Britain

The UK’s top civil servant had coronavirus at the same time as the PM. The public weren’t told

Downing Street has confirmed Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and arguably the second most important person in government, had coronavirus at the same time as the prime minister.

Sir Mark had symptoms from around 2 or 3 April, the government revealed on Thursday.

A source said the symptoms were only ever "very mild". This overlapped with the prime minister being in a critical condition.

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Boris Johnson was announced to have coronavirus on 27 March and was taken to hospital on 5 April where he stayed until 12 April – a period which also saw Matt Hancock, health secretary, and Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, out of action.

Number 10 may hope this is glossed over as a fact of history – a month being an eternity in this pandemic – rather than an urgent piece of news. And it is something that Number 10 clearly does not want us to dwell on beyond confirming the information first revealed by ITV's Robert Peston three days ago.

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Yet this matters a huge amount, alongside the repeated claims that Boris Johnson was "in good spirits" while he was in intensive care and facing death, by his own admission subsequently.

That is because it goes to the heart of whether we can trust officials in the most deadly crisis this country is facing.

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Sir Mark, who stepped into the most senior job in Whitehall after the untimely and tragic death of his predecessor Sir Jeremy Heywood, guides the ship of state for the prime minister, wielding enormous formal power and informal influence.

And it appears that because he holds this position, Whitehall decided to keep the news that he had gone down with the disease a secret, with someone somewhere judging it too sensitive a piece of news for the public to handle.

Throughout late March and April, journalists asked almost every day after Sir Mark's condition, after rumours circulated that he was unwell. Number 10 responded he was "fine" and was working as normal.

It is hard to see that as an accurate answer.

Indeed Mr Johnson's spokesman said he too only found out from a journalist, itself an eye-watering admission, despite happily answering the questions about him being fine at the time.

Number 10 insists this isn't a big deal since he was "working as normal", just from home despite the symptoms.

There will be differing views about this.

But Sir Mark's job is uniquely important, now more so than ever, and the idea he even might be incapacitated at the same time as the prime minister is a game-changing, serious proposition that needs to be planned for.

The justification that Sir Mark only had "mild symptoms" is an odd one, given that the disease takes some days before you know how severely it hits you.

During this period, the fact he contracted the condition meant it was always possible that Sir Mark might have to be replaced if his symptoms got worse – yet it seems that even many officials in the Cabinet Office where his office sits were unaware of his condition.

The Cabinet Office maintains it did not lie to journalists – saying that, when reporters asked whether Sir Mark was infected on 27 March, he had no symptoms at that point.

But this does not exculpate Downing Street, who were actively answering questions about Sir Mark's health and fitness through his period in question in the daily briefings, yet now claim they were unaware of his illness until a few days ago.

We know very littleRead More – Source

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