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The culture of overconfidence: Former senior civil servant sheds light on early pandemic days

HELEN MacNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, has shed light on the overconfident approach adopted by former Health Secretary Matt Hancock during the early days of the pandemic. Ms MacNamara’s testimony, given at the Covid inquiry, has exposed a pattern of reassurances that were far from reality, raising serious questions about the handling of the crisis by the UK government.

During her testimony, Ms MacNamara recounted a “jarring” incident where Hancock, recovering from a bout of coronavirus, assumed a cricket batsman’s stance in Downing Street, declaring confidently, “They bowl them at me, I knock them away.” This incident, she said, epitomised the “unbelievably bullish” and dismissive culture prevalent in the government, led by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

According to Ms MacNamara, the atmosphere in Downing Street during the early days of the pandemic was marked by a “breezy confidence,” with Johnson and his colleagues trivialising warnings. She noted that there was even a culture of “laughing at the Italians,” indicating a lack of seriousness in the face of a growing global crisis.

Furthermore, Ms MacNamara revealed that No 10 had mounting concerns about Hancock’s credibility in April 2020, questioning the accuracy of his statements. Hancock’s tendency to assert that situations were under control, only for the truth to emerge later, created a sense of distrust among his colleagues. “It was very unusual,” Ms MacNamara said, highlighting the consistent pattern of being misled.

When asked if Hancock regularly told people things that later turned out to be false, Ms MacNamara unequivocally responded in the affirmative, confirming the concerns about the former Health Secretary’s credibility.

Reflecting on her attempt to offer Hancock reassurance upon his return to work, she found him confidently embracing the responsibility of his role, assuming a “batsman’s stance” outside the Cabinet room. This incident, she stated, highlighted Hancock’s “overconfidence,” which she identified as a significant problem.

In response to these revelations, a spokesman for Matt Hancock stated, “Mr Hancock has supported the inquiry throughout and will respond to all questions when he gives his evidence.” The inquiry, aimed at understanding the government’s handling of the pandemic, continues to unravel critical details about the decision-making processes during those crucial early days.

As the inquiry progresses, the revelations made by Helen MacNamara have cast a shadow over the government’s initial response to the pandemic. The overconfidence displayed by key figures during this period raises important questions about accountability and transparency, urging the public and policymakers alike to critically assess the lessons learned from these events, ensuring a more robust response in the face of future crises.