“I cannot remember the substance.” Martin Reynolds, former Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, was drawing a blank. He was five minutes into several hours of evidence before the Covid Inquiry, during which he would find himself unable to recall a lot of things. He had been given access to his old emails, in the hope that they might clear the mental fog, but to no avail. Much of the period between 2020 and 2022, we would learn, is simply missing from his mind. Is memory loss a Long Covid symptom?
Is memory loss a Long Covid symptom?
If the name of Martin Reynolds rings a faint bell in the mind of others, it is because, as well as having been one of the nation’s most senior civil servants, he was also “Party Marty”, the organiser of a notorious Downing Street shindig, the “make the most of the lovely weather” bring-your-own-bottle garden “work event” of the first lockdown. We would get an apology for this, but first we had to cover Reynolds’ recollections — or not — of more important decisions.
It was a frustrating experience. Partly, obvious, because of the memory gaps. (Why, as a public inquiry was announced, had Reynolds turned on the Disappearing Messages setting in WhatsApp? “I can guess and I can speculate. I cannot recall.”) But also because, on Reynolds’ account, he really wasn’t involved in any decisions. They always seemed to have been up to people either more or less important than he was. We had found a man in the perfect sweet spot of seniority without responsibility. His main job, it turned out, was collecting pieces of paper and getting the prime minister to read them.
Not, of course, that this was a trivial operation, when you remember — if you can — that the prime minister at the time was Boris Johnson. Despite Reynolds’ best efforts, we quickly developed a picture of life inside Number 10 in those early days of the pandemic crisis, a time when humankind trembled on the brink of chaos, when great men and women around the globe wrestled with impossible choices.
“I’d like to start exposing the prime minister to the sort of decisions he might have to make,” one of the more junior — and yet somehow more involved — officials in Number 10 wrote in early 2020, contemplating how a pandemic might play out. It sounds an unusual way to talk about a world leader — more, perhaps, the way you might talk about preparing a spoiled child for the news that chicken nuggets are off the menu. But you have to remember — try, Marty, try — who the prime minister was.
Reynolds was asked about a WhatsApp group he’d set up with Johnson. It turned out that the best way to get the prime minister to read his paperwork was for Reynolds to paste it into a message and buzz it to his phone, presumably to trick him into opening it. How did they get Johnson to approve the Budget? Disguise it as a new level in Candy Crush?
Sometimes it was simply impossible. For ten days in February 2020, almost nothing related to Covid was sent to the prime minister at all, Reynolds conceded, before saying, of course, that he was unable to recollect why this might have been. At the time Johnson, anxious about cash following his divorce, was reported to be trying to crash out a draft of his biography of Shakespeare. An under-appreciated benefit of the pandemic is that we seem to have escaped being told “whether the Bard is indeed all he is cracked up to be”. For this relief, much thanks.
There were other problems. “We were getting used to a slightly divergent internal politics,” Reynolds explained, with endearing understatement. “It was becoming clear that the prime minister’s and Dominic Cummings’ agendas were not overlapping.” He went on. “The prime minister at the time did not work …” — here he paused for so long that it seemed he might have finished his point — “… exclusively on the advice of his chief of staff.”
Johnson’s illness in 2020 had led to a change in atmosphere, when Dominic Raab stood in for him. Raab worked like a Trojan, demanding briefings ready at six in the morning, but was difficult when asked to deal with unexpected interruptions. Johnson, clearly always desperate to escape whatever was in front of him, “was much more amenable to that sort of flexibility”. Both approaches, Reynolds sighed, had “challenges”.
Hugo Keith, the inquiry’s barrister, was unsympathetic to these problems. At times his questioning became so aggressive that Reynolds’ right hand would disappear under the desk, perhaps to check his balls were still there.
Much of the questioning seemed to be built around the idea that Johnson was so obviously unmatched to the task before him that it was criminally irresponsible of his officials to have allowed him to take any decisions at all. On the one hand, this is a fair point, but on the other, it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Reynolds as he pleaded that “it’s for the prime minister to decide his use of time”. We can blame the civil service for a lot of things, but they didn’t decide to put a sociopath with the attention span of a sex-crazed baboon in charge of the country.
We didn’t get to who actually had made that decision, but as we heard about the chaos in Downing Street, the changes of mind from lockdown to letting the bodies pile high and back again, the misogyny and the shouting and the “superhero culture” — presumably a reference to the Civil War era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it was hard not to think of all the people who assured us at the time that Johnson was the right man to be PM, that he worked much harder than people appreciated, that he knew exactly what he was doing. In fact, most of the inquiry’s revelations can be summed up as: Boris Johnson has always been precisely who he always appeared to be.
Finally, Reynolds was told he could be excused. But hang on, Keith had been passed a piece of paper. He had one final question. Had the prime minister ever been disparaging about long Covid?
“I’m afraid I can’t remember or recall.”
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