action, and be sure that the course of action would be consistent. I think that's almost the opposite of sclerosis."

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In WhatsApp messages to his predecessor, Lord Sedwill, in July 2020, before he became head of the civil service, Mr Case, wrote: "I've never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country."

He described Mr Johnson and his inner circle as "basically feral" and suggested his wife, Carrie, was "the real person in charge" in No 10.

WhatsApp regrets

Mr Case expressed his regret at sending the "in-the-moment frustrations", adding: "They are very raw, in-the-moment human expressions - they're not the whole story but I recognise they're part of the story.

"Many of them now require apologies for things that I said and the way I expressed myself."

Asked if a message he sent saying "Crisis + pygmies = toxic behaviour" was about the abilities of people in the Cabinet Office and Number 10, he said it was a "fair conclusion".

He said despite "good people working incredibly hard in impossible circumstances" there was a "lack of team spirit" and a "difficult atmosphere".

"Good people were just being smashed to pieces," he said as he described efforts being duplicated and meetings overlapping.

Mr Case's appearance came as he returned to work seven months after stepping back for medical reasons, which meant he was absent from hearings last year when other senior Westminster figures gave evidence.

The inquiry, announced by Mr Johnson, is an independent public investigation that began in June 2022 to examine the UK's preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.