Rosena Allin-Khan: 'If Matt Hancock found my tone difficult, that's on him'

The Labour MP and A&E doctor on her run-in with the health secretary and her shifts on the hospital frontline

When Rosena Allin-Khan stood up in the House of Commons last Tuesday to address the health secretary, Matt Hancock, she anticipated being stonewalled. She didn’t expect to become the story.

In her other life, the MP for Tooting is an A&E doctor and intensive care specialist and has been working 12-hour hospital shifts throughout the pandemic. Allin-Khan reported that the government’s failures were contributing to a greater loss of life and she wanted answers on its testing strategy. The health secretary awkwardly responded by suggesting that Allin-Khan’s testimony was untrue and moreover, that she “might do well to take a leaf out of the shadow secretary of state’s book in terms of tone”.

“Watch your tone!” Allin-Khan exhales, still in mild disbelief. “I have written to the government several times since March, asking why we haven’t followed WHO guidelines, asking for clearer messaging on social distancing, urging for more PPE. I’ve had no response. I was bringing messages from the frontline,” she says over the phone from her home in south London.

The exchange went viral after she tweeted it, morphing into a meme online then as a talking point on Good Morning Britain, Sky News, BBC News, LBC and beyond. Being patronised by Hancock was one thing, but to be dismissed so audaciously on the day the UK reported the highest death toll in Europe galls her.

“I was very courteous in my delivery. If Matt Hancock found it difficult, that’s on him. Addressing the fact that lives could have been saved and families’ hearts might not have been broken had we got on top of testing earlier? These are legitimate questions that people all across the country have. I was very polite. He didn’t like the content, so instead felt it easier to make a derogatory comment towards me.”

Allin-Khan says she is used to confounding people. Her mother is Polish and her father is Pakistani and she grew up in a poor household in the constituency she now represents as “a proud British Muslim”. She describes her upbringing as “difficult … turbulent”.

She won’t elaborate out of sensitivity towards her parents, except to say it meant “I failed my A-levels spectacularly”. Nonetheless, at 24, Allin-Khan ended up reading medicine at Cambridge and gained a masters in public health before working as a doctor in disaster zones across the world.

“People are still confused by who I am or what I am,” she says, of the layers of ignorance she has navigated her whole life. “The biggest learning journey I have had as a politician is seeing how much I can be hated for being eastern European, for being Pakistani, for being Muslim. I never came from a political background. The vitriol shocked me.”

At 42, alongside her constituency work, Allin-Khan serves as a shadow cabinet minister for mental health and is an amateur boxer, wife, and mother to two children under six. She stopped her campaign for Labour’s deputy leadership in March and then went to work treating Covid-19 patients at St George’s hospital in south London and at the newly opened Nightingale. The experience has been harrowing and frightening.

Doctors on frontline in fight against Covid-19 prepare ward.
Frontline doctors face the heartbreak of passing on ‘goodbye messages’ from loved ones to patients dying of Covid-19, says Dr Allin-Khan. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“Families are begging me for a miracle I can’t give them. You’re unable to console them with a hug or a touch on the shoulder. You have to watch their hearts break, you’re the one delivering goodbye messages to their loved ones,” Allin-Khan takes a pause. “Messages like ‘please hold on, Dad’, ‘please hold on for the kids’ – it puts chills through your body but you have to hold it together and stay strong for these families. It is very hard to do.”

At home, her children have been taught not to run to her until she has stripped her clothes into the washing machine and showered. She uses separate cutlery, crockery and towels from her family and has found herself in tears “wondering about how many of all those deaths could have been avoided”. She has found the clapping for key workers “a wonderful way for communities to feel they are supporting frontline staff. It’s an opportunity to say thank you”. But she is scornful that it is “a pointless exercise if government ministers clap, but don’t provide resources the NHS needs”.

Allin-Khan became a Labour councillor during her first maternity leave in 2014, winning “in a local ward that had been Conservative for 24 years”. Two years later, just after the birth of her second child, Sadiq Khan left his Tooting seat to become mayor of London and Allin-Khan was encouraged to stand.

There were 119 candidates up for selection and she found the campaign gruelling; the Daily Mail published old photos of her in a bikini, claiming that the working-class doctor had in fact been a secret swimwear model with “a glamorous past”. At the time, she was distraught. “That people would be out there trying to tarnish my character over something that wasn’t true and deliberately using my ethnicity and religion to try and humiliate me was upsetting. It can be all-consuming.” But she says she kept on “because I have a work ethic that means that once I commit to doing something, I give 2,000%”.

Allin-Khan was elected the day MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016. “It was horrific,” she says flatly, at the time unsure of what she had got herself into.

Allin-Khan claims not to have any political heroes – “mine are more everyday heroes” – but says she became more interested in politics at university. “The Labour party did change my life and gave me opportunities that wouldn’t have happened under the status quo,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been possible for someone with a background like mine to have gone to medical school otherwise.”

Witnessing the erosion of the health service firsthand has been a prime motivator for her political energy. “I am so grateful to be doing the work I always did, but now I have MP after my name and suddenly people are interested. I can use my platform to be a voice for the voiceless.”

It is indisputable to Allin-Khan that coronavirus has escalated a system already in crisis. “Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Labour wants to support the government to get this right. Our priority is protecting public health, but we do need a consensus on what happens next.” Is there a sense that criticism has been tempered in the Commons chamber for the sake of fostering national unity?

“Nobody likes political point-scoring, but it is a challenge not to be able to scrutinise decisions that affect the whole country. Things like Boris Johnson announcing a press conference on Sunday to decide the future of the country? That sort of announcement should be made in parliament where there can be due diligence and scrutiny.”

The Public Health England review into why so many BAME people are dying disproportionately from Covid-19 fills her with similar frustration. “I have reservations about the review and how it will be conducted.” Referring to the controversial appointment to the review of Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission who has been suspended from the Labour party over allegations of Islamophobia, she says: “We need to have trust in this review. Our BAME communities deserve it.”

Allin-Khan says she was underestimated at the beginning of her political career, but that it only fuelled her to keep going. “I’m an ordinary woman living an extraordinary life, and I am driven very much by what is right and what is wrong,” she says. “If I lose my seat tomorrow, I will have been grateful to have represented my community and saved as many lives as I could. That’s why when Matt Hancock said what he said, I just thought no. No, I won’t watch my tone – I’ve got something I need to say.”

• This article was amended on 10 May 2020 because an earlier version said that Allin-Khan “dropped out of Labour’s deputy leadership campaign in March”. To clarify: she stopped campaigning in order to work hospital shifts but she stayed in the race.


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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