The COVID inquiry reveals a uniquely toxic, destructive set of individuals trying to work through a crisis

There is a danger on days like today of focusing on dazzling but smaller-scale revelations that have come out of today's evidence at the COVID inquiry hearings. 

This includes the eye-opening WhatsApps appearing on the courtroom screens, the biblical language about the cabinet and prime minister, the misogynist comments about officials, a prime minister on holiday left undisturbed at a critical time as the virus spread and the failings of individual politicians and government departments.

We saw Dominic Cummings blocking - digitally prevent communications with - the prime minister on WhatsApp after a row over the influence and alleged briefings by Boris Johnson's wife.

Each one a vital, depressing component of what we've learnt today.

But what really hits you, listening to six hours of testimony, is the overall quantum of the dysfunction we heard about; first from Lee Cain, Mr Johnson's director of communications, and then from Dominic Cummings, his most senior adviser, over the period from January 2020 until end of the emergency phase of the pandemic.

Behind the door of Number 10, Mr Johnson and officials were handling the worst crisis Britain had faced since the Second World War.

COVID inquiry latest: 'I was much ruder about men' - Dominic Cummings denies misogyny

At the time, a lot of people cut them some slack, hoping and praying they would get things right.

Perhaps everyone should not have been so tolerant.

The sheer scale of the feuding, contempt and dysfunction we've heard about today beggars belief.

There was no pandemic plan in March 2020, just people lying about there being a pandemic plan. In Number 10, they were told on 16 March that the civil contingencies secretariat did not even have these plans centrally. That message, Mr Cummings said, was such a shock that people thought it was a spoof.

There was a core, wrong-headed belief at the beginning of the pandemic in Number 10, where people believed Britain could never be locked down until 10 days before it was, based on a dogged, widespread misreading of the nature of the British people.

And we heard how the prime minister's most senior adviser, Mr Cummings, was trying to keep him away from pandemic planning meetings, fearing he would be a distraction. A simply incredible thing to admit.

But more than anything else, we hear in different ways through different bits of testimony how Britain at that point had an unfocused, indecisive prime minister who at one point looked willing to write off an entire older generation for the sake of the young.

Yes, at points he resisted the Whitehall health "blob", asking questions and challenging assumptions in a way few others were prepared to do - but often to little effect, outmanoeuvred by those around him.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance wrote in one of his notebooks in August 2020 that Mr Johnson was "obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going".

Quite bonkers set of exchanges. Another note from Sir Patrick in December 2020 said that the prime minister was suggesting that COVID "is just nature's way of dealing with old people".

Extraordinary remarks not least from a prime minister whose voting coalition depends on older voters at its core.

It should be no surprise that cabinet government in this country does not work effectively, or that 10 years into the Tories being in power, not every person around the top table is highly regarded by Tory colleagues.

Nor should it be a surprise that the structures in government to handle a pandemic were failing - secret exercises four years earlier in Whitehall ended in failure, and Brexit had distracted many for years.

The failings that led to the pandemic response have a long tail.

Read more:
Johnson suggested COVID was 'nature's way of dealing with old people'
Key WhatsApp messages from the COVID inquiry

However, what we learnt from the COVID inquiry today was that layered on top of this was a uniquely toxic, destructive set of individuals trying to work their way through the crisis.

It was an environment where the prime minister's right hand aide described himself as being in a "homicidal" mood at points, wanting to go back to Number 10 and fire people. At one point Mr Cummings launched four-letter diatribes about a senior official and said he wanted to "handcuff" her and remove her from the building.

Mr Cummings said during his testimony that during February he began to realise the pandemic plans Matt Hancock had told him existed did not actually exist.

This level of toxicity would make governing in normal times all but impossible. During a crisis it feels unforgivable.

Is what we've heard today enough to shame future politicians to ensure this never happens again?