Let me be clear: I do not know to what extent Matt Hancock is to blame for the 40,000 deaths due to Covid-19 that occurred in care homes in the first two years of the pandemic. This was an unprecedented global crisis, with governments across the world racing to develop tests, treatments and vaccines for a new virus. It was inevitable that mistakes would be made, and it’s the role of the Covid Inquiry – launched in March 2022 and due to begin public hearings in June – to get to the bottom of what happened and offer lessons for the future.
I do, however, know how much blame Matt Hancock thinks he deserves: none at all. His hilariously named Pandemic Diaries, written with the help of the journalist Isabel Oakeshott (more on her later) and published in December, is littered with pre-emptive excuses and justifications from the disgraced former health secretary for the “care homes fiasco”, as Dominic Cummings apparently called it.
Care homes are mentioned nearly 100 times in the book’s 562 pages. We see Hancock presciently realising how important it is that care homes are protected (3 March 2020); working tirelessly to get them the protective equipment they need (17 March 2020); getting exasperated with care home staff who are reluctant to accept patients from hospitals (13 April 2020) and are not testing enough (18 April 2020); and blaming staff moving between care homes for spreading the virus (16 July 2020). There is a telling moment on 2 April 2020 where he wrings his hands about the “utter nightmare” of having to discharge patients from hospitals into care homes without testing them, but due to lack of testing capacity he concludes that nothing can be done and it’s up to care home staff to make sure said patients are isolated: “We have put this in the guidance… I hope it is followed.”
The clear impression is that our beleaguered health secretary was doing all he could to protect vulnerable care home residents in the face of resistance from just about everyone – Public Health England, the NHS, PPE companies, nameless bureaucrats, care home staff themselves, the virus. Where errors were made, it was down to shoddy advice from scientists or public health officials, not Hancock himself.
We see a different story in Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, which he shared with Oakeshott for the purposes of writing the book and which have now been leaked by her to the Daily Telegraph – all 2.3 million words of them. These seem to show Hancock firmly rejecting the advice of Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, on 14 April 2020 to test anyone going into care homes, saying that only those coming from hospital needed to be tested and rejecting the need for community testing in case it “muddies the waters”. Interestingly, this exchange doesn’t seem to appear in Hancock’s book: the diary entry for that day is all about how difficult it is working with Cummings.
Team Hancock have said the messages have been “doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice on care home testing” which is “flat wrong”. The statement adds that “the proper place for analysis like this is the Inquiry, not a partial, agenda-driven leak of confidential documents”.
And you know what? I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Or I would if Hancock had not brought this misfortune – and any more that follows as a result of the leaked messages – entirely on himself.
For a start, there’s the question of why he chose Oakeshott. A tenacious journalist (she’s been political editor of the Sunday Times and political editor-at-large of the Daily Mail), Oakeshott is probably most famous outside Westminster for her unauthorised biography of David Cameron in 2015, which includes a sensational (and entirely uncorroborated) claim about the former prime minister doing something untoward with a dead pig. She is firmly on the Brexity right of British politics (her partner is Richard Tice, founder of the Brexit Party), and like many of her fellow Brexiteers and former colleagues at GB News was a proud lockdown-sceptic. Why a Cameroon Tory such as Hancock who backed Remain in 2016 and, as health secretary, was the poster boy for lockdown (at least until he broke his own rules by having an affair with his comms aide) would pick a political opponent who fundamentally disagreed with his flagship policy to ghost-write his memoirs is a mystery.
[See also: What did we do to deserve Matt Hancock?]
The only conceivable answer is that Hancock was too full of himself, too convinced of his own innate decency and genius, to be able to see the obvious danger in handing over thousands of personal messages to a journalist who has shown throughout her career exactly what she is capable of.
But even if Hancock had been more fastidious in selecting who to work with, he still deserves what’s coming to him. Because his biggest error wasn’t his choice of ghost-writer – it was writing the book in the first place.
I reviewed the Pandemic Diaries when the book came out, and pointed out then that it is essentially a work of fan fiction. Hancock admits in the introduction that he kept no diary during the pandemic, and instead retroactively concocted one from his notes, emails and messages. It is fantasy masquerading as fact: a way for the former health secretary to tell his side of the story (his “truth”, to borrow a term from Harry and Meghan) without all the pesky considerations the public inquiry will no doubt involve, such as proper interrogation and rebuttal testimony. It’s an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who died of Covid, and to the millions more whose lives were disrupted – often with tragic results – as a result of the government’s response.
Again, that tragedy may not be entirely Hancock’s fault. It’s probably unfair to blame all those deaths, all that grief and misery, on one man – even if he did happen to be health secretary. And I imagine that, in the fullness of time, the Covid Inquiry will come to that conclusion. But if Hancock didn’t want to be pre-emptively judged for his failings, he should have thought about that before trying to cover them up by publishing a fantastical, self-aggrandising apologia under the guise of memoir.