Episode 7: Sir Humphrey and a brush with royalty

Sir Humphrey and Me
4 min readJan 25, 2021

If the Olympics ended up being a bit of a phoney war in terms of managing a would-be crisis, there were others along the way that were very real, and potentially very deadly.

I was still a young speechwriter in 2008 when I’d started working for Andy Burnham during the Swine Flu epidemic — a dress rehearsal, in many ways, for the Covid pandemic.

It’s easy in hindsight to forget how serious it seemed at the time. Early projections were for 65,000 excess deaths, and contingency plans in the Department of Health included all sorts of harrowing recommendations about how to deal with the huge number of dead bodies we feared might end up overwhelming the country’s mortuary capacity.

As one of the Department’s speechwriters at the time, my role in this was to wake up, sweat-drenched, as the radio chimed and the Today programme’s newsreader announced first up that my boss would be giving a statement to parliament on the pandemic later today.

The problem, as I pegged around my bedroom hauling on socks and slamming my shirt over my head, was that I was the person who was supposed to be drafting that statement, and this was the first I’d heard of it.

At its peak, this blind panic would happen once or twice a week to me: it felt like a permanent essay crisis stretching out over months. Yet I was only a small cog in a much bigger machine now cranking up to drive the UK response.

I can only speak for corporate communications, but large-scale crises like this affect every part of the team. For Swine Flu, the whole of our division was recast, virtually overnight, in order to meet new demands. This translated to people switching rapidly between jobs until a more stable structure was worked out and fresh resource brought it, and being expected to do so seamlessly and with great professionalism.

In contrast to Swine Flu, the Ebola outbreak in 2016 — which was limited to a very small handful of imported cases in the UK but ravaged Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in West Africa — felt much calmer and more controlled in terms of its impact on the Department of Health.

By then, I’d taken up a role as a research manager and spent the weeks asking the public how worried they were about the outbreak (not particularly), how good their knowledge of symptoms and transmission of the disease was (sketchy) and how well they thought the government was handling it (abysmally).

Afterwards, I was the beneficiary of one of the least deserved accolades in government when I was asked to join a group of Ebola communications folk at the Civil Service Awards, an annual ceremony held to celebrate outstanding achievements within the civil service.

Standing alongside people who’d actually been out in Sierra Leone documenting the incredible bravery of the UK response teams, I already felt like a massive fraud.

It got worse — much worse — when we were ushered into a grand state room in Buckingham Palace, told how wonderful we all were and instructed to wait for some very important dignitaries who wanted to pass on their thanks.

At the corner of my eye, I saw a glitter of pearls, a brilliant splash of white hair and a slow determined gait. An instantly recognisable figure rolled into my eyeline.

Oh no …

Oh, please God, no …

The figure in question was, of course, Her Majesty the Queen. And behind her emerged Prince Philip, now wandering forward, hands clasped, ready to cause mayhem.

Eventually, they arrived at the group of Ebola heroes I’d latched myself onto. Someone began telling them about his work as a videographer working in the medical camp set up by the British military in Kerry Town, about 20 miles from Sierra Leone’s capital.

Prince Philip threw back his arms in mock disgust and backed away when he twigged that this meant the brave chap had been in close proximity to plague victims. We laughed obsequiously.[1]

Then it was my turn. Under his near-mummified forehead, Prince Phillip’s cool eyes lasered into mine, searching for something rotten. “So what did you do,” he sneered.

There was then about 10 or 15 seconds of white noise, an oblivion in my head. I remember a flurry of words came tumbling out of my mouth, but I don’t for the life of me know what they were.

“Ah, so you were a doctor then, I see, I see,” the Prince said, having cut off my burbling. “And you were a nurse, hmm?”, he said quickly to my (female) boss beside me.

And then, without waiting for a reply, he arched off to the next group of earthly saints and began pretend-listening to a different set of platitudes he needed to indulge.

The Queen meanwhile nodded and made a slow, elonganted noise under her breath, which sounded like “verrr good” but could equally have been “vagrant”.

Then she too shuffled off, leaving me behind to thrash around in a pit of my guilt.

Notes:

[1] This was particularly awkward as the gong we’d turned up to collect was for a series of publicity campaigns that set out to explain how remote the chances of catching Ebola were in the UK.

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Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service