UK ministers accused of prioritising careers over lives of coronavirus victims

Rajeev Syal
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Ministers have been accused of focusing on saving their careers instead of the lives of coronavirus victims by authorising “cowardly and shameful” anonymous briefings against some of the UK’s most senior public officials.

Smears by unnamed Downing Street sources against Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, and Public Health England (PHE) executives show that “some within government are still putting self-preservation first”, according to the head of the senior civil servants’ union.

It comes amid concern across Whitehall that cabinet ministers and their special advisers are mounting a concerted effort to pass the blame for the UK’s faltering response to the pandemic on to officials.

Government sources were quoted this weekend claiming that Sedwill had failed to get a grip of government, PHE officials had not placed enough emphasis on testing and NHS England officials had failed to control personal protective equipment (PPE) supply.

In an article for the Guardian, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents the UK’s most senior public servants, said some in government were ignoring the dedication of public servants and instead using them as scapegoats.

“As pressure mounts over the capacity for coronavirus testing and the supply of PPE and ventilators, finding someone to blame rather than fixing the problem seems to be the priority for some at the heart of government,” said Penman. “Well-placed anonymous sources have started pointing fingers at everyone from the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, to Public Health England.

“If mistakes have been made, ministers and civil servants will rightly be held accountable … While ministers and officials must be scrutinised for their decisions as events unfold, many of these questions will inevitably be for another day.

“Right now, we need ministers and their advisers focusing on saving lives, not their careers. While public servants across the UK are working night and day – literally putting their lives on the line for the country – some within government are still putting self-preservation first. It is not only cowardly and shameful, it’s also destructive.”

A Times article on Saturday quoted an ally of Johnson saying that Sedwill was under scrutiny for failing to control government departments. “He’s more present now but there is a bit of a mystery about where he was in the early days of all this,” the source was quoted as saying.

The same article claimed that ministers were blaming PHE officials for an inflexible attitude and insensitivity to public pressure for answers. “What this has exposed is these people’s utter lack of accountability,” a senior official told the newspaper. “It’s not just PHE, it’s a whole world of these bodies that bumble along, occasionally banning Coco Pops or something but for the most part entirely out of sight.”

In a following article, a “senior figure” told the Sunday Times that NHS England was being blamed by ministers for failing to get a grip on PPE supply.

Civil servants have also been angered this weekend by claims that the prime minister is “extremely unlikely” to sack the home secretary, Priti Patel, even if she is found to have bullied civil servants across three separate government departments.

The Cabinet Office investigation was launched last month after claims from civil servants and the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office’s most senior official.

Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, is expected to pass on the findings within days.

He will decide whether Patel broke rules. However, the final say rests with Johnson, who can overrule Allan.

Rutnam, who resigned after anonymous briefings against him in the media, is suing the government for constructive dismissal after accusing Patel of “swearing and belittling people”.

As well as witnessing Patel’s alleged bullying behaviour, Rutnam claimed he was briefed against across the media by sources said to be from either No 10 or friends or allies of Patel. He was accused of being unable to do his job and of being undeserving of his pension, and was compared to the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore.

Patel has denied the claims.

One Whitehall source said: “If Patel is cleared without a thorough inquiry into the many claims of bullying, it will be seen as a whitewash and will heighten mistrust across government.”