Boris Johnsonâ€™s former director of communications has blamed a lack of expertise in Whitehall for the governmentâ€™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 â€œturn the tideâ€ within 12 weeks, and said it would be â€œinhumanâ€ 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 â€œmixed messagesâ€. He called for an overhaul, including a drastic reduction in staff numbers.
Cain claimed data visualisation skills were so lacking that there was â€œnobody with the abilityâ€ to create the slides for the daily Covid press conferences, fronted by the prime minister and watched by millions of people.
â€œEven 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,â€ he said.
Despite more than 4,000 communications staff being employed across the government, many departmental press offices are â€œunable to conduct the most basic functionsâ€, Cain said.
â€œBuilding constructive relationships with journalists, rebutting inaccurate stories and, in many cases, answering inquiries with anything other than an irrelevant agreed â€˜line to takeâ€™ that fails to address the question. These are all critical requirements that go unfulfilled.â€
Labourâ€™s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, accused Cain of trying to â€œshift the blameâ€ on to the civil service. â€œThe 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,â€ she said.
â€œAn overhaul of government press offices is not and cannot be a replacement for what is needed â€“ a prime minister that tells the truth and a government with coherent and effective policy.â€
Alex Thomas, a programme director at IfG, said: â€œEven the best government communications team cannot obscure poor policy decisions or indecisive leadership.â€
Cain praised individual civil servants, describing those he worked with in No 10 as â€œsome of the most dedicated public servants Iâ€™ve ever had the pleasure to work alongsideâ€.
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 Goveâ€™s Cabinet Office at the height of the crisis, calling it â€œa failure due to inexperienced staff and unclear lines of responsibility. Policy development was inconsistent and leaking endemic.â€
He and Dominic Cummings brought in external advisers â€“ including the former Conservative election campaign chief Isaac Levido and their Vote Leave colleague Paul Stephenson â€“ to help devise what became the â€œstay at home, protect the NHS, save livesâ€ 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.
â€œNew 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.â€
Cain left government, alongside Cummings, after a row involving Johnsonâ€™s wife, Carrie Symonds, over the appointment of Allegra Stratton to be the prime ministerâ€™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 â€“ as he did while in government â€“ a dramatic reduction in the number of Whitehall communications staff, suggesting they should be employed centrally instead of by separate departments.