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No, sexism is not to blame for the ravages of lockdown

The Covid inquiry has been hijacked by petty identitarian point-scoring.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan
Columnist

Topics Covid-19 UK

The UK’s Covid inquiry is supposed to ‘identify the lessons to be learned’ from the Covid-19 pandemic. It has promised to produce a ‘factual narrative account’ of how and why decisions were made and what impact these had on the public. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this hasn’t happened so far.

Instead, the inquiry has descended into a Westminster bitch-fest. The people who should now be taking responsibility for Britain’s failed Covid response are desperately searching for anything or anyone to shift the blame on to. And the latest scapegoat that’s been identified for the disastrous effects of lockdown is… sexism.

Last Wednesday, it was former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara’s turn to give evidence to the inquiry. MacNamara was one of the top officials in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street team. She should have been able to shed some light on why the system thought it best for the government to repeatedly shut down society. But instead her testimony focussed on the supposedly misogynistic attitudes of Johnson and his top team.

Responding to the inquiry’s questioning about Dominic Cummings’s private WhatsApp messages – in which he called her a ‘cunt’ – MacNamara criticised the ‘violent and misogynistic language’ used against her by colleagues. ‘The dominant culture was macho and heroic’, she wrote in her witness statement. The ‘female perspective’, she claims, ‘was being missed in advice and decision-making’.

Since then, the press has sought to portray this former civil servant as a one-woman crusader for justice and equality. Meanwhile, her own mistakes and shortcomings during the pandemic are being largely written out of this new narrative.

It should come as no surprise that Cummings and Johnson might not be the nicest people to work with. But it is outrageous to try to pin the failures of the UK government’s pandemic response on not listening to women like MacNamara.

In her testimony, she claimed that during her time as deputy cabinet secretary, she tried to raise issues related to the effects of lockdown on women. She complained there was a ‘lack of guidance for women who might be pregnant or were pregnant’. She also said she had voiced concerns about rising domestic-abuse incidents during lockdowns, but she was not taken seriously.

According to MacNamara, having more women in politics would have meant that these issues were not overlooked. Ultimately, she is arguing that fewer women would have been harmed or even killed during the pandemic if there had simply been more ‘diversity’ in No10.

The level of narcissism here is astonishing. The reason women were more at risk from male violence in the home during the pandemic was not down to there being more men in Downing Street, or because no one listened to MacNamara, but because of the lockdown itself. Every single person in Britain was locked in their homes. And so, at this time, women in abusive situations struggled to access shelters, stay with family members or find other means to escape their homes. Worst of all, had they left their house without a valid excuse, they could have been arrested by the police.

It is utterly depressing that a much-needed conversation about the impact of lockdown has turned into a pantomime of selfish interests. It seems as if MacNamara, like many others, is trying to whitewash the role she played in taking the country into lockdown and to shift the blame elsewhere. Perhaps she also wants us to forget that she was found to have ‘provided a karaoke machine’ to one of the infamous Downing Street lockdown parties and was fined for it. Maybe it really was hard for her to be listened to over all the champagne corks and party tunes.

Like many of those involved in policy during that disastrous period, MacNamara has since moved on to bigger and better things. She even briefly bagged a top job with the Premier League. It’s no wonder she is painfully out of touch with the real impact of lockdown.

Swipes at the ‘sexist’ culture in No10 do little for the ordinary women trying to catch their kids up on years of missed school, or recover their relationships with friends and family. And they do little for those still waiting for hospital treatment postponed by lockdown, or mourning loved ones for whom the delays have proven fatal.

MacNamara’s tell-all of the world inside No10 has largely served as fodder for the Boris-bashers in the media to relitigate the Brexit wars. This has diverted responsibility away from her and from other civil servants, who are surely just as culpable for the UK’s Covid failures as elected ministers and their advisers. Her testimony certainly did not get to the heart of what went wrong during the pandemic.

The public is sick of watching ministers and civil servants play the blame game over Covid. We want assurances that those years of lockdown hell will never be repeated. That should be the real aim of the inquiry.

Ella Whelan is the author of The Case For Women’s Freedom, the latest in the Academy of Ideas’ radical pamphleteering series, Letters on Liberty.

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Topics Covid-19 UK

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