Exclusive: Boris Johnson takes back control of coronavirus crisis with Downing Street shake-up

Christopher Hope
The changes come after Mr Johnson appointed Simon Case, a key aide to the Duke of Cambridge, to a top permanent secretary role running 10 Downing Street - Barcroft Media
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Boris Johnson is to take "direct control" of the Government's handling of the coronavirus crisis after a chaotic fortnight in which his chief aide was accused of breaking the lockdown rules and the Government's test and trace plans were hit by setbacks.

A shake-up in Downing Street will see the Government's entire approach to the pandemic run by two centrally-run committees, covering strategy and operational delivery.

Tory MPs said the changes could weaken the influence of chief adviser Dominic Cummings – who was heavily criticised for a 260-mile trip during lockdown – and allow Mr Johnson to tighten his grip on the fight against the pandemic after being treated in intensive care for the virus.

In the past fortnight, his Government has been criticised over plans to quarantine new arrivals in the UK, while a test and trace app to track people infected with coronavirus has failed to materialise.

The reforms will also free up some of the Prime Minister's top team to focus on the Brexit talks ahead of a crucial deadline next month when the UK must decide whether to extend the transition period beyond the end of this year.

The changes come after Mr Johnson appointed Simon Case, a key aide to the Duke of Cambridge, to a top permanent secretary role running 10 Downing Street.

A new strategy committee – dubbed "CS" – will be chaired by Mr Johnson, while the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, will chair the new operations committee, known in Whitehall as "CO". Both will meet on a regular basis.

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The new approach echoes the Government's Brexit planning last year which was led by an "XS" strategic and "XO" operational committee.

The committees will replace four ministerial implementation groups, set up at the start of the crisis and covering foreign affairs, health, economy and business and public services, each chaired by a Cabinet minister.

The regular Covid-19 committee meeting, which has been held every morning at Number 10, is being axed. One source said the new structure would give a more "cohesive" approach to tackling the pandemic.

Number 10 is also ending the weekend press conferences due to low audience figures, and only holding them on weekdays. Mr Johnson will host one of them.

Officials wanted to maintain the weekday conferences because they are attracting more than three million viewers and listeners most evenings. One source said: "It is a prime time audience, and you would be foolish to give that up."

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A senior Tory MP said Mr Johnson's shake-up was intended "to bring some order" to the decision-making process after a difficult two months.

The MP said: "Boris has decided that Cummings is there, but he is going to take more direct control. It is coming out of frustration – you are seeing his reawakening after a tough old time with the Covid-19 attack.

"He showed he had backbone [in backing Mr Cummings]. Cummings is not in a brilliant place – and he must know it. Boris knowing that makes him more determined to do it himself."