Former civil service chief apologises for ‘chickenpox party’ Covid suggestion

Mark Sedwill, Britain’s most senior civil servant at the dawn of Covid, has apologized for suggesting at a meeting that people could hold ‘chickenpox parties’ to spread the virus, as he tried to slow down the government’s initial response on the pandemic.

In evidence to the Covid inquiry, Lord Sedwill, who was Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Secretary until September 2020, accepted that the virus was not initially taken seriously enough and that there were failures in co-ordinating policy.

Sedwill confirmed that he had suggested to Johnson on March 12, 2020 that people could potentially hold chickenpox-style parties so that children and others could catch Covid and help the country achieve herd immunity, comments first told by Dominic Cummings, the former Johnson’s chief advisor.

Sedwill said this was suggested at the time in the context of the plan to mitigate the Covid peak, and that his idea was that people less susceptible to Covid would contract it and acquire immunity, while the more vulnerable people would be quarantined could go.

He added: “These were private exchanges and I certainly did not expect this to become public.

“I understand how the interpretation given to it must have come across especially because someone in my role was both heartless and thoughtless about this, and I really am not. But I do understand the suffering that must have been caused and I apologize for that.”

Previous evidence shows that both Johnson and Cummings viewed Sedwill as ‘off course’ on Covid, and too slow to respond to the scale of the threat.

When Hugo Keith KC, the investigating lawyer, asked if this was true, Sedwill replied that it was partly due to his role: ‘It is possible. It is also possible that I gave that impression. I felt I had to lead a system that was then on the verge of panic. I didn’t have the luxury of saying, even privately, ‘We are doomed.’”

During Sedwill’s evidence, the inquiry found that Johnson and his ministers were informed by the head of the Cabinet Office’s civil contingencies department in late February 2020 that a reasonable scenario was that 80% of the UK population would be infected with Covid, and up to 1% die, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

When asked by Keith why the alert level within the government was not higher, Sedwill replied: “It should have been.”

Johnson had to be reminded to involve Cabinet in Covid decisions, says ex-civil service chief – video

The hearing also showed minutes of a cabinet meeting earlier in February, where Johnson warned of “political overreaction” to Covid, saying this had happened with mad cow disease, and “that confidence was also contagious”.

Sedwill agreed there was an “optimistic bias” about the virus at the time. Asked whether Johnson should have been more concerned, Sedwill said: “He is an optimistic person. I think the optimism bias you mentioned reflected his overall position at the time.

During a lengthy cross-examination by Keith about a lack of coordination between different elements of government when the pandemic broke out, Sedwill accepted that this had not worked well within the Cabinet Office, the department tasked with leading on such issues.

“No, and that is one of the lessons of this period of crisis,” he said. “There was an assurance that there were plans to manage it, and in retrospect those plans should have been questioned more carefully by me and at Cabinet level.”