Macho posturing costs lives: another lesson from the Covid inquiry | Gaby Hinsliff

Sorry to bother you. Would you mind terribly? No worries if not!

It isn’t only women who pepper emails with self-effacing phrases like this, of course, but let’s just say the scales tip in that direction. It’s still women who are conditioned to play nice, and not put people’s backs up; to cajole, nudge and placate instead of barking orders or picking fights. Even brisk professionalism is deemed icy coming from women, so we’ll add a softening exclamation mark just in case.

History does not record whether Boris Johnson was equally sorry to bother everyone when he reportedly asked scientists in the middle of a pandemic if it was true you could kill Covid-19 by blowing a hairdryer up your nose, like he’d seen on YouTube. But we do know that Helen MacNamara, then deputy secretary to the cabinet and one of the most powerful women in Whitehall, felt compelled to open with “Just when you thought you were out of the woods on annoying emails from me …” when messaging colleagues over concerns that oversized PPE not made for women’s bodies was potentially endangering frontline staff.

Her point was far from trivial – female medics feared baggy gloves and gaping masks exposing them to a deadly virus – but she was emailing overworked people close to midnight, which may explain the apologetic tone and encouraging emoji signoff. Though much good it did her in Downing Street, to judge by Dominic Cummings’ furious WhatsApps complaining of “dodging stilettos from that cunt”. (The two had, MacNamara claims, clashed over attempts to give the Brexit negotiator David Frost a job she considered inappropriate, and over an unfair dismissal case brought by a previous female aide whom Cummings had had marched out by the police).

That’s the context, then, in which MacNamara told the inquiry this week that issues affecting women during the pandemic simply weren’t taken seriously enough in government. She described female experts being ignored, talked over and disrespected to the extent that they couldn’t do their jobs, with profound consequences for millions of other women reliant on the government getting it right over everything from school closures to access to abortion during lockdown and help for domestic violence victims trapped inside with their abusers.

“It is very difficult to draw any conclusion other than women have died as a result of this,” she warned in an email describing these consequences. As MacNamara, a mother of four, described how women felt they couldn’t bring their everyday life experience into meetings, you caught an echo of former Downing Street spin doctor Lee Cain, who had earlier described frustration at Johnson rejecting calls to expand free school meals. Cain realised he was the only one in a meeting of 20 who had grown up poor enough to qualify for them.

Talk of diversity at the top and toxic “workplace culture” may sound like waffly HR-speak. But in a crisis, how well decision-makers work together, and what they understand about ordinary lives, have life-and-death implications – which is why this week’s revelations are about so much more than a few sweary WhatsApps and a row about whether Cummings really was a misogynist. When government decision-making suffered, so did thousands of vulnerable people.

For what it’s worth, when claims that Cummings had a “woman problem” first surfaced years ago, I asked around some of his ex-colleagues and was told it was more of a people problem: specifically, a tendency to regard almost everyone as a moron. His defence now that he was even ruder about men rings true – he didn’t just try to fire MacNamara but also the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, and would probably have ousted Johnson if he could – yet spectacularly misses the point.

This isn’t just about staffroom bitching, but what MacNamara called a “macho and heroic” culture of nuclear overconfidence inside government, characterised by the likes of Hancock – who when asked how he was coping with the pressure, struck a cricketing pose and declared: “They bowl them at me; I knock them away” – and by Johnson’s bullish but evidence-free conviction that everything would work out brilliantly somehow.

People who worried, and asked apologetic questions, didn’t fit. It was hard being the one always saying no, explained MacNamara, who had felt belittled when she warned the prime minister’s office early in the pandemic: “We are absolutely fucked.” Meanwhile Sonia Khan, the Treasury aide brutally fired by Cummings back in 2019, later described to the BBC an intimidating working culture where the men bonded over sport and the women found themselves shut out, like some flashback to the 00s.

Watching them testify, you could see why Cummings and MacNamara might have grated on each other: she calmly contained, he roaming late-night Twitter afterwards picking fights with journalists. But while a strong leader might have harnessed the best of both – for Cummings offered some valuable insights early in the pandemic, alongside the chaos – this one drew out their worst. The upright MacNamara ended up shamed for attending a lockdown office party, while Cummings’ more serious arguments to the inquiry about government handling of scientific data vanished in a blizzard of expletives.

It’s Boris Johnson who should arguably open with an apology when he eventually comes before this inquiry: a mea culpa not just for all the deaths and the suffering, but for creating this dystopian zoo of an office, in which even good people couldn’t do what the nation needed them to. Except that sorry, in this case, is nowhere near enough.

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