Head of UK civil service Simon Case out on medical leave

LONDON — The U.K. government’s most senior official will step back from his job and take medical leave at a critical moment for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, three government officials confirmed to POLITICO.

Simon Case, who has led the U.K. civil service since September 2020, is expected to be gone for a number of weeks, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The news comes at a difficult time for Sunak’s administration, which faces conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East as well as considerable domestic challenges.

Case was also due to give evidence to the U.K.’s COVID-19 inquiry about the government’s handling of the pandemic in the coming weeks. He was personally under pressure after the probe published phone messages earlier this month in which he appeared to mock former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

Sunak is preparing to brief the Cabinet on the situation this week ahead of a public announcement, according to three officials. The prime minister is said to be supportive of Case and officials stressed there was no political reason for his upcoming absence.

A letter went out to departmental heads this week noting that Case would be absent for an unspecified period and detailing which top civil servants will deputize for each of his responsibilities. At the moment, a single stand-in cabinet secretary is not being lined up to take his place while he’s on leave.

Case first attracted controversy after Johnson hired him to lead the civil service despite having never run a department, although he had held numerous senior posts. An establishment figure, the 44-year-old previously worked as private secretary for Prince William, for the U.K. Brexit negotiating team and for spy agency GCHQ.

His time in Downing Street has seen morale among officials plummet, but more recently he has attempted to reset his relationship with Whitehall.

A letter went out to departmental heads this week noting that Case would be absent for an unspecified period | Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

In WhatsApp messages sent in 2020 to then-Director of Communications Lee Cain, which the COVID inquiry revealed during a hearing last week, Case said he was “going to scream” after Johnson requested a plan for short-term “circuit breaker” lockdowns as pandemic case numbers rose again.

“Whatever Carrie [Johnson] cares about, I guess,” he wrote about the then-PM’s wife, adding that she was “the real person” in charge. “This gov’t doesn’t have the credibility to be imposing stuff within only days of deciding not to. We look like a terrible, tragic joke.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Secretary is taking a short period of leave because of a private medical matter and is due to return to work in a few weeks.”

Simon Case did not respond to a request for comment.

This article has been updated.