Lessons worth learning: Lord Darzi reviews Matt Hancock's 'Pandemic Diaries'
16 April 2020: Then-health secretary Matt Hancock speaks via videolink at the opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital, Birmingham | Alamy
An unputdownable account, Matt Hancock’s version of events benefits from the one asset not available during a crisis – hindsight
Optimism is a valuable attribute in a leader and Matt Hancock has it in spades. George Osborne called his irrepressible bounciness “Tiggerish”. But is it appropriate in a time of national crisis? Often, he tells us in this breathless account, he had to curb his natural enthusiasm before making another grave address to the nation, bearing in mind the terrible carnage Covid was causing.
Nevertheless, what shines throughout this book is the eagerness with which he seized the immense task presented to him – managing the national response to the worst pandemic in a century. It rips along, thanks to the efforts of his co-writer, the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, and Hancock hopes his account will help others in the future. However in creating a fluent – indeed, unputdownable – narrative from the sketchy diary entries he made at the time, she/he has had the benefit of the one asset not available in a time of crisis – hindsight.
It would be valuable, and not only for historians, if the original unedited diaries could be published too.
Still there is much to learn here. One of Britain’s greatest successes was the speed of its vaccine roll-out programme. Hancock acknowledges the central role played by venture capitalist Kate Bingham, head of the Vaccine Taskforce, but puts a different spin on the now famous row between them. She accused him of ambushing her with a politically motivated attack because he was angered that the taskforce was based at the Department for Business and not under his control. He says their dispute was over how many vaccine doses to order – he wanted enough for the whole population while she wanted to restrict it to the vulnerable. If his version is correct, we can be grateful he won.
Some issues are skated over
The timing of the first lockdown has also been criticised with claims that dithering by the cabinet in early March 2020 led to a delay which cost thousands of lives. Lockdown is first mentioned in these diaries in February 2020 but the edict to “Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives” did not take effect till 23 March. Then-prime minister Boris Johnson admitted in a BBC interview in July 2020 he “could have gone earlier”. But Hancock, who has “spent a lot of time” considering the question, says: “The suggestion fails to recognise how little we knew. We had to balance the huge cost of such a move against its necessity – based on scant information.”
Some issues are skated over – the huge cost and limited success of Test and Trace; the under-used Nightingale hospitals which Hancock drove through against advice but could not be staffed; the lack of support and testing for care homes.
A major success, however, was how the United Kingdom led the world in trialling which treatments worked, vital to head off wild claims about unproven nostrums.
On 7 April 2020, Hancock notes the Oxford University Recovery Trial had notched up 1,900 patients – “the fastest recruitment in history”. On 16 June that year, Johnson announced the trial had shown Dexamethasone, a cheap, readily available steroid, could cut deaths by a fifth. In the following nine months the drug was estimated to have saved more than a million lives worldwide, including 22,000 in the UK.
For future pandemic preparedness, that is a lesson worth learning.
Professor Lord Darzi of Denham is a non-affiliated peer and co-director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London
Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain’s battle against Covid
By: Matt Hancock (with Isabel Oakeshott)
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