PM’s ex-aide blames Whitehall staff for Covid ‘mixed messages’

Boris Johnson’s former director of communications has blamed a lack of expertise in Whitehall for the government’s struggle to get its message across in the early days of the Covid crisis.

Lee Cain was a key adviser to Johnson, who boasted about shaking hands on a hospital visit, claimed the government could “turn the tide” within 12 weeks, and said it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas, days before ordering millions of people to spend the festive season at home.

But in a paper for the Institute for Government (IfG), the former Vote Leave staffer pointed to shortcomings in the government machine that he said led to “mixed messages”. He called for an overhaul, including a drastic reduction in staff numbers.

Cain claimed data visualisation skills were so lacking that there was “nobody with the ability” to create the slides for the daily Covid press conferences, fronted by the prime minister and watched by millions of people.

“Even when a system was designed, people struggled with the skills required and slides were often sent only moments before press conferences were due to begin,” he said.

Despite more than 4,000 communications staff being employed across the government, many departmental press offices are “unable to conduct the most basic functions”, Cain said.

“Building constructive relationships with journalists, rebutting inaccurate stories and, in many cases, answering inquiries with anything other than an irrelevant agreed ‘line to take’ that fails to address the question. These are all critical requirements that go unfulfilled.”

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, accused Cain of trying to “shift the blame” on to the civil service. “The fundamental problem with government communications is that the prime minister is serially dishonest, failed to take and communicate the decisions that were needed to save lives during the pandemic and his former senior adviser undermined public health messaging by embarking on a cross-country eye test to Barnard Castle,” she said.

“An overhaul of government press offices is not and cannot be a replacement for what is needed – a prime minister that tells the truth and a government with coherent and effective policy.”

Alex Thomas, a programme director at IfG, said: “Even the best government communications team cannot obscure poor policy decisions or indecisive leadership.”

Cain praised individual civil servants, describing those he worked with in No 10 as “some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve ever had the pleasure to work alongside”.

But he claims the pandemic exposed strains in a communications system ill equipped for the 21st century. He is scathing about the Covid communications hub created in Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office at the height of the crisis, calling it “a failure due to inexperienced staff and unclear lines of responsibility. Policy development was inconsistent and leaking endemic.”

He and Dominic Cummings brought in external advisers – including the former Conservative election campaign chief Isaac Levido and their Vote Leave colleague Paul Stephenson – to help devise what became the “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” message.

There was no coherent government presence on social media platforms at the start of the crisis, Cain said, with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Cabinet Office and Department for Transport releasing separate public health messages.

“New government-wide digital assets had to be created on platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube for the launch of the stay home campaign to ensure people understood the messaging was directly from the government.”

Cain left government, alongside Cummings, after a row involving Johnson’s wife, Carrie Symonds, over the appointment of Allegra Stratton to be the prime minister’s new press secretary.

Stratton has since been sidelined, and the live press briefings she was meant to be presenting abandoned, but Cain suggests the government should commit itself to holding regular televised press conferences.

In the IfG paper he also recommends – as he did while in government – a dramatic reduction in the number of Whitehall communications staff, suggesting they should be employed centrally instead of by separate departments.

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