‘Toxic culture where women are overlooked’
Ex-mandarin tells Covid Inquiry of No10 ‘misogyny’
A TOXIC culture existed at the heart of government in which women were marginalised as key decisions were made, a former senior civil servant told the Covid Inquiry yesterday.
Helen MacNamara, the ex- deputy cabinet secretary, who was on the receiving end of vile insults by Dominic Cummings, said his use of ‘violent and misogynist language’ was not surprising.
Ms MacNamara described ‘nuclear levels’ of confidence and ‘macho’ bravado during the pandemic that were not present under the previous prime minister Theresa May.
She also raised concerns that during the Covid crisis vulnerable women such as domestic abuse victims died during lockdown because of a lack of gender diversity among decision makers, the hearing was told.
The inquiry was this week shown abhorrent WhatsApp messages in which former chief Downing Street aide Mr Cummings urged Boris Johnson to sack Ms MacNamara for ‘ causing trouble’, offering to ‘handcuff her and escort her from the building’.
He added: ‘That woman must be out of our hair. We cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***.’
Ms MacNamara, who has since left the civil service after more than two decades, said Mr Cummings was frustrated with her over a number of personnel issues.
Giving evidence, she described the messages as ‘horrible to read’, adding: ‘It is both surprising and not surprising to me, and I don’t know which is worse, actually. It wasn’t a pleasant place to work.’
Mr Cummings denied he was misogynistic when confronted with the messages on Tuesday.
But Ms MacNamara described the content as ‘violent and misogynistic’, and criticised Mr Johnson for failing to clamp down on his foul-mouthed chief of staff.
She said the messages were ‘just miles away from what is right or proper or decent’.
She said Westminster and Whitehall were ‘endemically sexist’ environments, but No 10 and the Cabinet Office became even worse during the pandemic. Women staff felt ‘as if they had become invisible overnight’, would not appear in Zoom meetings, or rarely spoke.
She also claimed ‘over- confidence’ of certain senior figures in government ‘was a problem’. She said Matt Hancock, the health secretary during the pandemic, told the Cabinet ‘ time and time again’ that Covid plans were ‘absolutely fine’, before it was realised that they were ‘very far from fine’.
Ms McNamara recalled one particular exchange with Mr Hancock in which he was asked whether he needed additional support in the early weeks of the health crisis.
She said in a witness statement to the inquiry: ‘He reassured me he was “loving the responsibility” and to demonstrate this took up a batsman’s stance outside the Cabinet room and said: “They bowl them at me, I knock them away”.’
She said: I’m trying to explain just how jarring some of that was... it partly does go back to my point about levels of confidence that were being deployed, which I do think is a problem.’
Ms MacNamara also suggested that there was a ‘lack of care’ in Downing Street about the spread of Covid-19. It took seven months after the beginning of the pandemic to get a hand sanitiser station by the door between No 10 and the Cabinet Office, despite it having a keypad ‘that anyone who worked for the prime minister was constantly having to touch’, she said. Ms MacNamara, who was fined for providing a karaoke machine for a Downing Street party, also apologised for the lockdown-breaking gatherings there.
Mr Cummings claimed there was a ‘significant hack’ of the WhatsApp accounts of staff in No 10 during the pandemic. He said in written evidence that he was targeted and informed intelligence agency GCHQ. He added that this was the reason that he deleted some of his WhatsApp chats. The inquiry continues.