A former top civil servant has apologised for suggestions he made early in the COVID pandemic that so-called “chicken pox parties” could help people build immunity to the virus.
Lord Mark Sedwill was cabinet secretary when the pandemic started, which means he was also in charge of the Civil Service.
He has been highly criticised by political appointees who were in government at the time – including Dominic Cummings.
One particular issue has been a suggestion he made early in the pandemic about how people gathering in groups to get COVID might help build immunity in the UK population.
In the past, so-called “chicken pox parties” were sometimes held by parents to expose their children to the contagious infection, in order for them to become immune from it in later life.
Lord Sedwill told the COVID inquiry that his comments comparing chicken pox and COVID were made in private – and he did not make them public.
Mr Cummings revealed his recollection of what Lord Sedwill said in early March 2020 when he appeared before a committee just over a year later.
Speaking to the inquiry, Lord Sedwill said: “These were private exchanges, and I certainly had not expected for this to become public.
“I understand how – in particular, the interpretation that has been put on it – it must have come across as [though] someone in my role was both heartless and thoughtless about this, and I genuinely am neither.
“But I do understand the distress that must have caused, and I apologise for that.”
Mr Cummings told the inquiry that Lord Sedwill told Boris Johnson to “go on TV” and “explain that this is like the old days with chicken pox and people are going to have chicken pox parties”, adding: “The sooner a lot of people get this and get it over with the better, sort of thing.”
Lord Sedwill said he did not believe at the time that the coronavirus was at the same level of danger as chicken pox, and was rather making an allegorical point.
He said he stopped making the comparison when he realised it was unhelpful.
Emails sent by Lord Sedwill were shown to the pandemic, which revealed that the civil servant warned Mr Cummings that government was not a “dictatorship”.
Mr Cummings has made his unhappiness with how bodies like the Civil Service work abundantly clear.
The email, dated 11 March 2020, showed Mr Cummings asked for a meeting “chaired by me or Lee [Cain], so we are in position to answer Qs properly for PM at 9”.
He complained that a meeting that day had “involved a load of people from comms baffled about POLICY”.
Lord Sedwill replied to Mr Cummings’ message: “We are not running a dictatorship here and the PM is not taking nationally significant decisions with a bunch of No10 SpAds and no ministers, no operational experts and no scientists. If necessary, I will take over the 8:15 slot and chair a daily meeting myself.”
Explaining the email on Wednesday, he said: “It was about making sure decisions taken were taken with the right input.”
He added that it “pungently” set out his views on collective government.