It’s been a rough few weeks for Matt Hancock. First, he got coronavirus, and almost certainly came back to work far sooner than was good for him. Next, he was just about the only minister prepared to do more than mutter platitudes and put his neck on the line with a target of 100,000 tests per day. Then he discovered he was being set up as the fall guy for the inevitable public inquiry following a series of off-the-record briefings by Classic Dom.
So it’s no wonder Hancock now looks totally done in. All his old Tigger bounce and enthusiasm has gone: he is the Duracell bunny left to run on fumes, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. He has also aged visibly. Where there used to be a child-like polished sheen, there are now traces of lines on his face. Give it another week and he’ll have to hand in his student railcard.
Yet on and on he goes. On Tuesday he was put in charge of the daily press briefing, on Wednesday he had to do a 45-minute ministerial statement in the Commons, and then here he was back in Downing Street on Thursday to front up the government’s daily press conference again. While many other ministers have gone missing for much of the past two months – TV box sets to watch, nails to paint – Matt has consistently turned up for work. There’s no doubt about how much he cares: I just wonder how much longer he can sustain it.
His problem is that integrity and competence don’t always go hand in hand. Because there seldom seems to be any correlation between what he says and what actually takes place. “We now have the capacity to do 51,000 tests per day,” he said, blithely brushing past the fact that the actual number of daily tests taking place was about 20,000. That’s another 80,000 a day to reach by this time next week. Talk of capacity has long since stopped fooling people.
Hancock, though, is still waiting on a miracle. Having insisted that all NHS staff and social care workers could already get tests – something that will be news to the many hundreds of thousands who have found themselves unable to get the tests they need – Matt went truly exponential. Now, he declared, 10 million key workers and their families would also be able to get tested on demand. All they had to do was make an appointment to turn up at one of the testing centres and all would be well. Not even Jesus committed himself to that level of promise. He just stuck to loaves and fishes.
The new key strategy was test, track and trace. Quite why it has taken the UK government so long to come round to the regime that has proved so effective for South Korea and Germany was left unsaid. The thought occurred that the health secretary may have been playing a long game here. By effectively admitting that the UK had been hopelessly behind the curve in its response to the coronavirus crisis – Brexit to celebrate, Boris’s domestic arrangements to be smoothed over – Matt was implicitly dobbing in all his cabinet colleagues. If he was going down, he was going to take as many as he could with him.
There was a general air of disbelief about the chances of a proper “test, track and trace” strategy being implemented any time soon – we’ll believe it when we see it – so most questions focused on how any relaxation of lockdown regulations would take place. “I understand the thirst for knowledge,” Matt said. But it wasn’t a thirst he shared. Maybe he’s just too knackered to be that inquisitive right now. So he wasn’t going to bother to answer the question. Nor was he going to make the mistake of allowing any journalists to have a follow-up to ask why he hadn’t answered their original question. He couldn’t imagine which minister had been daft enough to introduce supplementaries in the first place. Just as well, because it had been him.
The longer the briefing went on, the more visibly tired Hancock became. If any of his cabinet colleagues really gave a toss about his wellbeing they would tell him to take a week off. But they don’t. They need him to fail so they don’t have to. So Matt merely plodded on, repeating many of the old familiar lines we’ve heard at every press conference while trying to talk up “test, track and trace” from wish fulfilment to reality. It can’t be long before the health secretary starts talking about how we have the capacity to “test, track and trace” with the real problem being all those key workers failing to take advantage of the scheme.
“We have always followed the science,” said Hancock, resorting to the one government mantra that really has been tested, tracked and traced. The two scientists, Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof John Newton, were both alive to the danger. They too have realised they are being lined up as potential scapegoats for the clusterfuck. “Actually, we just supply the evidence,” they corrected Hancock. “The decisions are taken by the government.” Things are going to get a lot uglier before life improves. And not just in Downing Street.