Fingered for failings he’d forgotten, Matt Hancock wriggles free

It wasn’t the seven-hour Netflix mini-series of Dominic Cummings, but it was still a four-hour marathon. It was also something of a mystery. Almost everyone’s recollection of the last year and a half has been of a government playing catchup. Too late to lock down in March 2020, too late to lock down in November 2020, too late to lock down again in January 2021, too late to close the border with India in April 2021 and prevent the Delta variant.

And that’s not to mention the release of untested hospital patients into care homes, shortages of PPE, the billions poured into an – initially at least – inadequate test-and-trace system and 130,000 deaths. Just about the only thing the government got right was its vaccine programme.

Matt Hancock – a man with the mixed blessing of a good second-rate mind – has a rather more selective memory. He is brilliant at remembering his own successes and rather less able when it comes to recalling his failures. If indeed there were any, which he is fairly certain there weren’t. Though, when pushed, Hancock might just about concede that things would have been a whole lot worse if he hadn’t been in charge of the nation’s health.

The health secretary’s appearance before the joint science and technology, and health and social care select committees to give evidence on the lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic had promised to be box office viewing after Cummings had fingered him for just about everything the government had got wrong with the crisis. But since the prime minister’s former chief adviser had failed to provide any of the documentary evidence he had promised two weeks earlier – typical Dom, always likes to keep people guessing – Hancock was rather off the hook. Matt tried not to look too relieved, as if he had always known Dom had nothing on him.

Without the evidence, the allegations were unproven, said the committee’s co-chair, Greg Clark, sounding slightly disappointed to have been robbed of the drama. But for the sake of completion he was going to allow Hancock the right of reply. So had he ever lied to the prime minister? “No,” he said boldly. It might have been more productive to find out whether he thought Boris Johnson had ever lied to him. After all, Dom had been clear that Boris had wanted to sack him. There again, he would almost certainly have also said no, because Matt’s style is to enthusiastically kiss arse when it comes to those above him, and to lord it over those beneath him. The passive-aggressive Door Matt.

Everyone had always got the treatment they needed, the health secretary insisted. So those people with learning difficulties who had “do not resuscitate” stickers placed on their beds were getting just what they deserved. There was a protective ring around care homes. Hancock was also adamant there had never been a national PPE shortage: the nurses who had made their own protective gear out of old bin liners had just been having a bit of a laugh.

And when he had said that patients would be tested before being discharged into care homes, what he had clearly meant was that would happen when there was enough capacity in the system. Besides which, the testing was so slow they could have caught Covid in the time it took for the results to come through. He said this as if it were someone else’s fault.

For the remainder of the session, Hancock kept sounding like the first wannabe management trainee to be chucked off The Apprentice – “I wake up every morning thinking about how many lives I can save today … I’m a big team player, willing to take the difficult decisions”. Yuck – and entirely disingenuous. In an imperfect world he had always acted for the best. Test and trace had been a massive undertaking and had needed a brilliant, charismatic leader. But they hadn’t been able to find one so had gone for Dido Harding instead.

His one regret was that he hadn’t been more assertive. He had always suspected the scientists were wrong about the prevalence of asymptomatic transmission – possibly because he had read the Sage minutes in early 2020 saying just that – but he had deferred to what he had assumed was their superior knowledge. Never again would he be so shy about assuming he knew what was best. His high opinion of himself was in inverse proportion to his competence, as by the end he was merely repeating or contradicting himself. The second and third lockdowns hadn’t been delayed because the government had prioritised economic concerns: they had been delayed because the government had prioritised economic concerns. Go figure.

On the few occasions when he was really challenged, in particular by Labour’s Barbara Keeley and Dawn Butler and the SNP’s Anum Qaisar-Javed and Carole Monaghan, Hancock became decidedly snippy as he tried to talk over them. But with Clark and his co-chair Jeremy Hunt, both of whom have half an eye on a return to the frontbench, making it clear that they preferred the Hancock narrative of competence and calm to the Cummings chaos and confusion, Matt knew there wasn’t much riding on his performance after all.

“It’s good to be able to set out the truth about what really happened,” Hancock lied, hoping he had done enough to survive the next reshuffle. What we had got was the truth as Matt would like it to have been. And we never did get an answer to the question that had hung over the entire proceedings: what on Earth had Door Matt done to Dom to make him loathe him quite so much?

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