Omnipresent Yet Much-Maligned, Matt Hancock Is Still Fighting To Secure His Political Reputation
When England became the first country in the world to begin Covid-19 vaccination, Matt Hancock was left with “a sense of vindication,” according to one close colleague. Many had been sceptical it would happen.
“Hancock is the only person here who thinks there is actually going to be a vaccine,” a Whitehall source tauntingly told the iPaper in October. “It’s a running joke with other departments.”
It was a moment of sunlight in what had been a torrid year for the perennially upbeat health secretary, who became a household name as the face of the government’s chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 70,000 people in the UK.
As such he has been both omnipresent, and heavily maligned.
Most recently, he took the blame for dramatically revised Christmas rules that left millions unexpectedly facing the festive season alone. Fury on the Tory backbench over new Tier 4 restrictions being put in place without Parliamentary scrutiny culminated in calls for him to resign.
The UK’s death rate is among the highest in Europe, and the government has consistently been criticised for acting too slowly. At the start of the pandemic, initial shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) left health care staff dangerously exposed to the virus. In September, The Independent revealed that an estimated 620 NHS and social care workers had died after contracting the virus since March.
Hancock has been blamed for the catastrophic impact of the virus on care homes after infected patients were sent back from hospital and into homes without having had a test.
Mass testing was also perilously slow to be rolled out, with an initial target of 25,000 a day missed, though the government did hit its ‘Moonshot’ 100,000 a day test target, and in December 364,000 tests were carried out.
Hancock has also been criticised for using private profit making firms like Deloitte to deliver ‘test and trace’ to councils, and the Covid contact tracing app, controversially overseen by Tory peer Lady Dido Harding, was four months late.
Then there was the “chumocracy” row: A former neighbour won a contract to make testing vials. He said Alex Bourne, who used to run his local pub, had gone through the normal channels to get the work.
The political opposition raise the Bourne issue regularly, and one health spokesperson from across the Commons floor feels Hancock has been too slow to act, and part of a government that does not show humility when things go wrong.
“Any health secretary would have made mistakes,” they said. “Leadership is being ahead of the curve, and also accepting your errors and rectifying it as soon as possible.”
Hancock has also faced scrutiny by his own party. “I think there are two major areas of criticism; one, the releasing [of people] into care homes, and the other, listening to Public Health England too closely at the beginning about how testing should be done and not rolling out testing faster,” one backbench MP said.
“It was ‘protect the NHS’, so there was probably not enough thought about whether people should be put into intermediary locations before going back into care homes,” they continued.
But another Tory MP who has worked closely with Hancock throughout the pandemic was more sympathetic. “He’s dealt with it far better than others in Cabinet,” he said.
Former health minister Stephen Hammond, who also worked closely with Hancock, described the 42-year-old as “immensely capable”. “No-one could ever doubt his motives or the amount of work he’s put in,” Hammond continued.
“On the whole he’s done a good job in almost impossible circumstances.”
Others close to Hancock think he deserves more credit for his role in the pandemic response. “He has had a rough time for a couple of months,” said a former adviser.
Part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s inner circle of decision makers, alongside Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, Hancock “has a very good relationship with the PM and it’s got even stronger over time,” according to one colleague.
“Matt’s the guy who prepares for the worst,” said another colleague, drawing a contrast with Johnson’s much maligned optimism. While the PM was still talking about ‘squashing sombreros’ in relation to flattening the virus’ peak, Hancock was consistently sombre.
When the rapidly spreading mutant strain of Covid-19 forced tier restrictions to be escalated for the third time in a little over a week, just two days before Christmas, it was Hancock, rather than Johnson, who delivered a grave address to the nation.
“He does do a lot of public-facing stuff but he’s a good communicator and is trusted to go out and land messages that are needed,” a colleague said. “He works non-stop to be honest.”
Overseeing the NHS is a high profile job, and even when they’re not at the helm of one of the biggest roles in government during a global health pandemic, health secretaries typically have name recognition with the public.
Yet none have spent as much time in the public eye as Hancock, who took over the role from Jeremy Hunt two and a half years ago. He has appeared in the Commons considerably more this year than the Prime Minister, and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
In the last 12 months Hancock has spoken 233,477 words in the Commons, the equivalent of 29 hours straight on his feet at the despatch box, and contributed to 90 debates. In one day in March he made 110 contributions in a single day. He’s also done 31 Downing Street press conferences – more than any other minister.
When Hancock shed tears on national TV at the sight of 91-year-old Margaret Keenan receiving the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine, many accused him of faking it. “No, no, no,” a close colleague said.
“On that media round he’d just been shown the first person being vaccinated, and it was a big moment.”
Current colleagues and former staffers describe a gruelling daily schedule that doesn’t stop on the weekends. “He is the health secretary in a global pandemic, so you’d expect him to have lots to do, but there have been quite a few days when he has done the morning round, a statement in the House, then a presser, and that’s definitely a weekly occurrence at least,” one colleague says of Hancock’s daily timetable.
Staff receive emails from him as early as 6.30am, and calls from 7am, before a daily Zoom meeting with special advisers and key civil servants at 8am. Hancock often dials in from his ministerial car, though lately he’s been running into work from his North East London home.
“Even at 6.30am in the morning he’d always remain so cheerful about things,” one former adviser said. “People used to say that I was a Duracell Bunny, that I didn’t sleep much, but working for Matt I was always the one lagging behind, running behind him.”
A friend observed: “He gets stick – some people say he loves being on TV, but he’s not really hungry for it. He just says yes when he’s asked. He’s quite like Boris in the fact his default answer is yes.” Often he was given just two hours' notice for the press conferences, broadcasts that at their peak have drawn in 27.4 million viewers from six networks.
This year Hancock also had Covid-19 himself, and his step-grandfather Derek died from the illness in November, which he spoke about emotionally in the Commons.
Staff say he will take some of Christmas Day off. There’s a family phone bin where mobiles tend to go at meal times, and Hancock will sit down for dinner with his three children, and wife Martha.
Then it’ll be back on with the job.