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Sedwill apologises for bringing up ‘chickenpox parties’ during Covid pandemic

Lord Mark Sedwill attended Cabinet meetings (Simon Dawson/PA)
Lord Mark Sedwill attended Cabinet meetings (Simon Dawson/PA)

Former Cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill has apologised for his “heartless” suggestion that chickenpox-style parties could have been held for coronavirus early in the pandemic.

The ex-national security adviser on Wednesday admitted making the remark, but insisted he was only giving an analogy to shielding the most vulnerable as others developed immunity.

He said sorry to bereaved families at the Covid inquiry for the “distress” but said he never intended for the exchanges to be made public, after they were revealed by Dominic Cummings.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Lord Mark Sedwill gives evidence to the Covid inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Boris Johnson’s “brutal and useless” inner circle came under fresh criticism as Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was seen to have compared working to “taming wild animals”.

Lord Sedwill, who became the top civil servant as cabinet secretary in April 2018, told how leaks and “distortions” spread by Mr Johnson’s allies helped force him out in September 2020.

The former national security adviser’s chickenpox parties suggestion was first made public by Mr Cummings, who was Mr Johnson’s chief aide, in May 2021.

And Mr Cummings last week told the inquiry Lord Sedwill told Mr Johnson on March 12 2020 that he should go on television and “explain that this is like the old days with chickenpox and people are going to have chickenpox parties”.

Addressing families on Wednesday, Lord Sedwill told the inquiry: “These were private exchanges and I certainly had not expected for this to become public.

“I understand how, in particular the interpretation that has been put on it, it must have come across as someone in my role was both heartless and thoughtless about this and I genuinely am neither. But I do understand the distress that must have caused and I apologise for that.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Dominic Cummings was a chief adviser to Boris Johnson (James Manning/PA)

Lord Sedwill said the remarks had been made before the mid-March meetings in which the Government changed its approach to head towards a lockdown.

“I should say, at no point did I believe that coronavirus was only of the same seriousness as chickenpox, I knew it was a much more serious disease, that was not the point I was trying to make,” he said.

Lord Sedwill said he stopped making the comparison when he realised the reaction of Downing Street’s Ben Warner, because he realised “that analogy was causing confusion”.

Messages from March 12, 2020 showed he had discussed chickenpox with Sir Christopher Wormald, the top civil servant at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

“Indeed presumably like chickenpox we want people to get it and develop herd immunity before the next wave,” Lord Sedwill wrote.

Meanwhile, he said he had concerns about Mr Johnson’s “stamina” during his long recovery from coronavirus after he was treated in hospital in April 2020.

“It took him a long time to recover, he had a serious bout of this,” the peer told the west London inquiry.

“So I wasn’t concerned so much about his decision making style – separate question – it was about stamina really.”

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson’s ‘stamina’ during his recovery from coronavirus was questioned by Lord Sedwill (PA)

Lord Sedwill complained that Mr Johnson’s administration was “brutal and useless”, according to an August 2020 extract from former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary.

The peer said he does not remember saying those words, but said “I don’t doubt Sir Patrick’s memory” and believed “it must have been a moment of acute frustration”.

Mr Case, days before joining No 10 as permanent secretary in May 2020, did not “want to go near these people” in discussing Mr Johnson’s inner circle.

Later, in June 2020, Mr Case wrote to Lord Sedwill: “It is like taming wild animals. Nothing in my past experience has prepared me for this madness.

“The PM and the people he chooses to surround himself with are basically feral.”

Lord Sedwill replied: “I have the bite marks.”

The former Cabinet secretary also shared his concerns about Matt Hancock’s “candour” as the inquiry heard how he wanted him sacked as health secretary.

The inquiry heard that in one WhatsApp exchange with Mr Case, Lord Sedwill joked in an example of “gallows humour” that it was necessary to remove Mr Hancock to “save lives and protect the NHS”.

Lord Sedwill also acknowledged he had delayed calling an emergency Cobra meeting in January 2020 for two days over concerns Mr Hancock was trying to “make a splash”.

“I felt that a Cobra which might have been convened primarily for communications purposes wasn’t wise,” he said. “Two days later I was advised there was a genuine cross-government basis for it and I agreed.”

Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC asked him to be “plain” in his speaking.

“Were you concerned that the Cobra was being called by the DHSC for presentation purposes, that is to say to make a splash about the role of DHSC, perhaps its secretary of state, and that’s why you initially hesitated?” he asked.

Lord Sedwill said: “That is a fair summary of my thinking.”

Messages revealed how Lord Sedwill warned Mr Cummings in March 2020 that the Government was not a “dictatorship”, over concerns the aide wanted Mr Johnson to take nationally significant decisions with no ministers or experts present.