Former senior civil servants have expressed surprise and concern about the Cabinet Secretary’s “unprofessional” and joking WhatsApp conversations with Matt Hancock during the Covid crisis, saying they appear to be a very unusual departure from normal standards.
Case’s correspondence with Hancock has been revealed in a leak to the Telegraph known as the Lockdown Files, which shows the head of the civil service saying it was “funny” that some travelers were “locked” into hotels after entering the country.
Case also described Boris Johnson in one message as “a figure not trusted across the country”, referring to then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s opposition to Covid restrictions on business as “insane”.
In another exchange, Hancock said Johnson called to discuss the number of coronavirus cases. Case replied, “I think we’ll do well if he continues to focus on those numbers. I think it helps him stay honest.
The files provide insight into how ministers, special advisers and officials as high as Case, the head of the civil service, framed their response to the pandemic in a free forum.
Two former permanent secretaries told the Guardian that the tone of Case’s messages with Hancock was unusual and they did not believe previous cabinet secretaries would be so informal with ministers.
Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant now working in the UK in a changing Europe, said: “He’s clearly very good at gaining the trust of senior politicians and one of the things about WhatsApp is that it really recreates the conversations you have . have between people in corridors and around coffee machines. Gives you an insight into the Case style.
“But to me, the whole thing is that it sounds a bit casual. I’m not sure even in a private office you would expect such a degree of informality and verbosity. I can see that these were special times, but what struck me even more than the ordinary, what really shook me, was the statement that it was “fun” that people are being forced into quarantine hotels. This is something that is really not expected of civil servants because they are supposed to be serving the public.”
One former permanent secretary said they were “not entirely surprised” but found it “extremely unprofessional” and could not imagine such correspondence taking place under Mark Sedwill or Jeremy Heywood. They said there was usually some distance between the Cabinet Secretary and Cabinet ministers and any communication was “friendly but formal”.
Another former official who held a high public office said that discussions on WhatsApp were extremely casual and “reminiscent of the American expression ‘locker room chat'”.
Case is already under pressure on several fronts as he was involved in several controversies under Johnson, who appointed him in September 2020. He was criticized over the Partygate scandal after it emerged that a party had been held in his own office and he had to withdraw from the investigation. There are also questions about his oversight during the period when Johnson was approved to obtain an £800,000 loan from a distant relative and Nadhim Zahawi was given a senior role in government despite concerns over his tax affairs.
Number 10 said on Monday that Sunak had complete confidence in Case.
Case’s friend said: “I’m sure he will be embarrassed by these remarks, but they were made at a heated moment in the midst of a national crisis in response to a cabinet minister. They do not represent the full policy-making process. We are talking here about a free language used in a free environment.” The Office of the Council of Ministers declined to comment.
The Telegraph published more news from the Lockdown Files on Monday. Correspondence from Hancock was leaked to the newspaper by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who co-authored the MP’s memoir, Pandemic Diaries.
It appears to show guidance on Covid restrictions for people living in relationships, which was formulated via WhatsApp in discussions between James Slack, the former official spokesman for the Prime Minister, England’s chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, and the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
One message from Slack read: “Sorry about this, but the biggest question of the day for our top political journalists is: Can I see my boyfriend or girlfriend if we don’t live in the same household?”
Vallance replied that “the goal is to cut off contact between households, so the strict answer is that they should not meet or should live in the same house. But Chris can give official CMO love advice.”
Whitty said the rules should be relaxed to encourage the public to follow the rules, adding: “I think a bit of realism will be needed. If it’s a regular partner, I don’t think people listen to advice not to see them for three weeks, maybe longer.
“You could say: if they can avoid seeing each other, they should, and if either of them has an elderly or vulnerable person at home, they must.”
At a press conference later that day, Deputy Medical Director Jenny Harries appeared to take a tougher stance, saying that couples who don’t live together must make a choice between following different household guidelines or moving in together.