It sometimes feels like we’re going to be sorting through the emotional wreckage left by the pandemic for the rest of our natural lives. Ideally, of course, we would be doing this in some kind of therapeutic setting, where we can all consider exactly how living through month after month of existential terror – but for this to be experienced mainly through Netflix and boredom – might have done terrible things to the lot of us. In the political sphere, it’d be helpful, too, if we could take a long, dispassionate look at exactly what went wrong and work out how to make sure it never happens again.
But of course this is Britain, in 2023, so we aren’t doing any of that. Instead, we are doomed to root through our history and find it merely confirms everything we already thought. The first time as farce; second time also as farce.
There are a few positive things to be said about the revelations contained in “the Lockdown Files” – a name the Telegraph is using because “Matt Hancock’s message history” sounds deeply undignified. The journalist Isabel Oakeshott (who co-wrote Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries) leaked screenshots of his WhatsApp communications to the paper as a matter of public interest. To some extent, they show cabinet government working properly, with the education secretary worrying largely about education, the health secretary prioritising health. While the tone our leaders adopted as they made life and death may seem inappropriate, ill-timed black humour is a fairly normal coping mechanism in times of stress: the way Simon Case, the head of the civil service, cracked jokes about locking rich people up in a Premier Inn is probably the most relatable thing anyone involved in this mess has done, to my mind.
The thing that really strikes me about the contents of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp history, though, is actually how few surprises it contains. Everyone involved is exactly who you thought they were; everyone cares about the things you thought they did.
Hancock himself is deeply embarrassing: a man who seems genuinely concerned with the health of the nation one minute but more bothered about hitting some arbitrary target so he can go on the news and brag about it the next. The fact he’s been done over by his own ghostwriter in this way just feels like an incredibly Matt Hancock thing to have happened to someone. Flailing, under pressure, he made the wrong call on not prioritising testing people transferring from hospital to care homes. Shocking as this is, though, surely we already knew.
In the same way, who can possibly be surprised to learn that Boris Johnson is incapable of either humility or basic maths? At one point, he reveals he doesn’t understand the difference between a probability and a percentage, then patronises those who put him right (“Five marks, show working”). This is not a man who is using black humour to get through a difficult situation, but one entirely unaffected by it, who persists in making jokes because he has no other setting. Reading the messages, it’s clear the prime minister was desperately seeking a way of reading the science as confirming his preference that the country should open up again and we let the virus rip. But this isn’t a surprise, either. We already knew.
And so it goes on. There’s George Osborne, taking bluntness so far it borders on cruelty; Dominic Cummings, clearly clever but even more clearly assuming everyone is stupid; Gavin Williamson, convinced he’s Machiavelli but reading more like Jay from The Inbetweeners. These guys are not just who we thought: they’re more like we thought than ever seemed plausible. The files read like a badly written parody, as if one had unearthed a letter from Henry VIII and discovered that every seventh word was “wife”.
There may be a reason for this, of course. We haven’t seen, and aren’t likely to see, all the messages, only those which the Telegraph has deigned to release. That newspaper has its own agenda, and that too is taking self-parody to dizzying new heights. On this week’s Planet Normal, a Telegraph podcast whose name immediately communicates it will contain the weirdest and most unnerving views you’ve heard in your life, Allison Pearson revealed the publication’s anti-lockdown agenda: “The public has a right to know… the basis on which the government forced the country into lockdown.” These stories may be of public interest, but this isn’t public interest journalism, dispassionately holding government ministers to account. It’s just another front in this never-ending culture war.
Then there’s the woman who broke a non-disclosure agreement to leak the messages in the first place. I’m going to leave aside the question of journalistic ethics and the professional consequences of screwing over a source, because no one outside the media cares; I’m not even going to dwell on the fact this isn’t the first time. All I will note is that, a few years ago now, Oakeshott sent a furious tweet about the number of disabled car parking spaces at Oxford Parkway Station, and I’ve never quite been able to shake the impression that gave me of her.
We should be appalled by the lockdown files, I know: by the failure of our government to take their responsibilities more seriously; by a minister worrying about targets when he should have been saving lives; by a PM who thought the job a jolly jape, and a media culture apparently determined to support him in that delusion. But after years of this government, and austerity and Brexit and decline and pandemic and two and a half lockdowns and two lost Christmases, none of this comes as a surprise, and we are all just far, far too tired. So we are left to store it up for therapy once again instead.