Contagion helped Matt Hancock out of trouble – but perhaps not in the way he claims

Praising the hit 2011 film allows the Health Secretary to avoid drawing attention to failures outside his department.

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Matt Hancock caused a minor furore on Twitter after saying in an interview this morning that he backed measures to procure large numbers of vaccine doses in part because he was influenced by the film Contagion. Shouldn’t the Secretary of State be influenced by his advisers, not a Hollywood film?

I think there are a couple of problems here. The first is that the film Contagion came out in 2011, when Matt Hancock was a newly elected back-bench MP who was known in Westminster as the guy who wasn’t Ed Balls. (Before becoming an MP, Hancock worked as George Osborne’s economic adviser and later chief of staff, and gained a reputation, fairly or unfairly, for describing what he did before then saying "but I’m not Ed Balls".) The pandemic only began in 2020 – or, if you take a global view, in 2019. So we would expect (and given that this was the express intention of the scientists involved in the film Contagion, hope) that it would influence his thinking on how to tackle the pandemic. (Though as Hancock himself said, it wasn’t his “primary” source of advice.)

The second problem is that, ultimately, what other politically expedient answer could Hancock give? The reality is that for most of 2020 he was one of a handful of ministers who were consistently arguing that the government should trust in the ability of modern science to come to the rescue; that the worst of the pandemic could be endured, not adjusted to. As the impeccably well-connected journalist Katy Balls wrote in October, it had become conventional wisdom within government that a vaccine would not arrive, with Hancock seen as a wildly over-optimistic and somewhat ridiculous figure by some of his colleagues. 

If you’re Matt Hancock today, of course, you gain nothing at all by underlining this fact. Any answer that indicates that you were more on top of the issue and that you had a better understanding of the risks involved than many of your colleagues (including the Prime Minister) is not helpful for you. It makes you more popular with people who dislike your party and damages, perhaps fatally, its hopes of winning the next election (and indeed, your own hopes of continuing to progress up the ranks of that party). A folksy and relatable answer about how, goshdarnit, you just happened to watch a hit film in 2011 is a good approach.

I’m not saying the Contagion answer is untrue: I’m just saying it’s also the only available answer to the question. Whether Contagion helped the Health Secretary in March of last year or February this one, it is certainly true to say Hancock has cause to be thankful to its makers.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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