Teetering Matt Hancock ignores head and heart and sticks to PM's script | John Crace

Door Matt knows a circuit breaker is the right way to go but he lacks the strength to stand up to Boris

If Matt Hancock believes in karma, he must be wondering what the hell he did in his previous existence. His fall from grace has been spectacular. Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Matt looked as if he was one of the few ministers to have grasped the severity of the situation and to be prepared to take the necessary action to contain it. A rare outbreak of responsibility in cabinet. But over the last three or four months, Matt has become Door Matt.

For a while the health secretary’s one sanctuary was that at least he could claim to be following the science. Even when he missed nearly every testing target and his decision to outsource the track-and-trace system proved disastrous, he could kid himself that he had failed in a more or less scientific way. But even that escape clause for his conscience was snatched away once the prime minister chose to ignore Sage’s recommendation to introduce a circuit breaker in September and then chose not to disclose the evidence until this week.

Now Door Matt finds himself ground down by Boris Johnson’s desperation to please the crowd and he just reads from whatever script is put in front of him. He doesn’t even bother to check the details as he can be fairly certain they are incorrect. His latest Commons appearance being a case in point.

This wasn’t the statement he had been expecting to give. He had imagined he would be putting Greater Manchester and parts of the north-west into tier 3. Tier Very, Very High. He had even managed to brief the media that this was going to happen. Only it turned out that Tory and Labour MPs and local leaders from those areas were kicking off about the lack of warning and the cack-handed way the hopelessly ineffectual junior health minister Helen Whately had tried to dump it on them, and weren’t in the mood to play ball. In a week of shitshows this was perhaps the pièce de résistance.

So after the usual spiel about coronavirus being a terrible disease, Door Matt hastily skirted over what he described as “ongoing discussions” with the north-west and moved on to the decision to upgrade London, Essex, Barrow, York and several other regions to tier 2. Tier Very High. Though the thought did occur that he could have saved everyone a lot of time if he had announced this on Monday when the government first announced its hopelessly confused tiering system. After all, it wasn’t as if the infection rates had changed significantly in the intervening three days. “Things will get worse before they get better,” Hancock concluded. He wasn’t kidding. We now have a government masquerading as a piece of self-destructive performance art.

Recent exchanges with Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, have verged on the spiky, with each accusing the other of acting in bad faith. But, perhaps sensing that Door Matt was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, Ashworth went relatively easy on him. He didn’t go hard on the ongoing row between the north-west and Westminster other than to point out that the Tories needed to offer more in the way of financial support to businesses and workers that could find themselves destitute.

Rather, Ashworth pointed out that a lot of this could have been avoided if the government hadn’t put track and trace in the hands of consultants on £6,000 a day and if it had accepted Chris Whitty’s advice that the tiering system was not going to make a massive difference to bringing down the rate of infection. So wasn’t it just best if it accepted what the scientists, the public and the Labour party were calling for: a two- to three-week national “circuit breaker”? At this point Hancock looked almost teary. Because he knows it’s the right thing to do. It’s what his head and heart are telling him to do. But he can’t do it because he doesn’t have the cojones to say no to Boris. Better that 8,000 people lose their lives unnecessarily than he has to give up his ministerial car.

The health select committee chair, Jeremy Hunt, injected a rare moment of humour by asking if Door Matt could give a date by which everyone in the country could have a weekly test. Hancock can’t even give a date when the track-and-trace figures will improve rather than get worse. Poor Matt is so far gone he can’t even tell when he is being trolled. On Wednesday night he tweeted that Emmanuel Macron had congratulated him on the success of the testing system, not realising its success lay in making most of the rest of Europe look quite good.

Thereafter the main interest in the debate was MPs from the north-west laying into Hancock for the disastrous way in which they were being railroaded into the highest tier. Labour’s Lucy Powell observed that she had no objection in principle to Tier Very, Very High, only there was no evidence to show it made any difference. Tory William Wragg came at it from a slightly different perspective: it was an Englishman’s right to do whatever he liked, including spreading the coronavirus. Or something like that.

It all ended unsatisfactorily, as these statements increasingly do, and Door Matt looked relieved to make his escape. Everyone knows Hancock will be back once or twice a week for the foreseeable future to announce further lockdowns until he accepts the inevitability of Tier Keir. Even those regions that have just been upgraded to tier 2 know there’s a fair chance of them being upgraded further. After all, almost every region that has effectively been in tier 2 for the last few months has seen infection rates rise.

We’re seven months on and it feels as if we are almost back where we started. Only this time the nights are closing in and people have less hope that the government knows what it’s doing. The country has done everything that has been asked of it and been repaid with one of the highest death rates in the world and a £12bn test-and-trace system that the government’s own scientists regard as marginally effective at best. Worse still, the prime minister has abandoned the science. He is saving neither lives nor jobs. His moral authority is shot.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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