When I was a teenager lurking in the weirder corners of the pre-Facebook internet, it was common to find fan fiction – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who – written in the faux-diary format. It would include lines like “Day three: Have agreed to carry Ring to Mordor. In hindsight, probably a bad move”.
This is, in essence, how Matt Hancock has approached his new book. The former health secretary’s loftily titled Pandemic Diaries are actually nothing of the sort. Hancock tells us so in the prologue: “Of course, I didn’t have time to keep a detailed diary in the midst of the maelstrom, nor would it have been right to do so.” So – and forgive me for being pedantic here – why call it a diary? Why go further and present this account (“meticulously pieced together” not from an actual diary but from a hodgepodge of formal papers, notes, voice memos, emails and interviews after the fact) in a form that misleadingly begins, “Wednesday 1 January: I woke up in Suffolk after a quiet New Year’s Eve”? Why would a politician who left office in disgrace after lying to his family and the country try to rehabilitate himself with the public by publishing a memoir in a form that is, in itself, a lie?
That’s probably a question too complex for us mere mortals to answer, and I’m sure Hancock will work it out with the therapist I very much hope he’s employing (along with other psychological conundrums such as “Why did you abandon your constituents to earn six figures eating cow’s anus on national TV?” and “What makes you think you can pull off a black polo-neck?”). But readers of this book, written with the help of Isabel Oakeshott (of pig-bothering Cameron biography fame), will have to content themselves with separating the fact from the fan fiction. Yes, the book may be based on real events, and there may be real value in seeing a historical crisis from the perspective of those in the room where it happened. But those words – “based on” and “perspective” – matter.
Are we really to believe, for example, that our omniscient protagonist spotted that “a mystery pneumonia outbreak in China” would be a key public health priority on New Year’s Day 2020? Should we take his word that he started thinking about a vaccine five days later? The sustained use of the historical present tense is a trick to mask just how subjective and unreliable the narrator is. So are the tangential asides that try to make the diaries feel more like an authentic depiction of everyday life, in all its randomness. (“I cannot believe that [Andrew Wakefield, the anti-vaxxer] is still in circulation, spreading his misinformation. Or that he used to date the supermodel Elle Macpherson. How did that happen?”) In context the headline-generating “revelation” that Boris Johnson said the virus would “probably go away” when initially warned reads like just another attempt by Hancock to show off his super-human foresight.
It is, I admit, amusing to see the epic grudge match between Hancock and Dominic Cummings from the other side. Hancock depicts himself at first as a Cassandra-like health secretary struggling to get the prime minister’s senior aide to focus on Covid, which Cummings apparently thinks is a “distraction” (“Our relationship is one of wary mutual respect,” Hancock writes, supposedly in January 2020 – I almost spat out my tea.) This relationship soon breaks down. Cummings famously used a May 2021 select committee hearing to argue that Hancock should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things – including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”. Now Hancock is getting his revenge. The entry for the day after Cummings’s incendiary comments reads: “I went to bed thinking, ‘Thank goodness I kept vaccines out of Dom’s destructive hands or that would have been a disaster like everything else he touched.’ ” I’m certainly not going to argue his account is any less plausible than that of his nemesis (Cummings, lest we forget, edited an old blog post to make it look like he’d seen the coronavirus crisis coming). It just seems there’s plenty of revisionism to share around.
And there is so much more here that grates. The oh-so-prescient warning Hancock recalls about the perils of inflation way back in April 2021. The paragraph-long description of just how much he was crying during an infamous interview about the first Britons receiving a Covid vaccine that is clearly written retrospectively to refute claims his tears were faked. The entry from 14 May 2020 in which he writes: “People are starting to blame us for discharging elderly people from hospital into residential settings without testing them properly, before we introduced strict rules. The evidence simply doesn’t bear that out.” Or the one from 29 January 2021 that reveals the “scandalous behaviour” of care homes sending in staff with Covid. These are glaringly unsubtle attempts to exonerate himself for thousands of deaths in care homes, and the decision to discharge hospital patients without testing them has since been ruled unlawful.
Hancock, in his not-diary, is a classic “Mary-Sue”: a term coined to describe a fan fiction character so inexplicably competent and gifted they are obviously there as a form of wish-fulfilment on the part of the author. Wikipedia notes that “Mary-Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors”. Matt Hancock is 44.
Which brings us to the other reason this reads like teenage fanfic: Hancock has shoved a romantic subplot into the middle of it. Remember Gina Coladangelo, the woman he was caught sucking the face off on camera at a time when the government’s Covid rules prohibited social gatherings indoors? Well, this is a book about their epic love story, told against the backdrop of a global health crisis.
We’re introduced to Gina in the first week of January 2020, where she’s described as Hancock’s “old university friend and communications specialist” and isn’t impressed with his Union Jack socks. Throughout the next 15 months she’s at Matt’s side whenever he needs her help connecting with the people. She is “brilliant at the art of communicating in a way that people actually hear”, she helps him sound “more human”, she tells him to “relax”. We can see where this story is going (we literally saw it at the time, much as many of us might wish we hadn’t). Still, Hancock spells it out. “My relationship with Gina is changing. Having spent so much time talking about how to communicate in an emotionally engaged way, we are getting much closer,” he writes in May 2021.
Then on 24 June comes the bombshell. “What price love?” Hancock asks himself (remember, these are supposedly his diaries). “I’ve always known from the novels that people will risk everything… To others it may seem mad, but for the person in love, the judgement to do it anyway feels right.” Later, his career in tatters, he recalls a conversation with a former colleague: “‘I love her. That’s what screwed my judgement,’ I replied wretchedly.” Less Alan Clark, more Adrian Mole.
I try not to be judgemental about other people’s relationships – I have no idea what Matt Hancock’s marriage with his wife, Martha (who is mentioned just a handful of times), was like, and I wish him and Coladangelo the best of happiness now. But using what’s meant to be an inside account of the worst health crisis in modern history as a way to dramatise a love story in which our gallant pandemic-busting hero finds the woman of his dreams isn’t just crass. It’s pathetic.
After Hancock gets the call from Victoria Newton, editor of the Sun, informing him the story of his workplace cheating is about to break, he calls Johnson (who is, naturally, overwhelmingly supportive) and then goes home to tell his wife. “It was – and remains – the very worst conversation of my life,” he writes. These words, and a passing note at the end where he claims “I deeply regret where I fell short, but [my] values are stronger, deeper and more important to me than before”, are the closest he comes to contrition. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone so desperately oblivious feigning self-awareness.
Anyway, back to the pandemic. Hancock writes that he has learned hard lessons from the crisis – ten of them in fact, none of which involve any accountability on the part of our brave protagonist, and most of which are just a way for him to explain why he was right. Better procurement, resilience and long-term planning all sound great, but nothing in the 550 pages of this book suggests the person proposing them has any special insight. The Hancock of these diaries is just too unreliable a narrator, too obviously biased and self-obsessed. Hancock had a unique opportunity to tell us things we didn’t already know and help his successors do better next time. He squandered it in favour of his own personal redemption narrative.
Hancock describes himself in January 2020 watching Contagion, a 2011 film about a global pandemic. “When I woke up today I was briefly unable to distinguish fiction from reality,” he writes. It shows. He should probably have figured that out before writing this book.
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