No 10 had head-in-sand mentality at start of Covid crisis, says ex-minister

Downing Street showed an “ostrich, head-in-the-sand mentality” towards Covid in early 2020 as Boris Johnson’s government instead focused on subjects such as Brexit, a former health minister has said.

Speaking to the Institute for Government as part of its ongoing series of in-depth interviews with former ministers about their time in office, James Bethell also said officials did not want him to discuss the potential economic impacts of Covid policies and would delete this from his speeches.

Asked about the health department’s interaction with other arms of government, Lord Bethell, who was a whip before becoming a junior health minister, said it could be “pretty turbulent”.

He said: “No 10 didn’t want to prioritise the pandemic in early 2020, even though the evidence was mounting – there was a post-election, ostrich, head-in-the-sand mentality, which I saw again around the invasion of Ukraine.

“Its priority, and what we were told many times, was Brexit and levelling up. ‘We have to deliver Brexit, so could your pandemic quietly go and mind your own business, please,’ we were told. So we had several weeks of this brushing off, and then they switched into it eventually. After that we got a lot of erratic dipping in. In Yiddish, it’s called ‘kibitzing’: erratic and ill-informed interference.”

While noting that as a junior minister his personal interactions with Downing Street were limited, Bethell said that from his point of view “coordination within government got a lot better” after Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, left No 10 in November 2020.

James Bethell
James Bethell said he was first asked if he wanted to become a minister while at the Womad festival in 2019. Photograph: Roger Harris/UK Parliament / Roger Harris

Separately in the interview, Bethell said he was never given any advice about the economic impact of Covid policies, calling this “a mistake”. He said: “I was really surprised that we never got any kind of economic briefing. I asked for it many times, and I wrote speeches to give in the Lords where I articulated the economic thinking that I was personally working from.

“But my officials intervened, quite reasonably and quite correctly, and said: ‘It is not your role as the health minister to try to make up the government’s economic policy. The Treasury will go mad if you try to do that, we will not get the speech cleared by their officials, and by the way it’s neither smart nor right.’ And they had a point, so that stuff got deleted.”

In another recollection, Bethell said he was first asked if he wanted to become a minister in 2019 when he was at the Womad festival and was phoned by the then chief whip in the Lords.

“I was in a really great mood, feeling warm about the world, he made a very charming pitch and [I] immediately said yes,” Bethell said. “I am not sure I fully thought through all the implications.”