“I’m not very good about talking about emotions and how I feel,” declared Matt Hancock, the disgraced lockdown-breaking health secretary turned sheep-vagina-eating jungle contestant turned polo-necked podcasting tech bro. We were about 15 minutes into his three-hour evidence session before the Covid-19 Inquiry (and this is only Module 1) and Hancock had decided to get in early with his acting skills, first displayed so flamboyantly when he tried to cry on TV as the first Covid vaccines were delivered, by offering an “honest and heartfelt” apology for every death that had occurred.
This, lest we needed reminding, was not I’m a Celebrity. There was no trace of Hancock’s typically Tiggerish persona, gone were the impassioned monologues about how he only broke the rules because he “fell in love”. In a navy suit and pale pink tie the exact same colour as his skin, Hancock looked washed out and deflated before the hearing even began.
The former health secretary had a problem. He has worked hard to build up his brand as a politician so eerily prescient the Sun should hire him as a replacement for Mystic Meg. His 2022 memoir, written in a faux-diary format despite not being based on any actual diaries, begins with him supposedly reading the newspapers on 1 January 2020 and spotting “a news-in-brief story about a mystery pneumonia outbreak in China” which “reminded me a bit of Sars”. Such tremendous foresight, at a time when UK politics was utterly consumed by Brexit, is matched when, five days later, he claims to have asked his team about pandemic preparedness and the potential need for a vaccine.
How can this prophetic superpower possibly fit with the evidence coming out of the Covid Inquiry now? The lawyer questioning Hancock today, Hugo Keith KC, came armed with an array of documents demonstrating exactly how ill-prepared the UK was when Covid struck. As if that weren’t bad enough, he had the papers to prove that crucial work to fill gaps in pandemic preparedness – flagged in the 2016 simulation Exercise Cygnus – had been deliberately paused (or rather “de-prioritised”) by the Department for Health and Social Care – led between July 2018 and June 2021 by a Mr Matthew John David Hancock, MP for West Suffolk – as resources were diverted to plan for a no-deal Brexit.
Hancock’s defence was simple. It may have been a shame that none of this work was done, he argued (while making it clear that responsibility for doing that work most certainly didn’t rest with him, it must have been the job of a different health secretary, you wouldn’t know him, he goes to another school), but it didn’t really matter, because doing that work wouldn’t actually have helped. The problem with the UK’s pandemic response wasn’t the failure to fix the glaring holes identified by Cygnus. It wasn’t that UK pandemic preparedness focused overwhelmingly on the possibility of flu to the detriment of considering other types of illnesses. It wasn’t that the cross-government Pandemic Flu Readiness Board, set up specifically to develop the response to a pandemic, didn’t meet for an entire year between November 2018 and November 2019. Nor was it that Hancock didn’t turn up to key committee meetings on resilience and contingency planning because he wasn’t invited.
No, the problem with the planning in the UK, according to Hancock, was that “the doctrine was wrong”. We heard a lot about this doctrine during the gruelling three hours, with Hancock clinging to “doctrinal flaws” and “doctrinal failures” like a rhetorical comfort blanket every time the questions got heated. His argument was that all the planning prior to Covid was about managing a potential disaster rather than trying to stop it. The guidance had assumed it would not be possible to stop a pandemic in its tracks, so had focused on how best to handle it once it was here. A terrible misjudgement, given anyone could see that what would have been really useful was a plan for how to not have a Covid pandemic in the UK at all, which for some reason the UK didn’t have. Oops.
This excuse conveniently allowed Hancock to absolve himself of responsibility for his department’s mistakes, such as losing the memo marked “implement the recommendations of Exercise Cygnus”. (“I’m not sure those recommendations would have helped much,” he maintained – disaster planners may have other ideas.) On other areas he had to get more creative. The UK’s atrocious record on adult social care, for example, with care homes left to fend for themselves as the virus spread, was down to local authorities failing to do what they were told. Britain’s social care structure is such a mess, poor Hancock was powerless to do anything to help. Keith was not impressed. “Mr Hancock, what was the name of your department?” he asked. (Answer for those at the back: the Department for Health and Social Care.)
This wasn’t the only moment where the KC channelled his inner prep school Latin master, archly grilling an errant pupil on missing homework. “There’s a difference between doing work and completing work,” Hancock insisted weakly at one point, squirming like a schoolboy trying to argue his essay is mostly done, even if he hasn’t yet handed it in. “There is a difference between planning something and not even completing the plan so that the work can’t be done,” Keith shot back. Cue hollow laughter in the media room.
Overall, the session re-emphasised much of what we already knew. The UK was woefully underprepared for Covid, partly as a result of years of austerity era cost-cutting, partly because Brexit took priority over everything else, and partly because the government seems to have arrogantly assumed some kind of British exceptionalism. Hancock, with the blasé narcissism of a man who thought nothing of handing over his entire WhatsApp history to a journalist with a reputation for burning sources, freely admitted that he was responsible for this “calamitous state of affairs”, while also insisting none of these failures were anything to do with him.
It’s the kind of double-think that could only come from someone egotistical enough to break his own lockdown rules snogging his girlfriend at work and yet still see himself as the hero of the pandemic.