Hancock the hero

The former health secretary wants readers of his new memoir to believe he made all the right calls in the pandemic. Did he?

December 16, 2022
Did he make the right calls? Photo: MI News & Sport / Alamy
Did he make the right calls? Photo: MI News & Sport / Alamy

Matt Hancock was health secretary during the most consequential public health emergency in a century. As a lethal new coronavirus spread with frightening speed, governments worldwide took the unprecedented step of locking down entire populations to enforce social distancing. During those lockdowns, Hancock became a ubiquitous presence on TV and radio. He later resigned after being caught having an affair with an aide and violating his own lockdown guidance. More recently, he has appeared on a well-known reality show which involved him being repeatedly subjected to gruesome punishments in an Australian jungle. He has, by any measure, had an eventful few years. Now he has written a book, Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain’s battle against Covid, so he can share his side of the story. The book should be of great interest—particularly to those who want to better understand the tumultuous, era-defining events of the pandemic. The challenge for the reader is disentangling the reality from the show.

The first problem is that these “pandemic diaries” are not exclusively Hancock's. They are co-authored by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who has already written a long piece explaining how vehemently she disagrees with Hancock’s handling of the pandemic. The fact that the co-writer of the diaries appears to be antithetical to their central figure is one of the many weird things about the book.

Even more strangely, these are not, in fact, diaries. The preface makes clear Hancock did not keep a detailed diary (“nor would it have been right to do so”) so the account has been “meticulously pieced together from my formal papers held by the department; contemporaneous notes and voice memos… interviews… and myriad other emails and messages.” But while he regularly quotes text messages, we are shown practically no emails or meeting minutes. I asked Oakeshott why this was; she told me Hancock was allowed to go to the Department of Health to review records but not to take any away. He apparently made notes, but it is unclear how long he had to access the files.

This leads to a strange skewing of the material the reader is shown, with a focus on the informal and ephemeral. Many of the messages Hancock chooses to share are mundane. He also quotes a large number from colleagues and other notable people telling him what a good job he is doing. Perhaps this is to put on record that many of his colleagues such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove supported him at the time, and to head off the risk that they will try to stab him in the back during the official Covid inquiry. But whatever the intention, the regular plaudits end up making him seem brittle. If he is so sure he did a good job, why not let the facts speak for themselves? 

Sleeping soundly

Hancock wants the reader to think he is confident he did a good job. At one point, Rishi Sunak asks him how he is sleeping. “Fine”, Hancock says, adding that he was “not lying in bed tossing and turning, because each day I know I’ve done everything I possibly can.” Sometimes self-awareness does creep in. He says his team were “usually pretty quick to puncture my pomposity”, for example when he proposes new language about Covid involving a “war against this virus… in which the whole of humanity is on the same side.” There are other such asides, but it is clear the major thrust of the book is self-justification.

One implication of the fake diary format is that it removes the need for self-reflection, while ensuring that events are presented in as self-exculpating a way as possible. In the present tense, there is no room for taking stock. One of the most controversial decisions Hancock made was to release care home residents from hospitals in the spring of 2020, which may have caused thousands of deaths by taking Covid back into those settings. This section of the book characteristically begins by blaming someone else: NHS chief Simon Stevens, who is “keen” to take the decision. Hancock says the “tragic but honest truth” is there is not enough capacity to test each individual, and the only way to make sure the returnees are kept away from other residents is through guidance. In a July 2020 entry, he reveals he has received a “note” that says the “virus is primarily being brought in by staff, not by elderly people who’ve been discharged from hospital.” The framing sounds very defensive. I imagine some of the relatives of those who died would appreciate a little more reflection when discussing a decision which the High Court later found was unlawful.

If the book has an overarching theme it is that Hancock is the hero—and if this is unclear to the reader, Hancock repeatedly quotes people texting him to tell him he is one (“Finally, a lovely message from Nadhim. ‘What a day! You are a hero’; “Dan Rosenfield messaged… ‘for the record, you are doing a brilliant job, and a hero’”, and so on). Johnson, presented in the book as a capricious and unserious man who just gets in the way of Hancock’s policies, apparently used to compare himself to the mayor from Jaws, keeping the beach open despite increasing evidence of a shark in the ocean. Hancock obviously sees himself as Bruce Willis from the Die Hard movies: a maverick blessed with foresight to see the disaster which is about to happen but cursed by the meddling, small-minded colleagues who are holding him back.

He also seems to have a list of enemies as long as Richard Nixon’s and enthusiastically airs his grievances. He hates Dominic Cummings, who is “aggressively unpredictable” and is blamed for the Downing Street machine which he dominates not responding to Hancock’s early warnings about the virus. Andy Burnham is “whinging”, “whiny” and playing political games when he challenges the placing of Manchester into a local lockdown. The mayor of Leicester is a “stone in my shoe”. Keir Starmer is “dreary” and “shameless”. Hancock seems to treat all political opposition as petty, and in any event believes they are constantly missing the point about what needs to be done to prevent the spread of the virus.

By contrast, Hancock presents himself as having extraordinary powers of prediction. By the end of January 2020 he knows that vaccines will be crucial, is trying (eventually successfully) to persuade the director general of the WHO to take Covid more seriously, and is obsessed by asymptomatic transmission well before most scientists have pronounced on it. He is viscerally critical of Cummings for editing an old blog to make out that he predicted Covid, and “altering obscure old musings in the vain hope of conjuring an image as a seer”, but how different is concocting a retrospective diary which has the same effect? Whether this is the picture which will emerge when we see the underlying documents and hear others’ accounts is anyone’s guess.

The bigger picture

If you appreciate that everything in this book needs to be taken with a heap of salt, it is still possible to marvel at how extraordinary the story Hancock tells is. In my book, Emergency State, I observe that national emergencies are a bit like Aristotelean tragedies: the extreme events will inevitably expose the flaws both in the state and the individuals who have the bad luck to be running it at the time the emergency strikes. What is obvious from Hancock’s book, if it wasn’t already, is that the small group of decision-makers responsible for Covid policy was hugely dysfunctional. Of the five—Johnson, Hancock, Sunak, Gove and Cummings—one was thrown out by his own party, one was pushed out of government, one resigned from office in disgrace, and one received a fixed penalty notice because the police believed he had committed a criminal offence during lockdown—he is now prime minister. These were bitter rivals in overlapping permutations, particularly Hancock and Cummings. There are many words spent on the childish power games, including the rivals disinviting the others from meetings and briefing against each other. There is a lot of hostile leaking (never, on his own account, by Hancock) which leads in early 2021 to a restriction on the number of people attending the powerful and already tiny “Covid-O” policy meetings.

The other major theme is that Hancock was a restrictions hawk from the beginning. He rails at the lawyers who told him in January 2020 that quarantine of travellers from Wuhan should be voluntary. He sets his stall out early in the book: “while liberal individualism may be the best way to organise a society in normal times, in a pandemic, the harm principle applies to anyone who might be spreading the disease. Even liberals should support fairly draconian action to protect others.” “The point is that liberal individualism is a great political philosophy… but no use in a pandemic, when the problem is essentially communitarian.” It would have been interesting to hear more about the political philosophy which apparently underpinned Hancock’s approach to the pandemic, or how he arrived at it, but these hugely important statements are left hanging tantalisingly unexplained.

Hancock is very clear that if it was up to him the restrictions would have been imposed earlier, and that lives were probably lost as a result of dithering. He was apparently warned on 28th January 2020 by Chris Whitty that a reasonable worst-case scenario was that 820,000 might die. His response to what he describes as the “oh shit” meeting was to demand that the development of the vaccine to be accelerated. But others present, including Johnson, reacted with “shrug shrug” because “they didn’t really believe it”. As events progress through February, Hancock implies that he was supportive of early quarantine and lockdown measures, and others were against. But he doesn’t back this up with evidence. He is similarly critical of the delay to lockdown in Autumn 2020, leading into what would be the worst wave of the pandemic.

The legals

For those who followed the over 100 unprecedented and draconian pandemic laws, there are some fascinating insights, some communicated deliberately and some inadvertently. For example, there was an attempted “jailbreak” when the first plane load of British citizens out of Wuhan returned to the UK and was being quarantined at Arrowe Park Hospital. Hancock asked a magistrate to authorise the potential detention of someone seeking to escape—she refused because it would be disproportionate.

One extraordinary error comes in the familiar guise of self-congratulation. Hancock says 23rd March 2020 was a “totemic” day because the prime minister’s instruction to stay at home was “no longer guidance but a legal obligation.” The team, Hancock says, “was able to get the legals in place in time”—he makes clear this is a huge achievement. But this is a rewriting of history because there was no legal obligation in place until 26th March, when the law enforcing the lockdown arrived—signed by Matt Hancock. He wrongly thinks that the legal powers to lock down the country came from the Coronavirus Act (“The Coronavirus Act [gave] formal legal authority across the UK to all the measures we have introduced”). The fact the former health secretary himself does not understand this, despite signing over 100 laws arising from the Public Health Act, might explain why hundreds of prosecutions were wrongly brought by the police under the Coronavirus Act. It is amazing that this is not one of the almost 300 deletions and amendments which Oakeshott says the Cabinet Office requested to be made to the book.

Another important revelation from a rights perspective is that in September 2020, as case rates were rising and the government was planning new restrictions, the Cabinet Office wanted to create an exemption for the rule of six for public protests. Hancock “enlisted Gove to kill it off.” Why? Not because protests presented a risk of participants spreading the virus but because “demonstrations in places like Parliament Square and Hyde Park undermine public confidence in social distancing.” I wonder if really he means anti-lockdown protests, as a few pages before he refers with unconcealed disgust to the “bunch of straggly haired weirdos in anoraks” and “dangerous losers” protesting with Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s conspiracy theorist brother, in central London. This suggests it was the political views of the potential protesters which led to the ban, which applied to all protest, not just the anti-lockdown kind. This was certainly not the stated intention at the time but would surely amount to overreach by the government.

Hancock gives a selective account of the various scandals which engulfed the government during the pandemic. There is no mention at all of Partygate, except that Hancock presciently warns the prime minister in early January 2021 to “end the boozy ‘work lunches’ and ‘work dinners’”. He knows people are “abusing the system” and has “made sure that everyone in my own department gets this message”, having also banned alcohol on the premises.

He is incandescent at anyone who suggested that the PPE procurement “VIP lane” (the name of a policy of giving preference to certain personal contacts of politicians—and one which tellingly does not appear anywhere in the book) might have been a little dodgy. Meg Hiller of the Public Accounts Committee acts in a “pitifully low” way by raising it. Jolyon Maugham is a “pompous leftie barrister” for bringing a case which demonstrated aspects of the scheme were unlawful.

Credit and blame

This book is not quite a first draft of history. There are too many problems: the fake diary format, the fact that Hancock did not have full access to the key documents, and the emphasis on score settling and self-aggrandisement.

But within the almost 600 pages is much of interest. Readers will find some genuine revelations, such as the fact that Hancock agreed to the transfer of 400 doses of the UK’s initial supply of vaccines to a Middle Eastern royal household after a diplomat from the region reached out to minister Nadhim Zahawi. Whatever you think of Hancock—and people have strong opinions on him—he was undoubtedly at the centre of perhaps the most consequential period in our modern history. He may deserve credit for some of the undoubted successes, such as the vaccine development, and despite his protestations may deserve blame for some of the failures, such as the care home discharge fiasco. We will know more in the coming years, and particularly when the Covid inquiry completes its work. We will have to wait until then to find out how much of this book is reality, and how much is just for show.