Sue Gray is getting a new job with Labour, and it stinksIt begs the question: how many other senior civil servants would be willing to help Keir Starmer's operation?
HENRY HILL 2 March 2023 • 4:59pm
f Sue Gray is allowed to serve as Sir Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff (it has to be approved by Rishi Sunak), she will have formally entered the political arena. So it is fair to ask: what on earth is she doing?
For the Leader of the Opposition the advantages are obvious. The line about her candidacy – that after 13 years out of government, much of the shadow cabinet doesn’t have a clue how to grip the Whitehall machine – is plausible enough. And having made such hay of the partygate inquiry, which Gray conducted, it won’t hurt Starmer to identify himself with the forces of procedure and institutional process.
But for the Civil Service it is a very dangerous development. It will damage the already waning faith among Conservatives in the impartiality of civil servants, since Gray was among the most senior of them all. Many of Boris Johnson’s supporters viewed the whole Sue Gray partygate inquiry as part of a witch-hunt. Gray formally taking a position with the Labour Party will do nothing to dampen such suspicions – indeed, some will take it as further proof of conspiracy.
Not all Conservatives think that way. But it is now more difficult for anyone to defend the rigorous impartiality of Whitehall or its processes. The whole point was that, by having a depoliticised system, politicians and their supporters can trust the advice imparted by officials. Sue Gray is just another one of those officials. She has imparted advice on very serious matters indeed, with significant political consequences.
Of course, civil servants are not robots. They’re people, and are as likely to hold political views – and as entitled to do so – as anyone else. It is perfectly possible to conduct one’s public service in a fair and even-handed manner despite this. But we are in new territory if an extremely senior member of the apolitical system which manages the nation's affairs jumps ship to an active, opposition political party. She would take with her all the knowledge she's amassed from advising successive Conservative governments.
Some might ask: how many other Sue Grays are there? How many of those in senior civil service positions would be willing to become a Labour party worker? Worse still, if civil servants begin to view their roles as a pathway towards a political job, they may be tempted to cultivate their contacts and bolster their reputation with their preferred side. All trust would vanish. The consequences for the business of government could be dire.
Starmer’s concerns about his inexperienced team are legitimate – but if training and advice is needed, it can surely be provided by the Civil Service? After all, it stepped forward to provide advice to all sides during the negotiations that followed the 2010 general election.
As it stands, he risks undermining the very Whitehall professionalism he claims to defend. The possible next prime minister would have as one of his most senior political aides the person who investigated one of his political opponents. That was an investigation which ultimately brought down the head of the government. The legitimacy of that process shouldn't be undermined.
I worked with Matt Hancock on vaccines - he's a headless chickenFormer health secretary blamed Taskforce for delays, but he was a loose cannon who panicked
CLIVE DIX5 March 2023 • 6:00pm
I worked with Matt Hancock the whole time I was at the Vaccine Taskforce and he was, without doubt, the most difficult of all the ministers because he didn’t take time to understand anything.
He was all over the place, a bit like a headless chicken. He often made statements saying “we are going to do X and we want to let the world know about it”, but we were dealing with an uncertain situation in bringing the vaccines forward.
The manufacturing process was brand new and any process like this is fraught with problems, which we need to fix as we go along, but normally you would spend two or three years stress-testing something like this.
Hancock was laying down timelines by saying things like “we will vaccinate the whole population”, and these timelines drove his behaviour.
It was always going to be tricky to get an exact date of when vaccines would arrive and it was always a best guess or an estimate. Getting a vaccine in that timescale is fraught with issues, and I don’t think that ministers understood that.
When we said the AstraZeneca vaccine had manufacturing problems, that is when Hancock panicked.
He didn’t believe us. We were working night and day to make it work and he was turning around and saying: “I have said the UK population will all get vaccinated.”
But we couldn’t change the nature of the process and he didn’t get that. He thought it was like procurement. That is where his behaviour came from. He panicked and that led to them going to India and taking vaccines that had been meant for the developing world.
I thought that ethically it was very wrong to take doses that it had been agreed would go to the developing world just to meet an arbitrary timeline. This is why I ended up resigning, because I could no longer advise a government that acted on these terms.
Originally, they had come to the Vaccine Taskforce and said: “Can we use India supplies?” But the manufacturers hadn't been inspected by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Approving the Indian vaccines was going to take time and we couldn’t give vaccines to people without that.
But Hancock didn’t get it. He said: “They are making it anyway.” But we kept having to tell him that there was a process.
At the same time, we sent a team to start the inspection just in case. We didn’t stop the work. The MHRA did a brilliant job and flew out a team and got it done by February.
The Serum Institute of India (SII) said they would give us 10 million doses, but I questioned it. We had agreed to a deal with AstraZeneca to get the vaccines from the European manufacturers and, at the same time, India would make vaccines for the developing world.
Here, we were taking 10 million doses from the developing world just to meet Hancock’s timeline and it was a timeline that had just been plucked out of the air. We were still well ahead of the majority of the world, ministers should have been upfront and said that we can vaccinate everyone within a month, but we won’t quite hit the timeline. They should have admitted that they were slightly wrong.
I couldn’t stop them doing it, because it wasn’t my job to make policy decisions about where we get the vaccine from. But I said if this is where you are, then I don’t want to advise this government anymore. I didn’t resign there and then, but I did resign in March 2021. I didn’t want to disrupt the work.
It was all driven for the wrong reasons and then Hancock - rather than put his hands up - blamed the Vaccine Taskforce for stalling.
For him to be sending messages and saying Kate Bingham was not reliable is appalling.
We were working as hard as we could and he thought he could just come in and make a bold statement to the public and tell us that we have got to do it. I don’t think he understood the process. He was a loose cannon.
The taskforce sat in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and that is where the budget came from. We reported to Alok Sharma and then Nadhim Zahawi came in as vaccines minister. Hancock wanted to get involved and because he was secretary of state, Alok stepped aside.
He was using the vaccine to protect his reputation. We had no ego, we were only doing this because the country needed vaccines. I had worked for nine months from 4am until midnight without any pay to do this.
It is certainly extraordinary to see how two-faced they are. They were all nice to me to my face but to see what they were saying to Boris Johnson was particularly unpleasant.
It reflects badly on Nadhim and all the civil servants who worked so hard to get this right. In my humble opinion, Hancock was actually the problem.
How sober, professional WhatsApp conversations descended into chaosWhat the earliest messages show is that this was a group that was very much in thinking mode – until the groupthink set in
ByCamilla Tominey, ASSOCIATE EDITOR7 March 2023 • 8:30pm
They are the WhatsApp messages that tell the backstory of the first lockdown.
Dated from Feb 29, 2020, to the day after Boris Johnson issued his unprecedented “stay at home” order 23 days later, they lay bare the complexity of some of the decision-making behind the Government’s preliminary pandemic plan.
Yet what is so striking about the March 2020 “countdown to disaster” is how considered the early conversations on Covid were compared to the cavalier nature of some of the later discussions that played out on the instant messenger app.
It wasn’t until March 11, 2020, that the World Health Organisation declared the Covid outbreak to be a global pandemic.
With positive cases spreading fast across China and the Pacific, Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, spent the last week of February working on an “action plan”, setting up a WhatsApp group for quick communication between the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Number 10, Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser.
What is obvious from the early messages is the level of deference afforded to the Government’s two top medical minds as Mr Johnson’s then right-hand man Dominic Cummings, official spokesman James Slack, communications chief Lee Cain and Sir Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary of DHSC, grappled with how best to prepare the public for what was coming.
We know from later messages that, far from following the science, Sir Chris and Sir Patrick would go on to be overruled at various junctures – including on the testing of people going into care homes, the 14-day isolation period and the efficacy of face masks.
But at the very beginning, their sage advice was sought on everything from the anticipated mortality rate of the disease and the probability of a reasonable worst-case scenario happening to the risk of infection spread by shaking hands and whether boyfriends and girlfriends living apart would be best advised to move in together.
The pair of physicians were asked to “urgently clear up” the confusion on whether testing is reliable for asymptomatic people. Only once did Vallance appear to be overruled.
After publicly suggesting the population be allowed to build up herd immunity, Mr Hancock resolved to release an official statement insisting: “Herd immunity is not a part of our action plan.”
When Mr Slack told his fellow participants that a conference call would be held with newspaper editors to “work together and deliver messages in a responsible way”, it appeared to reflect the sober tone of the dialogue going on inside Downing Street. Both Mr Slack and Mr Wormald stressed the need to demonstrate governmental “grip”.
Far from behaving in a knee-jerk way, the group gave careful consideration, not only to the decisions they took but also to the effect they may have on an anxious public.
Despite going on to become a lockdown “hawk”, Mr Cummings – who deserves credit for asking sensible questions including “how many ventilators will we be short and are we putting out bids now to incentivise 24/7 production in UK?” – largely gave people the benefit of the doubt.
On handshaking, he advised against state intervention, saying: “Think people will work out alternatives themselves”.
On March 5, he promised to tell Mr Johnson, the former prime minister, to stop saying “business as usual” for fear of confusing the public rather than out of a desire to make them fearful.
Having requested more data on intensive care capacity and how it should be prioritised, he demanded, on March 11, “supporting data/models etc” to justify the decision not to lock down sooner. “We need to explain to people tmrw what our lines of defence mean in detailed practical terms for them,” he stressed.
There was no scaremongering talk of “frightening the pants off” the public, nor any notion that they should blindly follow governmental diktats without being given all the available information.
That didn’t come until months later, when all the initial formality appeared to leave the online exchanges as the key protagonists seemingly grew rather too comfortable wielding untrammelled power over the lives and civil liberties of an entire nation.
By the time of the second and third lockdowns in late 2020 and early 2021, the decision-making was far less restrained as allegiances, obsessions and insecurities took over.
The need for evidential justification for the restrictions went by the wayside as choices were made for political expediency and public relations reasons rather than the sake of public health. But it wasn’t like that in the beginning.
What the earliest WhatsApp messages show is that this was a group very much in thinking mode – until the groupthink set in.
Chris Selley: Public health officials still take Canadians for idiotsPoliticians would be much more credible — or at least less incredible — if they just admitted the rules they set are almost entirely political
Get the latest from Chris Selley straight to your inboxSign Up
Author of the article:
Published Nov 20, 2021 • Last updated Nov 20, 2021 • 4 minute read
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam equivocated when put on the spot: "So, I think, um, some of it is not as much the science as it is the operational consideration, as I understand it." PHOTO BY THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE
The federal government solved a political problem on Friday, and as it has so many times over the past 20 months, it gratuitously insulted Canadians’ collective and individual intelligence.
The only saving grace this time around is that it will make some Canadians’ lives easier, rather than more difficult: As of Nov. 30 — just in time for cross-border families and friends to miss out on another American Thanksgiving — those of us wishing to visit the United States for less than 72 hours can return home without proof of a negative test.
The problem was a large and growing constituency calling for a more open border with the U.S.: border-jurisdiction politicians and chambers of commerce, the tourism industry, families cut off from each other for the better part of two years. A de-facto surcharge of roughly $150 for a PCR test on return to Canada was a serious impediment to travel, nicely illustrated by a recent Toronto Maple Leafs game in Buffalo, N.Y.: In normal times, the 11,000 or so seats left empty by forlorn Sabres fans would have been filled by day-tripping Canadians festooned in blue and white.
But there is another large constituency, of course, that looks askance at any lessening of restrictions. That constituency spends most of its time screaming at conservative premiers and their health ministers and much less time screaming at the feds, but federal border issues in particular can blow up at a moment’s notice — sometimes for no reason (hello, Rod Phillips) and sometimes simply because the two countries’ epidemiological situations remain very different. Among Canadian border jurisdictions, the Yukon currently has the highest rolling daily rate of new reported infections, at 34 per 100,000, followed by Alberta (15) and Manitoba (12). The average among American border states combined is 49, and is as high as 84 in Michigan.
How to balance these two constituencies’ concerns? The feds could have expanded the suite of acceptable tests to include rapid antigen tests — which the Americans accept as proof of COVID-negative status for air travel. (Fully vaccinated foreigners don’t need a negative test to enter the U.S. overland, or on a ferry.) These cost between $40 and $60 in Canadian cities, with results in just a few minutes. They’re not as accurate as PCR tests, as Canadians have heard a million times from our scandalously rapid-test-averse public health community, but they’re still very good — particularly at flagging people who are the most infectious.
Instead, the feds blew straight past that: You will require no COVID test at all if you return to Canada from a short trip to the U.S., so long as you’re fully vaccinated and beetle back before 73 hours have elapsed.
Oh, and so long as you’re a Canadian citizen, permanent resident or status Indian.
You either have the virus or you don't
Lesser humans, including international students, temporary workers and foreign tourists, still have to produce a full-on PCR test to enter Canada. That test could have been conducted before they left Canada, so long as the result isn’t more than 72 hours old, which is not as stupid as it might seem: If you catch COVID during 72 hours abroad, you’re very unlikely to test positive before hour 73. But it also highlights how irrelevant crossing a border is to all this: You either have the virus or you don’t.
That being the case, at Friday afternoon’s press conference in Ottawa, Global News reporter David Akin asked newly minted Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos for some medical justification for treating fully vaccinated Canadians coming back from brief American excursions differently than fully vaccinated Americans coming to visit. Duclos essentially repeated the day’s announcement and punted to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam to provide “evidence based on health and science.”
Such evidence was not forthcoming. “So, I think, um, some of it is not as much the science as it is the operational consideration, as I understand it,” she ventured.
In other words: “This is pure politics, don’t look at me.”
Alas, she then tried to bail Duclos out. “If an American traveller comes into Canada, I believe they have a right to stay for six months,” she said, not sounding or appearing super-confident about what point she was trying to make. “And there is no way that we can actually follow them up in terms of the return or the length of the trip.”
If she means that Canada is incapable of determining whether an American has left the country and returned within 72 hours, then something has gone quite wrong with the border information-sharing agreement between our two countries. But at this point Tam’s deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, interjected to explain that Akin was quite right: This is all quite certainly about epidemiology, and not about nationality.
Canada isn’t the only country with nonsensical rules like these. It would all be so much low-grade farce if the stakes weren’t so high. Friday’s other big announcement was Health Canada’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine for Canadian children aged five to 11. Tam, Njoo and Duclos, their provincial and municipal counterparts, and the entire public health apparatus of this country will spend the next weeks and months extolling the scientifically proven virtues of this miracle juice to a significant population of hesitant Canadian parents: Last month, the Angus Reid Institute found 23 per cent of parents were a firm “no” on vaccinating their under-12 kids; 18 per cent intended to wait; and nine per cent weren’t sure.
The vaccine promotion effort would be on considerably firmer ground, surely, if its leading lights hadn’t spent the past 20 months playing the entire country for fools — dressing up “operational considerations,” as Tam called politics, as science and expecting us not to notice.
Both Liberal and Conservative governments have used ministerial responsibility to prevent their staff from testifying before committees.
The idea is predicated on the notion that ministers run the show. But Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said staffers have absorbed new powers, and in some cases, even cut ministers out of what they’re doing.
“The system was not designed to have people unelected, appointed, involved in politics and deeply embedded in government, sometimes exerting the authority of cabinets,” said Marland, who researches political communication.
He believes that change calls for a review of Canada’s democratic processes.
“The public service has grown so much, and so much has changed in society,” he said.
“We really need to be able to get a better handle on recommendations to make the public service and the system of government as strong as it can be.”
Staffers often use social media to amplify government messages, becoming public figures in their own right, Marland said, at times getting involved in the political fray.
“I think an awful lot of times they’re the ones kind of setting the course of government, or are perceived to be. And that’s the thing about politics, a lot of the time it’s the idea that perception is reality,” Marland said.
“If â¦ all of us think that these staffers have all this power, then it’s only natural that we are going to then expect some measure of accountability somewhere. And the minister isn’t always best placed to do that.”
I found myself thinking of the shifting nature of fears and worries lately when contemplating the recent arrest of Donald Trump. Is it the right or the left who scares me more? Where the answer used to be an obvious one, it no longer is.
In previous years my answer was always the right or the Conservatives. The right, particularly in the United States, presented a clear and obvious danger along with bad ideas. They were frequently anti-immigrant, opposed to gay marriage, sceptical of environmentalists, wanted — and still want — no restrictions on firearms despite mass shootings, and displayed a general hostility to government welfare. All of these were, and indeed are, ideas and issues on which I reliably find myself on the opposite side. As such, it was no surprise that I would reflexively oppose many Republican or Conservatives ideas and conversations. They were the scariest people I could imagine in charge of government.
Events of recent years have demonstrated that while those on the left are always the first to cry about the need for inclusivity, tolerance and safety, they have a disturbing habit of using violence and repression when they are challenged.
one may agree or disagree, even vehemently, with the ideology or political stances of the various actors. What we should be able to all agree on, however, is that the response from the state or, in the case of Billboard Chris, private citizens, was over the top, uncalled for and likely motivated by more insidious priorities.
This extremist zealotry believes the public must be wrong if their opinions diverge from that of what John McWhoter terms “the elect.” An exemplary example of this deranged manner of thinking was recently put on display by former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart. In a tweet to police clearing a homeless camp, he accused the 85,000 Vancouver voters who did not vote for him of supporting genocide. This extraordinary accusation and claim was made because of a policy disagreement, nothing more.