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30 November 2023

Matt Hancock is his own worst enemy

The former health secretary denied at the Covid inquiry that he was a liar but his evidence strongly suggested the opposite.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Matt Hancock is being marmalised by the Covid inquiry.

Today was day one of Hancock’s second appearance before the inquiry, for Module 2, focused on “core UK decision-making and political governance”. Having chosen somewhat bizarrely to wear the same washed-out salmon pink tie as when he appeared in July for Module 1 (perhaps he felt it had brought him luck the last time he faced the austere Hugo Keith KC, or perhaps he wanted to evoke the memory of the early Covid briefings, during which pink ties featured heavily), the whipless MP for West Suffolk was visibly wilting in his chair minutes in.

Keith had begun by questioning the accuracy of Hancock’s book, published this time last year and entitled Pandemic Diaries. He quoted from the introduction in which Hancock writes that his tome has been “meticulously pieced together” from notes, emails, interviews and other sources.

“So stylistically, it is not a diary, it is re-pieced together and called a diary?” Keith clarified.

“Correct. It is my recollections,” came the deflated reply.

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Those recollections, to reuse a popular phrase, may vary. Hancock has been keen to frame his version of events (deemed “a delusional piece of self-aggrandising fan fiction” by one unkind New Statesman reviewer) as a source of invaluable contemporaneous veracity, portraying the former health secretary as a mighty and miraculously prescient hero on a solo mission to save the country from a deadly pandemic.

Other individuals involved in the UK’s Covid response at the time (most notably Dominic Cummings, the arch-nemesis of the Pandemic Diaries’ plucky protagonist) have offered an alternative perspective (“useless f***pigs”). That, no doubt, was partly why Hancock wanted to get his side of the story in first.

It was unfortunate, therefore, that when Hancock tried to claim he had urged Boris Johnson to implement a nationwide lockdown on 13 March 2020, Keith raised an eyebrow and referred his subject to his own writing. “It’s not in your ‘diary’ – so-called I should say. The entry for 13 March makes no reference to you telling the prime minister that vital piece of information, that he should lock down immediately. There is a whole page on how you woke up for the dawn flight to Belfast.” To which Hancock retorted: “I didn’t have full access to my papers.”

It may seem trivial to focus on this Schrödinger’s phone call (that both did and did not happen, if we are to believe Hancock’s own accounts). The Covid inquiry, after all, is not supposed to be about relitigating the playground squabbles inside Whitehall circa 2020: it’s about learning lessons from the mistakes made in the UK’s pandemic response, presumably so that we can do better next time. Outside the building where the hearings are conducted, representatives from bereaved families gathered in the cold to make their presence felt; more than 200,000 people in Britain died of Covid during the first two years of the pandemic. In terms of disaster planning and health policy, whether or not Hancock explicitly told Johnson to act earlier is irrelevant.

But in terms of Hancock’s beleaguered reputation, this was the moment it all started to crumble. In the six months since he last faced Keith, a number of accusations have been made about his integrity. While so far only Cummings has called Hancock a “proven liar”, other officials – the former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, and the then deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara – have more tactfully asserted that Boris Johnson’s hand-picked health secretary had a habit of saying things which turned out not to be entirely true, and that this caused issues (to put it mildly).

This was Hancock’s moment to set the record straight. “Out of fairness to you,” Keith proffered two hours in, “how could, to a significant extent, important government advisers have concluded that the secretary of state for health in the maw of this public health crisis, the maw of the beast, was a liar?”

“Well,” came Hancock’s defiant retort, “I was not.” Only he’d just wasted half the morning heavily suggesting the opposite.

And there were other mistruths that gruellingly came to light. The assertion that certain measures on community testing and contact tracing were “in hand”. The confusion over asymptomatic transmission and what advice was given when. A reference from the then cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill to “creative counting” when it came to Hancock’s target of 100,000 tests a day, to which he replied with a kiss emoji but then denied accepting. The mantra, repeated almost like a prayer in multiple meetings, that there had been a “plan” when no plan existed. The sheer disconnect between what Hancock was telling colleagues – and readers of his book – and what seems to have been the reality.

The sad thing is, Hancock actually had a serious point to make about the “toxic” atmosphere within Johnson’s top team: this was largely thanks to Cummings who, Hancock said, “inculcated a culture of fear”. A quick glance at the former chief adviser to the prime minister’s blog and Twitter feed doesn’t exactly negate that assessment. Had Cummings, Keith queried, exercised an “unhealthy degree of influence” on Johnson? Hancock shuddered. “He didn’t regard ministers as a valuable contribution to any decision-making as far as I could see in the crisis – or, indeed, any other time.” Like a timid pupil asked by a teacher to identify the school bully, Hancock chose his words with extreme care, but you could see the fear in his eyes.

It seems obvious that, whatever the flaws of individual ministers, a toxic culture in which expletive-laced rants and vicious blame games were accepted as the norm is not conducive to successful crisis management. Hancock may have been over-confident (MacNamara’s striking image of him pretending to “bat away challenges like a cricketer” springs to mind), but he appears to have been genuinely committed to maintaining a collaborative, positive working environment within his department. There’s a lesson there, and the attempt to scapegoat him for everything that went wrong while the UK was facing a terrifying new threat misses the negative impact all that paranoia and suspicion had on morale and efficacy within government.

But goodness knows, Hancock does not know how to help himself. Forget eating a camel’s penis in the Australian jungle or enduring a dominatrix-style interrogation on Celebrity SAS, the ordeal of having his comforting self-delusions punctured by Keith’s relentless assault utterly broke him. By the end of the session, pale and shaken, Hancock looked like he’d rather be back in the I’m a Celebrity… camp sharing cockroach stew with Nigel Farage. Unfortunately, he has to face Keith again tomorrow.

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