A week ago, I’d have bet that Matt Hancock would never occupy my brain again for more than 15 seconds. But he’s back, against my will and indeed his own.
More than 100,000 of Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, from his time as health secretary during the pandemic, have been shared with The Daily Telegraph. He gave them to the journalist Isabel Oakeshott to help her co-write his memoirs. She leaked them.
Oakeshott has a track record: one of her previous sources went to jail; she is a lockdown sceptic and the partner of Richard Tice, leader of a pro-Brexit party that wants to “destroy” the Conservatives. There are people who cannot read and write who would have been more appropriate ghostwriters for Hancock.
Personally I dread the day that someone leaks my WhatsApps, revealing my deepest thoughts to be “haha” and “still ok for 3pm?”. Hancock’s messages are less damning. He’s accused of watering down scientific advice in April 2020 to test everyone going into care homes. His defence is that, after that advice, he got further advice that the UK lacked capacity to test everyone. Which seems . . . rational?
Hancock’s WhatsApps also show that he persuaded then prime minister Boris Johnson not to bring forward the end of lockdown in summer 2020, and to shut schools in January 2021, fearing “a policy car crash when the kids spread the disease”. This has aged much better than, say, Rishi Sunak’s Covid-spreading brainwave of paying people to go to restaurants.
Some messages are embarrassing. “I WANT TO HIT MY [TESTING] TARGET,” Hancock told his former boss, and then editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, in a plea for friendly coverage. Osborne replied mercilessly: “I gathered.” Even so, Hancock comes across better than Simon Case, the obsequious top official who wrote in February 2021 about quarantine rules: “I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class and into a premier inn shoe box”.
The leaks have been greeted gleefully by lockdown sceptics, who somehow argue both that Hancock failed to protect vulnerable people from Covid and that Covid was nothing to be worried about anyway. Or take Tice himself, who this week merrily promoted his partner’s revelations about testing and care homes. Back in 2020, he was bleating about coronavirus tests being undermined by “huge” false positives. Does anyone sane think he’d have managed things better?
Top politicians have a tough life: a few weeks ago, Hancock was harassed on a Tube train by a Covid denier. Yet it’s hard to get past his monumental idiocy in giving a hostile, untrustworthy journalist his WhatsApps. Hancock has already been unlucky with leaks: in 2021, he resigned as health secretary after leaked CCTV footage of his office revealed he was having an affair. But similarly, any sense he’d been hard done by soon evaporated: he brutally left his wife of 15 years, who was said to be suffering from long-term effects from Covid, contracted from him.
Hancock makes Alan Partridge look self-aware. He wiped a tearless eye in a 2020 TV interview. He released cringeworthy videos of himself doing Parkour and a post-resignation tour of his constituency. He went on ITV reality show I’m a Celebrity, while an MP, and made noises about charity. His eventual donation was £10,000 — just 3 per cent of his £320,000 fee. “I didn’t primarily do it for the money,” he spluttered.
Yes, Hancock made Covid mistakes, including fudging the testing target and applying the “rule of six” to young children. But the truth is: his decisions weren’t particularly bad, he is just particularly annoying. Hancock’s tragedy is that he has many things to feel aggrieved about, yet it’s somehow impossible to have any sympathy for him.