Government officials wanted Brits to catch Covid and develop immunity “like chickenpox” in March 2020, according to the UK’s Covid inquiry today.
Sir Christopher Wormald, permanent secretary of the Department of Health, told former cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill that he was “exactly right” to believe people in the UK would need to be infected to develop herd immunity, when enough people are immune to a virus that it cannot spread.
In a message on 12 March 2020, shared with the inquiry, Lord Sedwill said: “I don’t think PM & Co have yet internalized the distinction between minimizing mortality and not trying to prevent the majority of people from suffering from it.”
‘In fact, presumably, like chickenpox, we want people to get it and develop herd immunity before the next wave.
“We just want them to not get it all at once and preferably when it’s warm (sic) and dry etc.”
Sir Christopher replied: ‘Exactly right. We make it clear to them in every meeting, but they don’t fully understand it.
The exchange came just days before the Government moved to impose a lockdown, amid fears the NHS would be overwhelmed by the virus.
Matt Hancock would be “surprised” at how widespread the view was that the then health secretary told “untruths” during the pandemic, a senior official told Covid Inquiry. Sir Christopher Wormald, permanent secretary of the Department of Health, said: “I suspect you will be surprised how widespread it was.”
It also came on the same day that former senior adviser Dominic Cummings complained in a WhatsApp message that Lord Sedwill had been “babbling about chicken pox”, adding “God help us”.
Giving evidence to the inquiry earlier this week, Mr Cummings claimed Lord Sedwill had told Boris Johnson: “PM, you should go on TV and explain that this is just like the old days with chicken pox and people are going to have parties against chickenpox. And the sooner people understand this and get it over with, the better the situation will be.
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Cummings responded to the evidence presented at the inquiry on Thursday.
He said: ‘The reason the Cabinet Secretary suggested to the Prime Minister on December 3 that he tell the country to have chickenpox parties – and I/Ben Warner said “you should stop saying this” – is the Permanent Secretary from DHSC, *in charge of ‘the plan’*, was telling him that this was the damn plan!!!
“Shit, this is really atrocious and explains a lot.”
Sir Christopher, who was pressed by the inquiry’s lead lawyer Hugo Keith KC to explain the exchange, said it was a reference to herd immunity but argued it “reflected the state of scientific advice at the time”.
He said he had been “very, very vague in my response” and had been following advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies at the time.
It comes after Sir Christopher told the inquiry that Matt Hancock would be “surprised” at how widespread the view was that he had told “untruths”.
Sir Christopher said: “I suspect you will be surprised how widespread it was.”
‘He was well aware that Mr (Dominic) Cummings had those opinions about him and expressed them.
“I think he probably knew that the Cabinet Secretary occasionally made the same comment,” he added.
But Sir Christopher said Hancock would probably be surprised if former civil servant Helen MacNamara, who gave evidence at the inquiry on Wednesday, held similar views.
Messages shown to the inquiry this week show Cummings called Hancock a “proven liar”, while MacNamara, a former deputy cabinet secretary, told the inquiry this week that Hancock insisted things were “absolutely fine” when they were ” very, “It’s far from okay” during the crisis.
Sir Christopher also told the inquiry that Mr Hancock believed it was important to be “optimistic and aspirational”, adding that he himself was not aware of the extent of the then Health Secretary’s views on truth.
“There were many people who said the Secretary of State was too optimistic about what would happen and promised too much about what could be delivered,” Sir Christopher said.
‘That was really said a lot. I think it was a very small number of people who said he was actually telling lies.’
“He was always clear that he was doing it for a positive reason. So setting a very ambitious goal, not necessarily expecting to achieve it, but pushing the system to do more.”
“Whether or not it’s good to do it is a matter of perception.”
Sir Christopher acknowledged that mistrust between Number 10, the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health would have been damaging.
“The amount of time and energy that seemed to have been consumed very early in the pandemic on the blame game, that energy clearly would have been better spent solving the problems that the pandemic was bringing.”
Sir Christopher also rejected the evidence of the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who described the Department of Health as “ungovernable” and an “operational disaster” in his diaries on the pandemic.
Sir Christopher said he did not agree that it was chaotic, dysfunctional or ungovernable.
Discussing the Government’s response to the Covid outbreak, Sir Christopher said the Government was a “week late” in introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) – restrictions such as masks and social distancing – which led to the first closure.
He also said the November shutdown was implemented too late and that was his opinion at the time.
He said: ‘In hindsight we were at least a week late on all points of the NPI decisions. I agreed with the decisions there and then.
“But looking back, we should have done everything on the 12th, 16th, 23rd… at least a week earlier.”
He added: “In March, our lack of knowledge and understanding of the virus and decision-making led to considerable uncertainty.”
«That will not be the case with the second confinement. At this point we have a lot of evidence. We know a lot about the virus. We’re not modeling, we basically know how it goes up and down.’
However, in Sir Patrick’s pandemic diaries, he said Sir Christopher “angered” him in March 2020 after dropping “the bomb about needing to move faster”.
Sir Christopher said he “did not remember” this.