STEPHEN GLOVER: Matt Hancock is a hypocrite and an autocrat who caused lasting damage to our economy and national wellbeing… HOW did he get away with it?
The leaking of more than 100,000 texts amounting to some 2.3 million words has been an historic event which illuminates the way we are governed, and which challenges conventional wisdom about our rulers.
For many people maintain that it is civil servants, not politicians, who really run this country.
They say Whitehall makes most of the key decisions, which ministers effectively rubber stamp.
According to this view of things, panjandrums of whichever party is in power are little more than PR representatives, selling policies which have been prepared for them by officials who understand the issues so much better.
No doubt in smaller matters civil servants do often make the running. But at times of national crisis it is politicians who make the difference.
Many people, me included, have tended to regard him as a lightweight. We remember him as a participant in last November’s I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here
He dominated policy making, and was prepared to ignore official advice and push his own agenda even when it conflicted with Cabinet colleagues
Look at Margaret Thatcher, almost alone at one point in her unflinching determination to win back the Falklands after the Argentinian invasion in 1982.
So it was during the pandemic. There were, of course, plenty of civil servants who came up with ideas and offered advice.
We all remember chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance — aka ‘Gloomster’ and ‘Doomster’, or was it the other way around?
These and other officials emerge from the multitude of WhatsApp messages leaked to The Daily Telegraph as happily acquiescing in the Government’s authoritarian approach, even when they doubt whether particular draconian policies are necessary. But they don’t generally call the shots.
There was one politician who did. He dominated policy making, and was prepared to ignore official advice and push his own agenda even when it conflicted with Cabinet colleagues. Someone who made life or death decisions, often off his own bat.
You may think I’m referring to the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who fronted innumerable Covid press conferences in an authoritative way, and spoke to the nation in sombre tones on television. Granted, he played an important role.
But the person who championed and largely orchestrated lockdown — wanting schools to be closed when others didn’t, and sometimes disregarding the advice of officials — is someone else entirely. I mean Matt Hancock.
Many people, me included, have tended to regard him as a lightweight. We remember him as a participant in last November’s I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here, when he comparatively cheerily ate a cow’s anus.
Some thought him a twit. Others admired his chutzpah. Either way, it was impossible to credit that this joker had been the Government’s most dominant figure throughout much of the pandemic.
We may also think of Matt Hancock as a rather absurd hypocrite. In June 2021, he was forced to resign as Health Secretary having been exposed by The Sun newspaper in a clinch with his ministerial aide, Gina Coladangelo — thereby breaking the social distancing rules he had shoved down our throats.
Even during the pandemic, when he was behind the scenes wielding power and making decisions that affected the lives of millions, Matt Hancock often came across as a curiously insubstantial — as well as a slightly irritating — figure.
Yet the man illuminated by these WhatsApp messages is very far indeed from being trivial or insignificant. He is serious, focused, autocratic and determined. He is also very good at hating his enemies, who are usually in his own party or the Cabinet.
Many of the exchanges between the Health Secretary and his advisers are shocking. I am amazed they haven’t led to more coverage on the BBC and in pro-lockdown newspapers such as the Guardian. Is it because these media outlets are ashamed to have embraced the policies of a politician who now appears so flawed?
Perhaps the most disturbing of many mind-boggling revelations among the WhatsApp messages concerns Mr Hancock’s decision in April 2020 to reject Sir Chris Whitty’s advice that there should be testing for ‘all going into care homes’.
The Health Secretary believed that Sir Chris’s counsel ‘muddied the waters’ and decided to introduce mandatory testing only for those arriving in care homes directly from hospitals.
Between April 17 and August 13, 2020, a total of 17,678 people died of Covid in care homes. How many of these would have lived if testing had been done on everyone entering them?
He was forced to resign as Health Secretary having been exposed by The Sun newspaper in a clinch with his ministerial aide, Gina Coladangelo
In one WhatsApp message Mr Hancock seemingly feared that expanding testing in care homes might ‘get in the way’ of his self-imposed target of 100,000 Covid tests per day
In one WhatsApp message Mr Hancock seemingly feared that expanding testing in care homes might ‘get in the way’ of his self-imposed target of 100,000 Covid tests per day by the end of April 2020.
So eager was he to meet this target that, just before midnight on April 30, a truck loaded with more than 26,000 testing kits left its depot, enabling the devious Health Secretary to include them in his tally. He was also aware that 80 per cent of the at-home tests which he had counted to meet his target were not being returned.
Mr Hancock has maintained, via a spokesman, that he was told in separate meetings that testing everybody going into care homes was not practicable. The allegation that he unilaterally made a decision is ‘flat wrong’, it is claimed, and based on ‘doctored’ messages ‘spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda’.
Fair-minded people will decide for themselves. It is undoubtedly true that WhatsApp messages are selective inasmuch as they don’t supply a comprehensive account of other meetings and discussions. They also favour instant rather than considered judgments. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that The Daily Telegraph has ‘doctored’ the evidence.
Nor should we forget the febrile nature of those times, when hard-pressed ministers were grappling with unprecedented problems thrown up by a new virus about which little was known.
The care homes episode, though injurious to Mr Hancock, does not depict him in his characteristically authoritarian guise. In December 2020 he fought a ‘rear-guard action’ to close down schools, although Education Secretary Sir Gavin Williamson wanted to keep them open. They were shut for two months in January 2021.
Masks had been introduced in schools in August 2020, with the support of Mr Hancock, even though Sir Chris Whitty had declared that there were ‘no very strong reasons’ for doing so. But ministers didn’t want to be out of step with Nicola Sturgeon, who had imposed masks in schools north of the border.
Not that Sir Chris appears to have complained about this or other policies he believed unnecessary. He emerges as less doctrinaire than one had suspected, and also more compliant. No wonder Mr Hancock writes at one stage: ‘I love Chris Whitty.’
It’s scandalous that schools were closed against the advice of the Education Secretary, and masks adopted in them for no compelling reason. Thinking of the psychological damage needlessly done to tens of thousands of children, one could weep.
In despotic mood on another occasion in December 2020, Matt Hancock wrote that he wanted to ‘deploy’ the new omicron variant to ‘frighten the pants off the public’. The country went into lockdown the following month.
These disgraceful scare tactics were shared with the strikingly partisan Simon Case — Downing Street Permanent Secretary, and subsequently head of the civil service — with whom Mr Hancock found common cause in advocating tougher measures. In that same month Mr Case wrote that ‘the fear/guilt factor’ was ‘vital’ in ‘ramping up the messaging’.
The two men had conspired in August 2020 ‘to get heavy with the police’ (Mr Hancock’s words) so that ‘plod’ would crack down on the general public for Covid infringements. Under our constitutional arrangement the police are supposed to be operationally independent.
Reading these dismaying passages and others like them, one has to pinch oneself in disbelief. If you had told me five years ago that a senior minister of the Crown — and a Tory to boot — would push through such thoroughly illiberal recommendations, I doubt I would have believed you.
There were others, of course, on the fringes of these WhatsApp exchanges (exposed by Isabel Oakeshott, pictured) who were equally hard-line
Examining these WhatsApp exchanges, I often yearned for Margaret Thatcher. She would have decided what she believed, and then stuck to her guns
We think we live in a democracy in which there are checks and balances, a free Press, and an independent opposition. We pride ourselves that Britain is a land of liberty, and a balanced, fair-minded sort of country.
Yet, in the midst of a crisis, liberty can evidently be undermined by one determined minister able to harness the power of the State, while in charge of the vast apparatus of the NHS. A people which believes itself to be free is suddenly suborned, manipulated, made frightened, and lied to.
What is particularly shaming is the manner in which much of the media — I am thinking above all of the all-powerful BBC — uncritically amplified the Government’s Project Fear, of which Matt Hancock was the leading exponent.
There were others, of course, on the fringes of these WhatsApp exchanges who were equally hard-line. For example, Michael Gove (one of several objects of Matt Hancock’s venom) forgot his libertarian principles in supporting draconian measures, while Dominic Cummings, who flouted Covid rules, was an ardent proponent of them.
And Boris Johnson? He comes across in the WhatsApp messages as being torn between his natural libertarian principles and the repressive measures being proposed by the likes of Mr Hancock.
When in libertarian mode, Boris wondered aloud on November 1, 2020 whether he had ‘blinked too soon’ in announcing a second national lockdown, which he had done only the previous day.
A few months earlier, in August 2020, an article he read in the Financial Times made him question the decision to force elderly people to self-isolate: ‘If I were an 80-year-old and I was told that the choice was between destroying the economy and risking my exposure to a disease that I had a 94 per cent chance of surviving, I know what I would prefer.’
The same month an agonised Boris Johnson wrote on WhatsApp: ‘How can we possibly justify the continuing paralysis to control a disease that has a death rate of one in 2000?’
Yet on other occasions he veered in the opposite direction, and sounded almost as zealous as Mr Hancock. In July 2020 the PM had fretted about ‘complacency’ so far as social distancing was concerned, and wrote about the need for ‘tightening’ Covid restrictions.
If only Mr Johnson had been faithful to his inner convictions, this country might have avoided some of the trauma of lockdown, which has left such a poisonous legacy. Unfortunately, he frequently had the coercive Mr Hancock by his side. The Health Secretary, in contrast to the PM, was constant and unwavering in his beliefs.
Examining these WhatsApp exchanges, I often yearned for Margaret Thatcher. She would have decided what she believed, and then stuck to her guns. I don’t suggest she would have been an extreme libertarian, but I think she would have championed measures that were proportionate, rational and fair.
We can’t blame all our ills on Matt Hancock — of course not. As I say, there were other lockdown enthusiasts in the Cabinet and willing collaborators in the civil service such as Simon Case, who, incidentally, was shamefully disloyal to Mr Johnson. In October 2020 he described his boss to Mr Hancock as a ‘nationally distrusted figure’.
Nor do I suggest that everything the former Health Secretary did was bad. He played a significant part in the triumphant vaccine roll-out, though as an irrepressibly ambitious and calculating politician he has almost certainly exaggerated his contribution.
I also accept that these WhatsApp messages, putting as they do Mr Hancock at the centre of events, may give a somewhat overblown impression of his importance. If we were to stumble on a cache of Michael Gove’s texts, we might possibly conclude that he had played a crucial part in hardening opinion.
READ MORE: Tories condemn ‘Project Kowtow’ after it emerged the government ordered Matt Hancock to tone down claims
Nonetheless, Mr Hancock’s role in shaping a policy that has done so much lasting damage to this country’s economy and well-being can’t be gainsaid. He may appear lightweight, but in practice he was determined, formidable and lethal.
How was he allowed to get away with it? From his point of view, he was lucky to serve a Prime Minister who didn’t really know his own mind.
He also benefited from a largely docile media, a Labour opposition that dependably endorsed every new restriction (Sir Keir Starmer was sympathetic to the idea of a fourth lockdown as late as December 2021), and a mostly quiescent Tory Party.
The sceptics against repeated lockdowns were limited to parts of the media, not least this and its sister paper, a few dozen backbench Tory MPs, and a handful of epidemiologists brave enough to swim against the tide. These forces weren’t sufficient to counter Mr Hancock until he contrived to ruin himself with that clinch.
The question is whether it could happen again. I fear it might. The official inquiry hasn’t even begun to call witnesses. Given that the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War dragged on for seven years, I don’t suppose this one will be much quicker. By the time it eventually reports, I daresay most of us will have forgotten that Matt Hancock ever existed.
In the meantime, this country owes a debt to Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist who leaked the messages that throw such a disquieting light on the politics of the pandemic.
I don’t care how Right-wing she and her partner are. Whatever we may think of her betrayal of Mr Hancock in publishing his WhatsApp messages, she has done the public an enormous service.
The moral of this story is that, at a time of national crisis, one resolute and resourceful politician can accomplish a great deal. The tragedy is that this uncommon person should have been Matt Hancock, who succeeded in doing so much harm.
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