Why I'll never forgive squirming Matt Hancock for his Covid conduct: Jayne Dowle

The fact that disgraced former Health Secretary Matt Hancock finally made it to give evidence to the Covid inquiry will come as little comfort to those of us who lost a loved one during the pandemic.

Whatever questions he was required to answer last week, how ever much he sweated and squirmed, it won’t bring back the thousands of individuals who died alone, their families unable to visit them in hospital or care home.

My own two children lost their father in March 2021.

Already seriously ill with a terminal condition, he contracted Covid and passed away in a hospice in Surrey, where he lived. I will never forget those two horrendous Sundays towards the end of his life. The first one, we set off to visit him – having made scrupulous arrangements under social distancing rules – only to be phoned by the hospice when we were an hour down the M1. He had tested positive for the virus, and visits were now forbidden. We turned back at Trowell services, tears in our eyes.

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Matt Hancock at the Covid Inquiry. Credit: Covid Inquiry.Matt Hancock at the Covid Inquiry. Credit: Covid Inquiry.
Matt Hancock at the Covid Inquiry. Credit: Covid Inquiry.

The day he passed away, his son and daughter, my children, had to say goodbye to their beloved father by iPad. It was absolutely the most heartbreaking thing I have ever experienced. And for that, I will never forgive a health secretary who thought more of his own position of power than of the distraught people dying alone. And their loved ones.

Hancock’s delusional claim to be “putting a ring around care homes” will haunt his reputation for the rest of his life, although the MP for West Suffolk is now in the political wilderness, having resigned his Cabinet post in June 2021, after it was discovered that he had kissed a colleague when social contact was restricted.

In his resignation letter to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he said “the government owe it to the people who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic to be honest when we have let them down”.

Rather than taking a personal hit, as he was in ultimately in charge of health and social care, he shifted the blame onto collective Cabinet responsibility.

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And now, as we all know, there was no such thing as such a co-ordinated approach, as infighting, division and name-calling sullied Downing Street and led to chaos.

As the Covid inquiry has rolled on this autumn, we have seen and heard from various figures at the centre of this shambles. Not one single player has covered themselves with glory, or emerged from the mess without blood on their hands.

However, I reserve my strongest vitriol for Hancock, who despite being the man in charge, showed so little regard for the health of the nation – or proper standards of behaviour in public life.

Examining what he actually said when hauled into the inquiry room reminds us that for months, the British people were duped. Hancock’s claim, which he stood by last week, that Britain was better prepared for Covid than other comparable countries is obviously untrue, even delusional.

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Yes, there was a plan in place to deal with a pandemic, but no-one, no minister, no civil servant, no policy expert, was ready to deal with coronavirus when it landed on our shores. Yes, there was a plan, but it wasn’t the right one to deal with Covid. As we now know, for months, even as the virus began to rampage its way through Europe, Number 10 put its head in the sand and – it would seem – hoped it would go away.

It's hardly reassuring, in retrospect, to see Boris Johnson’s mercurial former policy advisor, Dominic Cummings, who has already given his own vitriolic account of affairs, accusing the former health secretary of lying. It’s well known that these two major figures were united only by their mutual loathing of each other. But Cummings claiming that Hancock was telling untruths to the inquiry when he claimed to have advised the Prime Minister to impose an immediate lockdown two weeks before it happened reminds us of just how panicked the government was in early 2020.

In this, we were badly served by a dithering Health Secretary and his department. To put it bluntly, they ran around like headless chickens in the face of a pandemic that no-one had predicted. When all the arguing, blame-shifting and accusations have finally been laid to rest, there are lessons to be learned for government.

Those in charge must be tasked with putting into place unimpeachable structures, chains of command and checks and balances to prevent panic ever taking hold again in a health emergency. And as key figures shuffle, bluff and dissemble the truth in that inquiry room, it’s also becoming clear that there must be measures in place which prevent such terrible standards of behaviour ever becoming the norm again.

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Only Boris Johnson, who is expected to give evidence himself this week, has taken a bigger hit to his reputation than Hancock. We can’t change the past, sadly, but surely in a democratic nation with an accountable government, we deserve to be better served when the next pandemic arrives, as it surely will.

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