Michael Gove has apologised to victims and bereaved families for Government “errors” during the pandemic, as he defended Boris Johnson’s No 10 against claims of dysfunctionality.
The senior Tory, who was Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when the pandemic began in 2020, said he took some responsibility for the “mistakes” made at the top level of politics when the crisis unfolded.
Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday, Gove said: “If I may… apologise to the victims who endured such pain, the families who endured so much loss as a result of the mistakes that were made by Government in response to the pandemic.
“As a minister responsible for the Cabinet Office, and was also close to many of the decisions that were made, I must take my share of responsibility for that.
“Politicians are human beings. We’re fallible. We make mistakes and we make errors. I am sure that the inquiry will have an opportunity to look in detail at many of the errors I and others made.”
But the Cabinet minister went on to defend his conduct and that of Cabinet Office staff, saying there were no easy decisions to be made at the time.
“I want to stress that I and those with whom I worked were also seeking at every point, in circumstances where every decision was difficult and every course was bad, to make decisions that we felt we could in order to try to deal with an unprecedented virus and a remarkable assault on the institutions of the country.”
While some mistakes were “unique and specific to the UK Government,” Gove emphasised that “we need to remember that governments everywhere made errors”.
Gove also sought to play down accusations levelled repeatedly during the inquiry that Johnson’s No 10 was mired in chaos.
He was questioned by lead counsel to the Covid-19 Inquiry Hugo Keith KC about WhatsApp messages by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case saying working with Johnson’s team was like “taming wild animals”.
Gove said that while there were “strong personalities” in Downing Street under Johnson, “you will always have – it’s in the nature of politics – strong views, sometimes punchily expressed”.
“The nature of decision-making in any organisation under pressure means that people do sometimes need to be a little bit direct,” he said.
Gove also said he had a “high opinion” of former health secretary Matt Hancock, who has faced repeated criticism from a number of witnesses before the inquiry.
Various witnesses have expressed concern about his performance as health secretary, with the inquiry hearing that the country’s most senior civil servant at the time, Lord Sedwill, wanted Hancock sacked.
Gove argued that “too much was asked” of Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care at the start of the pandemic and that other parts of Government should have taken on more.
“I have a high opinion of Matt Hancock as a minister,” Gove said.
The Levelling Up Secretary, who has held a number of prominent roles in Government, also told the inquiry that the Cabinet Office was “flawed” and not effective at dealing with crises.
“The Cabinet Office in and of itself, over many years, has operated in a way which is not as effective as it should be for the effective delivery of Government policy, both business as usual, and also in response to crises.”
Successive prime ministers have added responsibilities to the Cabinet Office’s plate that do not fit easily elsewhere, Gove said.
“So, it becomes a sort of Mary Poppins bag into which different prime ministers will shove things that they believe require to be dealt with by the Government’s nanny, as it were.”
The Surrey Heath MP at one point noted there was a significant body of judgment that believes that Covid-19 was “man-made”, only to be told by Mr Keith the “divisive” issue was not part of the inquiry’s terms of reference.
Gove also gave evidence to the inquiry’s first module examining the country’s preparedness for a pandemic, when he said that planning for a no-deal Brexit made the UK “more match-fit” to respond to Covid.
Former deputy chief medical officer Professor Dame Jenny Harries is due to give evidence later on Tuesday.
Later this week, Lady Hallett’s probe will also take evidence from Hancock and ex-deputy prime minister Dominic Raab.
The inquiry is taking evidence as part of its second module on core UK decision-making and political governance.
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