Covid Inquiry UK: who is Helen MacNamara? Partygate official gives evidence - what did Dominic Cummings say?

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Helen MacNamara, the former deputy Cabinet Secretary who was fined during Partygate, is giving evidence to the UK's Covid Inquiry.

Coronavirus rules were broken on a daily basis during Boris Johnson's tenure in Downing Street, one of the government's former top civil servants has told the Covid Inquiry.

Helen MacNamara, the former deputy Cabinet Secretary, said: "I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were followed properly inside that building.” She told the Inquiry that there was “one meeting where we absolutely adhered to the guidance to the letter ... and everybody moaned about it and tried to change repeatedly”.

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She also told the Inquiry that at the start of the pandemic "injections of caution" about Covid "did not register with Johnson" and he had a "jovial tone ... and breezy confidence". She is the latest pandemic-era senior official to face questions about the government's coronavirus response, after two days of hearings revealed the dysfunction, indecision and dithering inside Boris Johnson’s government.

Dominic Cummings denied he had been misogynistic while working with MacNamara in Downing Street, after WhatsApp messages were read out when he called her a "c***". She said that the messages were "horrible to read" and that she was disappointed that the Prime Minister did not pick up on the "violent and misogynistic" language".

MacNamara was fined by police after providing a karaoke machine during one of the partygate bashes, and then left her job at the Premier League. She told the Inquiry that this "should never have happened" and "we should have been following the rules". She was portrayed by Charlotte Ritchie in the Channel 4 film Partygate. This is part of the second phase of the UK's Covid-19 inquiry, which has the goal of establishing how effective the UK government's leadership and decision making was in controlling and restricting the virus.

Who is Helen MacNamara?

Helen MacNamara is an experienced former civil servant, who rose to become deputy Cabinet Secretary - one of the most senior roles in the civil service. She first joined the government in 2002 as principal private secretary to Tessa Jowell, who was Culture, Media and Sport Secretary. She helped prepare London for the 2012 Olympic Games, and also set up the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and the media.

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She worked for the government preparing for the 2015 general election, and from 2016 to 2018 was director general of housing in the Housing, Communities and Local Government department. In May 2018, she succeeded Sue Gray as head of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. There she investigated allegations that Priti Patel had bullied aides.

Helen MacNamara in Laura Kuenssberg's BBC documentary State of chaos. Credit: BBC/October Films/Stuart PowellHelen MacNamara in Laura Kuenssberg's BBC documentary State of chaos. Credit: BBC/October Films/Stuart Powell
Helen MacNamara in Laura Kuenssberg's BBC documentary State of chaos. Credit: BBC/October Films/Stuart Powell | BBC/October Films/Stuart Powell

In 2020, she was promoted to deputy Cabinet Secretary and played a key role in the Covid response. She left government in February 2021 to start a senior job at the Premier League, however she has since left that. In April 2022, she was issued with a fixed-penalty notice by police for her role in Partygate (read more about this below). She is married to Alex Towers and has four children.

What has Helen MacNamara said at the Covid Inquiry?

MacNamara has told the Covid inquiry that rules and regulations were broken in Downing Street on a daily basis. She said: "I would find it hard to pick one day when the regulations were followed properly inside that building.” She told the Inquiry that there was “one meeting where we absolutely adhered to the guidance to the letter ... and everybody moaned about it and tried to change repeatedly”.

Speaking about the early part of the pandemic, she said there was a dismissiveness of warnings by Boris Johnson. In January and February 2020, she said her “injections of caution” about the uncertainty of the situation surrounding Covid “did not register with Johnson”.

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“In those early Cabinet meetings in particular Johnson was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should all be careful of over-correcting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact and for which – in any case – we were well prepared," she said.

She added that he still had a "breezy confidence" in March 2020, which jarred with her. Her witness statement said: "It was the day on which there was a question about whether the Prime Minister should shake hands with people on a visit to the hospital and there was a jokey discussion about alternative greetings to handshakes.

"The Prime Minister felt – not unreasonably – that it was a bit ridiculous for him to suggest alternative greetings. But the jovial tone, the view that in implementing containment measures and suspending work and schooling, the Italians were overreacting, and the breezy confidence that we would do better than others had jarred with me. I remember saying that I thought that all people wanted to know was what was the right thing to do – and that was not clear."

MacNamara said that people in government meetings would be "sort of laughing at the Italians", who at that time were bearing the brunt of the Covid wave in Europe. She said that “sitting there and saying it was great and sort of laughing at the Italians was just … it felt how it sounds". "I would say that undoubtedly the sort of unbelievably bullish, we’re going to be great at everything approach is not a smart mentality to have inside a government meeting,” she added.

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She said Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said repeatedly that there was a plan in place - however it turned out there was no plan. MacNamara said on 13 March 2020 she walked into Johnson's office to find Cummings and some aides there, and said: "I think we are absolutely f*****. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people."

MacNamara's evidence stated that "women working in No10 and the Cabinet Office were experiencing very obvious sexist treatment ... the dominant culture was macho and heroic". She added that there were "expert women who weren't being listened to and also women were being looked over", saying it was "striking and awful". She added that there was a "toxic culture" at Downing Street.

The inquiry saw messages from Boris Johnson as well as diary entries written about him at the time.The inquiry saw messages from Boris Johnson as well as diary entries written about him at the time.
The inquiry saw messages from Boris Johnson as well as diary entries written about him at the time.

What did Dominic Cummings say about Helen MacNamara at the Covid Inquiry?

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's former chief adviser, gave evidence at the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday (31 October). WhatsApp messages shared with the inquiry revealed that Cummings had labelled MacNamara “that c***” and said he would “handcuff her and escort her” from Downing Street.

“If I have to come back to Helen’s bulls*** with PET – designed to waste huge amounts of my time so I can’t spend it on other stuff – I will personally handcuff her and escort her from the building," he wrote. “I don’t care how it’s done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***."

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In another message shown to the inquiry, he said: “We gotta get Helen out of CabOff. She’s f****** up Frosty. She’s f****** up me and Case. She’s trying to get spads (special adviser) fired and cause trouble on multiple fronts."

Dominic Cummings didn't mince his words before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.Dominic Cummings didn't mince his words before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.
Dominic Cummings didn't mince his words before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC put to Cummings that he “denigrated women”, to which he replied: “No, that’s not correct. I was not misogynistic. I was much ruder about men than I was about Helen.

“I agree that my language is deplorable, but as you can see for yourself I deployed the same or worse language (for) the Prime Minister, secretary of state or other people." Cummings called ministers "f*** pigs" in other messages.

He added: "I apologise for my language towards Helen but a thousand times worse than my language was the underlying insanity of the situation in Number 10. Now, my language about Helen – the language is absolutely appalling and actually I got on well with Helen at a personal level – but a thousand times worse than my bad language is the underlying issue at stake that we had a Cabinet Office system that had completely melted and the prime minister had half begun the process of changing the senior management and then stopped.”

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Giving evidence today, MacNamara said that the messages were "horrible to read" and that she was disappointed that the Prime Minister did not pick up on the "violent and misogynistic" language".

Helen MacNamara. Credit: UK GovernmentHelen MacNamara. Credit: UK Government
Helen MacNamara. Credit: UK Government | UK Government

Why was Helen MacNamara fined during Partygate?

MacNamara was among the first group of people to receive a fixed-penalty notice from Scotland Yard as part of its investigation into ockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street and Whitehall during the Covid pandemic. The Daily Telegraph reported that she received a £50 fine on Friday in connection with a leaving do held in the Cabinet Office on 18 June 2020 while indoor gatherings were banned.

The leaving do at 70 Whitehall was reportedly held for Hannah Young, a former home affairs policy adviser who was taking up the post of deputy consul general in New York. Sue Gray’s report said the event took part in two stages, with the first involving “over 25 people” who gathered for speeches, including Cummings and Simon Case, the then permanent secretary for Covid and the pandemic response in No 10.

The second phase of the bash saw drinking continue, with Gray reporting: “The event lasted for a number of hours. There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals. One individual was sick. There was a minor altercation between two other individuals.”

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MacNamara provided a karaoke machine for the party. She said: “I am sorry for the error of judgement I have shown. I have accepted and paid the fixed penalty notice.”

At the Inquiry today, she added: "My profound regret is for the damage that’s been caused to so many people because of it, as well as just the mortifying experience of seeing what that looks like and how rightly offended everybody is in retrospect."

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