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January 31, 2023 marks the third anniversary of Brexit:

As I have written before, those parliamentary debates early in 2020 were splendid. Newly and re-elected Conservative MPs, giving the Government a majority of 80 thanks to Boris Johnson’s 2019 ‘Get Brexit Done’ campaign slogan, were full of optimism about how Britain could — and would — be transformed.

Unfortunately, the pandemic put paid to those dreams in mid-March. We couldn’t move past it. Even now, we are still suffering financially from the decisions the Government made, forced to do so by Opposition MPs. If Boris had just not given into SAGE, we probably could have stuck to the Swedish policy of no lockdown and minimal restrictions, which would have saved us hundreds of billions of pounds. Then again, Boris got coronavirus and had to be hospitalised for a week in early April. He came back a different man. SAGE were able to exercise power over him.

Even in 2022, once England finally returned to normal, the Government seemed to be treading water. We had three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors of the Exchequer last year. Very little of the optimistic legislation from the 2019 manifesto got started. Instead, Net Zero seemed to take over. It was in the manifesto, but as the final point, not the main one. The Online Safety Bill is a piece of intrusive legislation. The Conservatives are only getting started on pushing legislation through to get rid of thousands of EU laws on our books. Taxes are at a 70-year high. We have tens of thousands of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. The possibility of any real progress for the Brexit agenda between now and the end of 2024 or January 2025 looks dim.

That said, Guido Fawkes reminds us (emphases his):

… we’ve signed about 71 new trade deals, led the European response to Putin’s war in Ukraine and saved countless British lives with an independent vaccine rollout. And that’s without any politicians actually making a concerted effort to capitalise on independence…

Of course, there is always a dismal economic forecast with which to deal. We must remember that Brexit was never about the economy but taking back control of our own national destiny.

Still, here is the latest dismal economic forecast and the danger ahead for Brexit in late 2024 or early 2025:

… even today’s IMF report on growth forecasts couldn’t bring itself to attribute any faults in the UK economy to our decision to leave the bloc. Now preparations must be made to save Brexit from a Starmer-led Labour government…

Because the IMF is the IMF, its forecasts receive undue attention. It is important to look back on the IMF’s track record. They did a terrible job in predicting 2022:

Guido points out:

The ‘good’ news is the IMF has upped its forecast for 2024, now predicting 0.9% growth from 0.6%. It is also worth bearing in mind the IMF’s analysis isn’t gospel; it underestimated 2021’s growth by 2 points. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is doing his best to remind everyone of that:

Short-term challenges should not obscure our long-term prospects — the U.K. outperformed many forecasts last year.

A number of these forecasts are shaped to comply with political narratives. One of Guido‘s readers commented (purple emphases mine):

Rather a lot of years ago, I worked with a fellow who had, in previous employment, worked at the Board of Trade. He told me that every month, their top guy would get together with some other top guy from the Treasury and they would concoct the monthly trade figures to broadcast to the media. T’was all mainly fiction, of course, depending on what political message was required. I doubt if anything much has changed in the intervening years.

Here is another forecast gone wrong: Germany’s. Keep in mind that Germany is at the heart of the EU, so we cannot blame Brexit for their woes:

Going back to August 2022, Germany and France joined the UK in having either flat or negative GDP:

Opposition MPs of all flavours, except for Northern Ireland’s DUP, tell us that if we were still an EU member country, we wouldn’t have inflation.

Yet, on January 26, 2023, Euronews informed us that food prices continue to rise across the EU:

Food prices have continued to rise across Europe despite inflation dropping for a second consecutive month in December, according to data shared on Wednesday by Eurostat, the European statistics agency.

The inflation of food prices in the EU was 18.2 per cent, and 16.2 per cent in the eurozone in December, which is a slight decrease compared to November on average. But some basic food items like sugar, milk cheese and eggs, oils, and fats prices are still going up.

One month earlier, Euronews reported on the plight of French university students who were forced to use food banks:

20% of students in France live below the poverty line. Rising food prices and energy bills soaring are exacerbating their situation. And yet, France gives more financial aid to students than many other European countries …

The government has recently allocated 10 millions euros to support the associations that organise food distributions for students. A consultation between the governement and student unions on the reform of the student grant system is ongoing, but concrete change is not expected anytime soon.

Our Opposition MPs also tell us that if we were still part of the EU, we would not be experiencing the multi-sector strikes that have been plaguing us.

However, let us look at France. Today, January 31, Euronews reported:

A new wave of strikes on Tuesday to protest French government plans to raise the retirement age to 64 has already impacted transport links and electricity production. 

TotalEnegies says between 75% and 100% of workers at its refineries and fuel depots are on strike, while electricity supplier EDF said they’re monitoring a drop in power to the national grid equivalent to three nuclear power plants. 

“Following the call for a strike, shipments of products from TotalEnergies sites are interrupted today but TotalEnergies will continue to ensure supplies to its service station network and its customers,” the group’s management said.

In EDF power stations, strikers reduced loads by “nearly 3,000 MW” on Monday night, but without causing any cuts, the company said.

Hundreds of thousands of workers are expected to take to the streets across France on Tuesday, for a second day of industrial action that unions hope will be even more massive than the first, earlier this month … 

The government had warned in advance of Tuesday’s strike about likely disruption to France’s transport network. 

In the Paris region the metro and local rail services are “very disrupted” say officials. Long distance TGV train services are also impacted, as are regional trains with intercity services almost at a standstill. 

Rail operator SNCF said only one in three high-speed TGV trains will operate on Tuesday while disruptions are also expected at French airports and on transnational rail services

French doctors were on an extended strike on January 2:

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Then there is Ukraine. Nearly a year ago, Remainers told Leavers that Vladimir Putin would use Brexit to his advantage — an entirely erroneous talking point, as Boris was the first Western leader to champion Ukraine. If we had been part of the EU, he would not have been able to do so. By contrast, Germany was buying Russian gas and Italy was sending handbags to Russia:

Then there was the pandemic. In May 2022, the WHO published excess death statistics for 2020 and 2021. The UK had lower excess deaths than Spain, Italy and Germany, although France had fewer excess deaths than we did:

As for migration, France still has as much of a problem as we do, yet our Opposition MPs tell us that if we were still part of the EU, we would not have a Channel crossing issue.

On December 26, 2022, The Times reported that the French government opened the Château de Grignon to house them, which isn’t too different to our policy, egregious as it is, of opening hotels to those coming nearly daily across the Channel:

A row has broken out in France over a government decision to shelter homeless families, notably migrants, on the estate of a Renaissance château …

Under a plan to provide shelter for the homeless during the winter, up to 200 people are to be housed in the château estate until March. The first 62, including 37 children, arrived this week.

Officially, they are classified as people of no fixed abode who have been sleeping rough. In practice, most are migrants unable to find shelter upon their arrival in France and often forced to live in squalid, makeshift camps around the Paris ring road.

In conclusion, EU nations share many of the major problems that the UK has.

Brexit has nothing to do with it. In fact, Brexit will probably help us get out of these issues more quickly than EU nations will.

Therefore, Happy Brexit Day! May many more follow!

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Even though we’re in the fallow period between Christmas and New Year, newspapers still have a few items of interest, especially when it comes to following up on stories from the past 12 months.

Theresa May supports Scottish trans law

On Tuesday, December 27, former Prime Minister Theresa May, the MP for Maidenhead, said she supports the Gender Recognition Reform bill that the Scottish parliament passed last week.

The Times reported:

The former prime minister broke ranks with fellow Tories in offering her support for the legislation, passed by Holyrood last week, which simplifies the process for trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate without a medical diagnosis …

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, confirmed that his government was contemplating the “appropriate course of action”, claiming there were concerns about the bill’s impact on the safety of women and children …

“We have different legal systems,” she told Radio 4. “Obviously, there’s a different system in Scotland, but I think it is important when any part of the UK is looking at legislation that only affects that part of the UK, that thought is given to what the impact would be on the Union. At the end of the day it is about people, and it’s about the impact it would have on people.”

During her tenure May gave her support to allowing people to change gender without medical checks, stating: “Being trans is not an illness and it should not be treated as such.”

Her successors have distanced themselves from her stance. May said this week: “The very fact that I put the proposal forward shows that that was something that I thought was important to do, particularly to take some of the medical aspects out of this. But the [UK] government has looked again at it and has taken the decision that it has.”

It is difficult to understand why Theresa May does not understand why so many Scots object to this new law. Perhaps she needs to find herself in a changing room with a random man claiming to be a woman. Then again, she is quite tall so she probably would not feel intimidated. What about shorter women, though? And what about girls? Shouldn’t Mrs May want to protect her sisters?

British Heart Foundation upset at MP’s claims about coronavirus vaccine

On Tuesday, December 13, the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen was granted an adjournment debate in the House of Commons in which he stated why the coronavirus vaccine roll out should be halted.

On Wednesday, December 28, The Times reported that the British Heart Foundation is unhappy with Bridgen’s claims:

The British Heart Foundation has called on the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen to provide evidence for his claim that a senior member of the charity was suppressing data on vaccine harms …

Bridgen said he had information that someone in a “prominent leadership role” in the foundation was “covering up clear data that reveals that the mRNA vaccine increases inflammation of the heart arteries”.

The charity said in a statement that it strongly denied the allegations, adding that its advice on the safety of the vaccines was “based on rigorous scrutiny of the latest evidence” and “we would encourage those making these allegations to share specific, credible information with us that supports them” …

Some of the MP’s claims, including about senior figures in the foundation, seem to be based on analyses by Aseem Malhotra, a controversial cardiologist who opposes the vaccines and whose dietary advice has been criticised by the organisation in the past. When in 2016 Malhotra authored a report that claimed eating fatty foods did not make you fat, the foundation issued a rebuttal in which senior academics described the claims as “absurd and plain wrong”.

Bridgen told parliament that “the benefits of the vaccine are close to non-existent”, and there was a “clear case for complete suspension of these emergency use authorisation vaccines” …

In a statement to The Times, the foundation said: “The scientific consensus is that the benefits of Covid-19 vaccination, including a reduced risk of severe illness or death, far outweigh the very small risk of rare side effects like myocarditis or pericarditis for the vast majority of people, especially as people get older.

“Scientific evidence shows that Covid-19 itself is much more likely to cause myocarditis than the vaccine is, and people who are vaccinated have a much lower risk of getting other serious complications caused by Covid-19.

“We employ a small leadership team of senior scientists and cardiologists to oversee and administer our research funding programmes, who also continue to undertake some of their own research. We can categorically say that nobody within this leadership team has acted in the way claimed by Mr Bridgen.”

In time, Dr Malhotra and Andrew Bridgen will be found on the right side of history. Furthermore, Dr Malhotra is right in saying that eating fatty foods do not make you fat. What makes people fat is combining fat with carbohydrate. One imagines that the British Heart Foundation also push a carb-heavy diet, when one can live a perfectly healthy life without starches and sugars.

Former political prisoner misses being locked up in Iran

For years, Labour MPs asked the Leader of the House and the Foreign Secretary at least weekly about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a journalist and charity worker who had been imprisoned in Iran from 2016 until her release in March this year.

It always struck me as interesting that no Conservative MP ever asked about her.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe took British citizenship while retaining her Iranian citizenship. Iran does not recognise dual nationality. She returned to visit her parents in 2016 and was arrested on her way back to the UK.

Liz Truss, then Foreign Secretary, managed to secure the woman’s release. Money was involved, compensation for an unrelated matter between the UK and Iran.

On March 16, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the move:

The following day, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released into her family’s care:

On March 21, having returned to the UK and reunited with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and their seven-year-old daughter Gabriella, she gave a press conference. What mother voluntarily leaves a one-year-old to take a long-distance journey?

The Mail reported:

Freed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has today revealed her difficult path back to normality after being held captive in Iran for six years – while also taking aim at Government for taking more than half a decade to bring her home. 

In her first televised press conference since returning to the UK, the British-Iranian national admitted she was still getting to know her family ‘better’ again following ‘six years of hell’ in Tehran. 

In an emotional press conference, she praised her ‘amazing’ husband Richard’s tireless campaigning efforts and said her reunion with him and daughter Gabriella had been ‘precious’ and ‘glorious’.

Mr Ratcliffe meanwhile said their family needed time to ‘heal’ after a traumatic six years, but that he was ‘immensely pleased and proud’ that his wife was home.

He also joked with reporters that he was ‘negotiating’ with his wife about the pair sharing the same bed once again, revealing that she had been sleeping alongside their young seven-year-old Gabriella following her return on Thursday. 

The charity worker, 44, who has been held as a prisoner in Iran since 2016, was flown back to the UK last week after the Government settled a historical £400million debt owed to Iran over a cancelled 1970s order for British tanks. 

Mr Ratcliffe, who has campaigned tirelessly for her release over the last six years, praised the efforts of the Government in helping secure her return.

But sitting beside her husband, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who turned up to the media briefing wearing yellow and blue, the colours of Ukraine, questioned why it had taken so long.

‘The journey back was tough. I grant what Richard said about the Foreign Secretary, but I don’t really agree with him on that level,’ she told journalists.

‘I have seen five foreign secretaries over the course of six years. That is unprecedented given the politics of the UK.

‘I love you Richard, I respect what you believe. But I was told many many times: “Oh, we are going to get you home”. That never happened.

The Mail has a screenshot from BBC News of the press conference. It was clear that her husband really loves her. He gazed at her as he reached over to put his hand on hers. Check out the hateful look she gave him in return.

He said that:

it would be ‘baby steps’ for him and his family, revealing he was not yet ‘allowed’ to sleep alongside his wife and daughter Gabriella.

Mr Ratcliffe said: ‘It is baby steps for us. I’m super proud of her, he strength, her grace. 

We are still negotiating whether daddy is allowed in the same bed as Gabriella and Nazanin.

‘We’ll get there. I think we’ll do this (interview) and then we will disappear off and heal a bit.’

He also said it was ‘nice to be retiring’ from the public-eye after six years of campaigning, including a 21-day hunger strike.

On March 22, The Conservative Woman had a photo of Ratcliffe on the hunger strike for his wife and a post, ‘What aren’t we being told about petulant Nazanin’s release by Iran?’

Excerpts follow:

First, some facts. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born in Iran. She lived there until she was 28, during which time she was employed by the World Health Organisation, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Japan International Co-operation Agency.  

She moved to the UK in 2007 to undertake a Master’s degree at London Metropolitan University. Having completed her degree, she worked for various British charities in London, including the Centre for Public Innovation, BBC Media Action and the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF). 

A legal opinion prepared in 2017 by Professor John Dugard and Tatyana Eatwell, of Doughty Street Chambers, and Alison Macdonald QC, of Matrix Chambers, claimed that her work for the TRF involved ‘managing journalism training abroad (not in Iran); managing TRF’s partnership with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other members of the Westminster Consortium, including the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), on a project aimed at strengthening the parliaments of other States, at those States’ invitation.  

‘Such States included Lebanon; fundraising for and managing FCO-funded projects in Morocco, Jordan and the Turks and Caicos Islands.’

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is clearly very bright, ambitious and well-connected. She met her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, in November 2007. They got engaged in June 2009 and married at Winchester Register Office in August 2009.  

She became a British citizen in March 2013, though she remains a citizen of Iran. She would make regular trips to Iran to visit her parents. During one such trip, on April 3, 2016, she was arrested and detained by the Revolutionary Guard at Tehran airport on security grounds

Iran does not recognise anybody with dual nationality – a fact Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe knew, because she entered the country of her birth using her Iranian passport, in keeping with Iranian law.

Presumably she knew the risk she was taking by going there. She also knew her status immediately made Britain’s negotiating position extremely challenging: Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, the British government, which has not enjoyed strong relations with Iran in recent years, was in no position to dictate terms to Iran over the release of a person whom the Iranian regime considered to be one of its own.  

I am surprised that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe did not acknowledge this more clearly yesterday. She has spent most of her life in Iran, after all, rather than in Britain

After much lobbying at an official level, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released after Britain agreed to repay a £400million debt for some tanks which were ordered by the Iranians in the 1970s but never delivered by the British.  

This is considered by some politicians to have been a bad move. For example, President Trump’s former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has called the debt repayment ‘blood money’

Lastly, I am struck by how well Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe looks. Indeed, while her husband appears pale and drained, she seems on the surface to be in pretty good health, perfectly strong and capable. This is to be welcomed, of course, but the contrast between her and her husband is noteworthy nonetheless

This episode sits uneasily with me. Something about it is not right. Certainly, it seems that we British are not being told something about this case, even while that £400million debt is repaid via public funds.  

I am certain that we will never learn the full truth of this matter and that no amount of inquiry by the Foreign Affairs select committee will bring us the truth. 

All I do know is that in years gone by, other hostages have been freed under very different circumstances and have not complained publicly about why it took so long within days of returning to Britain.  

Indeed, I know someone who was imprisoned by a dictatorship on trumped-up charges in the 1980s and held for longer than Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was. When he was eventually released, he never said a word against the British government. He was just glad to be home. 

A week later, Labour MPs appealed to have Zaghari-Ratcliffe made a peer in the House of Lords. Look at the love in her husband’s eyes:

Why? On what merits? In any event, it never happened.

On Wednesday, December 28, The Times reported that she told tennis star Andy Murray that she misses prison:

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe told an emotional Sir Andy Murray that she sometimes missed prison and the strong friendships she made during her six years of incarceration in Iran.

She was interviewing the two-time Wimbledon champion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, which she guest-edited today.

Sir Andy teared up and had to pause while the pair discussed her experiences and her joy at being able to watch him win Wimbledon in 2016.

When asked whether she did anything positive with her time in prison, she said: “When I came out, there were times when I felt like I really missed my friends and missed prison.

“It’s a very odd thing to say. But then you get used to your space in prison and then, I don’t know whether people can actually say they missed prison, but I sometimes think I miss the environment and my friendships.”

She told Sir Andy of the “joyful” feeling of being able to watch him win the Wimbledon title in 2016 on one of the only two channels she was allowed to watch from solitary confinement …

She told him that she taught other inmates his name while playing an Iranian version of charades and that watching him win felt like being “close to home all of a sudden” …

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 44, who has dual British-Iranian citizenship, was detained in 2016 as she was about to fly home after visiting family in Iran. She was released in March following a long campaign by her British husband, Richard Ratcliffe.

Oh, my days! Words fail me. Actually, they don’t. So I will think Pauline thoughts instead.

Mrs Sunak is on the cover of Tatler

The Sunaks opened the doors of No. 10 Downing Street to Britain’s oldest magazine, Tatler.

Akshata Murty is the cover lady for the society magazine’s February 2023 issue: ‘No. 10’s chatelaine: Inside the secret world of Mrs Sunak’.

It is a rather secret world, because the Prime Minister’s wife declined to give the magazine an interview. She authorised friends to speak on her behalf.

On December 28, The Times reported:

Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire who met the future prime minister at university in California, has never given an interview but authorised her friends to speak to Tatler. They describe a passionate Brexiteer who loves Yorkshire, rarely lets friends leave without food to take home and wants Downing Street to “open up”

Murty is said to want to bring “more of the north to Downing Street”. Allegra Stratton, Sunak’s ex-head of communications and the wife of James Forsyth, his new political secretary, said: “Yorkshire has looked after Akshata.” She added: “Over the summer, during the first leadership campaign, it was bruising for her, and the entire family hunkered down in the constituency, and it put its arm around them.”

There’s a lot about interiors in the article.

Of course, we want to know if they live in No. 10 or No. 11:

The couple have opted to live in the flat above 10 Downing Street, which they used when Sunak was chancellor, rather than the larger flat above No 11, used by prime ministers since 1997.

Sunak and Murty, both 42, carried out an extensive refurbishment of the flat when he was chancellor, spending their own money, in contrast to the convoluted arrangement that landed Johnson in trouble.

Could Boris make a comeback in 2023?

Speaking of Downing Street, could next year see a Boris comeback?

The Telegraph‘s political editor Ben Riley-Smith thinks so:

The former prime minister will take opportunities to push his case for being the best-placed Tory to win the next election.

What occasions will these be? There are expected to be plenty. Perhaps it will be one of the (many) paid speaking events Boris is likely to take on next year. He is attempting – as friends have said publicly – to put ‘hay in the loft’. A recent appearance for the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers in Washington, DC alone brought in £276,130. There will be speeches on the world stage, too. Johnson dropped into the COP27 UN climate change conference in October, joking unusual summer heat had played a part in his ouster, and has vowed to keep championing Ukraine. 

The news of his COP attendance dropped before Sunak, the victor of their leadership tussle, had announced he was attending. It was a sign he is happy to be a thorn in his successor’s side. Speeches from the Commons backbenches can be expected too. The former prime minister has indicated he is willing to defend his legacy. Translated: he will speak out if his policies and manifesto promises are watered down or ditched.

Could we also get an appearance at next autumn’s Tory conference? He sat this year’s one out, but that was just after he left office. A return would be like slipping on an old pair of slippers, Johnson re-adopting the role that helped make his political name – the darling of delegates, tweaking the nose of the current leader.

It’s unlikely that Labour MP Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, would relish it, however. He told BBC Radio 4 that 2022 has been a ‘disaster’. The Times has more:

Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he had “never ever seen anything like it before” when reflecting on a tumultuous year in Westminster. He told PM on BBC Radio 4: “The whole thing has been the strangest of strangest of years.”

He added: “Brexit divided the country, divided families, and people’s respect for democracy has struggled — and of course we didn’t help this year with what went on.” Hoyle described as a “disaster” how the Conservatives were unable to unite round a prime minister. He said Boris Johnson had “the biggest majority we’ve seen for [the] Conservatives” but “it all fell apart”.

He said: “When you get to a point where one minister who’s meant to be answering questions has resigned, the next minister comes in . . . I’ve never seen anything like it, it was bizarre. We never knew who was going to be at the dispatch box.”

What a year it’s been. I hope that 2023 will be an improvement.

More news tomorrow.

Anyone who has missed the previous entries in the series of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, now a backbench MP with the Conservative whip withdrawn, can catch up on Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

I left off on Friday, June 25, 2021, with Dominic Cummings’s Substack post on Hancock’s and Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic.

However, the big news that day was The Sun‘s front page — a ‘world exclusive’ — which had a large photo of Hancock handling a part of his assistant’s anatomy. A security camera captured the image a few weeks before, when social distancing was still in place:

It was bad enough, as I wrote, that he lost all credibility with the Queen the day before when she aired her views to Boris during their weekly meeting.

But The Sun‘s scoop surely meant that Hancock’s dictatorial time was up. And, lo, so it was:

UK coronavirus news: Matt Hancock’s final 48 hours as Health Secretary (June 25-27)

That post included these tweets, the first about his marital situation …

… and the second and third featuring polls saying that Britons wanted him gone, especially under those circumstances:

It was a wonderful start to the weekend.

Matt Hancock’s side of the story

In the final instalment of Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries that the Mail published, he tells his side of the story. Emphases mine below.

Friday, June 25:

The Sun published the story at 2am as a ‘world exclusive’. The picture was a grainy CCTV image of me and Gina embracing in my departmental office.

It was immediately obvious that the story would be huge.

I knew I had to get out of London, and my wonderful driver Mark came to pick me up very early and take me to stay discreetly in the countryside.

At about 8am, a welcome call from No 10: Dan Rosenfield [chief of staff] to say they’d got my back. He offered any support we might need, including sending a Conservative Party press officer to my house.

By 9am I’d had half a dozen sympathetic messages from ministerial colleagues: a terrible sign. They knew that I was in deep trouble.

Nadhim [Zahawi, Minister for vaccine deployment] sent me a piece of advice ‘from a brother’, which sounded very much like an appeal not to resign.

Meanwhile, I went back over all our movements and tried to think of any other rules we might be accused of breaking. Other than the one-metre-plus rule, I couldn’t think of any. ‘Should I do a fast apology for letting everyone down/breaching guidance?’ I asked.

Gina thought it was a good idea, so Damon [Poole, media adviser] began crafting a short statement. I tried to focus on the words, but my head was spinning. The final version of the statement, which went out at lunchtime, accepted that I breached social-distancing guidance and said I was still focused on working to get the country out of the pandemic. I hoped it would quiet the furore.

Yet the story continued to rage: on all the news websites, on the BBC, on Twitter and on just about every other conceivable news outlet.

By mid-afternoon, there were still suggestions that we’d broken the law. It was categorically untrue, and Damon thought we needed to brief harder or put out another line. ‘What’s wrong with ‘No laws were broken’?’ I suggested.

Round and round in circles we went, trying to find the right words. Damon’s mobile phone was practically melting, and I was more stressed than I have ever been in my entire life.

All afternoon, the ‘what, when, where, who, why, how much?’ questions continued. Journalists began suggesting I might have broken the Ministerial Code. I hadn’t, but I could see the way this was going.

My local constituency association in Suffolk was wonderfully supportive. Allan [Nixon, special adviser] worked the phones, trying to get MPs to say something helpful.

My spirits lifted a little when William Hague [former Tory leader] publicly declared that I shouldn’t resign. Not for long, though: by late afternoon it was clear tomorrow’s papers will be hideous.

Saturday, June 26:

Privately, I was still getting positive messages from colleagues. Publicly, few were willing to defend me. Politically, I was increasingly isolated. I felt desperate for my family, my children and Gina’s family and her children, and powerless to protect them. Worse was the knowledge that Gina and I had brought all this on them.

Gina’s feelings of shame and guilt were nearly overpowering her. The jokes and cartoons on social media were excruciating. We were being publicly humiliated, again and again.

While close friends and family were amazing, I also had messages from friends and colleagues who had had terrible lockdown experiences and were very upset. Their disappointment in me – and their sense of betrayal – was agonising.

It is all my fault, of course. I knew I had to take responsibility. I knew in my heart that I had to resign.

I went to Chequers to see the PM. I explained that I had been thinking about what had happened and how it had made people feel – and that my mind was made up. The damage to my family and to the Government was too great.

I told Boris I had to resign.

He was regretful but didn’t argue. We sat on the patio and talked about what this would mean for the management of the rest of the pandemic.

An exchange of letters was prepared, offering and accepting my resignation, and we each edited our letters. We had to decide how to make the announcement, what to say and how.

I must have shot a thousand videos over the course of the pandemic, levelling with the public and thanking the NHS for their dedication. This would be the last.

In the end, the great machinery of the State was nowhere. It was just me and the PM fumbling around with an iPhone. He stood on the grass, holding the phone while I said my piece. It took a few goes to get it right.

He nodded sympathetic encouragement so much throughout the first take that the camera waved up and down. In the end it wasn’t perfect, but I was beyond caring: I had to get it out.

Now messages of sympathy and support flooded in: from my team, the Prof [Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer], JVT [Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer], Pascal [Soriot, head of AstraZeneca] – and just about everyone else who worked so hard alongside us to save lives.

I’m incredibly grateful to all my team, especially my spads [special advisers] and private office, for going above and beyond in supporting me in what is such a difficult time for them, too.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I told them all. ‘I mean, the honest truth is I made a mistake due to love and it doesn’t matter that it was only guidance. I should not have broken advice that I myself signed off.’

This evening Jamie N-G [Njoku-Goodwin, former spad] whose endless advice – offered long after he stopped working for me – has been so valuable throughout the pandemic, messaged to say I’d done the right thing.

‘There is so much you have done that you should be incredibly proud of. There are people alive today who wouldn’t be if you hadn’t made the decisions you did,’ he said.

‘I love her. That’s what screwed my judgment,’ I replied wretchedly. ‘Love does that to us all. I hope you can both be happy,’ he said.

‘Of that I have no doubt,’ I replied.

As for Boris – well, if anyone knows how to survive a catastrophic political and personal mistake, it’s him.

‘Time to dive beneath the ice cap,’ was his advice.

Here’s the awkward video from Sky News:

That concludes the Mail‘s excerpts from Pandemic Diaries. The paper posted the following (emphasis in the original):

Matt Hancock’s book sale royalties will be donated to NHS Charities and good causes relating to dyslexia. 

Hancock is a dyslexic and had special tutoring to enable him to pursue his studies at Oxford University.

The book is available now. Someone on social media repositioned it at a bookshop in the Crime section:

https://image.vuukle.com/98cdcb40-7d3c-4d74-8d23-f9daebdfd1a1-14316ab8-684d-4c3e-90ff-4edc55822e5e

However, as my post on his last 48 hours as Health Secretary pointed out, Hancock told us in April 2020 that social distancing was more than guidance, it was an ‘instruction’. I’d included this tweet as proof:

In the days that followed, Sajid Javid — Boris’s first Chancellor — became our new Health Secretary. Questions whirled about the camera, security breaches and ministerial code breaches. Oliver Tress is the name Hancock’s girlfriend’s husband. He owns the Oliver Bonas chain of shops:

UK news: Sajid Javid’s return to Cabinet as Health Secretary (June 27-28)

UK coronavirus news: will Matt Hancock be investigated? (June 28; Oliver Tress, restriction-free Wimbledon video)

MPs worried about Matt Hancock’s security camera (June 28)

By now, most Britons know that Hancock met his girlfriend when they were undergraduates at Oxford. They both worked at the student radio station. Recollections from their contemporaries differ as to whether Hancock was part of the in crowd or whether he was a geek on its periphery.

Sky News’s Beth Rigby put that period of history in perspective for us:

On June 26, 2021, The Telegraph explained how the woman got involved in Hancock’s parliamentary career:

Gina Coladangelo started work for Matt Hancock during his short-lived Conservative Party leadership campaign in 2019, it has emerged.

Sources said Ms Coladangelo provided unpaid advice on the Health Secretary’s bid to replace Theresa May.

The work coincided with Mr Hancock sponsoring a parliamentary pass at the same time for his longtime friend, who has worked as communications director of Oliver Bonas, the homeware store, since 2014.

Mr Hancock declared his candidacy during a broadcast interview on May 25 2019, saying “we need a leader for the future, not just now”.

He quit the race on June 14 2019 – a day after coming sixth in the first ballot of Conservative MPs.

Ms Coladangelo was registered as holding a pass sponsored by Mr Hancock under her married name, Gina Tress, from June 2019.

Sources suggested she then started providing unpaid advice to Mr Hancock during the Covid-19 pandemic, before she was hired as a non-executive director at the Department of Health in September.

Her non-executive directorship also raised eyebrows. Who appointed her and how?

Tatler‘s profile of Hancock, published on June 28, told us:

Both Hancock and Coladangelo, who were contemporaries at Oxford, have three children

But, what of this relatively youthful minister? In 2014, he was touted as a junior minister with the skills ‘to reach the top’. Certainly, academically, his results are a tour de force of excellence, a first at Exeter College, Oxford, in what many consider a politician’s ‘rite of passage’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). He worked briefly for a Tory backbench MP before breaking loose as an economist at the Bank of England specialising in the sterling money markets and on housing, before being sent to do a masters at Cambridge. On return, he was plucked out by George Osborne (in 2005) to join the Conservative economics team, later becoming the future chancellor’s chief of staff, and a bonafide ‘high-flyer’.

It was in 2010 that he became an MP for West Suffolk, and today – or at least before the lockdown – he balanced his time between his weekday home in London and his abode in Little Thurlow, in his Newmarket constituency, at the weekends. He has admitted that the work-life balance can sometimes be a challenge, explaining in an interview with the Financial Times in 2014, ‘I pay a lot of attention to timetabling. Both my professional and social and family time gets booked up a long way in advance and then you have to be strict about it.’

Hancock married an osteopath, Martha Hoyer Millar, in 2006, and together they have three small children, a daughter and two sons as well as a dachshund called Hercules (which Hancock will occasionally document via his Instagram). With noble connections, Martha, a red head, is the granddaughter of Frederick Millar, 1st Baron Inchyra, a British diplomat who served as Ambassador to West Germany from 1955 to 1956. Baron Inchyra had four children, two sons and two daughters, their youngest, Dame Annabel Whitehead, was a Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret and later to the Queen

By his own admission, Hancock is fiercely competitive. He once, in 2012, trained as a jockey and won a race at the beating heart of British racing, Newmarket, in his constituency. Going the whole hog, he trained rigorously, shedding two stones and even seeking advice from champion jockey Frankie Dettori. He keeps it up; in December, 2019 he posted a video of himself galloping atop a racehorse on the Newmarket heath, summarising afterwards, ‘absolutely exhilarating, every single time’.

It’s been far from plain sailing for Hancock, he’s overcome his own difficulties. One being dyslexia. His political career apparently practically ended before it even started, when a simple spelling mistake relayed the dead opposite of what he was trying to communicate. As a young Tory campaigner in Guildford he wrote an election leaflet. Instead of saying that candidate Nick St Aubyn wanted to ‘unite’ the community during the 2001 election, a then 22-year-old Hancock wrote: ‘I want to untie the community’. The mistake was spotted after the leaflet had been printed and landed in 50,000 letterboxes. St Aubyn went on to lose the seat by 538 votes.

Hancock reportedly winces at the memory, but told the tale since he does not want other dyslexics growing up thinking they are ‘useless’ like he did. His wife, too, is dyslexic. He says he got on by focusing on numbers-based subjects, taking A Levels in maths, physics, computing and economics, but told the Telegraph, ‘I wish I had been diagnosed earlier’.

Sheer hypocrisy

On June 25, before he resigned, the media rightly began enumerating Hancock’s diktats and his own actions, proving the man’s hypocrisy.

The Telegraph reported:

… How has the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care managed to cling on this long in the first place? …

As the man in charge of England’s health system when the pandemic struck, he is accused of overseeing the disastrous discharge of Covid-positive hospital patients into care homes, mismanaging the supply of personal protective equipment, and the multi-billion pound failure that is NHS Test and Trace.

According to Mr Cummings, Mr Hancock “lied” to Mr Johnson and the public about much of this …

Mr Hancock strenuously denies much of this.

Nevertheless, it comes on top of allegations that he awarded a lucrative contract to supply the Government with tens of millions of Covid test vials to a former neighbour, who lacked experience producing medical supplies after he received a WhatsApp from him.

He also committed a “technical” breach of the ministerial code by failing to declare that a firm run by his sister, in which he has a 20 per cent stake, had been awarded an NHS contract

The danger lies in the familiar territories of hypocrisy and the alleged “chumocracy” of the Johnson administration.

If Mr Hancock’s embrace of Ms Coladangelo contravened government guidelines, as he has now admitted it did, many will remember his reaction to last year’s Neil Ferguson scandal, where he suggested it could be a matter for the police, not to mention countless hugs with loved-ones missed over recent months.

Meanwhile, if evidence emerges suggesting that Ms Coladangelo was brought into the Government because of her personal relationship with Mr Hancock, rather than her expertise, the rap sheet all too quickly becomes too heavy to survive.

The Spectator‘s Steerpike, their gossip columnist, posted ‘Nine times Matt Hancock told us to obey the rules’, most of which follows (bold dates in the original):

From threatening to ban outdoor exercise and close the beaches to advising against sex outside ‘established’ relationships, Mr S presents his round-up of Hancock’s best/worst moments:

9 February 2021:  Ten years in jail for Covid returnees

Hancock announced that people returning from holidays who conceal that they’ve been in a red list country would face a prison sentence of up to ten years …

1 February 2021 ‘Don’t even think about stretching Covid rules’

At another No. 10 press conference, Hancock gave an update on the South African variant in which he said that those living in postcodes affected by the mutation should ‘not even think about stretching the Covid rules.’

10 January 2021: Hancock claimed that flexing of rules ‘could be fatal’

The Health Secretary appeared on the Andrew Marr Show where he was asked about the police fining two women who went for a walk five miles from their homes. Hancock told Marr: ‘Every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal’ and that staying at home is the ‘most important thing we can do collectively as a society.’

24 September 2020:  Hancock warned people to ‘be sensible’ when having sex during lockdown

Asked about the government’s guidance that only ‘established’ couples should be having sex, Hancock told Sky News: ‘There have to be boundaries, to coin a phrase.’ He warned against casual sex, advising the public to stick to ‘well-established relationships’ and joking, ‘I know I am in an established relationship,’ with his wife

5 July 2020: Hancock threatened to shut down non-compliant businesses

In an interview with Sky Hancock said: ‘We also have the authority to shut down a business if it doesn’t follow that [Covid] guidance.’ When asked by Sophy Ridge if he is ‘looking at shutting down businesses’ Hancock replied: ‘Yes and that’s happened, absolutely’. He added: ‘We’re not just asking nicely, we’re very clear to businesses that these are their responsibilities.’

25 June 2020: Hancock theatened to close the beaches

After sun lovers flocked to the seaside on Britain’s hottest day of the year, Hancock warned that he could close beaches

5 April 2020: Hancock threatened to ban outdoor exercise

At the beginning of the first lockdown, Hancock criticised sunbathers and warned the government would ban outdoor exercise if people continue to ignore government advice. He said on Sky that those who flout the guidance were ‘putting others’ lives at risk and you are putting yourself in harm’s way’. He told Andrew Marr that same day: ‘I don’t want to have to take away exercise as a reason to leave home… if too many people are not following the rules.’ He added:If you don’t want us to take the next step and ban exercise… then the message is very clear… you have to follow the rules.’

Sickening.

The Mail has a report with reactions from several journalists also calling out Hancock’s disgusting hypocrisy, well worth reading.

Questions, questions

Also on June 25, The Spectator‘s Isabel Hardman asked:

Why was it appropriate for Gina Coladangelo to have a parliamentary pass, to become an unpaid adviser at the department and then to receive the paid non-executive director post?

… the important matter here isn’t the affair: these things happen and they’re not normally anyone else’s business. But where it becomes other people’s business is when the affair is interlinked with government business and taxpayer’s money

Then there’s the hypocrisy charge, not just from someone in a government that has restricted personal freedoms so much this past year, but from the very minister responsible for the lockdown legislation and guidance

Questions about the camera and security were many.

At lunchtime that day, The Telegraph reported:

The Government Security Group, which is in charge of security at 800 buildings across Whitehall, has been asked to investigate, with Alex Chisholm, the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, expected to be in charge of an inquiry.

There have also been calls for MI5 to get involved in order to rule out any involvement from hostile foreign states.

Government insiders said it is “unheard of” for security cameras to be placed in the offices of Secretaries of State, raising questions about whether the footage of Mr Hancock was filmed on a pre-existing camera or could even have been filmed by a camera deliberately placed there to catch him out.

Day-to-day security at government buildings is typically contracted out to private firms, though the Department of Health and Social Care has yet to confirm if this was the case at their offices in London’s Victoria Street …

One source said: “There are an awful lot of questions that need answering. Lots of government buildings have cameras outside offices that film people going in and out, but I have never seen one inside a Secretary of State’s office. It’s unheard of.

“What was that camera doing there, was it even a CCTV camera, and did Matt Hancock know it was there?

“More importantly, who is it that has access to what is going on inside that office? We are talking about people being able to spy on a Secretary of State, so this is a serious breach of security, regardless of what you think of Matt Hancock’s behaviour” …

Among the questions the Government Security Group will have to answer is whether proper vetting was carried out of staff who have access to CCTV footage, and whether they have been required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

Breaches of the Official Secrets Act can carry a maximum punishment of 14 years imprisonment.

The paper had a follow-up article that evening:

The Telegraph understands Mr Hancock had no idea the camera existed when it captured him kissing adviser Gina Coladangelo

It raises the possibility that the camera was deliberately placed by someone with access to his office with the intention of catching the pair cheating on their spouses and breaking Covid rulesIt is the first time a Cabinet minister has been filmed in their own office without their knowledge.

In a further twist, the Department of Health and Social Care’s offices use CCTV cameras made by the Chinese company Hikvision, which is banned in the US because of national security concerns

One theory being investigated is that the footage was filmed by someone on a mobile phone as it was being played on a CCTV screen, which could make it more difficult to prove who was responsible.

While the revelation could spell the end of Mr Hancock’s Cabinet career, the leak has also triggered a red alert in the Government over who could be spying on the country’s most senior ministers

A source told The Sun that the pair had regularly been caught embracing and that their affair was an open secret among staff. The newspaper claimed the footage was released by a whistleblower disgusted that Mr Hancock was breaking Covid rules while telling people to obey them.

At the time, the country was in stage two of the lifting of lockdown, meaning hugging anyone from outside your own household was banned. On Friday, Mr Hancock admitted breaching social distancing guidance and said he was sorry for having “let people down” …

The £144 million building is owned by Singapore-based property firm Ho Bee Land, which bought it five years ago and has not so far responded to requests for comment.

Cameras on the outside were made by Hikvision, which is owned by the Chinese state and banned in the US because of national security concerns and alleged human rights violations. The firm is alleged to have provided cameras that monitor Uighur Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang …

One covert security expert said: “In all my years of working in this field I have never known a camera to be positioned inside an office like this. An office is a private space and that raises all sorts of issues.

“The camera is facing the door so it will give you a record of who is coming and going. But if you wanted to do that you would place the camera outside of the office in the corridor. Also, the angle of the camera is all wrong because if someone walks into the office with their head down this will not be able to see their features. To me it smacks more of a small covert camera that has been placed in a light fixture”

The fact that the camera was part of the overall CCTV network ruled out any suggestion that Ms Coladangelo could have been behind the leak, and friends of Dominic Cummings, the former Downing Street special adviser who has waged a campaign against Mr Hancock since leaving his job last year, insisted he had nothing to do with the leak.

One government source suggested it was possible the camera had been placed in the office to increase security as a result of the Covid pandemic, while another person familiar with the layout of the office speculated that extra cameras could have been put there because it has a balcony, making it more vulnerable to break-ins

Indignity for his wife

On Saturday, June 26, the papers had stories about what was happening in the Hancock’s marital home.

The Mail‘s first report was ‘Callous Matt Hancock dumped wife on Thursday after learning his affair would be finally exposed’:

Matt Hancock dumped his university sweetheart on Thursday night after learning video footage of him kissing an aide in his ministerial office would be exposed.

The ex-Health Secretary, who announced his resignation this evening, raced home to tell his wife of 15 years that he would be leaving her after he was contacted by The Sun newspaper over his affair with Gina Coladangelo …

Martha Hancock, a 44-year-old osteopath, had no clue about the affair until her husband told her their marriage was over, reports The Sunday Times

The reports of the affair came just weeks after Hancock was seen enjoying lunch out with Martha – the granddaughter of Frederick Millar, 1st Baron Inchyra – in London.

The pair were seen waiting for a taxi after eating at Exmouth market in the capital.

They were last seen together in public at the England vs Scotland Euro 2020 match at Wembley a week ago

Mrs Hancock is said to have met her future husband while they were students at Oxford University. Both are dyslexic and he once revealed that the condition helped them bond. 

Descended from a baron and a viscount, Mrs Hancock had a privileged upbringing. Her father, Old Etonian Alastair Hoyer Millar, 84, was secretary of The Pilgrim Trust between 1980 and 1996. The organisation supplies grants to preserve historically significant buildings or artefacts. 

Her mother, Virginia Hoyer Millar, 70, an antiques dealer, was yesterday pictured comforting her daughter in the street by putting her arms around her shoulders. They also linked arms as they strolled around North-West London.  

The couple [the Hancocks] divide their time between London and their West Suffolk constituency home, where there was no sign of Mr Hancock following his resignation.

The ex-Health Secretary wrote in his letter: ‘The last thing I would want is for my private life to distract attention from the single-minded focus that is leading us out of this crisis.

‘I want to reiterate my apology for breaking the guidance, and apologise to my family and loved ones for putting them through this. I also need (to) be with my children at this time.’

Another report from the Mail followed that day, discussing Conservative MPs’ disgust with their colleagues and more information about the respective marriages involved, complete with photographs:

Mrs Hancock looked sad and upset as she left the couple’s home but didn’t speak to reporters about her husband’s alleged infidelity.  Her husband was nowhere to be seen, however, she was still wearing her wedding ring   

The shutters were closed at the £4.5million South London home Mrs Coladangelo shares with Oliver Tress and their three children yesterday. They are also believed to have a country home near the West Sussex coast. She has been working as an advisor for Mr Hancock since last year, with one source saying: ‘Before Matt does anything big, he’ll speak to Gina’

Mr Hancock was meant to be at Newmarket Racecourse to visit the vaccination centre but a spokesman revealed he cancelled at the last minute ‘early this morning’

A Department of Health probe into how the footage from outside Mr Hancock’s office was leaked is expected, with the whistleblower described as a former civil servant who was angry about his ‘brazen’ affair, adding: ‘They have tried to keep it a secret but everyone knows what goes on inside a building like that’ …  

Mrs Coladangelo was appointed as a non-executive director at the department in September, meaning she is a member of the board.

She can claim up to £15,000 in taxpayers’ money in the role, though there is no public record of her appointment

The woman Matt Hancock has been allegedly having an affair with is married to the millionaire founder of fashion firm Oliver Bonas and has worked as its communications director for the past seven years

Gina Coladangelo, 43, knows the Health Secretary from Oxford University, where they both worked on the student radio station and studied politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) – and where he also met his wife Martha, 44. 

Mrs Coladangelo remains Facebook friends with Mr Hancock’s osteopath wife – with whom the Conservative politician has two sons and a daughter – after they both graduated from the university at around the same time. 

And they all reside in London, with Mrs Coladangelo living with her multi-millionaire fashion tycoon husband Oliver Tress and their three children in Wandsworth, while the Hancocks live in Queen’s Park with their children … 

Mr Hancock met Mrs Coladangelo when they worked on Oxford student radio together in the 1990s. Mr Hancock was a minority sports reporter on Oxygen FM and they would have socialised together at Exeter College, Oxford.

Mrs Coladangelo went on to marry Mr Tress, 53, who is founder of fashion chain Oliver Bonas, named after his ex-girlfriend Anna who is cousin of Prince Harry’s former partner Cressida Bonas.

It is not known exactly when Mrs Coladangelo and Mr Tress wed, although they were listed on the electoral roll together with her maiden name as recently as 2008, and then her married name of Gina Tress by 2011.

Mr Tress founded Oliver Bonas in London in 1993 with handbags and jewellery he had brought from Hong Kong where his parents lived, and his wife began working there in June 2014 after 11 years at Luther Pendragon. 

They live together in a five-bedroom detached property believed to be worth around £4million in Wandsworth, South West London, on a quiet tree-lined street with residents-only parking bays that is popular with families.

Many of the cars parked in the street – which is a 20-minute drive away from Central London – are top-of-the range BMW 4x4s and Volvos. Neighbours of Mrs Coladangelo remained tight lipped and refused to comment.

But one visiting workman who left a neighbouring home was unimpressed by Mr Hancock. He said: ‘The guy had been caught bang to rights on film. He will have to do some smart talking to get out of that one with the wife.’

The Spectator‘s editor, Fraser Nelson, called readers’ attention to a Sunday Times report saying that Hancock took his girlfriend to a G7 summit:

The Sunday Times has something more significant: that Hancock took Mrs Coladangelo to the G7 health ministers’ summit, raising questions about whether they stayed together (the event took place a month after their being filmed canoodling in his office). The brilliantly-informed Tim Shipman has a devastating quote from a Cabinet source.

She went with him to the G7 health ministers summit. Did he disclose this to the PM? If it was shown he was shagging on the taxpayer he had to go. He’s been puritan-in-chief in the government and now it turns out he’s a massive, lying hypocrite.

… In this week’s magazine, Kate Andrews has dossier of how ministers have been living la vida loca, travelling globally at a time when they made it illegal for others to do so. All within the loophole-addled rules, yes, but generally conducting themselves in a way that others have been unable to do.

The girlfriend’s brother

More news emerged on June 26, this time concerning Hancock’s girlfriend’s brother.

Sky News reported:

A relative of the Whitehall director alleged to have had an extramarital affair with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is an executive at a private healthcare company which has won a string of NHS contracts.

Sky News can reveal that Roberto Coladangelo – who is Gina Coladangelo’s brother – works at Partnering Health Limited (PHL Group), a specialist in the provision of urgent and primary care services to NHS patients

People who know Mr Coladangelo said that he and Mr Hancock’s aide were siblings, and social media profiles and electoral roll data appear to confirm a relationship between them.

None of those contacted by Sky News on Friday afternoon would confirm or deny the relationship between the Coladangelos.

Weekend papers

The weekend papers were magic for those of us rejoicing over Hancock’s resignation:

Also see The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph.

Of the resignation news, the redoubtable Peter Hitchens tweeted that it was sad that the government didn’t believe in their guidelines but the public did — ‘our tragedy’:

He added that, given all the damage Hancock caused Britain, it was ironic an illicit grope brought him down:

Maybe that’s why Hancock wants to return to private life after the next general election. Will the formal coronavirus inquiry advance that far in two years’ time? If not, he could be safe in the knowledge he won’t be asked to testify.

No. 10: photos ‘in the public interest’

On July 16, The Telegraph had a follow-up on The Sun‘s photos: ‘Leaked Matt Hancock CCTV footage was “in public interest”, says Boris Johnson’s office’:

The leaked CCTV footage which exposed Matt Hancock’s affair was in the public interest, the Prime Minister’s spokesman has said, as an investigation into an alleged data breach continues.

Two people suspected of recording the film without consent had their homes raided on Thursday by officials from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Police and Crime Commissioners have also called for the police to launch an urgent investigation amid concern over the security of government buildings.

But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Boris Johnson believed in the importance of a free press being able to investigate matters that were in the public interest

Excellent!!!

There ends the resignation saga.

A final instalment on Hancock’s time as a backbencher will come next week.

Thus far, most of my series on Matt Hancock has focused on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those who missed them can catch up on parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Even though the vaccine was about to be distributed throughout the UK, people in England were frustrated by the restrictions which the Government had imposed indefinitely. Effectively, we had had a Christmas lockdown, with more restrictions that came in on Boxing Day. As I covered in my last post, even at the end of the year, Hancock could not say when they would be lifted.

This post covers the first half of 2021 with excerpts from Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries as serialised in the Mail along with news I had collected during that time. Pandemic Diaries entries come from this excerpt, unless otherwise specified.

Vaccines and side-effects

Former Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott co-authored Pandemic Diaries. On December 7, The Spectator posted her impressions of Hancock and the pandemic.

This is what she had to say about the vaccine policy (emphases mine):

The crusade to vaccinate the entire population against a disease with a low mortality rate among all but the very elderly is one of the most extraordinary cases of mission creep in political history. On 3 January 2021, Hancock told The Spectator that once priority groups had been jabbed (13 million doses) then ‘Cry freedom’. Instead, the government proceeded to attempt to vaccinate every-one, including children, and there was no freedom for another seven months. Sadly, we now know some young people died as a result of adverse reactions to a jab they never needed. Meanwhile experts have linked this month’s deadly outbreak of Strep A in young children to the weakening of their immune systems because they were prevented from socialising. Who knows what other long-term health consequences of the policy may emerge?

Why did the goalposts move so far off the pitch? I believe multiple driving forces combined almost accidentally to create a policy which was never subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Operating in classic Whitehall-style silos, key individuals and agencies – the JCVI, Sage, the MHRA – did their particular jobs, advising on narrow and very specific safety and regulatory issues. At no point did they all come together, along with ministers and, crucially, medical and scientific experts with differing views on the merits of whole-population vaccination, for a serious debate about whether such an approach was desirable or wise.

The apparent absence of any such discussion at the top of government is quite remarkable. The Treasury raised the occasional eyebrow at costs, but if a single cabinet minister challenged the policy on any other grounds, I’ve seen no evidence of it.

In Hancock’s defence, he would have been crucified for failing to order enough vaccines for everybody, just in case. He deserves credit for harnessing the full power of the state to accelerate the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. He simply would not take no or ‘too difficult’ for an answer, forcing bureaucratic regulators and plodding public health bodies to bend to his will. He is adamant that he never cut corners on safety, though the tone of his internal communications suggest that in his hurtling rush to win the global race for a vaccine, he personally would have been willing to take bigger risks. I believe he would have justified any casualties as sacrifices necessary for the greater good. Fortunately (in my view) his enthusiasm was constrained by medical and scientific advisers, and by the Covid vaccine tsar Kate Bingham, who was so alarmed by his haste that at one point she warned him that he might ‘kill people’. She never thought it was necessary to jab everyone and repeatedly sought to prevent Hancock from over-ordering. Once he had far more than was needed for the initial target group of elderly and clinically vulnerable patients, he seems to have felt compelled to use it. Setting ever more ambitious vaccination rollout targets was a useful political device, creating an easily understood schedule for easing lockdown and allowing the government to play for time amid the threat of new variants. The strategy gave the Conservatives a big bounce in the polls, which only encouraged the party leadership to go further.

Now on to side-effects:

Given the unprecedented speed at which the vaccine was developed, the government might have been expected to be extra careful about recording and analysing any reported side-effects. While there was much anxiety about potential adverse reactions during clinical trials, once it passed regulatory hurdles, ministers seemed to stop worrying. In early January 2021, Hancock casually asked Chris Whitty ‘where we are up to on the system for monitoring events after rollout’

Not exactly reassuringly, Whitty replied that the system was ‘reasonable’ but needed to get better. This exchange, which Hancock didn’t consider to be of any significance, is likely to be seized on by those with concerns about vaccine safety.

January 2021

On January 2, Hancock hoped to ease red tape allowing NHS physicians to come out of retirement to be part of the vaccination drive:

On January 3, The Conservative Woman‘s co-editor and qualified barrister Laura Perrins blasted the Government for keeping Britons under ‘humiliating and undignified treatment‘:

Schools reopened in England on Monday, January 4. They closed again by the end of the day.

Monday, January 4:

Millions of children returned to school today, only to be told schools are closing again tomorrow. After sleeping on it, Boris agreed we have no choice but to go for another national lockdown.

On Thursday, January 7, Hancock appeared before the Health and Social Care Select Committee to answer questions about lockdown. He came across as arrogant, in my opinion:

Monday, January 11:

A message from a friend tipping me off that straight-talking cricket legend Sir Geoffrey Boycott is very unhappy about the delay in the second dose. He’s a childhood hero of mine, so I volunteered to call him personally to explain. I rang him and made the case as well as I could, but it was clear he was far from persuaded.

That morning, Guido Fawkes’s cartoonist posted his ghoulish perspective on Hancock: ‘A nightmare before vaccination’. It was hard to disagree:

Tuesday, January 12:

A bunch of GPs are refusing to go into care homes where there are Covid cases. Apparently there are cases in about a third of care homes, meaning many residents aren’t getting vaccinated. Evidently I was naive to think £25 a jab would be enough of an incentive. We may have to use the Army to fill the gap.

Also that day:

Not only is [Sir Geoffrey] Boycott in the Press having a go at me; now [former Speaker of the House of Commons] Betty Boothroyd is kicking off as well. Given that I personally ensured she got her first jab fast, it feels a bit rich. It’s particularly miserable being criticised by people I’ve grown up admiring and went out of my way to help, but welcome to the life of a politician.

On Wednesday, January 13, Hancock still had no answer as to when restrictions would be lifted. Many of us thought he was enjoying his power too much:

Friday, January 15:

An extraordinary row with Pfizer bosses, who are trying to divert some of our vaccine supply to the EU!

When I got to the Cabinet Room, the PM practically had smoke coming out of his ears. He was in full bull-in-a-china-shop mode, pacing round the room growling.

What really riled him was the fact that only last night he was speaking to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, and Bourla made no mention of it! I was wary: when the PM is in this mood, he can really lash out. I knew I’d need to be as diplomatic as possible if I wanted to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Monday, January 18:

Pfizer has relented. Following a robust exchange between Bourla and the PM, lo and behold, they’ve located an ’emergency supply’, which is now heading our way.

On Tuesday, January 19, Hancock got coronavirus and had to self-isolate. This was his second bout. The first one was earlier in 2020:

Julia Hartley-Brewer of talkRADIO posed an interesting question about re-infection and T-cells. Hmm:

Thursday, January 21:

[Social Care minister] Helen Whately wants to find a way of allowing indoor visits again. I’m hardline on this: we cannot have Covid taking off in care homes again.

Monday, January 25:

The EU health commissioner has tweeted that ‘in the future’ any company that produces vaccines in the EU will have to provide ‘early notification’ if they want to sell it to a third-party country. In other words, they’ll need permission. Totally desperate stuff! They’re doing it purely because they screwed up procurement.

Tuesday, January 26:

Today we reached a really grim milestone in the pandemic: more than 100,000 deaths in this country. So many people grieving; so much loss.

Wednesday, January 27:

A humiliating climbdown from the EU, who clearly realised their ‘export ban’ wouldn’t end well. It followed frantic diplomacy on our side, plus our lawyers confirming that they wouldn’t be able to block our supply anyway. What a ridiculous waste of time and energy.

Tonight I’m doing a night shift at Basildon Hospital [in Essex]. Front-line staff are still under horrendous pressure, and the best way for me to understand is to see it for myself.

Thursday, January 28:

The night shift has left me completely drained. I don’t know how they do it day in and day out: heroic. I donned full PPE, and got stuck in, helping to turn patients and fetch and carry. In intensive care, I watched a man consent to being intubated because his blood oxygen levels weren’t sustainable.

He spoke to the doctor, who said: ‘We want to put a tube in, because we don’t think you’ll make it unless we do that.’

His chances of waking up were 50:50. He knew that. It was an unbelievably awful moment. He reluctantly agreed, and within a minute he was flat out on the ventilator. The doctor next to me said: ‘I don’t think we’ll see him again.’

When my shift was over, I went down to the rest area. One of the registrars told me he’d just had to phone the wife of the patient to say he’d been intubated.

‘We’re doing this, we all know it’s our duty, we’re coping with a second wave — but we can’t have a third,’ he said. Then he burst into tears.

That day, an article appeared in Spiked about the Government’s censorship of lockdown sceptics. ‘Shouldn’t we “expose” the government rather than its critics?’ says:

It’s true ‘lockdown sceptics’ have made mistakes. But the government’s survival depends on none of us ever understanding that lockdown sceptics are not in charge – it is.

they’re gunning for people like Sunetra Gupta, the professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University … 

Pre-Covid, I would estimate 97 per cent of the population couldn’t have picked Matt Hancock out of a police line-up if he had just mugged them. So when he stood up in the House of Commons, last January, to state that ‘the Chinese city of Wuhan has been the site of an outbreak of 2019-nCoV’, there was no reason to doubt him when he said ‘the public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well-prepared for these types of outbreaks’. In February, he explained ‘our belts and braces approach to protecting the public’ and insisted that ‘the clinical advice about the risk to the public has not changed and remains moderate’.

On 23 March, he made a complete volte-farce. (That was not a typo.) The ‘risk to the public’ wasn’t ‘moderate’ at all. ‘It is incredibly important that people stay more than two metres away from others wherever they are or stay at home wherever possible’, he told the Today programme, adding those who weren’t doing so were ‘very selfish’. Four days later, Hancock tested positive for coronavirus. Seven days after that (3 April), he opened the Nightingale hospital (‘a spectacular and almost unbelievable feat’), while ‘blowing his nose’ and not appearing ‘to be at 100 per cent’. Two days after that, he threatened to change the rules again so that people who weren’t ill couldn’t go outside at all: ‘If you don’t want us to have to take the step to ban exercise of all forms outside of your own home, then you’ve got to follow the rules’ …

We’ll skip over Hancock’s botching of track and trace, the dodgy private contracts he’s had a hand in rewarding, how he breaks the rules he makes for us while cracking jokes about it, or his intervention into the debate about whether scotch eggs constitute a ‘substantial meal’.

In the autumn of 2020, pubs could only open if they served a plate of food. Why, I do not know.

The article mentions Hancock’s tears on Good Morning Britain as he watched the first two people get the first doses of the vaccine. Then:

Days later, all this ‘emotion’ had gone down well, so Hancock did more of it – in parliament – announcing that his step-grandfather had died of Covid-19. (‘He was in a home and he had Alzheimer’s – the usual story’, Hancock’s father told the Daily Mail. ‘It was just a few weeks ago.’)

‘Beware of men who cry’, Nora Ephron once wrote. ‘It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.’ Was Hancock crying because he was devastated that his step-grandfather was not kept alive long enough to receive the vaccine (suffering from Alzheimer’s – so it would not be a leap to fear – bewildered, confused, and very likely denied the comfort of the touch of anyone he loved for most of the year)? Or was it because the political survival of the Conservative government depends on being proved right about lockdown – and that depends on one thing: the vaccine …

Hancock told the Spectator that Covid-19 will never be eradicated. But he sees no reason for his extraordinary powers as health secretary to cease even if – by some miracle – it does. In late November, Hancock told a Commons health and science committee that he wants to end the British culture of ‘soldiering on’. Having built a ‘massive diagnostics capacity’, he said, ‘we must hold on to it. And afterwards we must use it not just for coronavirus, but everything. In fact, I want to have a change in the British way of doing things, where if in doubt, get a test. It doesn’t just refer to coronavirus, but to any illness that you might have.’

The idea that we would continue to test, track and trace healthy people who have cold symptoms is so psychotic it’s a struggle to understand whether the man is even aware of how many people weren’t tested for cancer last year. The only hero in this context is Professor Sunetra Gupta. All she’s done is express her fears that lockdown – long-term – will do more harm than good – which is what she believes. In China, Zhang Zhan was also worried that people were dying and the government didn’t want anyone to know about it, so she tried her best to warn everyone in society that more people were going to die if nothing was done. If China had been honest about the outbreak from the start, maybe, just maybe, 100,000 lives would have been saved from Covid-19 here …

Maybe anyone who shares Gupta’s fears are ‘fringe cranks’, but ‘fringe cranks’ have as much right to say what they think as anyone else. And especially when the government has stripped us of all our rights to do pretty much anything else, while refusing to reveal when – if ever – our rights will be returned. This isn’t China. It’s Britain. And we do things differently here. Or at least we used to – in those halcyon days when none of us had a clue who Matt Hancock was

Friday, January 29:

Scandalous behaviour by certain care home operators, who are unscrupulously using staff with Covid. Inspectors have identified no fewer than 40 places where this is happening.

Wow. I am shocked. It underlines why we need to make jabs mandatory for people working in social care. The PM supports me on this.

February 2021

Monday, February 1:

A YouGov poll suggests 70 per cent of Britons think the Government is handling the vaccine rollout well, while 23 per cent think we’re doing badly. I forwarded it to [NHS England chief executive] Simon Stevens.

‘Who the heck are the 23 per cent, for goodness’ sake!!’ he replied.

I don’t know. Maybe the same 20 per cent of people who believe UFOs have landed on Earth? Or the five million Brits who think the Apollo moon landings were faked?

Thursday, February 4:

Tobias Ellwood [Tory MP] thinks GPs are deliberately discouraging patients from using vaccination centres so they get their jabs in GP surgeries instead. I’m sure he’s right. That way, the GPs make more money.

On Saturday, February 6, The Telegraph reported that Hancock wanted to ‘take control of the NHS’. Most Britons would agree that something needs to be done — just not by him:

 

On Sunday, February 7, The Express‘s Health and Social Affairs editor said a specialist thought that the Government was using virus variants to control the public. Many would have agreed with that assessment:

Monday, February 8:

We’ve now vaccinated almost a quarter of all adults in the UK!

Also that day:

I’ve finally, finally got my way on making vaccines mandatory for people who work in care homes.

Because of that, a lot of employees resigned from their care home posts and have gone into other work, especially hospitality.

A poll that day showed that the public was happy with the Government’s handling of the pandemic. John Rentoul must have looked at the wrong line in the graph. Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor, came out the best for shaking the magic money tree:

On Tuesday, February 9, Hancock proposed 10-year jail sentences for people breaking travel restrictions. This referred to people travelling from ‘red list’ countries, but, nonetheless, pointed to a slippery slope:

The Conservative Woman‘s co-editor and qualified barrister Laura Perrins pointed out a logic gap in sentencing:

Spiked agreed with Perrins’s assessment in ‘Matt Hancock is behaving like a tyrant’:

Health secretary Matt Hancock announced new, staggeringly authoritarian enforcement measures in the House of Commons today.

Passengers returning from one of the 33 designated ‘red list’ countries will have to quarantine in government-approved hotels from next week. Anyone who lies on their passenger-locator form about whether they have visited one of these countries faces imprisonment for up to 10 years. As the Telegraph’s assistant head of travel, Oliver Smith, has pointed out, this is longer than some sentences for rape (the average sentence is estimated to be eight years).

In addition, passengers who fail to quarantine in hotels when required to do so will face staggering fines of up to £10,000.

This is horrifying. Of course, we need to take steps to manage the arrival of travellers from countries with high levels of infection, particularly since different variants of Covid have emerged. But to threaten people with a decade behind bars or a life-ruining fine for breaching travel rules is a grotesque abuse of state power.

During the pandemic, we have faced unprecedented attacks on our civil liberties. We have been ordered to stay at home and have been banned from socialising under the threat of fines. But this latest move is the most draconian yet …

we have now reached the stage where a 10-year sentence is considered an appropriate punishment for lying on a travel form.

Matt Hancock is behaving like a tyrant.

Meanwhile, Hancock’s fellow Conservative MPs wanted answers as to when lockdown would end. The Mail reported:

Furious Tories savaged Matt Hancock over a ‘forever lockdown‘ today after the Health Secretary warned border restrictions may need to stay until autumn — despite figures showing the UK’s epidemic is firmly in retreat.

Lockdown-sceptic backbenchers took aim at Mr Hancock when he unveiled the latest brutal squeeze aimed at preventing mutant coronavirus strains getting into the country …

… hopes the world-beating vaccine roll-out will mean lockdown curbs can be significantly eased any time soon were shot down today by Mr Hancock, who unveiled the latest suite of border curbs and warned they could last until the Autumn when booster vaccines will be available.  

As of Monday travellers from high-risk ‘red list’ countries will be forced to spend 10 days in ‘quarantine hotels’, and all arrivals must test negative three times through gold-standard PCR coronavirus tests before being allowed to freely move around the UK. Anyone who lies about whether they have been to places on the banned list recently will face up to 10 years in prison. 

The fallout continued the next day. See below.

Wednesday, February 10:

Meg Hillier [Labour MP], who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, has started an infuriating campaign accusing ‘Tory ministers’ of running a ‘chumocracy’ over PPE contracts. How pitifully low. I’m incandescent.

What Meg fails to acknowledge is that when the pandemic kicked off, of course we had to use the emergency procedure for buying, which allows officials to move fast and not tender everything for months.

And when people got in contact [about] PPE, of course we forwarded on the proposals for civil servants to look at.

Even the Labour Party were getting involved — it was a national crisis and these leads have proved invaluable.

[Shadow Chancellor] Rachel Reeves wrote to Michael Gove at the time, complaining that a series of offers weren’t being taken up. Officials looked into her proposals, too.

I’m even more offended because I used to respect Meg. It’s so offensive for a supposedly grown-up politician to bend the truth in this way.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner was angry at the Conservatives. What else is new?

This story has not gone away. There was a debate about it in the Commons this month.

Fallout continued from February 9 over Hancock’s never-ending lockdown.

His fellow Conservative, Sir Charles Walker MP, gave an interview saying that Hancock was ‘robbing people of hope’. He was also appalled by the prospect of a 10-year prison term for travelling from a red list country:

With regard to lockdowns, recall that at the end of 2020, Hancock said that only the vulnerable needed vaccinating, then we could all, in his words, ‘Cry freedom’. In the space of a few weeks, he had a change of tune:

Thursday, February 11:

So here we are, in the depths of the bleakest lockdown, with the virus still picking off hundreds of victims every week, and Test and Trace officials have been having secret talks about scaling back. Unbelievable!

I told them there was no way they should stand down any lab capacity, but I’m told they’re getting a very different signal from the Treasury.

Friday, February 12:

The Left never ceases to amaze. The bleeding hearts who run North West London CCG (one of many health quangos nobody will miss when they’re abolished) have taken it upon themselves to prioritise vaccinating asylum seekers. They have fast-tracked no fewer than 317 such individuals — ‘predominantly males in their 20s and 30s’.

So, while older British citizens quietly wait their turn, we are fast-tracking people who aren’t in high-risk categories and may not even have any right to be here?

Meanwhile, some of our vaccine supply has met an untimely end. I’d just reached the end of a tricky meeting when a sheepish-looking official knocked on my office door. He’d been dispatched to inform me that half a million doses of the active ingredient that makes up the vaccine have gone down the drain.

Some poor lab technician literally dropped a bag of the vaccine on the floor. Half a million doses in one dropped bag! I decided not to calculate how much Butter Fingers has cost us. Mistakes happen.

On February 22, CapX asked, ‘Why isn’t Matt Hancock in jail?’

It was about Labour’s accusations about procurement contracts for the pandemic. The article comes out in Hancock’s favour:

On Thursday, Mr Justice Chamberlain sitting in the High Court ruled that Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully by failing to to publish certain procurement contracts

It is worth noting that there was no suggestion in Mr Justice Chamberlain’s judgment that Matt Hancock had any personal involvement in the delayed publication. The judgment was made against the Health Secretary, but in his capacity as a Government Minister and legal figurehead for his Department, rather than as a private citizen. In fact, the failure to publish was actually on the part of civil servants in the Department who, in the face of the pandemic, saw a more than tenfold increase in procurement by value and struggled to keep up.

Indeed, on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Mr Hancock did not apologise for the unlawful delays, saying it was “the right thing to do” to prioritise getting the PPE to the frontline rather than ensuring timely transparency returns. I wonder how many of those calling for Mr Hancock’s imprisonment would rather he had published the contracts in the required timeframe even if it meant there was less PPE available for NHS workers.

As a general rule, we should be able to see how the Government spends our money, what it is spent on and to whom it is given. Transparency improves governance. It is right that the Secretary of State is under a legal duty to publish contracts such as those at the heart of this case. However, this case – and the way it has been reported – is likely to have a much more invidious impact than simply improving transparency in public procurement policy.

Opposition politicians and activists have attacked the Government with claims that it has been using procurement during the pandemic as a way to funnel money to its political supporters and donors. It is certainly true that the sums spent by the Government have been large, and have been spent quickly.

What is certainly not true is that Mr Justice Chamberlain in his judgment gave any credence to this line of attack. He accepted evidence from an official at the Department of Health and Social Care that the delay was due to increased volume in contracts and lack of staff. However, that has not stopped figures linking the judgment to the attack line, such as Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth who tweeted that the delay was ‘Cronyism’. In fact, there was no evidence to suggest that was so.

Vanishingly few people will read Mr Justice Chamberlain’s judgment in full, or even in part. Most people will only see the headlines in the press. Coupled with tweets such as those by Mr Ashworth, the public at large is likely to come to the conclusion that a court has found against the Government for cronyism, when that is not the case. And this will likely fuel further resentment that the Cabinet are not serving decades behind bars.

Justice must be done and it must be seen to be done. Justice has been done in this case – the Secretary of State has been found to have acted unlawfully – but too many lack the ability and willingness to see.

Sunday, February 28:

A potentially dangerous new variant — which we think originated in Brazil — has been identified in the UK, but we can’t find Patient Zero. Whoever it is failed to provide the correct contact details when they took their Covid test, so we don’t know who or where they are. Cue a frantic search.

March 2021

Monday, March 1:

When a lab technician first spotted the new variant, we didn’t even know which part of the country the positive test had come from. Since then, thanks to some fancy sequencing and a high-quality data system, we’ve been able to identify the batch of home-test kits involved, and narrowed it down to just 379 possible households. We’re now contacting every single one.

Tuesday, March 2:

The net’s closing. We now know that the PCR test was processed at 00.18hrs on Valentine’s Day and went to the lab via a mailing centre in Croydon [south London].

Thursday, March 4:

Test and Trace have found Patient Zero! He was on the shortlist of 379 households and eventually returned calls from officials at 4 pm yesterday.

Apparently, he tried to register his test but got the details wrong. We now know his name and age (38) and that he has been very ill. He claims not to have left his house for 18 days.

This is extremely good news: assuming he’s telling the truth, he has not been out and about super-spreading. What amazing detective work.

Friday, March 5:

Covid deaths have nearly halved within a week. The vaccine is clearly saving lives.

On Saturday, March 6, The Conservative Woman‘s Laura Perrins, a qualified barrister, pointed out that mandatory vaccinations — she was probably thinking of health workers — is ‘criminal battery’:

Wednesday, March 10:

Can you imagine if we hadn’t bothered to set up a contact tracing system? And if we’d decided it was all too difficult and expensive to do mass testing? Would we ever have been forgiven if we’d failed to identify clusters of cases or new variants?

No — and rightly so. Yet a cross-party committee of MPs has come to the conclusion that Test and Trace was basically a gigantic waste of time and money. I felt the red mist descend.

Yesterday, we did 1.5 million tests — in a single day! No other European country has built such a capability.

Thursday, March 11 (see photo):

The Test and Trace row is rumbling on, as is a ridiculous story about me supposedly helping a guy who used to be the landlord of my local pub in Suffolk land a multi-million-pound Covid contract. As I’ve said ad nauseam, I’ve had nothing to do with awarding Covid contracts. I find these attacks on my integrity incredibly hurtful.

The story rumbles on in Parliament, including in a debate this month.

Friday, March 12:

Oh well, at least [retired cricketer, see January’s entries] Geoffrey Boycott is happy. He texted me to say he’d got his second dose. He seems genuinely grateful. I resisted the temptation to tell him that good things come to those who wait.

Tuesday, March 16:

To my astonishment, hotel quarantine is working. There’s a weird new variant from the Philippines, but the two cases we’ve identified have gone no further than their Heathrow airport hotel rooms.

Wednesday, March 17:

Today was my son’s birthday. We had breakfast together, but there was no way I could join the birthday tea with family. I hope to make it up to him — to all of them — when all this is over.

On Tuesday, March 23, the first anniversary of lockdown, Boris did the coronavirus briefing. Below is a list of all the Cabinet members who had headed the briefings in the previous 12 months. I saw them all:

On Wednesday, March 24, Hancock announced the creation of the sinister sounding UK Health Security Agency. SAGE member Dr Jenny Harries is at its helm:

Tuesday, March 30:

How did Covid start? A year on, we still don’t really know, and there’s still an awful lot of pussyfooting around not wanting to upset the Chinese.

No surprise to learn that the Foreign Office has ‘strong views on diplomacy’ — in other words, they won’t rock the boat with Beijing and just want it all to go away.

Sometime in March, because magazine editions are always a month ahead, the publisher of Tatler, Kate Slesinger, enclosed a note with the April edition, which had Boris’s then-partner/now-wife Carrie Symonds on the cover. It began:

As I write this letter, the Prime Minister has just announced an extension to the nationwide lockdown, to be reviewed at around the time this Tatler April issue goes on sale — an opportune moment for us to be taking an in-depth look into the world of Carrie Symonds, possibly the most powerful woman in Britain right now.

April

On April 5, a furious Laura Perrins from The Conservative Woman tweeted that Hancock’s policies were ‘absolute fascism’, especially as we had passed the one year anniversary of lockdown and restrictions on March 23:

Note that lateral flow tests, as Hancock tweeted above, were free on the NHS. The programme continued for a year.

Tuesday, April 13:

The civil service seems determined to kill off the Covid dogs idea, which is so much more versatile than normal testing and really worthwhile. The animals are amazing – they get it right over 90 per cent of the time – but officials are being very tricky.

We should have started training dogs months ago and then sending them to railway stations and other busy places, where they could identify people who probably have Covid so they can then get a conventional test.

Unfortunately, even though I’ve signed off on it, the system just doesn’t buy it.

So far we’ve done a successful Phase 1 trial, but Phase 2, which costs £2.5 million, has hit the buffers. The civil service have come up with no fewer than 11 reasons to junk the idea.

That’s one idea I actually like. It sounds great.

On Friday, April 16, someone posted a video of Hancock breezing into No. 10. He had his mask on outside for the cameras, then whisked it off once he entered. Hmm. The person posting it wrote, ‘The hypocrisy and lies need to stop!

That day, the BBC posted that Hancock had financial interests in a company awarded an NHS contract — in 2019:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock owns shares in a company which was approved as a potential supplier for NHS trusts in England, it has emerged.

In March, he declared he had acquired more than 15% of Topwood Ltd, which was granted the approved status in 2019.

The firm, which specialises in the secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents, also won £300,000 of business from NHS Wales this year.

A government spokesman said there had been no conflict of interest.

He also said the health secretary had acted “entirely properly”.

But Labour said there was “cronyism at the heart of this government” and the party’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has asked the head of the civil service to investigate whether Mr Hancock breached the ministerial code.

In March this year, Mr Hancock declared in the MPs’ register of interests that he had acquired more than 15% of the shares in Topwood, under a “delegated management arrangement”.

Public contract records show that the company was awarded a place in the Shared Business Services framework as a potential supplier for NHS local trusts in 2019, the year after Mr Hancock became health secretary.

The MPs’ register did not mention that his sister Emily Gilruth – involved in the firm since its foundation in 2002 – owns a larger portion of the shares and is a director, or that Topwood has links to the NHS – as first reported by the Guido Fawkes blog and Health Service Journal.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Matt Hancock has to answer the questions… He can’t pretend that the responsibility lies elsewhere.”

But he said he was “not suggesting” the health secretary had broken any rules.

Here’s photographic proof of share ownership:

Saturday, April 17:

Prince Philip’s funeral. The Queen sat alone in a pew, in widow’s weeds and a black face mask. Looking at her in her grief, I felt an intense internal conflict, almost an anguish, between the overwhelming sense of duty I have had to save lives on the one hand and the painful consequences of my own decisions on the other. Out of duty, out of an abundance of caution, and to show leadership, the Queen took the most proper approach. It was humbling, and I felt wretched.

Monday, April 19:

The police rang to warn me that anti-vaxxers are planning a march on my London home. They suggested I liaise with [my wife] Martha so she can tell me if it’s happening.

Great that they spotted it, but asking my wife to keep an eye out of the window while a baying horde descends on the family home is not exactly British policing at its finest. I asked for more support. Then I went home to make sure I was there if it kicked off, but there was no sign of anyone.

A policeman explained that the anti-vaxxers had posted the wrong details on social media so were busy protesting a few streets away. What complete idiots.

Thursday, April 22:

Boris has completely lost his rag over Scotland.

He’s got it into his head that Nicola Sturgeon is going to use vaccine passports to drive a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK and is harrumphing around his bunker, firing off WhatsApps like a nervous second lieutenant in a skirmish.

He’s completely right: Sturgeon has tried to use the pandemic to further her separatist agenda at every turn.

Now the Scottish government is working on its own system of vaccine certification, which might or might not link up with what’s being developed for the rest of the UK.

On April 26, the vaccine was rolled out to the general population. Hancock is pictured here at Piccadilly Circus:

I cannot tell you how many phone calls and letters we got in the ensuing weeks. Not being early adopters of anything, we finally succumbed in early July, again a few months later and at the end of the year for the booster.

On April 29, Hancock and Deputy Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam had a matey vaccination session together, with ‘JVT’, as Hancock called him, doing the honours:

May

Saturday, May 1:

Another outright death threat today in my inbox that said simply: ‘I am going to kill you.’ Lovely. The threats from online anti-vaxxers are getting far more frequent and violent.

As a result, I’m now being assessed for the maximum level of government security.

Tuesday, May 4:

Today, I was out campaigning for the local elections in Derbyshire. Gina [Coladangelo, adviser] drove me up. My relationship with Gina is changing.

Having spent so much time talking about how to communicate in an emotionally engaged way, we are getting much closer.

On Wednesday, May 12, the London Evening Standard interviewed Hancock. ‘Matt Hancock: Let’s put our year of hell behind us’ is more interesting now than it was then:

Matt Hancock today struck his most upbeat note yet on easing many of the remaining lockdown restrictions next month, with Britain set to be “back to life as normal” within a year.

The Health Secretary, who has been one of the most powerful voices arguing for lockdown to save thousands of lives, stressed that the Government would lay out the low risks of further Covid-19 infections if, as expected, it presses ahead with the final relaxation stage in June.

“Our aim on the 21st is to lift as many of the measures/restrictions as possible,” he told the Standard’s editor Emily Sheffield in a studio interview aired today for its online London Rising series to spur the city’s recovery from the pandemic. “We’ve been putting in place all these rules that you’d never have imagined — you’re not allowed to go and hug who you want,” while adding he hadn’t seen his own mother since July and he was looking forward to hugging her.

“I am very gregarious,” he added, “and I really want to also get back to the verve of life. For the last year, we have had people literally asking ministers, ‘Who can I hug?’”

Mr Hancock also criticised as “absolutely absurd” protests outside AstraZeneca’s offices in Cambridge, where demonstrators have been calling for the pharmaceutical giant to openly licence its vaccine. He stressed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs were already being offered to many countries “around the world” at cost price.

During the interview, for the business and tech section of London Rising, he admitted being too busy to keep a diary of the year’s extraordinary events.

He also said he hadn’t had time to help with the housework as he was “working full-time” on the pandemic and that he had spent more hours than he cared to remember in his home “red room” office, which went viral.

In a boost for going back to offices, he admitted that he was now back at Whitehall, adding: “I get most of my work done there.”

He also said he had not heard Mr Johnson say he was prepared to see “bodies pile high” rather than order another lockdown, a phrase the Prime Minister has denied using, saying: “No I never heard him talk in those terms.” But he admitted there were very lengthy, serious debates and “my job is to articulate the health imperative”.

He added: “By this time next year, large swathes of people will have had a booster jab. That means we’ll be able to deal with variants, not just the existing strains, and I think we’ll be back to life as normal.”

In the interview, Mr Hancock also:

    • Warned that another pandemic hitting the UK was “inevitable” and “we’ve got to be ready and more ready than last time. Hence, we are making sure we have got vaccines that could be developed in 100 days and the onshore manufacturing” and that health chiefs would be better equipped to defeat it …
    • Told how he hoped that England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, his deputy Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance are “properly thanked” for their work in steering the country through the crisis. Pressed on whether they should be elevated to the Lords, he said: “That’s a matter for Her Majesty the Queen”
    • Backed Boris Johnson, enjoying a “vaccines bounce” which is believed to have contributed to Tory success in the recent elections, to be Tory leader for a decade.

Indeed, the Queen did reward Whitty, Van-Tam and Vallance with knighthoods.

Boris seemed invincible at that point, until Partygate emerged in November that year. Someone was out to get him. They succeeded.

Four days later, on May 16, Wales Online reported ‘Matt Hancock sets date for next lockdown announcement; he also says local lockdowns are not ruled out’. This is interesting, as he seemed to walk back what he told the Evening Standard:

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed the date for the next lockdown lifting announcement by the Government, but has said local lockdowns ‘have not been ruled out’.

Speaking on Sky News this morning Mr Hancock said their strategy was to continue with the lockdown lifting roadmap as planned, but said they would be monitoring the data very closely.

He said there had been just over 1,300 cases of the Indian variant detected in the country so far, with fears it could be 50% more infectious than Kent Covid.

Mr Hancock said: “It is becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country, for instance in Bolton and in Blackburn.” But he said it has also been detected ‘in much lower numbers’ in other parts of the country

He added: “We need to be cautious, we need to be careful, we need to be vigilant.”

Asked if lockdown lifting could be reversed he said: “I very much hope not.” but on local lockdowns he said: “We haven’t ruled that out.”

Mr Hancock said: “We will do what it takes to keep the public safe as we learn more about this particular variant and the virus overall.”

The Health Secretary said an announcement on the next stage of lockdown lifting would be made on June 14

It was thought at the time that lockdown would be lifted on June 21.

Wednesday, May 26:

Dominic Cummings has told a select committee I should have been fired ‘for at least 15-20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions’.

Apparently I lied about PPE, lied about patients getting the treatment they needed, lied about this and lied about that.

Later, the PM called. ‘Don’t you worry, Matt. No one believes a word he says. I’m sorry I ever hired him. You’re doing a great job — and history will prove you right. Bash on!’

I went to bed thinking, ‘Thank goodness I kept vaccines out of Dom’s destructive hands or that would have been a disaster like everything else he touched.’

I watched that session. Everyone was at fault except for Dominic Cummings. Anyone who presents himself in such a way is probably not all he seems.

Thursday, May 27:

When I got into work, I heard that the Prof [Whitty] had called my private office volunteering to support me in public if need be.

This spectacular vote of confidence meant the most.

Shortly before I headed home, [Defence Secretary] Ben Wallace sent a nice message asking if I was OK. ‘The Cummings evidence can be summed up as the ‘ramblings of a tw*t’,’ he said.

Also:

Of all the many accusations Dom Cummings has hurled at me, the media seem most interested in his claims that I lied about the arrangements surrounding hospital discharges into care homes at the beginning of the pandemic.

Annoyingly, it was only after this evening’s [Downing Street] press conference that I received some very pertinent PHE [Public Health England] data. They analysed all the Covid cases in care homes from January to October last year and found that just 1.2 per cent could be traced back to hospitals.

The vast majority of infections were brought in from the wider community, mainly by staff.

Overall, England did no worse at protecting care home residents than many countries, and better than someincluding Scotland, where [Nicola] Sturgeon’s team has been responsible for decision-making. Regardless, the awfulness of what the virus did to people in care homes around the world will stay with me for the rest of my life.

That day, YouGov published the results of a poll asking if Hancock should resign. Overall, 36% thought he should and 31% thought he should remain in post:

Saturday, May 29:

Boris and Carrie got married at Westminster Cathedral. I’m not entirely sure how much the PM’s mind was on his future with his beloved, though, because this afternoon he was busy texting me about the latest Covid data.

‘Lower cases and deaths today. So definitely ne panique pas,’ I told him.

Then again, perhaps he’s just very good at multi-tasking and can examine infection graphs, pick bits of confetti off his jacket and give his new bride doe-eyed looks all at the same time.

Sunday, May 30:

‘Keep going, we have seen off Cummings’s bungled assassination,’ Boris messaged cheerfully.

It was lunchtime and the PM didn’t appear to be having any kind of honeymoon, or even half a day off.

Nevertheless, that day, the Mail on Sunday reported that the Conservatives were beginning to slip in the polls and had more on Cummings’s testimony to the select committee:

The extraordinary salvo launched by Mr Cummings during a hearing with MPs last week appears to be taking its toll on the government, with a new poll suggesting the Tory lead has been slashed by more than half. 

Keir Starmer tried to turn the screw today, accusing Mr Johnson and his ministers of being busy ‘covering their own backs’ to combat the Indian coronavirus variant.

The Labour leader said ‘mistakes are being repeated’ as the Government considers whether to go ahead with easing restrictions on June 21.

‘Weak, slow decisions on border policy let the Indian variant take hold,’ he said.

‘Lack of self-isolation support and confused local guidance failed to contain it.

‘We all want to unlock on June 21 but the single biggest threat to that is the Government’s incompetence’ …

Mr Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former adviser, told MPs on Wednesday that ‘tens of thousands’ had died unnecessarily because of the Government’s handling of the pandemic and accused Mr Hancock of ‘lying’ about testing for care home residents discharged from hospital – a claim he denies. 

Separately, the Sunday Times highlighted an email dated March 26 from social care leaders warning Mr Hancock that homes were being ‘pressured’ to take patients who had not been tested and had symptoms.

Lisa Lenton, chair of the Care Provider Alliance at the time, told Mr Hancock managers were ‘terrified’ about ‘outbreaks’.

‘The following action MUST be taken: All people discharged from hospital to social care settings (eg care homes, home care, supported living) MUST be tested before discharge,’ she wrote.

However, the government’s guidance on testing was not updated until April 15.

Instructions issued by the Department of Health and the NHS on March 19 2020 said ‘discharge home today should be the default pathway’, according to the Sunday Telegraph – with no mention of testing …  

An insider told the Sun on Sunday on the spat between Mr Johnson and Mr Hancock: ‘Boris returned from convalescence at Chequers when he heard the news. He was incensed. 

‘Matt had told him point blank tests would be carried out. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been. For a moment he lost it with Matt, shouting ”What a f***ing mess”.

‘At least three ministers told Boris Matt should be sacked.’

However, Mr Johnson refused to axe Mr Hancock reportedly saying that losing the health secretary during a pandemic would be ‘intolerable’.  

Sir Keir said the situation in care homes had been a ‘betrayal’, adding: ‘We may never know whether Boris Johnson said Covid ”was only killing 80-year olds” when he delayed a second lockdown.

‘What we do know is that the man charged with keeping them safe showed callous disregard for our elderly, as he overlooked the incompetence of his Health Secretary.’

June

Tuesday, June 1:

For the first time since last summer, there were no Covid deaths reported yesterday. We really are coming out of this.

Things might have looked good for Hancock at the beginning of the month, but the mood would sour rapidly.

England’s 2021 reopening on June 21 looked as if it would not happen. Not surprisingly, members of the public were not happy.

On June 6, Essex publican Adam Brooks tweeted Hancock’s words about personal responsibility back at him, calling him a ‘liar’:

Brooks, who owned two pubs at the time, followed up later, threatening that the hospitality industry would issue another legal challenge to coronavirus restrictions:

The next day, June 7, The Sun sounded the death knell for a reopening on June 21:

BRITS’ holiday hopes have been dashed AGAIN as Matt Hancock warns that the new variants are the “biggest challenging” to our domestic freedom.

The Health Secretary told MPs that restoring international travel is an “important goal” – but is one that will be “challenging and hard.”

Health Secretary Mr Hancock said the return to domestic freedom must be “protected at all costs”.

It comes after he confirmed that over-25s in England will be invited to receive their Covid jabs from Tuesday as the Delta variant “made the race between the virus and this vaccination effort tighter”.

Matt Hancock told the Commons this afternoon: “Restoring travel in the medium term is an incredibly important goal.

“It is going to be challenging, it’s going to be hard because of the risk of new variants and new variants popping up in places like Portugal which have an otherwise relatively low case rate.

“But the biggest challenge, and the reason this is so difficult, is that a variant that undermines the vaccine effort obviously would undermine the return to domestic freedom.

“And that has to be protected at all costs.”

The Health Secretary added: “No-one wants our freedoms to be restricted a single day longer than is necessary.

“I know the impact that these restrictions have on the things we love, on our businesses, on our mental health.

“I know that these restrictions have not been easy and with our vaccine programme moving at such pace I’m confident that one day soon freedom will return.”

This comes as desperate Brits have flooded airports as they race against the clock to get back to the UK before Portugal is slapped onto the amber travel list.

The next day, nutritionist Gillian McKeith tweeted her disgust with Hancock:

On Wednesday, June 9, the Health and Social Care Select Committee, which former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt headed, posed questions to Hancock in a coronavirus inquiry session:

On Thursday, June 10, The Guardian reported that Dominic Cummings would tell all about coronavirus as well as Brexit on his new Substack:

Dominic Cummings is planning to publish a paid-for newsletter in which subscribers can learn about his time inside Downing Street.

Boris Johnson’s former top aide has launched a profile on Substack, a platform that allows people to sign up to newsletter mailing lists.

In a post on the site, Cummings said he would be giving out information on the coronavirus pandemic for free, as well as some details of his time at Downing Street.

However, revelations about “more recondite stuff on the media, Westminster, ‘inside No 10’, how did we get Brexit done in 2019, the 2019 election etc” will be available only to those who pay £10 a month for a subscription …

It follows Cummings taking aim at Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, and the government in general as part of evidence given last month to the health and social care select committee and the science and technology committee.

Cummings, who left Downing Street after a behind-the-scenes power struggle in November last year, accused the health secretary of lying, failing on care homes and “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” on testing.

However, the parliamentary committees said Cummings’s claims would remain unproven because he had failed to provide supporting evidence.

On Friday, June 11, Labour MP Graham Stringer — one of the few Opposition MPs I admire — told talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer that ‘things went badly wrong’ on Hancock’s watch and that the Health Secretary should not have ‘blamed scientific advice’:

On Monday, June 14, talkRADIO’s Mike Graham told listeners forced to cancel a holiday to sue Hancock, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, SAGE and ‘every single one of them, personally’, otherwise ‘they will think they’ve won’:

Friday, June 18:

[Lingerie tycoon] Baroness (Michelle) Mone has sent me an extraordinarily aggressive email complaining that a company she’s helping isn’t getting the multi-million-pound contracts it deserves.

She claims the firm, which makes lateral flow test kits, ‘has had a dreadful time’ trying to cut through red tape and demanded my ‘urgent help’ before it all comes out in the media.

‘I am going to blow this all wide open,’ she threatened.

In essence, she’s not at all happy that a U.S. company called Innova has secured so many contracts while others ‘can’t get in the game’. She claims test kits made by the company she’s representing, and by several others, have all passed rigorous quality control checks but only Innova is getting the business.

‘This makes it a monopoly position for Innova, who to date have received £2.85 billion in orders,’ she complained.

By the end of the email, she seemed to have worked herself into a complete frenzy and was throwing around wild accusations. ‘I smell a rat here. It is more than the usual red tape, incompetence and bureaucracy. That’s expected! I believe there is corruption here at the highest levels and a cover-up is taking place . . . Don’t say I didn’t [warn] you when Panorama or Horizon run an exposé documentary on all this.’

She concluded by urging me to intervene ‘to prevent the next bombshell being dropped on the govt’. I read the email again, stunned. Was she threatening me? It certainly looked that way.

Her tests, I am told, have not passed validation — which would explain why the company hasn’t won any contracts. I will simply not reply. I won’t be pushed around by aggressive peers representing commercial clients.

In December 2022, Baroness Mone announced that she would be taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords. Her Wikipedia entry states:

Mone became a Conservative life peer in 2015. From 2020 to 2022, in a series of investigative pieces, The Guardian reported that Mone and her children had secretly received £29 million of profits to an offshore trust from government PPE contracts, which she had lobbied for during the COVID-19 pandemic. The House of Lords Commissioner for Standards and National Crime Agency launched investigations into Mone’s links to these contracts in January 2022. Mone announced in December 2022 that she was taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords “to clear her name” amid the allegations.

Also that day came news that, after Parliament voted on coronavirus restrictions that week — June 21 having been postponed to July 19 — the NHS waiting list was much larger than expected. It was thought to be 5 million but was actually 12 million:

LBC reported:

The Health Secretary told the NHS Confederation conference that up to 12.2 million people are in need of elective procedures delayed due to the pandemic.

This includes 5.1m people already on waiting lists.

Health bosses believe there could be as many as 7.1m additional patients who stayed away from hospitals because of the risk of Covid-19.

Mr Hancock told the NHS conference that there is “another backlog out there” and that he expected the numbers to rise even further.

NHS leaders have warned the backlog could take five years to clear

Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said the current wave of cases would “definitely translate into further hospitalisations”.

On Saturday, June 19, a YouTube video appeared, which has since been deleted. These are my notes on it:

June 19, coronavirus: 24 mins in — Matt Hancock says unvaccinated will not receive health treatment if NHS is overwhelmed, also mentioned are Birmingham deaths, FOIA Pfizer vaccine information forwarded to Special Branch re Warwickshire and four Birmingham hospitals; Mark Sexton, ex police constable – YouTube.

I have no idea what ensued.

On Friday, June 25, Dominic Cummings posted this article on his Substack: ‘More evidence on  how the PM’s & Hancock’s negligence killed people’.

It’s quite lengthy, but begins as follows:

Below is some further evidence including a note I sent on 26 April regarding how we could shift to Plan B with a serious testing system.

It helps people understand what an incredible mess testing was and why care homes were neglected. Hancock had failed terribly. The Cabinet Office did not have the people it needed to solve the problem. Many were screaming at me that Hancock was failing to act on care homes and spinning nonsense to the Cabinet table while thousands were dying in care homes.

There are clearly errors in my note but the fact that *I* had to write it tells you a lot about how the system had collapsed. As you can see it is a draft for a document that needed to exist but didn’t because Hancock had not done his job properly and was absorbed in planning for his press conference at the end of April, not care homes and a serious plan for test-trace.

The Sunday Times‘s Tim Shipman summed up the article with Boris Johnson’s impressions of test and trace:

Returning to Hancock, it was clear that he would have to go, but no one expected his departure would be so dramatic.

To be continued tomorrow.

 

So far, my series on Conservative MP and former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has covered a summary of his current activities as well as his actions during the coronavirus pandemic: parts 2 and 3.

Today’s post reviews the events surrounding the pandemic between October and December 2020, mostly in England. Positive cases spiked in October that year, particularly in certain regions of England, causing the development of a tiered system of restrictions. Christmas ended up being cancelled, a great loss to the hospitality sector, which had been open since July 4.

There was one ray of hope to get everyone out of this: the vaccine.

Dissenters must be silenced

The Mail has been running excerpts from Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries which he co-wrote with former Times journalist, Isabel Oakeshott.

One thing I have not found in the excerpts is any mention of dissent among the public or medics who were not on SAGE.

However, Isabel Oakeshott provides insight about the Government’s view of dissenters in an overview of Pandemic Diaries that she wrote for The Spectator, posted on December 7, 2022. Emphases mine below:

As far as Hancock was concerned, anyone who fundamentally disagreed with his approach was mad and dangerous and needed to be shut down. His account shows how quickly the suppression of genuine medical misinformation – a worthy endeavour during a public health crisis – morphed into an aggressive government-driven campaign to smear and silence those who criticised the response. Aided by the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health harnessed the full power of the state to crush individuals and groups whose views were seen as a threat to public acceptance of official messages and policy. As early as January 2020, Hancock reveals that his special adviser was speaking to Twitter about ‘tweaking their algorithms’. Later he personally texted his old coalition colleague Nick Clegg, now a big cheese at Facebook, to enlist his help. The former Lib Dem deputy prime minister was happy to oblige.

Such was the fear of ‘anti-vaxxers’ that the Cabinet Office used a team hitherto dedicated to tackling Isis propaganda to curb their influence. The zero-tolerance approach extended to dissenting doctors and academics. The eminent scientists behind the so-called Barrington Declaration, which argued that public health efforts should focus on protecting the most vulnerable while allowing the general population to build up natural immunity to the virus, were widely vilified: Hancock genuinely considered their views a threat to public health.

For his part, [Boris] Johnson occasionally fretted that they might have a point. In late September 2020, Hancock was horrified to discover that one of the architects of the Declaration, the Oxford epidemiologist Professor Sunetra Gupta, and her fellow signatory Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, had been into Downing Street to see the prime minister. Anders Tegnell, who ran Sweden’s light-touch approach to the pandemic, attended the same meeting. Hancock did not want them anywhere near Johnson, labelling their views ‘absurd’.

Anti-lockdown protests were quickly banned. When, in September 2020, the Cabinet Office tried to exempt demonstrations from the ‘rule of six’, Hancock enlisted Michael Gove to ‘kill it off’, arguing that marches would ‘undermine public confidence in social distancing’. Gove had no qualms about helping.

Keep in mind that, in June 2020, BLM protests took place in English cities. Police did nothing to stop them, even though we were not supposed to be gathering in the streets, particularly without social distancing. Members of the police responded by taking the knee in front of protesters. Talk about double standards!

Oakeshott had more dismal news emerging from Hancock’s diaries.

Masks

Oakeshott says:

Hancock, [Chief Medical Officer Chris] Whitty and Johnson knew full well that non-medical face masks do very little to prevent transmission of the virus. People were made to wear them anyway because [Boris’s top adviser] Dominic Cummings was fixated with them; because [Scotland’s First Minister] Nicola Sturgeon liked them; and above all because they were symbolic of the public health emergency.

I do despair.

It was exactly as the sceptics said at the time: theatre designed to show the Government’s power over the people.

Care homes

Even worse was — and, in some places, still is — the situation in care homes. Patients and their loved ones were separated for many months. There were no hugs, no kisses, no caresses. Instead, patients and family members met at a window, pressing their hands against glass, aligning them with those of their loved ones — just as one would do at a prison visit.

Oakeshott writes:

Hancock is more sensitive about this subject than any other. The accusation that he blithely discharged Covid-positive patients from hospitals into care homes, without thinking about how this might seed the virus among the frail elderly, or attempting to stop this happening, upsets and exasperates him. The evidence I have seen is broadly in his favour.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was simply not possible to test everyone: neither the technology nor the capacity existed. Internal communications show that care homes were clearly instructed to isolate new arrivals. It later emerged that the primary source of new infection in these settings was in any case not hospital discharges, but the movement of staff between care homes. Politically, this was very inconvenient: Hancock knew he would be accused of ‘blaming’ hardworking staff if he emphasised the link (which is exactly what has now happened).

He is on less solid ground in relation to the treatment of isolated care-home residents and their increasingly desperate relatives. His absolute priority was to preserve life –however wretched the existence became. Behind the scenes, the then care home minister Helen Whately fought valiantly to persuade him to ease visiting restrictions to allow isolated residents some contact with their loved ones. She did not get very far. Internal communications reveal that the authorities expected to find cases of actual neglect of residents as a result of the suspension of routine care-home inspections.

October through December 2020

Pandemic Diaries entries for these months come from this instalment, unless otherwise indicated.

October

Saturday, October 3:

A day dominated by the discovery of a hideous blunder involving a week’s worth of Covid data. Somehow or other we have failed to log around 16,000 cases, which all had to be piled into today’s figures. We might as well just hang a giant neon sign above the Prof’s ‘next slide please’ screen, saying ‘See here: Spectacular Screw-Up.’ [The Prof is the nickname for chief medical officer Chris Whitty.]

Sunday, October 4:

[Head of the Vaccine Taskforce] Kate [Bingham] has been telling the Financial Times we should only vaccinate the vulnerable. Except she has nothing to do with the deployment – only the buying. And what she’s criticising is the Government’s agreed policy. 

‘We absolutely need No 10 to sit on her hard,’ I told the spads [special advisers], adding that I consider her ‘totally unreliable’.

Monday, October 5:

For reasons best known to themselves, No 10 are rowing back on tiers [putting areas of the country into tiers with different levels of restrictions depending on the Covid risk] and has pulled the planned announcement from this week’s grid. They want tough action; then they don’t want tough action; then someone gets to the PM and he changes his mind all over again. FFS.

Tuesday, October 6:

The Economist has got wind of an old vaccine deployment plan. I instinctively asked my spads if Kate might be behind it. ‘I have some evidence to suggest it might have been – ie the fact she had a meeting yesterday with the journalist who has the story,’ came the reply. Who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Saturday, October 10:

Boris has finally agreed to announce tiers on Monday.

Monday, October 12:

In the six weeks since I proposed the tiers system, there’s been delay and watering down at every stage — while the virus has grown faster than the worst-case scenario. What’s most frustrating is that I’m being portrayed as the one who’s pushing for lockdown, whereas actually it’s those with their heads in the sand who will lead us to a full-blown national lockdown.

Thursday, October 15:

Today I announced that London and a few other places are going into Tier 2. The original draft statement was quite bullish on vaccines, but No 10 freaked, ordering me to delete anything that made it sound as if we think vaccines are the way out.

This really annoyed me, because they are the way out. Since that’s our strategy, it’s ridiculous to be told I can’t say it. I will not be blown off the vaccine drive by the sceptics — in No 10 or anywhere else.

This was a problem for Iain Duncan Smith MP, who pointed out that some London boroughs are relatively virus-free, therefore, it is wrong to impose the same restrictions on all of them. With a lot of umms and ahhs, Hancock said that it was only right that the same restrictions were imposed on all boroughs. Iain Duncan Smith looked as if he were about to blow a gasket — and rightly so:

Friday, October 16:

Boris has been studying what they did during the plague and messaged this morning about how tiering worked in the old days.

‘In 1606, the Privy Council decreed that theatres should be closed if deaths from plague exceeded 30 per week,’ he told us. ‘Not sure about these fixed thresholds,’ I replied warily. Thankfully this was the end of the history lesson.

Saturday, October 17:

Woke up to another briefing against me from No 10, this time in the i [newspaper]. Apparently ‘Matt Hancock is the only person here who thinks there is actually going to be a vaccine . . . It’s a running joke with other departments’.

If so, I’m happy to own it. Thank God I banned the team from talking to No 10 about the [vaccine] rollout. They’d just trash it.

Had a bit of a counselling session from Nadine [Dorries, mental health minister] this evening. ‘You are too nice too often,’ she told me.

Tuesday, October 27:

Could labradors be our secret weapon against the pandemic? A bizarre and cheering morning watching disease-detecting dogs on the concourse at Paddington Station demonstrate what they can do on a crowd that included the Duchess of Cornwall.

Inside, I was panicking. I couldn’t stop worrying that the mutts might pick out Camilla, or indeed me, as having the dreaded disease. ‘Please, please, don’t do that,’ I willed silently.

Luckily, the labs correctly identified the man with the T-shirt that had been worn by an affected patient. I was impressed. 

These dogs can pick up the scent of Covid just like they pick up the scent of drugs. I want them at airports and train stations to sniff out super-spreaders.

The [Health] department’s briefing was: ‘Evidence base too thin.’ It’s absurd. Just because they aren’t conventional tests, officialdom can’t see the point.

I’ve pushed it and asked Jim [Bethell, a Health Minister in the Lords] to follow up.

Thursday, October 29:

We’re putting so many new areas into Tier 3 that it’ll soon be a national lockdown in all but name. Had we brought in tougher tiers three weeks ago, as the Prof and I were arguing for, we wouldn’t be in this position. And for goodness’ sake, why aren’t we pushing harder on ventilation as well as masks? We have known since a Spanish study proved it in the summer that Covid spreads more like smoke than droplets — yet the comms is still geared to masks, which are less important than ventilation.

Friday, October 30:

This afternoon I was called to a meeting of Covid-S, the strategy group chaired by the PM. At the end: victory.

Boris grudgingly accepted the stark, painful facts: that cases, hospitalisations and deaths are all rising and the NHS will run out of space unless we act. The upshot is four weeks of lockdown then back to souped-up tiers.

Having won the lockdown argument, I was exhausted but elated and literally ran up the stairs to my office, stopping off to see the Prof, who’d fought hard alongside me via Zoom.

‘Secretary of State, you’ve saved many lives with what you’ve done today,’ he replied.

As I headed off to Suffolk [his constituency], I finally relaxed. We took the children for a curry at Montaz in Newmarket, where the staff seemed excited to see us. It was horrible to think they were going to have to close again on Thursday and I couldn’t tell them.

I really, really wanted to forget the pandemic, just for half an hour, when [ITV political editor] Robert Peston’s number flashed up on my phone. I almost choked on my chapati.

‘I understand that this pm you, PM, Chancellor and [Michael Gove] met. Am told 99 per cent likely there will be a full national lockdown from next Wed or Thurs,’ Peston said.

So the cat is out of the bag — already! Furious, I forwarded the message to my spads [special advisers] and No 10 comms. How the f*** had it leaked already? Only a handful of people knew!

By the time I got home, I had an enraged Boris on the phone saying his media people had told him hacks were pointing the finger at me.

‘Whoever is telling you that is lying to you,’ I replied furiously.

How had this happened? My money is firmly on Dominic Cummings via his acolytes. The agenda? To bounce the PM into announcing the lockdown sooner [rather] than later and stop him U-turning. If they got me sacked into the bargain, that would be a bonus.

I texted the PM to say that obviously the accusations against me were untrue and I could prove that if necessary. Half an hour later, he messaged asking me and [spad] Damon to bring our phones into Downing Street on Monday.

‘With pleasure,’ I replied coldly.

Peston wouldn’t have texted me for confirmation if I was the source. Plus: it’s not like I benefit from this information being out early.

‘I’m taking a huge amount of flak to do the right thing and protecting you in the process,’ I told Boris.

‘Understood, everyone overwrought,’ he replied soothingly, but with Dom dripping poison in his ear, I very much doubt that will be the end of it. So everything hangs in the balance. Either the PM has to rush into announcing the lockdown or there’s such a backlash, especially from our truculent backbenchers, that he bottles it again.

‘It’s a f***ing disgrace,’ I told [Cabinet Secretary] Simon Case. ‘I hope you have a full inquiry.’

As lockdown approaches, I should be focused on testing, the vaccine and getting the new measures right to get us all out of this nightmare. Instead I’m fighting for my political life. This is no way to run a country.

Saturday, October 31:

I hardly slept. Consternation from friends about how it all came out. Jim [Lord Bethell, health minister in the Lords] described it as ‘the fastest leak since Nick Clegg was on world-record form’ — he was notorious when we were in coalition.

Nadine was raging, telling me the culprit ‘needs putting in front of a firing squad’.

Thankfully, at the press conference the PM gave it his all, warning of thousands of deaths a day if we don’t do more.

Lockdown will be a little lighter than last time because we’ve got better evidence about what works. After the s*** I’ve taken, I don’t feel triumphant, but at least we’ve avoided a complete collapse in the NHS and those Lombardy scenes in our hospitals. For now at least.

November

Sunday, November 1:

Boris was still far from reconciled to the lockdown he’d so grudgingly authorised, continuing to fret that we’d be accused of ‘blinking too soon’.

Meanwhile, Cummings is deliberately ignoring my calls and messages. Extraordinary. We’re in the middle of a national crisis in which hundreds of people are dying every day and I’m in charge of the health service. Yet he won’t talk to me. It’s pathetic, petty and downright irresponsible.

Tuesday, November 3:

I think someone’s trying to smear me. First, I’m falsely accused of being in a Commons bar after 10pm, then I’m falsely accused of leaking, and now The Sun wants to know if I went to have a haircut with Michael Gove at the weekend. Nothing to declare there.

One of my allies received a message from a journalist saying, ‘We need to talk about who is framing Matt at some stage . . .’ I think I can take an educated guess.

Tuesday, November 10:

After months of working it up in secret, today I presented the vaccine rollout plan to the PM. I’ve rarely seen him as enthusiastic. Finally I think he realises this really is going to happen.

‘Can we go faster?’ he boomed, banging the table.

As expected, the price of success is that No 10 has gone from not believing the vaccine will happen to getting completely carried away. Yesterday they started putting it out that ‘ten million people’ could get the jab before Christmas.

This was never the plan, is never going to happen, and [my spad] Damon spent half the day trying to kill it.

Friday, November 13:

Cummings has gone! I am elated and, more than anything, relieved for the sake of the vaccine and the country. He’s been such a frightening, damaging, negative force for so long.

‘Now we can actually build a government that works effectively,’ I told Simon Case excitedly.

We talked about restoring proper processes and ensuring everything that should come to me does come to me, instead of being diverted to one of many random groups Cummings set up to interfere/cut me out of the loop/attempt to control everything.

My team — officials and advisers — are thrilled.

Sunday, November 15:

The Sunday Times thinks we’ve been dishing out multi-million-pound contracts to ‘cronies’. Really? I’m absolutely fuming. I’ve not been involved in either the pricing or the decision-making behind who’s been awarded government contracts.

With all my years of experience as a politician, would I seriously just bung millions of pounds’ worth of deals to my mates, just kind of hoping nobody would notice? So galling.

Friday, November 20:

I met my Slovakian opposite number to talk about their government’s super-ambitious ‘let’s make the entire population take a Covid test all on the same day’ initiative. I have my reservations but Boris is super-keen.

Saturday, November 21:

The PM has been talking to the Slovakian PM and is incredibly eager to give it a go. Today’s the day I had to get ministerial approval on the plan. It did not go well — bluntly, the Cabinet think it’s crazy.

Doing my best to ignore the increasingly incredulous expressions on the faces of the Zoom attendees, I walked everyone through what would be required: nothing less than the entire military and every part of the NHS that could be harnessed to the cause. The price tag? A cool £1 billion.

Knowing this one came straight from the top, I gave it both barrels. [Environment Secretary] George Eustice dismissed it as ridiculous. The Treasury said they wouldn’t pay for it. [Defence Secretary] Ben Wallace said the military was already deployed on other missions.

Afterwards, I picked up my phone to [spad] Emma. ‘Well, that was a drive-by shooting if ever I’ve seen one. Shows the limit of the PM’s powers, even in a pandemic. Cabinet government lives!’ I said cheerfully.

Much too late, I realised I’d forgotten to press ‘Leave Meeting’ on Zoom. Around 20 ministers and officials were still on screen, listening to every word.

Sunday, November 22:

I’m under fire from The Observer over Gina [Coladangelo’s] appointment to the [health department] board. They’ve described her as my ‘closest friend from university’ (true — one of) but are also making a song and dance of the fact that she’s a ‘director of a lobbying firm’.

The truth is she hasn’t been actively engaged with that company for years and every aspect of her appointment [as adviser] to the department went through all the proper channels. She was appointed after she proved herself during her stint as a volunteer just trying to do her bit for the country.

December

Tuesday, December 1:

Jim [health minister in the Lords] came to tell me he’d just formally signed the Pfizer vaccine off. I walked into the Cabinet Room, where the PM was standing behind his chair with Rishi, Simon Case and a few others dotted around.

‘We have a vaccine! It’s been formally approved!’ I announced as I walked in.

Boris danced a little jig, his jubilant moves giving every impression that he hadn’t had much dance practice of late.

We were all elated. We know this is the only way out. So many people feared it would never happen. But here it is, the first in the world, in under a year.

On the way out of Downing Street I bumped into Rishi, who gave me a man-hug and thanked me for pulling off the vaccine. Tomorrow is going to be massive.

Wednesday, December 2:

The announcement to the markets was due at 7am sharp. From the privacy of a green room in the bowels of the BBC building, my first call was to my counterparts in the devolved administrations. Ridiculously, we’d had to keep them in the dark about the impending announcement because we were worried about leaks. Then moments after 7am, I was on air telling the world.

Unfortunately, Boris’s good humour didn’t last long. By mid-afternoon, I was just finishing answering questions in the Commons when I got a series of texts from an increasingly desperate-sounding Emma [spad], saying he was ‘going mad’.

She said Boris wasn’t happy that we’re launching on Tuesday, not Monday; wasn’t happy with the time frame for vaccinating care-home residents; wasn’t happy about the way we’re working with the devolved administrations; and had a bee in his bonnet about the use of wholesalers to get the vaccine to GPs.

‘Oh FFS,’ I replied. I wish he’d take a moment to congratulate the team and keep their morale up, not lose it like this.

Thursday, December 3:

A cloak-and-dagger operation to get the first 800,000 doses of the vaccine into the UK. We weren’t taking any chances. Imagine if rogue actors or hostile states tried to hijack the vehicle or seize the goods?

At lunchtime, a drama: in hushed tones, officials told me that the team was switching route ‘as a precaution’ following a credible security threat. It was amazing work by our intelligence agencies and the private-sector company who first spotted it, and just goes to show that we were not being paranoid.

Then, mid-afternoon, came confirmation that all 800,000 doses were safely in the UK. Relief!

As news spreads, we’re beginning to get sheepish requests from VIPs around the world. A Middle Eastern diplomat reached out to Nadhim Zahawi [vaccine deployment minister] asking if we’d be willing to send 400 shots for the royal household. Nadhim sounded embarrassed and assumed we’d have to find a polite way of saying no.

In fact, I’m up for these small diplomatic efforts — so long as the Foreign Office agrees, of course. Done appropriately, it pays dividends for international relations. Nadhim sounded relieved, saying that the king himself is asking.

That morning, Hancock told talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer that restrictions could be lifted once all of the most vulnerable people have received the vaccine, rather than waiting until everyone has been vaccinated:

Friday, December 4:

The first big setback: Pfizer say the vaccine isn’t brewing as fast as they’d like. It means we’re unlikely to get the ten million doses we’re due to receive before the end of the year, and production estimates for early 2021 are being scaled back. Thank goodness we didn’t let the plans go public.

Tuesday, December 8:

Shortly after 6am, I received confirmation that the first person had been inoculated, and I hurried off for the morning media round.

Gina and [spad] Damon accompanied me to the broadcast studios [ITV’s Good Morning Britain]. ‘You need to relax’ was Gina’s advice, by which she meant: ‘Stop being so buttoned up.’ What she did not mean was that I should lose it altogether, which unfortunately is exactly what happened.

I was on my own in a dark windowless booth, answering questions, when they played the video of [the first person] getting her jab. Suddenly I completely lost it, blubbing away, battling to regain my composure as tears streamed down my face. ‘For Christ’s sake, pull yourself together,’ I told myself desperately. Then the camera was back on me, my microphone was live and my watery red eyes were there for all to see. When I tried to answer the next question, my voice came out in a weird sort of croak. Gina said at least I’d shown how I felt.

Much later, I was on my way to bed when my phone rang. Nobody rings at 11.43pm unless it’s bad news, least of all the Prof [Whitty], whose number was flashing ominously. In that calm, professorial voice of his, he explained that three people had suffered a serious adverse reaction to the vaccine. One had nearly died.

We tried to calculate the statistical risk. If three out of 400 vaccinated today had a massive reaction, then that’s 38,000 out of the whole population. And 38,000 is an awful lot of people.

‘Jesus Christ,’ I thought, feeling physically sick. We may well have to halt the entire vaccination rollout. ‘Perhaps all three have a history of anaphylaxis?’ I asked hopefully. Still feeling nauseous, I slumped into bed, knowing I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep.

Wednesday, December 9:

At 5.30am my phone went. ‘All three had a clinical history of anaphylaxis,’ said Natasha [head of Hancock’s private office].

‘[Prof Whitty] recommends that anyone with a history shouldn’t take this vaccine, that we introduce a 15-minute wait after vaccination to monitor people, restrict the rollout to hospitals for the next couple of days and get on with it,’ she said.

I can’t remember ever being so relieved in my life.

The following entries come from this extract in the Mail, unless otherwise stated.

Friday, December 11:

There’s a new [more infectious] variant. This explains why the Covid numbers in Kent have been so stubbornly high.

Monday, December 14:

I announced the new variant in a statement to Parliament. Even normally reasonable MPs are going tonto [crazy]. Everyone can see Christmas falling apart, and judgment is going out of the window.

That day, Hancock announced a shorter self-isolation period, from 14 to ten days:

Thursday, December 17:

A grim day dominated by the announcement of new tiers, which effectively cancel Christmas. Worse for me, they also scupper [wife] Martha’s birthday dinner tonight, which was set to be our first night out in months. I feel terrible about it.

I’ve come to hate the tiers: the boundaries are impossible to draw sensibly, and the whole thing doesn’t keep us together as a country. I hadn’t appreciated how important that is.

Later JVT [Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer] called. He and the Prof [nickname for Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty] have worked out that since the first dose of the vaccine gives about four times the level of protection as the second dose, the best way to save lives might be to give the first dose to as many people as possible and then delay the second.

Also on that day:

[Former Speaker of the House of Commons and former Labour MP] Betty Boothroyd called the office, asking if there’s any way she can get her jab soon. She’s 91 and very vulnerable. I called her back myself as I was in the car home.

I’d never met her, but she’s something of a hero of mine. As Speaker, she was a real trailblazer for women in politics. I said yes, we can get you your jab — given her age, she’s entitled to it — but the deal is you have to have it on camera.

She readily agreed. I gave her number to Nadhim Zahawi, who is going to fix it.

Friday, December 18:

Boris has reluctantly caved to the inevitable and agreed to cancel Christmas. Frankly, we’d have been far better off saying it would be a Zoom Christmas from the start.

That morning, Labour MP Graham Stringer — one of the good guys in the Opposition — criticised Hancock’s maintaining Manchester in Tier 3, accusing him of ‘playing silly schoolboy games’:

Saturday, December 19:

There’s no good time for Test and Trace to crumble, but this is literally the worst. There’s a critical shortage of pipette tips. Our failure to get hold of these little bits of plastic has led to a backlog of 182,000 tests.

Meanwhile, various people, including vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee Charles Walker, are calling for my head over the Christmas farce. It’s an irony, because I wasn’t involved in the Christmas decision at all. Maybe I should have come in and played hardball over it right from the start — but I can’t be Mr Miseryguts on everything.

On December 20, The Sun on Sunday‘s political editor could foresee the tiers extending well into 2021:

She was not wrong. Hancock appeared on LBC radio later that morning to say the same thing. He even acknowledged that the November lockdown did not help:

Someone parodied Hancock’s Christmas card: ‘In Tier 6, you will be eating your pets’:

Retired Southampton footballer Matt Le Tissier, a sceptic from the start, conducted his own Twitter poll showing that 89.7% of respondents did not trust Matt Hancock to tell the truth:

Wednesday, December 23:

We’ve finally started vaccinating care home residents. We’re paying GPs £25 per resident, pretty nice money for something that only takes a few minutes.

The public were sceptical about Hancock’s claims that the new variant, the South African one, was more transmissible. Here is Hancock’s announcement from that afternoon:

A South African studying the data said there was no evidence to support that claim:

Hancock also announced that more parts of England would be in Tiers 3 and 4 from Boxing Day:

That same day, then-London Assembly member David Kurten (UKIP at the time) noted that the Nightingale hospitals were lying empty, rightly calling them a waste of money (see second tweet):

Thursday, December 24:

Boris has been fretting that America has now jabbed more people than we have [Churchmouse’s note: thanks to President Trump]. I had to explain last night that, as a proportion, that means we’re six times ahead. Very unhelpfully, there’s a major Covid outbreak at the largest testing lab in the country, in Milton Keynes, adding to the backlog.

Friday, December 25:

Today is my first real day off since summer.

Monday, December 28:

There are now 20,426 people in hospital with the virus — more than at the peak of the first wave.

Wednesday, December 30:

We’ve announced the plan to extend the interval between the first and second doses of the jab. Lo and behold, who pops up to claim credit? None other than Tony Blair!

That day, Hancock gave an interview to Mark Dolan, who was at talkRADIO at the time, saying he had no date as to when we could come out of restrictions, even with a vaccine:

That afternoon, the Mail reported that only 530,000 doses of the AstraZeneca (Oxford) vaccine were available, when the Government had claimed in May that 30 million would be available by December 2020:

Britain will only have 530,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine at its disposal from Monday, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed today after the game-changing jab was approved by the UK medical regulator.

The initial doses fall significantly short of the number touted by the Government in recent months. In May, officials suggested 30million doses of Oxford’s jab would be ready by the end of the year and last month the UK’s vaccine tsar toned the estimate down to 4million, citing manufacturing problems. 

But the UK has ordered 100million doses in total and AstraZeneca has promised to deliver 2million a week by mid-January, raising hopes that 24million of the most vulnerable Britons could be immunised by Easter.

Vaccine or not, the public’s patience was waning.

The first half of 2021 was dismal, beginning on January 4.

To be continued tomorrow.

My series on Matt Hancock MP continues.

Those who missed them can catch up on parts 1 and 2.

Today’s post takes us further into the late Spring up to the early autumn of 2020. The Government’s policy on coronavirus held the UK hostage at home, for varying amounts of time, depending on what part of the country one lived in.

Testing centres popped up around the country. Hancock, who was Health Secretary at the time, urged everyone to go to one of these centres to find out if they had the virus. The narrative was that the asymptomatic could still have it and transmit it to someone else. What a load of cobblers. As Mike Yeadon, who used to work for Pfizer said, if you’re ill, you’ll know about it.

A mobile phone app also appeared: Test and Trace. Another load of rubbish, which was very expensive. Surprisingly, many Britons with smartphones used it. Another good reason for not having a smartphone.

Imperial College’s SAGE modeller, Prof Neil Ferguson, was discovered to have broken lockdown with his mistress, who lived on the other side of London.

In May, news emerged that Boris’s top adviser Dominic Cummings slipped off from London with his wife and son to Barnard Castle, County Durham. As penance, Boris made Cummings give a 90-minute press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden. Excruciating.

England’s Independence Day was declared on the Fourth of July. Then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s hospitality plan, Eat Out to Help Out, started a short while later, boosting restaurant sales.

During this time, the borders were open and people could travel freely. The problem were the sudden embargos which interrupted holidays at inconvenient hours of the day. Britons were often told to return home from a European country, mostly France and Spain, at midnight or 4 a.m.

However, it wouldn’t be long before the long tentacles of SAGE would find more doom and gloom in the autumn.

More extracts from Matt Hancock and Isabel Oakeshott’s Pandemic Diaries, serialised in the Mail, continue, with news items I bookmarked from the time. Emphases mine below.

May 2020

Amazingly, Hancock managed to achieve his testing goal of 100,000, which seemed impossible when he announced it only a month earlier.

These are the principal extracts from the Mail for the entries below, unless otherwise indicated.

Friday, May 1:

We did it, and with a very comfortable margin. 122,347 tests! Let the naysayers put that in their pipe and smoke it! I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed my moment, given how desperately certain people were willing me to fail.

Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson was fascinated by Australia’s low rate of infection. Little did he know at the time that Australia would go into a prolonged lockdown lasting months.

Sunday, May 3:

We still haven’t figured out what to do about borders. [Dominic] Raab, [Grant] Shapps and Sunak all want to keep the borders open. Crucially, they’re supported by the Prof [Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty]. On the other side, Priti Patel and I are in favour of far tougher measures, as is Boris.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was enjoying her power over her people, starring in daily briefings which the BBC televised. She gave her briefings at lunchtime. The UK government gave theirs in the early evening.

Monday, May 4:

Tonight, Nicola Sturgeon announced a ‘summer push to elimination [of Covid]’, a policy which has about as much hope of working as Chairman Mao’s attempt to eliminate sparrows by getting the Chinese population to bang pots and pans.

Much as I’m sure Nicola would love to build a Trump-style wall between her fiefdom and the rest of Great Britain, we’re all in this together. One person who’s clearly not keen on a hermit lifestyle is Prof Neil Ferguson [who was advising the Government on its Covid response]. 

I wasn’t particularly sympathetic when I heard he’d been caught breaking the rules [by meeting with his lover]. He’s issued a grovelling apology, but it was obvious he couldn’t continue to act as a Government adviser.

Ferguson resigned from SPI-M, SAGE’s modelling team, but was reinstated in 2021.

The care home situation continued to loom large. Infections and deaths were ever present. Furthermore, families were rightly distressed by having to press up against a window to see their elderly loved ones, a situation that persists in some care homes even today.

Boris suggested that Hancock hire Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist with a background in pharmaceuticals, as the head of the Vaccine Taskforce.

Also on May 4, we discovered that Good Morning Britain‘s star presenter Piers Morgan was a ‘Government-designated essential worker’. His test was negative, but he was experiencing symptoms, so he stayed off air for a few more days. The Mail reported that Hancock tweeted his best wishes before Morgan got the results of his test:

Mr Hancock, who had his own battle with coronavirus and who has previously clashed with the GMB host on the ITV morning show, tweeted that he hoped if Mr Morgan did test positive for Covid-19 that the symptoms would be mild. 

On May 7, Hancock announced that Baroness Dido Harding would head the Test and Trace programme:

On May 9, the Mail on Sunday reported that Boris and Cabinet members were clashing with the beleaguered Health Secretary:

Matt Hancock is living on ‘borrowed time’ as Health Secretary following clashes with the three most powerful members of the Government over the Covid crisis, The Mail on Sunday has been told.

Mr Hancock is understood to have pleaded ‘give me a break’ when Boris Johnson reprimanded him over the virus testing programme – leading to open questioning within Downing Street over Mr Hancock’s long-term political future.

His run-in with Mr Johnson follows battles with both Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove over the best strategy for managing the pandemic.

Shortly after Mr Johnson returned to work at No 10 a fortnight ago, he and Mr Johnson had a tense exchange about the the Health Department’s ‘grip’ on the crisis, during which Mr Hancock said to the Prime Minister, in what has been described as a ‘petulant’ tone: ‘That’s not fair – give me a break.’

He is also being blamed in some Government quarters – or scapegoated, according to his allies – for not moving quickly enough to do more to protect care homes from the epidemic. 

On Wednesday, May 13, Hancock announced a new genomics initiative in order to better understand the virus:

Thursday, May 14:

People are starting to blame us for discharging elderly people from hospital into residential settings without testing them properly, before we introduced strict rules. The evidence simply doesn’t bear that out: care home outbreaks rose sharply long after we had enough tests to put that right.

That day, a Labour peer was mystified as to why the Government did not know how much PPE there was:

Friday, May 22:

Westminster is abuzz with claims that Cummings broke lockdown rules, going to stay with his parents while he had Covid, which looks like a mega breach.

Saturday, May 23:

Downing Street called asking if I’d do some media [to support Cummings], but I’m uneasy. Despite all the reassurances, it feels off.

In the end, I issued a supportive tweet, saying he was right to find childcare for his toddler when both he and his wife were getting ill.

[Former Chancellor] George Osborne messaged me this evening warning me not to stick my neck out for Cummings again. ‘Lie low’ was his advice.

Sunday, May 24:

I spent much of the day fielding angry messages, many of them questioning why the PM is still standing up for Cummings. The answer is that he rules through fear and intimidation, squashing those who dare to challenge him or get in his way.

Monday, May 25:

Cummings tried to draw a line under the Barnard Castle affair by holding a press conference in the Downing Street garden. He sat behind a table, squinting awkwardly into the sun, looking like a sulky teenager who’d been sent outside to do his work for disrupting the class.

Afterwards, I found myself feeling strangely sorry for Boris.

Cummings has only one setting – divide and destroy – and now the boss is having to say some pretty stupid things as he machetes his way through the resulting mess.

The only thing for it was to keep backing Cummings – silence from me would only create an unhelpful story – so this evening I tweeted that I welcome the fact that Cummings ‘has provided substantive answers to all the questions put to him’. Apparently it got me some credit in No 10, but I can’t say I felt good about it.

Away from the Cummings s*** show, we had a Cabinet meeting to discuss plans for easing restrictions. It was a bizarre Cabinet, held on Zoom without a single mention of the Cummings-shaped elephant in the room. 

In fact, an absurd amount of bandwidth was occupied by a discussion about whether – when we allow two households to get together outside – people should be permitted to walk through a house to get to a friend’s garden

It’s fine by me, but are people going to ask whether they will also be able to go inside to use the loo? ‘If they’re quick and disinfect the handle?’ the Prof replied.

Who could believe that under a Conservative government, the long arm of the State would find its way into people’s loos?

On Tuesday, May 26, a Sky News reporter called out to Hancock asking if he was going to sack Cummings. Ermm, it wasn’t Hancock’s responsibility, only Boris’s:

June 2020

Thursday, June 4:

Boris messaged me at 6.43am saying he was ‘going quietly crackers’ about not testing enough people. He told me he sees it as our ‘Achilles heel’. He was in a proper flap. ‘What is wrong with our country that we can’t fix this?’ he complained. 

I tried to calm him down. ‘Don’t go crackers,’ I said. ‘We now have the biggest testing capacity in Europe.’ Tempting as it was, I refrained from saying we did this against the obstruction of his own No 10 operation.

Wednesday, June 17:

In an embarrassingly crude power grab, [European Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen is trying to wrest control of vaccine research and procurement from EU member states.

Never mind that health is a matter for individual countries: the woman who once sent German army units on manoeuvres with broomsticks – because they didn’t have any rifles – wants to move responsibility for scientific development and manufacture into the sticky paws of Brussels bureaucrats.

I may have voted to Remain, but it’s enough to make a Brexiteer out of anyone.

Friday, June 19:

A massive blow-up with Kate [Bingham, head of the Vaccine Taskforce]. She simply doesn’t see the need to order 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccineshe wants 30 million – and can’t seem to grasp almost everyone may want or need it.

I warned her during today’s meeting that if we don’t get our ducks in a row on this one, we risk a complete car crash.

She pushed back hard. But with the other elected Ministers on my side, I won the argument [for buying 100 million doses].

‘I’m not happy with that meeting,’ Kate snapped afterwards. ‘Nor me,’ I replied.

‘We will create a guide for you to explain what we are doing – there are enormous risks with this,’ she said, as if I don’t spend all my time thinking about how to save lives.

Kate pressed on, claiming that the technology that underpins the vaccine Oxford is working on [Astra-Zeneca] ‘is neither proven nor scaled’, and that she has ‘an expert team who are working round the clock, pushing hard’.

I told her: ‘We need to have tried everything feasibly possible to accelerate delivery. I’ve been asking the same question over and over again and not yet had a satisfactory answer – hence my frustration.’

This only seemed to wind her up further, prompting a mini-lecture about the dangers of trying to go too far too fast.

‘The worse case is we kill people with an unsafe vaccine,’ she said. ‘We need to tone the comms to register the fact this is risky and unproven.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s being patronised.

On Wednesday, June 24, Hancock, riding high as the chap in charge of the nation’s health, appeared on Robert Peston’s ITV current affairs show:

July 2020

July 4 was Independence Day from coronavirus in England.

However, separate regulations applied in Leicester, which still had a high rate of infection. Even so, nothing was stopping them travelling elsewhere to socialise or shop:

On Sunday, July 5, Hancock expressed concern over high infection rates and overcrowded working conditions in certain factories in Leicester. It seems he was thinking of certain textile factories operating like sweatshops:

Monday, July 6:

The Vaccine Taskforce have consistently argued that we only need to back three [vaccine] brands. My view is that, to hedge our bets, we need more. Any one of the vaccines could fail in clinical trials.

Fortunately, Rishi and Steve Barclay at the Treasury are totally onside.

Wednesday, July 8:

Rishi’s announced a new Eat Out To Help Out initiative. I did my best to sound supportive, but in truth I’m worried that it might backfire and lead to a spike in cases.

Thursday, July 16:

In my box tonight was one particularly startling note relating to the way Covid has been getting into care homes. The main takeaway is that the virus is primarily being brought in by staff, not by elderly people who’ve been discharged from hospital.

This explains a lot, including why the rise in care home deaths came so much later than would have been the case if hospital discharges were the primary cause. We must ban staff movement between care homes, fast.

On Friday, July 17, news emerged that deaths from natural causes were being classified as coronavirus deaths because of a previous positive test. A retired journalist had the story:

He pointed out that Public Health England (PHE) never announced how they were tabulating deaths. Scotland, of course, tabulated theirs differently:

The question remains: how many ‘Covid’ deaths were true Covid deaths?

Saturday, July 25:

Anyone coming back from Spain from midnight tonight will have to self-quarantine for 14 days. This is very bad news for a lot of British holidaymakers.

Department for Transport officials kept pushing for 24 hours’ notice for the Spain decision, which I thought was curious – Grant Shapps is normally an ‘action this day’ Minister – until I discovered that Grant and his family had just flown there on holiday. The officials were trying, perhaps too hard, to protect their Minister.

In Cobra meetings, Nicola Sturgeon’s political games have become incredibly debilitating and significantly limit scope for open discussion. She sits like a statue, lips pursed like the top of a drawstring bag, only jolting into life when there’s an opportunity to say something to further the separatist cause.

The minute someone presses ‘End Meeting’, you can almost hear her running for a lectern so she can rush out an announcement before we make ours. We now chew over big decisions elsewhere and relegate formal meetings to rubber-stamping exercises.

Monday, July 27:

Downing Street is in a semi-panic about a second wave.

Tuesday, July 28:

Sturgeon is on manoeuvres again, trying to persuade us all to sign up to her impossible and anti- scientific zero-Covid plan.

Sure, we’d all love zero Covid, but that’s about as realistic as a bagpipe-playing unicorn.

She just wants to look and sound tough, then blame us when her policies don’t work.

I can hardly bear to watch her on TV any more.

Wednesday, July 29:

Testing is a continuing concern. We still haven’t sorted procurement for what Boris calls ‘Operation Moonshot’. The idea is to carry out literally millions of Covid tests a day to keep the economy going.

Also on that day:

Officials say we mustn’t eliminate staff movement across care homes because it might lead to a shortage of staff. Yet research shows the risk of outbreaks in care homes doubles if carers are coming and going.

On Thursday, July 30, Bradford was experiencing a high rate of coronavirus. Hancock put restrictions in place.

This was Bradford Council’s message:

Hancock’s restrictions prohibited people meeting up at each other’s homes:

SkyNews had a report on the story:

Fortunately, for them, it might have felt like an eternity but it was temporary.

What wasn’t temporary was his announcement earlier that day that GP appointments would have to take place remotely. This is still in place today, causing untold distress to millions of Britons.

The Guardian reported:

All GP appointments should be done remotely by default unless a patient needs to be seen in person, Matt Hancock has said, prompting doctors to warn of the risk of abandoning face-to-face consultations.

In a speech setting out lessons for the NHS and care sector from the coronavirus pandemic, the health secretary claimed that while some errors were made, “so many things went right” in the response to Covid-19, and new ways of working should continue.

He said it was patronising to claim that older patients were not able to handle technology.

The plan for web-based GP appointments is set to become formal policy, and follows guidance already sent to GPs on having more online consultations.

But the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) hit back, saying it would oppose a predominantly online system on the grounds that both doctors and patients benefited from proper contact.

They don’t seem to think so now, do they?

The article continues:

Addressing the Royal College of Physicians in London, Hancock noted the huge increase in online consultations as much of the NHS closed its doors to focus on the crisis. In the four weeks to mid-April, 71% of routine GP appointments were done remotely against 25% in the same period a year before.

Outlining what he said were the ways the pandemic had demonstrated the need for greater uses of technology in healthcare, Hancock said that before the coronavirus, “there was a view advanced by some which held that anyone over the age of 25 simply could not cope with anything other than a face-to-face appointment”.

He said: “Of course there always has to be a system for people who can’t log on. But we shouldn’t patronise older people by saying they don’t do tech.”

The rise in online consultations had been welcome, he argued, especially in rural areas. “So from now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to,” Hancock said.

“Of course, if there’s an emergency, the NHS will be ready and waiting to see you in person – just as it always has been. But if they are able to, patients should get in contact first – via the web or by calling in advance.”

Sure, Matt.

What a disaster that policy has proven to be.

The month seemed to end on a positive note with regard to agency staff working in multiple care homes.

July 31:

Good news on banning staff movement in care homes. After I blew my top, officials got the message.

August

By August, even though England was open and people were socialising again, rules were still in place. They caused a lot of confusion, including in Government. Only Boris had mastered them.

Monday, August 3:

To ram home his point about how complicated the Covid rules have got, Boris went round the [Cabinet] table asking everyone to set them out simply. We had endless different answers, and he got them all right

‘I hope colleagues feel I have justified my general reputation for mastery of detail by being RIGHT this morning about the rules. It’s two households inside and six outside,’ he said triumphantly.

Boris was eager for people to get back to work. He saw self-administered tests — lateral flow tests — as the answer.

Friday, August 7:

Boris is having a sugar rush about DIY Covid testing, which he believes could lead us to what’s he’s dubbed – in emphatic capital letters – ‘COVID FREEDOM DAY’. I have no idea who he’s been talking to, but he’s very fired up.

He thinks rapid home tests are the way to ‘get Whitehall and the whole British army of bludgers and skivers’ back to the office and ‘douse all remaining embers of the disease’. Today, I’m on a short break in Hay-on-Wye. When we got to the pub, there was great excitement. I’m not used to people recognising me, so the universal recognition is a bit of a shock. Something I’ll have to get used to, I suppose.

The following year, everyone would know who he was — and not just in the UK. How happy I am that The Sun released that photo of him and his girlfriend. It went viral, worldwide.

Hancock announced the end of Public Health England, which, strangely enough, still seems to be around.

Tuesday, August 18:

[Hancock has announced plans to abolish Public Health England.] On reflection, I should have been more brutal earlier. It wasn’t fit for purpose, and I should have cleared out senior figures who blocked the expansion of testing, basically because they didn’t want the private sector involved.

In response, Angela Rayner [deputy Labour leader] has been tweeting the usual tripe about Tories wanting to privatise the NHS by stealth. Does anyone seriously listen to this c**p any more?

The truth is, we wouldn’t stand a chance of winning this fight against Covid if it wasn’t for support from business. From manufacturing tests to developing the vaccine, the private sector – alongside the NHS and academia – has been critical to the fight.

Friday, August 21:

Border enforcement is a mess. Everyone who flies in to the UK has to fill out a passenger locator form, which they’re supposed to hand to officials on arrival at the airport, but half the time the documents go straight in the bin.

We can blame compulsory masks for secondary school pupils on Nicola Sturgeon. The UK government fears the woman.

Tuesday, August 25:

Nicola Sturgeon blindsided us by suddenly announcing that when schools in Scotland reopen, all secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in classrooms. In one of her most egregious attempts at oneupmanship to date, she didn’t consult us. The problem is that our original guidance on face coverings specifically excluded schools.

Cue much tortured debate between myself, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and No 10 about how to respond.

Much as Sturgeon would relish it, nobody here wants a big spat with the Scots. So, U-turn it is.

Amazing — and not in a good way.

Boris was worried about the British economy, and rightly so.

Wednesday, August 26:

I was minding my own business, when suddenly, ping! Ping! Boris sprang into life. It was 6.29am. He veered off the reservation, suddenly going off on one about how the virus isn’t really killing many people any more so ‘how can we possibly justify the continuing paralysis?’

He noted that an 80-year-old now has a six per cent chance of dying, which he didn’t think was enough to justify what we’re doing.

‘If I were an 80-year-old and I was told that the choice was between destroying the economy and risking my exposure to a disease that I had a 94 per cent chance of surviving, I know what I would prefer,’ he argued.

This exchange, which continued on WhatsApp pretty much all morning, was more than a little stressful, given that it represented a fundamental challenge to our entire pandemic response.

I’m not quite sure what he expected – that the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Adviser, Cummings and I would all suddenly throw our hands up and say: ‘You know what, you’re right, this whole thing has been a huge mistake. Let’s ditch everything we’re doing and pretend none of it ever happened’?

Fortunately, after a few hours he ran out of both statistics and steam. All the same, I sense a very definite shift in attitude. Something has unsettled him. Who has he been on holiday with?

By the next day, Boris had gone back to normal.

Thursday, August 27:

Overnight, Boris’s creeping suspicion that everything we’re doing has been a catastrophic over-reaction has evaporated as quickly as it appeared, to be replaced by annoyance at the discovery that there is a supply/demand gap for testing

In fact, we are a victim of our own success. Our advertising campaign encouraging more people to come forward for tests has been a bit too effective, and now we’re overwhelmed.

Saturday, August 29:

Boris has started going on about ‘freedom passes’. I think he envisages some sort of app that would allow anyone who can prove they’re negative to get back to normal. I can see the appeal, but I can also see the likely furore over anything resembling ‘Papers, please’.

Covid cases are rocketing in France. ‘We need to draw lessons pronto,’ Boris said, asking if the French have tried local lockdowns or whether it is ‘a case of the whole frog getting slowly boiled?’

September 2020

Wednesday, September 2:

Test and Trace is now identifying more than half of new cases. ‘It’s like the system actually works!’ I messaged Dido Harding [head of Test and Trace] excitedly. ‘Who would have guessed!!’ she replied.

Hancock talked about a vaccine in a coronavirus briefing.

Tuesday, September 8:

I got a blast from No 10 about talking up the vaccine yesterday. Other than Boris, nobody there has ever really believed we can make it happen. In reality, their scepticism suits me, because it means they’re not meddling. The last thing I need is Cummings interfering or the project going through the Cabinet Office mincer.

Restriction tiers across England were looming. An example would be the aforementioned restrictions in Leicester and the north of England where coronavirus was prevalent.

Tuesday, September 15:

The PM is still dithering over restriction tiers, a classic Boris battle between head and heart.

Thursday, September 17:

Cases are growing. Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] thinks we need a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’. Boris seemed confused, doing that thing he does, emphatically verbalising the arguments for and against out loud – alarming everyone as they try to work out where he’s going to land.

Friday, September 18:

We are now at 6,000 new Covid infections a day in England alone, nearly double the figure last week.

By 10pm, No 10 had done a complete about-turn. They now want tougher local lockdowns and more warnings about what happens if people don’t follow the rules. Apparently the PM wants to explain that we have to balance Covid with other health and economic factors. 

Well, no s***. What’s really infuriating is that the people who want action to control the virus didn’t insist on me being there [at meetings] to press the point.

Monday, September 21:

Boris is torn. Everyone’s getting heavy with him, from the Prof to Sage, who say there will be ‘catastrophic consequences’ if we don’t act now. They’ve proposed a two-week circuit-breaker.

Friday, September 25:

An alarming note from the modelling people who advise Sage. They say the epidemic is ‘close to breaching the agreed reasonable worst-case scenario’. Meanwhile, public finances are a horror show – from April to August, the figure borrowed was £173.7 billion

Rishi has clearly been using these figures to freak out the PM. But the only sustainable way to get the economy back on track is to defeat the virus, not pretend it’s gone away.

Saturday, September 26:

We’ve spent millions promoting the [NHS Covid] app, including buying wraparound ads in loads of publications. Just as I was allowing myself a moment of satisfaction at a job well done – or at least not ballsed up – there came news of fresh horror. A major glitch has emerged: the app can’t take data from NHS Covid tests.

I sat very still, trying to absorb the full implications of the fact that we’ve just spent tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on an NHS app that… doesn’t link to the NHS. Which genius thought it would not need to do this, first and foremost? Which other genius signed it off on this basis?

Given the multiple overlapping responsibilities of the various quangos involved, Whitehall’s institutional buck-passing and the involvement of two mega tech companies (Google and Apple), we just didn’t know.

What I did know was the buck stopped with me, and it was probably time to adopt the brace position. I prayed that word of this hideous blunder would not reach Cummings, but that was of course too much to hope. Naturally he went nuts when he found out, and I can’t say I blame him.

I find this sort of screw-up personally mortifying. Should I have asked such a basic and obvious question? I took it for granted that we would link our own app up to our own tests. Never assume!

To be continued tomorrow.

The first part of my series on former Health Secretary Matt Hancock can be found here.

It summarises where he is today, having finished third in a British reality show in Australia for a cool £400,000 and deciding not to run again as MP for West Suffolk.

It details the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, through to the end of April as the news covered it.

To offer balance, today’s post covers the same period in Hancock’s own words. He has just published his Pandemic Diaries, which he co-authored with former Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott.

Isabel Oakeshott’s view

Not being able to imagine who on earth would want to collaborate on a book with our historically authoritarian Health Secretary who left his wife in June 2021 for his adviser/girlfriend, I was interested to read Oakeshott’s justification in The Spectator, posted on December 7, 2022.

Excerpts from ‘The truth about Matt Hancock’ follow, emphases mine:

Matt Hancock and I have almost nothing in common. For starters I’m terrified of spiders and hopelessly squeamish. I physically retched as I watched him eating unmentionables in the Australian jungle. Far more importantly, we fundamentally disagree over his handling of the pandemic …

This country paid a catastrophic price for what I see as a reckless overreaction to a disease that was only life-threatening to a small number of people who could have been protected without imprisoning the entire population. As each day passes, more evidence emerges that shutting down society for prolonged periods to ‘stop the spread’ and ‘protect the NHS’ was a monumental disaster.

Hancock, obviously, disagrees. The Rt Hon Member for West Suffolk is not just unrepentant: he still wholeheartedly believes that as health secretary during the pandemic, he made all the right calls. He is utterly scathing of anyone who argues that repeated lockdowns were avoidable; does not have the slightest doubt over any aspect of the government’s vaccine policy; and thinks anyone who believes any other approach to the pandemic was either realistic or desirable is an idiot.

How then could I have worked with him on his book about the pandemic? Some of my lockdown confidantes suggested it was a betrayal and that he should be punished, perhaps viciously so.

I wanted to get to the truth. What better way to find out what really happened – who said what to whom; the driving force and thinking behind key policies and decisions; who (if anyone) dissented; and how they were crushed – than to align myself with the key player? I might not get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I’d certainly get a good dollop of it, and a keen sense of anything murky requiring further investigation.

In the event, Hancock shared far more than I could ever have imagined. I have viewed thousands and thousands of sensitive government communications relating to the pandemic, a fascinating and very illuminating exercise. I was not paid a penny for this work, but the time I spent on the project – almost a year – was richly rewarding in other ways. Published this week, co-authored by me, Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries are the first insider account from the heart of government of the most seismic political, economic and public health crisis of our times.

I am not so naive as to imagine that he told me everything. However, since he still does not believe he did anything wrong, he was surprisingly inclined to disclosure. In an indication of how far he was prepared to go, the Cabinet Office requested almost 300 deletions and amendments to our original manuscript. Under pressure from me and out of his own desire that the book should be both entertaining and revelatory, to his credit, Hancock fought hard to retain as much controversial material as he could. The resulting work is twice as long as I originally intended, and half the length he wanted it to be.

Pandemic Diaries: January to April 2020

The Mail has been serialising Pandemic Diaries over the past week.

Excerpts from the first exclusive extract follow, beginning on New Year’s Day 2020.

Wednesday, January 1:

Standing in my kitchen in Suffolk after a quiet New Year’s Eve, I scanned my newspaper for clues as to what might be lurking around the corner. The only thing on my patch was a news-in-brief story about a mystery pneumonia outbreak in China.

There were enough people in hospital for Beijing to have put out an alert. It reminded me a bit of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) back in 2003, which killed hundreds, mainly in China and Hong Kong. I asked my private office to put together a briefing and made a mental note to raise it when I got back.

Sunday, January 5:

There are now 59 cases in China; seven of these patients are seriously ill with breathing problems.

Tuesday, January 7, when Parliament had returned from Christmas recess:

I found the PM [Boris] in the voting lobby looking like he’d had a good Christmas and revelling in all the congratulatory back slaps from colleagues. We walked through the lobby together, and I told him about the new disease.

‘You keep an eye on it,’ he said breezily. ‘It will probably go away like all the others.’

In more trivial news, a picture of my Union Jack socks has somehow gone viral after I was pictured on my way into Cabinet yesterday. My old university friend and communications specialist Gina Coladangelo was not particularly impressed. She thinks they’re a bit Ukip.

Saturday, January 11:

First death from the virus in China — at least, the first one they’ve told us about.

Friday, January 17:

When I got into the department, Chris Whitty — whom I appointed Chief Medical Officer last year, and who is known informally as the Prof — asked for a word. Calmly, in his ultra-reasonable way, he explained that he thinks the virus has a 50:50 chance of escaping China. If it gets out of China in a big way, he says a very large number of people will die.

At this point, Boris was preparing for our official exit from the European Union at the end of January. Everyone’s attention, not surprisingly, was on Brexit. Hancock’s push for a Cabinet Office Briefing — COBRA — went unheeded.

Wednesday, January 22:

I found out tonight that Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, is blocking my push for a meeting of COBRA. Infuriating!

Thursday, January 23:

No 10 has grudgingly agreed to let me make a statement to the Commons about the virus. No 10 are still saying calling COBRA would be ‘alarmist’. What utter rubbish.

Friday, January 24:

Dominic Cummings [the PM’s chief adviser] thinks Covid is a distraction from our official withdrawal from the EU next week. That’s all he wants Boris talking about.

On Saturday, January 25, Hancock worried about evacuating Britons from Wuhan. He contacted then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who agreed to put a plan into place. On Sunday, Hancock was frustrated to find that civil servants were drawing up advice on whether, not how, to evacuate UK citizens there.

Monday, January 27:

Coronavirus is now the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed.

The next day, Tuesday, a meeting of 30 people took place to discuss the virus, including SAGE members Chris Whitty and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who would be regulars on our television screens in the months to come. This is where the alarmism started.

Tuesday, January 28 (see photo):

In his characteristically understated way, sitting at the back peeling a tangerine, Chris Whitty quietly informed everyone that in the reasonable worst-case scenario, as many as 820,000 people in the UK may die. The transmission is so high that almost everyone would catch it.

The whole room froze. We are looking at a human catastrophe on a scale not seen here for a century.

I asked what we needed to do to accelerate a vaccine. Professor [Jonathan] Van-Tam said developing a vaccine normally takes five to ten years, but there’s a team in Oxford working on an Ebola project that can easily be switched to the new disease.

‘I want it by Christmas,’ I said.

On Wednesday, Boris’s PMQs went as usual, with no mention of the virus. Hancock was frustrated.

Wednesday, January 29:

I called the head of the World Health Organisation to try to persuade him — for the second timeto declare a public health international emergency. But China runs various projects in his private office, so he is scared stiff of upsetting them.

Thursday, January 30:

The Wuhan Brits are on their way back. I’ve had a showdown with officials and lawyers over what to do with the evacuees when they land at RAF Brize Norton.

PHE [Public Health England] thinks they should be greeted with a smile and a leaflet and asked nicely to go home and stay there for a couple of weeks. I said they should go straight into quarantine. PHE started hand-wringing about human rights. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘let’s get them to sign a contract before they board. In return for the flight, they agree to go into quarantine. No contract, no flight.’ I was told the contract wouldn’t be legally enforceable and was too draconian. ‘Do it anyway,’ I instructed.

The World Health Organisation have finally declared the virus a public health emergency. The risk level in the UK has now gone from low to moderate.

PHE’s audit of PPE [personal protective equipment] came back and did not lighten my mood. There’s no clear record of what’s in the stockpile, and some kit is past its ‘best before’ date. I’ve instructed officials to work out what we need fast, and buy in huge quantities.

Friday, January 31:

The Wuhan flight touched down at Brize Norton. The RAF crew and all our officials were in full hazmat suits, but the poor coach drivers taking them into quarantine were in their normal work clothes. Who on earth would give protection to air crew but not bus crew?

The UK left the EU on schedule. I remember the parliamentary contributions from Conservative MPs about the wonderful plans they had for the nation. It was a glorious time to be alive.

Meanwhile, Downing Street’s attention would turn to the pandemic in February.

Hancock tries to paint himself as a supporter of personal liberty in this next diary entry.

Tuesday, February 4:

As a [classical] liberal, I’ve always believed people make the best decisions for themselves. Now we are contemplating actions that could bankrupt millions of businesses and interfere in literally everyone’s lives. It is a very, very strange feeling; not me at all.

Hancock says that Boris, rightly, was still unconcerned.

Tuesday, February 11:

Driving home down the Harrow Road [in London], I looked at the crowds spilling out of the pub on the corner and tried to imagine what it will be like if we have to shut these places. I felt like I inhabited another world, that no one outside had yet seen into.

Hancock finally got his COBRA meeting.

Wednesday, February 12:

Back in the COBRA room today for a civil service exercise to rehearse what we’ll do if the virus runs out of control. We role-played how we would do our jobs in two months’ time if the very worst-case scenario has happened and hundreds of thousands are dying.

Where in Hyde Park would the burial pits be? Who would dig them? Have we got enough body bags?

Worst of all was agreeing a protocol to instruct doctors which lives to save. Do we treat the young, because they have more years to live, or the old, because they are more vulnerable? Horrific decisions.

Public Health England (PHE) had bad news for Hancock.

Tuesday, February 18:

PHE says our current approach of tracing all contacts of anyone who’s infected is unsustainable. Apparently they can only cope with five new cases a week. This is infuriating since only a few weeks ago they told me they had the best system in the world.

I had no idea that China was buying testing services from Britain’s Randox. Hmm.

Thursday, February 27:

PHE has outright refused a request from Randox, the UK’s biggest testing company, for coronavirus samples. Certain senior public health officials are absolutely allergic to anything involving the private sector. Evidently they’d rather risk lives than set aside these ideological objections.

No such sniffiness from the Chinese, who are snapping up Randox’s services.

At the beginning of March, public health posters and announcements about coronavirus began appearing.

Sunday, March 1:

We’re telling everyone to wash their hands more frequently and encouraging parents to get their kids to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice to make sure they do it for long enough. What I really wanted people to sing was the national anthem.

Sadly, I was overruled, as the collective view seems to be that happy birthday is ‘less divisive’. Since when is the national anthem controversial? Sigh.

Thursday, March 5:

First two UK deaths — a horrible landmark.

Saturday, March 7:

There’s a crisis looming with ventilators. We have nowhere near enough. If the worst comes to the worst, we may need to put out advice on how to care for a critically-ill relative at home, a terrifying prospect for most people.

I took a few hours off today and took the kids to Planet Laser in Bury St Edmunds [in his constituency]. It involves charging around in the dark in a ‘battle suit’ firing lasers at other players. I was looking forward to forgetting about coronavirus for an hour or so, but no such luck: it turned out that one of the games is called Infection.

Every time a player’s laser hit one of the other players, they would get ‘infected’ with a disease. In between attempts to dodge the fictional virus, I kept having to dart out to respond to urgent messages about the real one.

By March 8, the UK began experiencing a shortage of bathroom tissue. People were bulk buying. Rice was another product in short supply. Hancock says that he and his wife bought a huge sack of rice.

Another thing in short supply were hospital beds.

Monday, March 9:

In my box of official papers this evening was a scientific briefing suggesting the NHS could have a deficit of 150,000 beds and 9,000 ICU spaces.

Tuesday, March 10:

I’ve instructed PHE to produce plans for how they will get testing up from 1,000 tests a week to 10,000. I don’t care who does these tests — just that they’re fast and accurate.

Thursday, March 12:

While the Prime Minister was standing before the nation declaring we’re doing everything possible to save lives, PHE have advised to stop all contact tracing. They’ve basically given up, having become overwhelmed by the number of cases. Infuriating!

March 12, 2020 was the day of the last lunch my better half and I had with friends in Mayfair before lockdown. None of us would have believed that we would not see each other again until August 11, 2021, by which time indoor mask restrictions had been lifted.

Friday, March 13:

A call with my fellow G7 Health Ministers. Everyone sounded terrified.

Also from that day:

Simon Stevens [NHS England chief executive] says frail elderly patients who don’t need urgent treatment need to be discharged from hospital, either to their home or to care homes. He’s spoken to the PM about it and is determined to make it happen.

Saturday, March 14:

In just three days, the numbers have doubled. At 10am I went to Downing Street to talk to the PM and others. We wrestled with all the issues. What measures? How long? Would people comply? Are we doing enough to make sure the NHS can cope?

We were all struggling to get our heads round the enormity of what we were discussing. Boris set out the case for and against each option. After everyone had had their say, we collectively made the decision: to close large swathes of society.

Monday, March 16:

Cummings, [communications director] Lee Cain, Whitty and I went into Boris’s study garden and finessed the message he was going to give in a televised press conference. Then, at 5pm, it was time. Looking as grave as he ever does, Boris told the elderly and vulnerable they are going to have to stay at home for 12 weeks.

That day, Hancock issued his first guidelines to Parliament and the public:

Tuesday, March 17:

I’ve been told we have a billion items of PPE in a warehouse in the North-West. ‘Hooray!’ I thought. Just one problem — we can’t get it out. It turns out that it’s in a huge storage unit with only one door. Ergo, only one lorry can pull up at a time. What a classic government fail.

It was my son’s 12th birthday today, almost all of which I missed. My family is already paying a heavy price for this crisis.

Also from that day:

A bonkers proposal from the Ministry of Justice to let prisoners out, as they’d be easier to manage if they’re not in prison. Yes really: they actually thought this might be a goer. I was emphasising [my opposition] so hard that all of a sudden my chair could take the strain no longer and ripped, tipping me unceremoniously on to the floor.

Hancock advised that the public could pose any questions on his Instagram account:

A few days before, Hancock appealed to retired NHS practitioners to return to the health service to help in the pandemic effort. On Saturday, March 21, he said that 4,000 nurses and 500 doctors were returning:

Good Morning Britain‘s Piers Morgan quickly got into panic mode:

Sunday, March 22:

Crunch meeting in Downing Street, at which the Prime Minister weighed up all the options. He’s famous for this, so it’s impossible to know in the middle of the meeting where he’s going to end up. It’s his way of making big decisions. Today he agreed to a formal lockdown as soon as possible.

Monday, March 23:

At 8.30pm, the Prime Minister gave his address to the nation. From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction: you must stay at home . . .’

In my own household, I found an old computer in the attic and have set it up for our youngest, though I’m not sure how online school is going to work for a six-year-old. With me largely absent, it’s tough on the family.

Hancock led the coronavirus briefing for the first time on Tuesday, March 24. He described himself as being ‘unusually nervous’.

Tuesday, March 24:

Driving down Park Lane there wasn’t a single other car on the road — not one. I sat in the back of the car feeling almost sick. All I could think was: What have we done?

The nausea wouldn’t last long, however. Hancock would soon grow into his newly found power.

He had many messages that day:

He announced a war footing for the British public:

The first Nightingale hospital — relatively unused — was opened.

Hancock ordered NHS and care home staff to report to work:

He issued contradictory advice about working between addressing the House of Commons and the coronavirus briefing later that day:

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan said that too many Tube workers were off sick to run a full service. This left the trains that were running packed to the gills:

Hancock said that lockdown was not guidance and that police would enforce it:

Meanwhile, the airports were open to all arrivals:

On Wednesday, March 25, Hancock expressed his gratitude to the 405,000 Britons who were volunteering in the pandemic effort:

Friday, March 27:

A nurse called first thing this morning to say I’ve got Covid. I called [the PM’s press secretary] Jack Doyle to break the news. ‘Erm, that’s interesting, as we’re just about to announce that the PM has tested positive, too,’ he replied. To cap it all, the Prof [Chris Whitty] also has symptoms.

He later announced his positive diagnosis:

Sunday, March 29:

My throat hurts so much that I can’t swallow and I can’t eat or drink. [My wife] Martha has also got it, along with our daughter and our live-in au pair.

Meanwhile there are still dire supply issues with PPE. The BMA [British Medical Association] is going nuts. It’s not as if I think it’s acceptable: it’s not! There’s just no quick fix. When the whole world is after it, it simply isn’t possible to get as much as we need as fast as it’s required.

Monday, March 30:

The government-owned company that gets PPE supplies to hospitals across the NHS has effectively collapsed. Total disaster.

I’m absolutely furious that the people who are meant to be experts in logistics have been unable to cope because there are too many actual logistics. WTF? We’ve been buying more from China, but the immediate problem is still lorry access to our storage facility in the North-West, where there’s only one door. Funnily enough, nobody has been able to magic up any extra entrances, so we’re still stuck with single lorryloads at a time.

On Thursday, April 2, Hancock announced his audacious and controversial plan of getting 100,000 coronavirus tests done by May 1, something for which he was derided by the media at the daily coronavirus briefings.

Also from that day:

Negative tests won’t be required prior to transfers/admissions into care homes. The tragic but honest truth is we don’t have enough testing capacity to check anyway. It’s an utter nightmare, but it’s the reality.

Under the circumstances, we must make sure that anyone going from a hospital into a care home is kept away from other residents. I hope this message filters through and is followed.

It’s been a choice between very difficult options. If we keep people in hospital, the NHS will be overrun. If only we had more tests.

Friday, April 3:

A 13-year-old boy who died from Covid was buried without any mourners yesterday. His parents weren’t even at the graveside because they were self-isolating. I felt almost physically sick reading it as my own boy, just a year younger, slept peacefully in the room next door.

I told Boris and he was shocked and upset. He tries not to let on, but he is actually a very emotional man. He was coughing through the call. He’s very worried about looking weak: ‘A general’s job is to show strength, not weakness,’ he told me ruefully.

Also from that day:

Officials are still insisting that Justice Secretary Rob Buckland wants to release thousands of non-violent prisoners to take the pressure off the system. I keep writing ‘NO’ in large letters on submissions asking me to sign this off. It’s obvious the public won’t wear it, yet the idea keeps going back and forth on paper.

After about the third iteration I called Rob Buckland, who to my astonishment told me he’d been advised that I was the one who wanted to release them.

Unfortunately, this still wasn’t the end of the matter. Clearly someone in Whitehall still thought it was a good idea and kept pushing it, to the point that the PM asked to talk to us both. I made my views crystal clear.

‘We cannot lock up literally everyone in the country except prisoners, who we instead release!’ I spluttered.

Saturday, April 4:

President Trump has randomly and dangerously declared that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for Covid, despite a total absence of the evidence. What an awful, awful man.

The next day, the Queen gave a brief message of support to her subjects, ending with ‘We’ll meet again’, echoing Dame Vera Lynn’s famous song from the Second World War.

Shortly afterwards, the nation received alarming news.

Sunday, April 5:

I was just about to go to bed when my phone rang for the umpteenth time. It was [Cabinet Secretary] Mark Sedwill, who informed me that the Prime Minister was on his way to St Thomas’s Hospital ‘as a precautionary step’. Boris is still furiously texting everyone.

Everyone knows that a Prime Minister isn’t admitted to hospital unless it’s something very serious. And so it turned out to be.

Monday, April 6:

Boris has been taken into intensive care. Everyone is stunned. I’m told there’s a 50:50 chance he’ll end up on a ventilator; and if that happens, we know there’s a 50:50 chance he will die. The minute the news came out, pharma companies started calling my private office with offers of experimental drugs.

On Tuesday, Hancock surmised Boris was in intensive care because coronavirus affects the obese.

Wednesday, April 8:

Boris spent a second night in intensive care. I worry about losing a close colleague and friend. When you spend time with Boris, it’s impossible not to like him.

He’s endlessly funny and engaging and thinks differently and more laterally than anyone I know. This can bring its challenges when straight-line thinking is required, but for grasping the big picture there’s no one like him.

Nobody speaks of it, but there is a ‘worst-case scenario’ plan for if Boris doesn’t pull through. We couldn’t possibly have a normal Conservative Party leadership election, so the Cabinet would have to take a quick decision, advise the Queen and rally round.

Boris left intensive care on April 9. He left hospital at the weekend. He then went to Chequers to recuperate, accompanied by his then-partner Carrie Symonds, who was in the final weeks of her pregnancy with their son Wilf.

Care homes were Hancock’s focus for the rest of the month — and the summer.

Wednesday, April 15:

From today, everyone going from hospital into social care will be tested and then isolated while the result comes through.

Saturday, April 18:

Care homes haven’t yet grasped the fact that we’re only going to get out of this if we test, test, test. According to figures I received today, the average care home has carried out 0.5 tests, which is exasperating, given how hard we’re working to increase capacity.

Also from that day, another tempest brewed over PPE supplies, which is still a hot topic in Parliament, even today:

Hundreds of businesses are approaching the department offering to manufacture this or that. Half the time nobody returns their calls, even with big companies such as Primark.

The problem is weeding out time-wasters and chancers – of which there are many – without missing opportunities. One company with a good product got so p***ed off they sold everything to the Scottish NHS. 

Even the Labour Party is writing in with suggested names of companies and individuals who could help – apparently without doing any due diligence on the offers.

Hancock sensed that not everyone in Downing Street or the Cabinet wanted him to succeed.

Monday, April 20:

Crunch week for hitting my testing target of 100,000 tests done by May 1. There’s an uncomfortable amount of speculation about my career depending on it. [Dominic] Cummings is itching for me to fail.

Friday, April 24:

Downing Street called my office saying I needed to schedule a quick call with the PM. I was looking forward to it, until I switched on Zoom to find the PM at Chequers flanked by Cummings and about a dozen other advisers. Rishi [Sunak] was there, looking sheepish. I realised instantly what was going on: an attempted ambush.

Boris opened with some gentle warm-ups, then Cummings started the shelling, subjecting me to a barrage of questions about my department’s response: on PPE, testing, NHS capacity, ventilators. Every so often, one of the others would pile in. Most questions seemed to be based on inaccurate media reports.

It was utterly exhausting, but I’ve lived this for months now, 18 hours a day, pretty much every day, so I am on top of every detail.

When they finally ran out of ammunition, I pressed ‘Leave Meeting’, sat back in my chair, checked my body for shrapnel wounds and saw that I was broadly intact. Next?

To be continued tomorrow.

This week’s news that former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock would be standing down as MP for West Suffolk at the next election was a joyful tiding, indeed.

Hancock is currently an Independent MP. The Conservative whip was withdrawn on November 1, 2002, when he accepted the invitation to appear on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, which takes place in the Australian jungle. Amazingly, he came third, getting further than Boy George did.

This week saw more Hancock news with the publication of his Pandemic Diaries, co-authored with former Times journalist, Isabel Oakeshott.

This series charts the rise and fall of the former Conservative MP, a principal protagonist in the coronavirus drama of 2020 and the first half of 2021.

Two Oxford medics give their verdict

On December 8, 2022, The Spectator featured an article from Drs Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson from the University of Oxford: ‘The UK isn’t learning the right lessons from lockdown’.

Both were sceptics during the pandemic, the type of medics Matt Hancock eschewed, as we will find out later on from the Pandemic Diaries.

Excerpts from Heneghan and Jefferson’s article follow, emphases mine:

This month, the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care published a Technical Report on the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK

The report is a long 11-chapter document describing the UK’s response and pointing out suggestions for dealing with future pandemics.  

The report is described as ‘independent’, but the authors are public health civil servants and a handful of academics. Given that the authors were instrumental to a greater and lesser degree in implementing the catastrophes of lockdowns, this report is as independent as President Xi marking his own homework in China

It is hard to reconcile some of the report’s content with what we have written about in the past. For example, there is no mention of the misuse of PCR tests or of Britain’s failure to follow the example of other countries, whose contact tracing systems were overwhelmed in days.

There is also no apology for the evidence-free mass testing programme, the segregation of healthy people, and the lack of identification of truly infectious cases.  

I remember the early weeks of the pandemic, which entered totalitarian territory on Monday, March 23, 2020, with Boris’s five-minute announcement on lockdown.

My far better half and I wondered then about the absurdity of contract tracing. Fortunately, neither of us has a smartphone, nor did we participate in any testing regime ever. We simply don’t see that many people.

Heneghan and Jefferson’s article states:

It would have been better if the report admitted that contact tracing is hugely challenging, that it would never have achieved its intended outcomes and was, therefore, a waste of £37 billion. This is something health officials in Lombardy, Italy had realised by the beginning of March 2020. The UK Parliament has also pointed out that the contract tracing programme had an ‘unimaginable’ cost

Yet, Matt Hancock paraded it as being a fail-safe method of finding out about loads of infectious people.

Then there were the hospitalisations. Here is a little-known fact worth repeating again and again:

up to 40 per cent of ‘hospital cases’ were infections acquired in hospitals … suggesting that whatever ‘protection’ measures hospitals were taking did not work

After that came the school closures, even when Government officials said that children were at low risk from coronavirus themselves but could still transmit it to older relatives. Hmm:

When it comes to the low risk to school children and teachers, the report portrays this as a tension between missing education and stopping transmission

But school-age children had the lowest Covid risk, and we are now reaping the effects of this immunological segregation, with a whirlwind of influenza-like illnesses sweeping across the country. The costs to children socialising and the impact on their schooling are mere details in the report.  

Heneghan and Jefferson point out that the report makes scant mention of the 7.2 million people on NHS waiting lists and the rise in excess deaths because of lockdown. Furthermore:

Our requests for the cause of the current excess in deaths have gone unanswered.

The footnotes and references in the report appalled them:

the type of evidence cited in the report’s footnotes and references is remarkable. It mainly relies on models, i.e. opinions formulated by those with a long history of getting it wrong or citing selective pieces of work

They say that there should be no excuses for the lack of planning for the pandemic:

There is no mention of the need for proper planning to plug known gaps in the evidence. For example, suppose you need to know whether masks or other physical interventions work in the community, you prepare protocols for trials designed to find this out in a short time. In that case, you get prior ethical approval and fire the starter pistol when the WHO declares a pandemic or earlier.  

There is plenty of precedent for this kind of preparation. That is what happened in 2009 with mock-up influenza pre-pandemic vaccines. So there can be no excuses here, just a disregard for crucial gaps in the evidence and a reluctance to address them. It is even easier in the case of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) as there are no regulators breathing down your neck. 

As for crucial NPIs, such as mask wearing and lockdown, the report says:

It may never be possible fully to disentangle some of the effects of individual NPIs in this pandemic, as many were used together…. 

Observational studies on NPIs were often complicated by several potential confounders.

The medics conclude that nothing will change:

Due to the sheer number of interventions tried at any one time, we may never know what works, particularly if we also rely on low-quality observational studies – as we have done – to inform policy.

But none of this matters: it’ll be more of the same next time  

Hancock champions Klaus Schwab

Matt Hancock entered Parliament in May 2010, when David Cameron became Prime Minister, ending 13 years of Labour government.

Hancock began his ministerial rise to in 2013 as a junior minister in what was then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He was the UK’s Anti-Corruption Champion from 2014 and 2015. He served as Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General between 2015 and 2016. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, Hancock became Minister of State for Digital and Culture, now the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In that capacity, he delivered a speech praising Klaus Schwab’s Fourth Industrial Revolution. He delivered the speech at the House of Commons to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) at the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s (4IR’s) autumn reception on October 16, 2017. Hancock introduced Klaus to the APPG.

The transcript is still available to read in full:

… the nature of the new technologies is that the changes we are experiencing today, are probably the slowest changes we will see over the rest of our lifetimes. If you don’t much like change, I’m afraid I don’t have so much good news.

Our task, in this building and around the world, is to make this technology, this change, work for humanity. And I’m profoundly confident we can. Because this technology is made by man, so it can be hewn to build a better future for mankind.

And I’m delighted to speak alongside so many impressive colleagues who really understand this, and alongside Professor Klaus Schwab who literally ‘wrote the book’ on the 4th Industrial Revolution. Your work, bringing together as you do all the best minds on the planet, has informed what we are doing, and I’m delighted to work with you.

For the 1st Industrial Revolution, the UK could claim to be the ‘workshop of the world’ – propelled by development of the steam engine, it reached its pinnacle in the mid-19th Century. But the UK has not had the monopoly on waves of industrialisation.

Now, in the fourth revolution, we are determined to use our strengths to play a leading part. By its nature the fourth industrial revolution is more collaborative than the first. And we will play our part

our Digital Strategy, embedded within the wider Industrial Strategy, sets out the seven pillars on which we can build our success. And inside that fits our 5G strategy, like a set of Russian Dolls.

Our Strategy covers infrastructure, skills, rules and ethics of big data use, cyber security, supporting the tech sector, the digitisation of industry, and digitisation of government. All these are important.

… today I am delighted to announce that we are launching the first £25m competition for 5G testbeds and trials projects. We already lead on the highly technical development of 5G standards through the international work of the University of Surrey and others.

Now we are looking for innovative projects to test the roll out of 5G to develop the UK’s growing 5G ecosystem. We want projects that explore the real-world potential for 5G …

It will also support projects which explore ways of using 5G technology to address challenges in particular sectors, such as those faced in health and social care

Earlier this year, the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ was not a very well-known term – at least before it became a central topic at the World Economic Forum. It recently made its way into an item on BBC Breakfast television – this shows we’ve probably started to reach critical mass.

It’s a pleasure now to introduce the man who made the fourth industrial revolution a household phrase: Professor Klaus Schwab.

Hancock became Secretary of State for Health and Social Care under Theresa May in July 2018, when she promoted Jeremy Hunt, his predecessor, to Foreign Secretary. Hancock remained in post throughout the pandemic until he was caught on camera in a heavy embrace with his then-adviser, now girlfriend, in 2021, when social distancing restrictions were still in place.

Hancock returned to the Conservative backbenches on June 26, 2021, after The Sun published the photos. Hancock and his girlfriend immediately separated from their spouses and are still an item.

The run-up to the pandemic

Even before the pandemic, Hancock was opposed to people who questioned vaccines.

On Sunday, September 29, 2019, The Guardian reported that he wanted compulsory vaccinations for schoolchildren:

The government is “looking very seriously” at making vaccinations compulsory for state school pupils and has taken advice on how such a law could work, the health secretary has said.

Matt Hancock, a vehement critic of anti-vaccination campaigners, has previously suggested such a plan. Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference, he said he was “very worried” by falling vaccination rates, indicating the government could act soon.

“I’ve said before that we should be open-minded, and frankly, what I’d say is that when the state provides services to people then it’s a two-way street – you’ve got to take your responsibilities, too,” Hancock told the Q&A session hosted by the Huffington Post.

“So I think there’s a very strong argument for having compulsory vaccinations for children when they go to school, because otherwise they’re putting other children at risk.

“Then I’d want to make it very easy if the children do arrive at school not vaccinated, simply to get vaccinated, and make it the norm. But I think there’s a very strong argument for movement to compulsory vaccination, and I think the public would back us.”

He took aim at social media for spreading what he called ‘anti-vaccine messages’:

“It’s unbelievable, I think, that Britain has lost its measles-free status, and it should be a real wake-up call. I think that the social media companies have got a lot to answer for, because they allow the spread of anti-vaccine messages.

“I will do whatever I can – the science is absolutely clear and settled on the importance of vaccination. And the worst thing is that if you don’t vaccinate your child, and you can, then the person you’re putting at risk is not only your child but it’s also the child who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.”

He had already started thinking about compulsory vaccines in May that year:

Hancock first raised the idea of compulsory vaccinations in May, saying he did not wish to do it but might be forced to act if no other solutions to improve take-up rates could be found.

He said: “Those who have promoted the anti-vaccination myth are morally reprehensible, deeply irresponsible and have blood on their hands.”

Confidence in the MMR vaccination seems to have dropped at least partly in response to social media misinformation and scare stories. The discredited claims of Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 theorised that the jab was linked to autism, are widely circulated.

Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010 after suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

He also seemed to be interested in social care at that time. On June 10, 2019, Care Home Professional reported:

Matt Hancock has pledged a £3.5bn cash injection to prop up the social care system as he kick-starts his campaign to become the UK’s next prime minister.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said he would seek the extra funds in the next Spending Review …

The Health and Social Care Secretary described the current social care system as “unsustainable” and said there’s a “whole number of injustices” affecting society’s most vulnerable people.

“One of the biggest injustices is that for people who worked hard all their lives and have put money aside – the system penalises them and won’t fund their care without them having to sell the house, whereas people who haven’t put money aside get their care supported. I think this is very unfair,” he added …

He wanted to see individuals funding their own social care by contributing to a personal fund:

He stressed that the payments could be made over many years of a working life.

The scheme, which would be made voluntary, would require all workers over 40 to contribute 2.5% of their wages.

“I’d like to see people encouraged to take it out when they get their first mortgage – that being the point where many people buy life insurance,” the minister said.

The insurance scheme would do away with previous Conservative proposals to put a lifetime cap on care costs.

Cometh coronavirus, cometh the man — or not

We were only a fortnight into lockdown in the Spring of 2020, and already we could see Matt Hancock’s true character.

The televised Coronavirus Updates appeared almost daily on the BBC, and he was in most of them.

On April 12 that year, The Mail on Sunday‘s Peter Hitchens wrote ‘Matt Hancock is trying to run the UK like my 1950s prep school’:

Until I started travelling in the Communist world, my main experience of living under tyranny was my time at a boarding school on the edge of Dartmoor, 60 years ago.

The headmaster, an enormous, booming man, had many fine qualities. But he was given to dreadful rages, which tended to strike late on Saturday afternoons.

He would throb with fury because some of the more loutish boys had left their games clothes on the changing room floor. 

For some reason, he viewed this as a terrible crime closely related to murder. So he would summon us into the assembly hall, and harangue us as darkness fell outside

The more we stood mulishly in front of him, saying nothing and with our eyes downcast, the angrier he became …

Collective punishments – a ban on eating toast, or the cancellation of a promised film show – would follow, along with more shouting and angry notices in red ink, threatening worse to come. 

Most of us were guiltless of wrongdoing. But we were small, and he was huge. The staff seemed more scared of him than we were.

We were on a windswept hilltop miles from anywhere. We had no escape

Hancock wanted to ban outdoor exercise because it was violating social distancing rules, hastily put into place:

I had thought such childish things were long over in my life. But a week ago I found that I was, once again, living at the mercy of an equally petulant would-be despot.

Matthew Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, went on national TV to threaten to ban outdoor exercise if people continued to break ‘social distancing’ rules. 

From a Government that claims to be preserving life and health, this threat was literally mad. 

Banning exercise for any length of time will lead to the deaths and illness of many thousands of currently healthy, older people who know that such exercise is vital to their physical and mental wellbeing. 

Such exercise can easily be taken while maintaining the required distance from others. 

The threat was a dictatorial one, of collective punishment of all for the wrongdoing of others. 

This is illegal under Article 33 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. A foreign occupier would not be allowed to do it. 

Sunbathing and sitting on park benches also irked Hancock while the police were enjoying their newly-found powers over the public:

Mr Hancock also said it was ‘quite extraordinary’ that some people had spent the weekend sunbathing in public places despite it being against Government guidance.

Getting into his stride, he urged people not to sit down even for a minute on a park bench, saying those who disobeyed the rules were putting their own and others’ lives at risk.

What is this nonsense? The words of Ministers and the words and actions of the police show a pointlessly bossy side to these measuresthe attempted ban on Easter egg purchases, the sunbathing squad, alleged arrests of people for just buying wine and crisps, the lumpish threat by a police chief to search the baskets of shoppers

Provided the people doing these things do not break the distancing rules, why are they wrong? 

Sunbathing, for instance, probably reduces the risk of infection, and if people keep a proper distance apart, what on earth is wrong with it? Why shouldn’t someone sit on a park bench?

Mr Hancock said: ‘I say this to the small minority of people who are breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries: you are risking your own life and the lives of others and you’re making it harder for us all.’

Hitchens, who spent years working in Communist countries, hit the nail on the head:

I sense something more going on here

The Government are trying to get us to accept a far higher level of state intrusion in our lives than we have ever endured. 

They are treating us as if we were unruly children. This is despite what I regard as a quite extraordinary willingness among the great majority to do as we are asked. 

It has gone to their heads. They need to calm down, for the sake of all of us.

We are not children, this is not some 1950s prep school ruled by the swish of the cane, and Mr Hancock is not our headmaster.

Hitchens rightly questioned the number of deaths at that point, which were nothing unusual, coronavirus or not:

A week ago, at the daily official briefing, Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, confirmed my point that many deaths with Covid are not necessarily from Covid. She said: ‘These are Covid-associated deaths, they are all sad events, they would not all be a death as a result of Covid.’ 

What nobody says is how many are as a result of the virus.

Then, if you look at the Office for National Statistics weekly death charts, for week 13 of each year (the week which this year ended on March 27), you find some interesting things.

The total of deaths for that week in 2020 is higher than the five-year average for that time of year, which is 10,130. In fact, it is up to 11,141. 

This is 1,011 more deaths than normal per week, 144 more deaths than normal per day, regrettable but not gigantic. Do these figures justify the scale of our reaction?

If you add up the total deaths for the first quarter of the year from respiratory diseases, the figure so far for 2020 (22,877) is less than those for 2013 (25,495), 2015 (28,969), 2017 (25,800), 2018 (29,898) and 2019 (23,336)

Again, is this event as exceptional as we are being told? If not, why the shutdown?

Obtaining PPE was a huge problem, and not only for the UK. France, along with other Western countries, was also scrambling to secure PPE. I know from having read Marianne, a French newsweekly.

PPE popped up regularly in parliamentary debates. Labour asked repeatedly what the Government was doing and to get on with the job.

However, people who knew what was going on in the NHS said that things weren’t as bad as the Opposition benches made them out to be.

Sir Keir Starmer had only been Labour leader — succeeding Jeremy Corbyn — for a week or so in April. He was offended that Hancock told the NHS not to waste precious supplies:

However, those with connections inside the NHS said that a hoarding mentality was present and that there was an adequate provision of PPE:

On April 9, Hancock announced a testing lab in Milton Keynes, the Lighthouse Lab, a.k.a. the National Biosample Centre:

Meanwhile, many of us wanted an update on herd immunity.

On April 8, Guido Fawkes reported, complete with audio (emphases his):

As new modelling released by University College London (UCL) predicts the UK will pass the threshold for herd immunity by Monday (with 73.4% of the population protected either by vaccination or previous infection), Matt Hancock was quick to pour cold water on the findings during an interview with LBC‘s Nick Ferrari. Speaking this morning, Hancock said: 

I was told by some scientists that we were going to have herd immunity in May, and then in June, and then after that […] what I prefer to do is watch the data. And so we’ve set out the road map, the road map is really clear, it is our route back to normal, we’re on track to meet the road map, and that’s our goal.

Pressed on why the government seemed keen to accept the pessimistic assumptions within the Imperial College data, yet sceptical of UCL’s new study, Hancock – rather predictably – said:

I think we have taken the right course in plotting our way to freedom, and doing it carefully, because we want it to be irreversible. We have seen what happens when this virus gets going […] and we want to get out of this safely and irreversibly.

The ‘data not dates’ refrain feels less plausible with every passing day…

One Twitter user sounded the alarm:

When University College London, a respected establishment put out work saying we’ll hit herd immunity by Monday and Matt Hancock immediately dismisses it You know darker forces are at work here. He’s a member of Parliament that doesn’t work for the people, he works for Gates.

On April 23, exactly two months into lockdown, Hancock was enjoying his power over the British people. Meanwhile, some of us were beginning to worry about the economic downside of keeping everyone at home.

The Mail reported that there was no end in sight:

Matt Hancock tonight insisted the coronavirus lockdown must stay until there is no risk of a second peak – as scientists warned the outbreak might not be fading.

The Health Secretary vowed not to compromise the national effort against the disease as Professor Jonathan Van-Tam told the daily Downing Street briefing that while hospital occupancy rates had dipped in in London the picture in other parts of the UK was ‘more of a plateau’.  

The figures – along with another 828 deaths being declared in the UK – add weight to the arguments of those who want to err on the side of caution despite the devastation being wreaked on the economy.

At this point, Boris Johnson had been released from St Thomas’s Hospital from his near-death bout with the virus and was recuperating at Chequers. His wife Carrie, about to give birth to their first child, was with him.

Rifts were appearing as to how long lockdown should last:

Divisions have emerged between Cabinet ‘doves’ such as Mr Hancock and ‘hawks’ who believe the NHS has capacity and would prefer to loosen the draconian social distancing measures earlier.

The PM has intervened from his recuperation at Chequers to snuff out speculation about an imminent easing, with Downing Street making clear his priority is avoiding a ‘second peak’ in the outbreak. 

There are reports Mr Johnson’s inner circle has stopped using the phrase ‘exit strategy’ and instead wants to signal a ‘next phase’ of lockdown, with varying levels of restrictions set to continue for the rest of the year until the virus gets ‘close to eradication’ or a vaccine is found. Australia has successfully suppressed cases to very low numbers.

Scientists have been telling ministers behind the scenes that control of the outbreak is still so uncertain that even slight changes to the curbs on normal life could result in a disastrous flare-up. 

Mr Hancock said tonight:  ‘We have been clear that we will not risk lives by relaxing the social distancing rules before our five tests have been met. 

‘First, that the NHS can continue to cope, second, that the operational challenges can be met, third, that the daily death rate falls sustainably and consistently, fourth, that the rate of infection is decreasing, and most importantly, that there is no risk of a second peak.’  

The Mail included a photo montage of Cabinet members and this caption of where they stood on the issue:

How members of the cabinet are currently split over the ending of the lockdown. Mr Johnson (top left) and Matt Hancock (bottom left) are classed as ‘doves’; Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak (right, top-to-bottom) as ‘hawks’; and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (top centre) is among those in the middle, with Gavin Williamson (centre) and Alok Sharma (centre bottom)

Senior Conservative MPs wanted an end to lockdown:

There is no prospect of lockdown measures being eased before the current period comes to an end on May 11.

However, some senior Tories have been pushing plans for an easing soon afterwards, pointing out that the NHS is still below surge capacity and could ‘run hot’ to limit the economic meltdown.  

SAGE clearly wanted lockdown to continue:

Government scientists have been warning that the situation is currently so finely balanced that even marginal loosenings could have disastrous effects.

One Cabinet source told the Guardian the government’s advisers on Sage had suggested any easing would push up the rate of transmission – known as R.

The source said: ‘The scientists are very clear. There’s no loosening of measures we can do that won’t bring the R back over 1 … 

‘We did have an R of about 3. And we’ve driven that down. But even a small increase in transmission could put you above 1.’ 

The WHO were adamant that the Western world should remain locked down, even though some of those countries were already easing restrictions:

Dr Takeshi Kasai, the WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said: ‘This is not the time to be lax. Instead, we need to ready ourselves for a new way of living for the foreseeable future.’

He said governments must remain vigilant to stop the spread of the virus and the lifting of lockdowns and other social distancing measures must be done gradually and strike the right balance between keeping people healthy and allowing economies to function.

Despite concerns from health officials, some US states have announced aggressive reopening plans, while Boeing and at least one other American heavy-equipment manufacturer resumed production.

Elsewhere around the world, step-by-step reopenings are under way in Europe, where the crisis has begun to ebb in places such as Italy, Spain and Germany.

By the last week in April, questions were mounting.

On April 23, The Telegraph‘s Christopher Hope wondered why Hancock didn’t take any questions from the media after that day’s coronavirus briefing:

The next day, Hancock praised Muslims for their ‘sacrifice’ in not meeting daily for prayers during Ramadan, but had nothing to say to Christians who could not attend church on the holiest feast of the year, Easter, which remembers Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Houses of worship were closed:

Hancock began wearing a prominent CARE lapel badge on television. By this time, he had pledged that a ‘protective ring’ had been placed around care homes, something he later denied saying.

People found the CARE badge risible.

James Kirkup, writing for The Spectator, defended the move:

Matt Hancock’s badge for carers is a perfectly good idea. The mockery of it is in many cases shallow, ill-informed, revealing and hypocritical.

You don’t need me to describe the badge or the mockery. Anyone with an internet connection and a glancing familiarity with what passes for ‘news’ these days is aware that the Health – and Social Care – Secretary announced that the Government is now backing a scheme that encourages social care staff to wear a green badge saying CARE.

Part of the aim is to give care workers the same sort of recognition, esteem and access to services – reserved shopping hours, for instance – as NHS workers.

This is reasonable, necessary and overdue. Part of the UK’s social crisis lies in the social care workforce, which is too small and too transient. There are around 125,000 vacancies in social care at any moment, roughly eight per cent of the workforce. Turnover is around 30 per cent, double the average across the UK labour market.

Kings College London surveyed care workers and found that some said that teachers warned their children to do better in school, otherwise they’d end up working in care homes:

In a survey of care workers, the Kings’ team found that it wasn’t just society as a whole that looked down on care. It was care workers themselves. One of the most common phrases used by interviewees was ‘I’m only a care worker’. Many reported that their children had been told if they don’t work hard they would end up working in care. ‘The lack of esteem has been internalised,’ prof Manthorpe said. Our collective disregard for social care has left carers feeling worthless and keen to leave the sector, sometimes for jobs with equally poor wages.

The following year, after Hancock had urged all care workers to be vaccinated, a number of those who refused to do so were either fired or left for hospitality jobs.

John Pilger, writing for The Guardian, rightly predicted that a storm was brewing over PPE contracts and wasted money on testing:

A debate in Parliament took place just recently on the topic. Labour are still furious.

The prediction that came true

Former Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, now Lord Hannan, predicted exactly what would happen as early as April 5. He was incredibly accurate.

The Express reported:

Economist warned businesses would “topple like dominoes” if the lockdown remained in force until May, while pointing the finger at Public Health England for the failure to undertake a widespread programme of . The ardent Brexiteer, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, said the cost of the was hard to measure “but no less painful for that”. He explained: “One of my university contemporaries, who has a history of mental health problems, has struggled terribly with confinement.

“A neighbour is facing the grimmest of hat-tricks: her business ruined, her house-move frozen and her cancer operation postponed.

“The village osteopath, who went from 300 patients a week to zero when the bans came in, has been forced into insolvency.

“Nationally, a million more people have been pushed on to benefits.”

Mr Hannan also scoffed at the assertion stringent measures were required to minimise the number of people dying.

He said: “I am astonished by how many commentators duck these consequences by airily asserting that ‘lives matter more than the economy’.

“What do they imagine the economy is, if not the means by which people secure their welfare?

“The economy is not some numinous entity that exists outside human activity; it is the name we give to transactions among people aimed at maximising their wealth, health and happiness.”

If businesses – excluding those deemed likely to accelerate infections, such as nightclubs – were permitted to reopen next week, “we might yet escape the worst”, he asserted.

However, he added: “If the prohibitions remain in force into May, businesses will topple like dominoes, and a decade of depression will ensue.”

And so it came to pass.

To be continued next week.

Yesterday’s post discussed Liz Truss’s dogged determination.

Today’s entry looks at how determined she was to bring a refreshing libertarianism to Government.

On September 28, 2022, Jeremy Cliffe wrote a fascinating profile of Truss’s love of free markets in the New Statesman: ‘Liz Truss and the rise of the libertarian right’.

Of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget of September 23, Cliffe points out (emphases mine):

nothing in Truss’s past was fundamentally incompatible with her proclaimed ideological commitment to a small-state, free-market model. And now, just three weeks into her tenure in No 10, it has been comprehensively buried. The unofficial Budget from her like-minded Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, on 23 September, removed any remaining doubt by ushering in the biggest package of tax cuts since the Conservative chancellor Anthony Barber’s expansionary “dash for growth” in 1972, and by targeting the benefit of those cuts overwhelmingly on the richest.

Far from popularity-chasing opportunism, this amounts to a huge experiment that, as the Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie has put it, effectively treats Britain as a giant “laboratory” for economically libertarian ideas. The success or failure of that experiment will make or break Truss’s government. Say what you like about the wisdom of this approach – and the markets have had their say – but it is absolutely not the method of a flip-flopper. Rather, it is that of a convinced member of a deep-rooted network of ideas, institutions and thinkers born on the shores of Lake Geneva over 75 years ago. It is impossible to understand the ideological zeal with which Truss and Kwarteng are pushing Britain towards the economic brink without understanding that network.

Cliffe goes on to present a summary of Friedrich Hayek’s economic vision. I learned a lot, so am sharing that below.

Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society

Over the centuries, many wonderful things originated in Switzerland. Libertarianism was no exception.

In 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Friedrich Hayek invited a group of 39 economists, historians and philosophers to promote classical liberalism, which has nothing to do with left wing politics. In fact, what became the Mont Pelerin Society was — and is — actively opposed to Marxist and Keynesian economic policies promoted globally at that time.

The group met at the Hotel du Parc, now the Pelerin Palace, in the village of Le Mont-Pèlerin, which overlooks Lake Geneva. I have been to that part of the world, and it is sublime.

The Mont Pelerin Society still meets regularly, annually for regional meetings and every two years for a general meeting. In 1997, they met at the village’s stunning Le Mirador Resort and Spa. In October 2022, they met in Oslo.

Cliffe describes the Society’s goal:

Inspired by Hayek’s warnings of a “road to serfdom” – as set forth in his 1944 book of that name – they were united in concern at the apparent march of international collectivism, in both its totalitarian (Soviet) and democratic (social democrat and New Deal) forms.

Afterwards, libertarian think tanks were founded in the United Kingdom and the United States which influenced the thinking of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan:

Over the subsequent decades members and associates of this group established successive generations of influential think tanks advancing anti-collectivist economics. In 1955, Antony Fisher founded the Institute of Economic Affairs in London (IEA). This would help inspire a second wave in the 1970s, including the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC and, in London, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) and the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). As the historian Daniel Stedman Jones puts it in his book Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, these transatlantic “ideological entrepreneurs” provided both a long-term incubator for such ideas and a bridge from high economic theory to applied policy practice. Both Reaganomics and Thatcherism would have been unthinkable without them.

Not all of these think tanks think alike. Some are socially conservative, while others are not. Some are geared towards academia, others towards politics. However, they agree on economic policy:

From the 1980s to the early 2000s came the next wave of more public-facing bodies such as Americans for Tax Reform and the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA). Matthew Elliott, who worked at the former before returning to his native UK to found the latter in 2004, would also go on to help establish and lead the Vote Leave campaign in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum.

These bodies are not homogeneous. Cato, for example, is classically libertarian on social issues like LGBT+ rights, whereas Heritage is hard-line conservative. There are also differences of approach. Mark Littlewood, the director of the IEA [Institute of Economic Affairs], who has known Truss since their student days – they both attended Oxford in the 1990s – differentiates between more “upstream” think tanks like his own, which are closer to academia and concentrate on disseminating ideas among opinion-forming elites, and more “downstream” organisations, which are focused on government policymaking (like the CPS) and shaping debate in the mass media (like the TPA).

One of Truss’s tutors at Oxford, Marc Stears, says:

“Hayek’s ideas are really important because of the underlying spirit that animates them: that there is no such thing as collective intelligence; the state does not know things and only individuals can really know things. That faith in the wisdom of the crowd, as expressed in price mechanisms, is very deeply ingrained.”

He also points to a shared tendency to be patient, citing the Marxist philosopher GA Cohen’s observation that the supply-side right has succeeded at “keeping the fires burning” even through periods in the political wilderness.

Stears himself leads a libertarian think tank:

Marc Stears tutored Truss when she was a PPE student at Oxford and today leads the Policy Lab at University College London. He notes that the more theoretical “upstream” parts of the libertarian think-tank spectrum have grown in significance as academia has tilted leftwards. “There are fewer centres in the big universities where these thinkers cluster,” he told me. “So that makes the role of think tanks more important.”

Cliffe points out the geographical proximity of think tanks in London and Washington DC:

The majority of these think tanks are clustered around Tufton Street, a Georgian terrace in Westminster, and Massachusetts Avenue, a long boulevard in Washington DC (a distinction being that “Mass Ave” is also home to think tanks of various other intellectual outlooks).

These two worlds have long been linked by transatlantic personalities criss-crossing between them. Prominent examples include Fisher (who founded the Atlas Network, a Washington-based umbrella organisation of international free-market think tanks), Edwin Feulner (a former IEA intern who co-founded Heritage) and Eamonn Butler (an ally of Feulner’s who co-founded the ASI in London). Today they number Ryan Bourne – a Truss ally, formerly of the IEA and now at Cato; Daniel Hannan – a Brexiteer former MEP and founder of the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT); and Nile Gardiner – head of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at Heritage.

Today’s economic libertarianism

The current Conservative government, whether under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, has some commitment to economic libertarianism. Sunak promoted freeports in 2019, which are slowly coming to fruition. Truss advocated investment zones, which are still going ahead, although they will be more focused on research.

Cliffe says:

Ideologically, the institutions and thinkers of this world share a common commitment to a low-tax, low-regulation, Anglo-Saxon social model, distinct from the social democratic “European” one. They tend to favour mechanisms for advancing that model, such as free-trade deals, “levelling down” state intervention, and demarcated zones pioneering extremely small-state government (variously referred to as “freeports”, “investment zones” or “charter cities”). They instinctively prefer market-led solutions to collective problems, such as climate change, over state-led ones. Perhaps not unrelatedly, many of them draw on opaque funding from big private-sector interests. Cato, for instance, has received backing from corporations such as FedEx and Google, and, in the past, from the tobacco industry – which has also been a source of funding for both the IEA and ASI.

In the Britain of 2022 these instincts express themselves in a particular analysis of the state of the country. This, as Truss-ite thinkers explain, starts from the argument that British governments since Margaret Thatcher – Conservative as well as Labour – have become much too sentimental about the distribution and moral character of growth, and too little focused on raising the overall growth level. As Bourne puts it: “Liz Truss would not consider it a failure if she got the growth rate up significantly but not equally across regions.”

It is not a politics of pursuing what is popular per se, but of letting “what works” (defined as whatever lifts the growth rate) speak for itself. “They won’t be transactional about policies,” Bourne says of Truss and Kwarteng. “It’s the whole string of things. Incrementally, the patient might not like the medicine, but overall they will feel healthier and revived.”

Truss’s brand of libertarianism

I had no idea that Truss worked for a British think tank or that she had speaking engagements at the American ones.

Her interest began at Oxford, then continued in London:

Even during her student years in Oxford, recalls Marc Stears, Truss prided herself on defying intellectual convention. “Her primary characteristic was a love of controversy, quirkiness and idiosyncrasy… Her thinking was always intriguing and contrarian, if not always fully worked through.” A brief flirtation with the Lib Dems is not entirely inconsistent with right-wing libertarianism (the party’s Orange Book tendency has links with this world  too, and as a student Truss was also a member of the Hayek Society). “She definitely sat outside the prevailing social democratic orthodoxy even then,” Stears says.

Truss worked in think-tank land herself before her election to parliament, serving as deputy director of Reform from 2008 to 2010, a period when the organisation was laying some of the intellectual foundations of the spending cuts and market-led approach to public services that would be introduced under David Cameron and George Osborne. “Cameron and Osborne may have been more Thatcherite where Truss is more Reaganite,” notes Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London, a historian of the Conservative Party. “But they shared the basic belief that the market should be the main force in economic life, the state as small as possible and the individual as large as possible.”

Truss’s Thatcherite tendencies became more apparent once she entered Parliament in 2010. However, Thatcherism means different things to different people:

Shared beliefs, yes, but with different degrees of intensity. In 2010, Truss typified a romantically Thatcherite intake of new Tory MPs who thought Cameron and Osborne were being too cautious about slashing the state.

“When you think that people’s politicisation tends to take place in their teens and early twenties, it is perfectly understandable that MPs who had come of age around 1997 would equate past Conservative election victories with what they saw as Margaret Thatcher’s uncompromising free-market ideology, rather than her more compromising reality,” Bale says.

Truss rapidly became a figurehead for this generation. “Liz was the first convenor of the Free Enterprise Group,” recalls Littlewood, referring to the establishment in 2011 of a cluster of like-minded Conservative MPs – which was effectively the IEA’s parliamentary branch. “And Kwasi Kwarteng was the second.”

Cliffe says there are other Conservative MPs committed to the free market, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among them.

In 2017, Truss became Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The following year, she began giving speeches in the United States:

A particularly notable speech was delivered at the Cato Institute in Washington in 2018. In it, Truss called for a new, small-state “Anglo-American dream” driven by an emergent generation of “market millennials” used to the freedoms of the app economy – “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, as she put it elsewhere. “Free enterprise is a hymn to individuality and non-conformity,” she proclaimed to her Cato audience. “It’s what allows the young to flower and the anti-establishment to flourish.”

Bourne helped set up the speech. I put it to him that her argument ignores strong youth support for the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. “It’s a case of stated preference versus revealed preference,” he said. “Liz’s essential argument is that, in their actions, young people in both countries are very entrepreneurial, independent, and enjoy the fruits of a liberal, dynamic economy. She thinks there is a latent enthusiasm for markets if we can reform things in a direction that enables these people to fulfil their wants and needs, like starting companies and buying homes.”

Her visits to the US engaged her interest in the Reagan years:

It was around this time that she became engrossed in books by the American historian Rick Perlstein on the making of the Reagan revolution.

Fast-forwarding to her appointment as Foreign Secretary in 2021, her commitment to libertarian ideals ran deeply:

her ideology, rooted in the school of thought founded at Mont Pelerin, was long-established. “Her ideological disposition is towards the likes of Robert Mundell, Alan Reynolds and Arthur Laffer,” says Bourne, “the original supply-side thinkers in the US who influenced the underpinnings of the Reagan administration. The basic idea is that monetary policy deals with inflation and that fiscal and especially tax policy has to deliver incentives for long-run growth.”

Another inspiration is “Rogernomics” in 1980s New Zealand, when the Labour government’s finance minister Roger Douglas slashed trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers and pioneered monetary policy targeting. (The legacy of that neoliberal experiment remains deeply divisive on the New Zealand left.)

Liz’s libertarian allies

Cliffe discusses Prime Minister Truss’s Cabinet and think tank allies:

… now she is Prime Minister, the supposed free-market outriders are finding themselves being outridden by the sitting government. Littlewood of the IEA marvels at the scope of the unofficial Budget. “I have long tried to fine-tune out criticism of Conservative governments for not being radical enough; now they’re being more radical than even we are requesting.” He cites the government’s commitment to scrap all remaining EU law as an example. Even when the IEA and Truss disagreed, the closeness was evident; its criticism of her energy price cap promptly elicited an explanatory call from No 10.

Old Tuftonians hold many of the senior jobs in her government.Matt Sinclair is the standout example,” says Littlewood of Truss’s chief economic adviser, formerly of the TPA. “He is steeped in this world.” Ruth Porter, deputy chief of staff, is an IEA alumna. Sophie Jarvis, No 10’s political secretary, was formerly at the ASI. “She will have hired and appointed people who are on board with her ideologically,” agrees Bourne. With Kwarteng as Chancellor, as well as James Cleverly as Foreign Secretary and Jacob Rees-Mogg as Business Secretary, the major cabinet roles are held by true believers.

Free-market think tanks, like the IEA, that have long considered themselves to be outside the broad British consensus have used provocation and controversy to catch attention, shake things up and try to shift debates. Truss, observes Marc Stears of his former student, is now bringing that approach into government. “She loves this idea that the action is in the reaction, prodding and provoking people. The unofficial Budget was like going to a slightly mad libertarian think-tank report launch.

Stears said that Truss:

“actually wants to destabilise things. She thinks the prevailing order is wrong and there is a need to break things to rebuild.”

Ryan Bourne and Mark Littlewood say that she would have wanted to increase personal freedoms by reducing the nanny state:

Bourne cites childcare, infrastructure, energy and housing (street votes on city planning decisions, for example) as possible focuses, as well as farming (“where there might be a quid pro quo where they scale back government support but relax regulations”). “And I expect this philosophy to apply to lifestyle freedoms, too,” adds Littlewood. “Deregulating ads for sugary drinks, McDonald’s advertising on the London Underground, that sort of thing.”

Oh, if only she’d been allowed to do all those things.

Bourne had more to say:

“Her broad view is ‘We have to show, not tell’,” says Bourne. “We have to get on with free-market reforms and when they create results they create a baseline, and that wins hearts and minds.” There are echoes of the Prime Minister’s vision of “market millennials” here: that young people will come to recognise their small-state instincts when they feel the benefit of such politics put into action.

Cliffe has a message for his Labourite New Statesman readers and suggests how Labour can oppose Truss’s ideas:

So far, her environment policies seem designed to serve the interests of big polluters rather than market insurgents in the green-energy sector; her deregulation push appears tailored to the interests of existing market insiders with big lobbying budgets; and her proposed tax cuts will certainly benefit the already rich, rather than the worst off. None of this is a “hymn to individuality and non-conformity”. It is corporatism.

The challenge now for Liz Truss’s opponents, both inside the Conservative family and on the left, is to engage with these tensions and use them to expose the contradictions of the great unruly experiment being rolled out from Downing Street. Because to do so is to contest what is really driving it; to have a chance of changing the public debate and building a solid foundation for a different and better national project. Bad ideas make a much more obvious and persuasive target than bad intentions.

I would say that has already been done. Sunak’s government is very different to Truss’s, especially with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt as de facto Prime Minister.

‘Weird’ Liz Truss

Shortly after Truss resigned as Prime Minister, The Guardian had an excellent profile of her: ‘From fighter to quitter: the “weird” rise and fall of Liz Truss’.

Truth telling?

It would appear that Truss was somewhat economical with the truth about her education and that of previous Prime Ministers:

At her recent party conference, she spoke of herself as “the first prime minister of our country to have gone to a comprehensive school”. The claim has been disproved by those who note that both Gordon Brown and Theresa May went to comprehensive schools. In any case, Truss has said that Roundhay School in Leeds “let down” children by teaching them “about racism and sexism” with “too little time spent making sure everybody could read and write”.

Again, the notion that Roundhay, a consistently “outstanding” school, was unacademic has been strenuously contested, as has Truss’s claim that her comfortable middle-class neighbourhood in Leeds was “at the heart of the red wall”. Truss is not the first politician to massage her biography but she’s unusual in attempting to establish her rightwing credentials by making her formative years seem more underprivileged than they were.

Political ‘dynamo’ at Oxford

The IEA’s Mark Littlewood was complimentary about her commitment to politics at Oxford:

She became president of the university Liberal Democrats, and a member of the national executive committee of the party’s youth and student wing. Also at Oxford and another Lib Dem activist was Mark Littlewood, now director general of the free market thinktank most associated with Truss’s political outlook, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). He remembers her as a “dynamo who exploded on to the political scene”

“If you spent any more than three minutes in her company, you had no doubt at all about what she thought of the particular topic you might be discussing,” Littlewood says.

Unlike her U-turning days as PM, she was sure of her convictions as a student:

For others, like Neil Fawcett, a fellow committee member of the Lib Dems’ student national executive, this trait of certitude came across as dogmatic and unbending. “She always had very strong views on everything,” he recalls. “Sometimes they were based on knowledge or experience but quite often they weren’t. My main memory is that if she came up with something that simply wasn’t going to work, and I was in a position where I had the experience to know that it wasn’t going to work, she would still argue the case anyway.

“She was absolutely not for turning, whatever the evidence. I thought of that when I read about Treasury civil servants who have been completely ignored because she knew better.”

She was more interested in debating and protesting than in canvassing:

She was more concerned to make a splash, he says, than to get things done. Littlewood suggests, in her defence, that Truss was not much interested in “delivering leaflets”. Instead she spoke out against the monarchy at a Lib Dem conference, and protested against the BNP in Tower Hamlets.

Mark Littlewood says that Truss found the Liberal Democrats of the 1990s more libertarian than the Conservatives of that era:

Littlewood insists that the Lib Dems made more sense at the time to Truss because the Conservatives were authoritarian on civil liberties and Truss was primarily interested in personal freedom. This, he says, has been the constant in her political career.

“People say she was a Liberal Democrat and now she’s a Tory. She was a remainer and became a Brexiter. She was a republican and she’s a monarchist. But actually her overarching view of the world has always been a classical liberal one, that the state is too big and interfering in our lives,” he says.

She joined the Conservatives in 1996 – when the “back to basics” morality campaign was still alive, if not very well – and 13 years later, it was her local Tory party that wanted to interfere in her life.

That would have been after her affair with a fellow sitting MP at the time. Some local Conservative association members wanted her deselected from her rural Norfolk seat, although that did not happen:

Several constituency association members, dubbed the “Turnip Taliban”, objected, arguing that Truss had not disclosed the extramarital affair she had had with the Conservative MP Mark Field. A motion to cancel her candidature was defeated after the then-leader David Cameron came to Truss’s aid.

‘Weird’

Some of Truss’s detractors told The Guardian that her interpersonal skills are ‘weird’:

The knowledge of the affair with Field has hung around Truss in a way that it probably would not have done with a male politician. There is a welter of parliamentary gossip and tall stories concerning Truss that MPs routinely refer to, off-the-record, although no one can ever name a source or witness. “She flirted with every man she comes across,” says one (female) former Tory minister. “She almost even flirted with women.” At the same time, so many of her colleagues and former colleagues – including the one who speaks of her flirting – report that she was unapproachable and, as another put it, “she doesn’t have great interpersonal skills”.

What most MPs agree that she has always had is ambition. Four years after entering parliament in 2010, she joined the cabinet as environment secretary. The most attention she received in the post came with a bizarrely emphatic speech she gave to the Tory party conference.

“We import two-thirds of our cheese,” she told a bemused hall, “that is a disgrace.” She spoke the last half of the sentence as if there were full-stops between each word, an oratorical choice that cemented the “weird” reputation.

When Theresa May became leader, she replaced Michael Gove with Truss as justice secretary and Lord Chancellor, making her the first woman to hold either post. One insider says that it was obvious that “she was an entirely unsuitable appointment for the job”

Also:

When asked to describe Truss, two former Conservative government ministers both used the same word: weird. “She doesn’t have any friends. She’s just weird,” one said. “She sits far too close to you,” said another. “And when she talks to you, she keeps repeating your name. It’s weird.”

As Prime Minister:

While Truss may appear to possess an unshakeable self-confidence, many of her appointments spoke of insecurity, as well as debts that required paying. “Never forget that only 50 MPs voted for her in the first round of the leadership election,” says one former minister, who puts Truss’s ultimate triumph down to the fact that “she wasn’t Rishi Sunak”

“Oh, she’s very clever,” the former minister acknowledges, admonishing those who think otherwise. “She may not be great at understanding nuance, and her political antenna is not very good, but her political skill is in being a survivor.”

A libertarian perspective: ‘shambolic’

The IEA’s Mark Littlewood did not seem to approve of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget:

Whatever is said of Truss, there can be no doubt that she inherited a difficult political and economic situation, with a cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, a huge national debt following the pandemic, and the forecast of a major recession.

But, says Littlewood, she played a bad hand badly. He remains bewildered about why she staked so much political capital on reducing the top rate of income tax. “Why select that as the hill you want to die on?”

Similarly, he doesn’t understand why, if she was looking for tax reductions, she didn’t cut VAT, which he argues would have been counter-inflationary and broadly progressive. He puts her undoing down to her tendency to rely on just a handful of trusted advisers, which may have worked when she was trade secretary, but not as PM. “That’s when you need squadrons of very senior and experienced people advising you,” he says.

Of course, squadrons of experienced people did advise her not to cut taxes – perhaps that’s why she didn’t consult them.

“I was utterly amazed by the complete inability to politically execute anything,” Littlewood adds. “It was totally shambolic.”

It makes you wonder what went on in all those IEA meetings, if Littlewood was taken so thoroughly by surprise.

The article notes the irony in a free-marketeer being brought down by market forces:

Whatever unfolds from here, hers has been a tale of almost classical hubris. In thrall for so many years to free enterprise, she seemed to expect as prime minister that the compliment would be repaid. Instead, she received from the hedge fund managers and bond traders she lionised an ignominious lesson in the most basic rule of capitalism: you can’t buck the market.

‘Weird’ and friendless

According to Harry Cole and James Heale’s Truss biography Out of the Blue, even she admitted that she was lacking.

On November 1, The Telegraph‘s Tim Stanley got a look at the book as it was a month ago, before publication:

… Harry Cole, political editor of the Sun, and James Heale, diary editor of the Spectator, have proven that hacks do our best work under pressure, adding two chapters on her 44-day premiership and cleverly turning a story of surprise victory into a well-researched tragedy of warnings ignored.

Even Ms Truss had her doubts about her suitability for No 10. I think I’d make a great PM, she once told a visitor to her office, the only problems are: “I am weird and I don’t have any friends.”

Others agreed with that assessment:

One special advisor recalled her “weird manner, where she has a glint in her eye and she thinks she’s being edgy or naughty”.

At the end of her premiership, she was pragmatic. And she does have some friends, after all:

“Politics is a blood sport,” she told friends, “and I am the fox.”

The ‘pork markets’ speech

In The Times, on Saturday, November 5, Cole and Heale gave us a preview of the book by discussing Truss’s pork markets speech, which went viral this year, even though it didn’t raise any eyebrows at the time. David Cameron was Prime Minister back then:

While Liz Truss was becoming more astute in Whitehall management, there is no escaping that her early days at Defra — the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — will be remembered for one thing only: the speech about apples, pork markets and cheese. The 2014 Conservative Party conference in Birmingham was the last chance for the faithful to gather before the widely expected election the following year.

With the polls pointing to a hung parliament, and fears of years more of coalition, it was red meat galore. George Osborne put the £100 billion annual benefits bill on notice, while David Cameron basked in some rare warmth from the membership after seeing off Alex Salmond and co in September’s Scottish referendum. That week Truss picked a fight on two fronts. First, she declared war on the Hunting Act, and then she turned fire on her least favourite pudding: Angel Delight.

… it was the 1970s dessert that drew the minister’s ire in a bizarre pre-conference intervention, most notably in The Times where she blamed the “new-fangled” instant pudding for the decline of Britain’s orchards. “Apples are a symbol of a wider failure to take pride in and cultivate our own food,” she wrote. Citing the fact that two thirds of UK orchards had been “ripped up in the past 60 years” and that Britain was importing “65 per cent of the apples we eat”, Truss was on the warpath: “Consumers reach for easily made, new-fangled products such as Angel Delight or Instant Whip rather than make an apple crumble.”

She continued the crusade from the podium in Birmingham, in her first speech to a conference as a cabinet minister: “At the moment, we import two-thirds of all of our apples. We import nine tenths of all of our pears. We import two thirds of our cheese.” She continued, with now infamous emphasis: “That . . . is . . . a . . . dis . . . grace! From the apples that dropped on Isaac Newton’s head to the orchards of nursery rhymes, this fruit has always been part of Britain, it’s been part of our country. I want our children to grow up knowing the taste of a British apple, of Cornish sardines, of Herefordshire pears, of Norfolk turkey, of Melton Mowbray pork pies and, of course, of black pudding . . . I will not rest until the British apple is back at the top of the tree.”

With only a few newspaper mentions, her speech went largely unnoticed.

However, she also mentioned ‘pork markets’, at which point her face strangely lit up, suggesting something more that wasn’t there. By the end of the week, the BBC’s satirical quiz show, Have I Got News For You (HIGNIFY), picked up the video:

Jennifer Saunders, the programme’s host, mocked the environment secretary’s facial gestures; responding to Truss’s promise that, “In December, I’ll be in Beijing opening up new pork markets”, Paul Merton quipped: “She likes to enjoy herself on holiday, doesn’t she?” Truss’s least radical conference speech would become her most famous — as a meme and as a gif — and “that is a disgrace” a punchline of political jokes for years to come.

Recently, Truss said:

To be honest I didn’t think it would get that much attention. So basically I hammed it up a bit too much.

Those who knew her at the time said that Truss’s awkward delivery was a product of media training gone wrong:

Truss’s friends would later confess she had been on a crash course for “corporate management presentational training” shortly before the speech. Reflecting on it eight years later, Kirsty Buchanan, a former adviser to Truss, told the BBC such training “plays into the worst elements of Liz’s communication because it makes her more stilted — over-pronunciation and pausing is not her problem, it’s the exact opposite. You need to loosen her up in speeches and get her to relax. In private when she’s relaxed, she’s articulate, sharp, witty, funny, engaging. Put her in front of a camera, until recently when she’s grown in terms of confidence, she kind of clams up.

According to Matt Kilcoyne of the Adam Smith Institute think tank: “At the time in CCHQ [Conservative campaign headquarters] and No 10, they were doing training for ministers, trying to train them in a certain way. You saw that with the weird stance that they all took, standing with their legs apart.”

A leading Tory sympathetic to Truss notes the difficulty in delivering a modern conference speech: “Addressing a conference hall while being told to address a headshot camera and speak to viewers at home: it’s a difficult balancing act to get right, with speakers attempting to build a rapport with delegates while trying to deliver carefully crafted lines more suited to a party political broadcast or social media clip.”

Nevertheless:

The reference to “pork markets” nevertheless raised eyebrows. One special adviser then working in another department says: “I think she was trying to be suggestive, it’s all part of the whole naughty and weird act. I think because I’ve seen her be suggestive so many times, I assumed it was deliberate but it might just have been accidental.”

Following the speech, allies admit Truss undertook more training to avoid a repeat of the mockery. Buchanan says: “There has clearly been a lot more work done on bringing the voice down and slowing down the pace of delivery.”

Kwasi Kwarteng said:

I think it was a bit unfair . . . it was weird, the delivery people thought was a bit strange. The point she made was a fair point. But again she bounced back. She’s totally resilient, totally focused and she learnt from Defra, she learnt from that experience.

She didn’t let poor delivery deter her:

Undaunted, Truss threw herself back into her departmental work. An aide recalls: “There’s a sort of delightfully Terminator quality to her: she just keeps going. And you know if you combine that with a very thick skin this will lead to this almost relentless optimism. It’s quite a powerful force in politics.”

Truss can laugh at ‘pork markets’ now:

One cabinet colleague notes that Truss can at least laugh about the speech: “The number of times that I’ve been in meetings with her and she’s gone, ‘That is a disgrace’ and everyone chuckles because we all know what the reference is and she laughs along with us like, ‘What the f*** was I doing?’” Truss says: “My daughter loves it, though, she plays it all the time.”

Scottish Secretary helped Truss become PM

Perhaps one of the biggest revelations of Out of the Blue is that Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, helped Truss become PM.

On November 13, The Sunday Times featured a synopsis of how Jack dissuaded Truss from resigning as a Cabinet minister in September 2021.

Truss found out about a rise in National Insurance and told Boris Johnson about it. Then a newspaper report about the rise appeared from an unnamed Cabinet minister. The article quoted the minister as saying the rise would be:

morally, economically and politically wrong.

Boris did not want Truss to resign, so he enlisted Alister Jack’s support in keeping her in place:

As a result one of the authors argues that she was able to spend a year at a senior level of the government positioned as the alternative to Rishi Sunak if Johnson lost his job

Jack had become increasingly close to Johnson and was advising him on a cabinet reshuffle. The book says the Scottish MP contacted Truss to tip her off that she was in line for a significant promotion.

Jack told her to keep quiet about the National Insurance rise:

Jack called her and said: “Look Liz you’re gonna get a massive job in two weeks’ time, a massive job. You would be well advised to shut the f*** up.”

Despite going on to raise concerns in cabinet, she did not comment publicly and, according to a Downing Street official “then sucked it up”.

Truss then became Foreign Secretary:

With Truss duly being promoted shortly afterwards to the prestigious foreign secretary post, the authors say: “Perhaps Alister Jack’s plan had worked after all; Truss did not resign.”

Cole told The Sunday Times: “For fans of alternative history, the role Alister Jack played in the rise of Liz Truss is fascinating.

“Had he not convinced her to temper her attacks on Johnson and Sunak’s national insurance rise in September 2021, perhaps she would have resigned. Or perhaps Boris would never have promoted her to foreign secretary to clip Sunak’s wings and set up the battle to replace him a year later. Keeping her on board made her a contender as she spent a year basically being the alternative to Rishi if Boris did go down so it was clearly a key milestone in her tilt for the top job — and all that followed.”

Currently, rumours have been circulating that Alister Jack will be in line for a peerage, perhaps from Liz Truss. Every Prime Minister is allowed a list of nominees for the House of Lords and Truss is no exception.

The end

After Truss resigned, Harry Cole gave an interview to Times Radio, summarising Truss’s final week as Prime Minister. Too many things had gone wrong. She had to go. He ended by saying she was remarkably ‘zen’ about it all:

That fateful Wednesday of Suella Braverman’s resignation coupled with the bungled vote on fracking and no Chief Whip brought Truss and her husband to a serious conversation that night, as the October 23 edition of the Mail on Sunday reported:

When Liz Truss finally accepted that her premiership was over, late on Wednesday evening, she went to the fridge in the No 10 flat and pulled out a bottle of sauvignon blanc to share with her husband Hugh.

She had just endured a torrid night in the Commons, where more than 40 of her MPs had failed to back her in a vote on fracking – leading to the astonishing sight of ministers pulling wavering Tories into the voting lobbies.

As she nibbled on a pork pie, the couple agreed that it was a matter of when, not if, she resigned.

One of the main considerations was the impact of the growing turmoil on their two teenage daughters.

Ms Truss then slept fitfully until 4.30am, when she started messaging aides for advice.

Later that morning, No 10 asked Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, to come in to see the Prime Minister.

When she asked if the situation was retrievable, he replied: ‘I don’t think so, Prime Minister.’ The game was up

Downing Street staff were in tears as Ms Truss prepared her resignation but she reassured them: ‘Don’t worry, I’m relieved it’s over,’ before adding, ‘At least I’ve been Prime Minister.’

While newspaper reporters were putting together Truss stories, she was spending her final weekend as Prime Minister at Chequers, in leafy Buckinghamshire.

The Sunday Times reported that she held back-to-back parties:

Truss, 47, held a farewell party for ministers last night, and will thank close aides and their partners tonight …

Prime ministers are required to cover the cost of any private entertainment or party business they host at the residence.

A Times2 article told us what she allegedly served to guests:

One of Liz Truss’s many leaving parties at Chequers this weekend featured a menu including bruschetta, pigs in blankets and smoked salmon pinwheels and that, right there, sums up this whole sorry mess.

Anyone who inflicts canapé carnage like that is quite obviously unfit for high office. Smoked salmon followed by a mini sausage followed by bruschetta is a recipe for digestive disaster.

It sounds pretty good to me.

The Mail on Sunday reported more Truss controversy to come involving:

a row over whether Ms Truss should be entitled to the annual £115,000 allowance afforded to ex-PMs after her stint in office lasted only six weeks.

She is also due to receive a £18,860 pay-out for her historically short time in office.

Her aforementioned adviser Kirsty Buchanan stuck the knife in:

Kirsty Buchanan, who was a special adviser to Ms Truss at the Ministry of Justice and who also worked in Downing Street under Theresa May, claimed the PM’s reputation was ‘in tatters’.

‘The seeds of destruction were sown early as she shut out all but her closest allies and cocooned herself with those who shared her views,’ Ms Buchanan wrote in the Sunday Times.

‘With experience and institutional knowledge gone, dangerous groupthink and staggering naivety took hold at No 10.

‘Hubris went unchecked when humility was required from an administration that did not earn its majority but inherited it.

‘Politics was baked in a Petri dish, away from the political reality of the world outside.’

Ms Truss’s former aide said it would take ‘every ounce of her famed resilience’ for the PM to ‘bounce back from this humiliation’.

‘I suspect, though, that it will be the humbling in the eyes of her daughters, of whom she is fiercely proud, which may hit Truss hardest,’ she added.

Oh, dear. I hope Ms Buchanan was not one of Truss’s guests at Chequers.

I still think that, had Truss been male, most people in power would have tolerated her mistakes and been supportive.

Tomorrow’s post looks at the role the Bank of England and the media played in her downfall.

My most recent post on Liz Truss explored the background to her final week in office as Conservative Party leader for 44 days.

She remained Prime Minister until Rishi Sunak took over and was in post for 50 days.

The book

On Thursday, November 24, 2022, Out of the Blue, the biography of Liz Truss by The Sun‘s Harry Cole (right) and The Spectator‘s James Heale (left), went on sale:

They had to frantically rewrite parts of it and add the sad denouement:

The Guardian‘s Gaby Hinsliff gave it a good review, considering that The Sun and The Spectator are not aligned with the paper’s politics:

More excerpts from Hinsliff’s review follow (emphases mine):

Liz Truss was also the first [Prime Minister] to unravel almost faster than a biographer can type. She quit eight days before the Sun’s political editor Harry Cole and Spectator diarist James Heale were due to deliver a portrait already being written at breakneck speed, and for a book to emerge at all in the circumstances arguably represents something of a heroic technical achievement. True, the writing is clunky in places. But nobody is going to be buying this book for its literary elegance; the point is to rubberneck at what remains of the crash site, and if that isn’t what Cole, Heale or most of their interviewees originally intended to deliver – well, life comes at you fast in British politics nowadays.

Then comes the bit in the tweet about the book being of two parts.

The review introduces tantalizing details into Liz’s life, past and present, that are in the book:

Most of the clues as to what went wrong however lie in the first part, a very readable gallop through Truss’s childhood as the daughter of Guardian-reading, mildly eccentric leftwing parents, via her political awakening at university – first as a free market Lib Dem, then as libertarian Conservativeright the way through to her stint as foreign secretary, careering round the world in pursuit of the perfect Instagram shot. (It was during this stage that her ministerial “rider” was said to include multiple espressos in a flat white-sized cup and a bottle of sauvignon blanc chilling at every overnight stay.)

I was intrigued by Truss’s mother, Priscilla, who briefly moved to eastern Europe in the 1970s to “try out life under the communists”, took her children on Greenham Common protests and made herself a bright yellow banana costume in which to promote fair trade back home in Leeds. When Truss recalls schoolmates shouting “saw your mum in Tesco’s dressed as a banana again”, other 70s children of free-thinking parents may understand her seeming obliviousness to criticism a little better. You don’t grow up with a banana-clad mother, I suspect, without developing a certain sturdiness.

The book shows Truss’s self-belief from the time she entered Parliament in 2010, when David Cameron became Prime Minister:

Obliviousness isn’t always a blessing in politics however, as becomes clear in her first job as early years minister under David Cameron. Truss had hatched a plan to cut childcare costs by slashing the number of adults required to supervise children, which unsurprisingly proved controversial. Instead of patiently trying to build public and political support for it, she simply put her head down and charged – much as she would a decade later with her mini-budget, and about as successfully. All young politicians make mistakes. What’s unusual about Truss is that the lesson she seemingly took from hers was to believe in herself even more, and listen to others even less

But it’s perhaps significant too that she had got away with so much in the past, leading to an overconfidence about her ability to wing it – as she did even in the early days of her leadership campaign.

Interestingly, a Conservative plan to expand the number of adults who can care for children was debated earlier this month. It would allow people to mind children in their own homes rather than at a day care centre.

As with anyone else, there are darker sides to Truss, most of which will never be fully known. Cole and Heale were unable to interview her a third time for the book:

The authors recount sympathetically the well-trodden story of how an earlier extramarital affair with the married former Tory MP Mark Field nearly wrecked Truss’s search for a parliamentary seat, rightly noting the double standard that it never seemed to damage Field. But they also touch on some of the more explosive smears circulated about her during the leadership contest – including claims of an affair with an aide, allegations of predatory behaviour towards staff, and even one wild suggestion that there might be a sex tape of her in circulation. The authors interviewed her twice but their planned third session was canned when she resigned, so perhaps they simply never got to put these to her.

As to how things went wrong, perhaps she should have listened a bit more to others:

Despite his professional closeness to Truss, Cole and his co-author strive to put some distance between them in their final reflections on where it all went wrong. Putting aside her own fear, reportedly expressed to a visitor to the Foreign Office, that “I am weird and I don’t have any friends”, plausible theories for her implosion include that vaulting self-belief (even in her post-resignation speech to staff, she was still insisting she’d been on the right track) and determination to put the wrong people in cabinet.

How to read the books on Boris and Liz

In addition to a book on Truss, there is also one about Boris Johnson, by the Financial Times‘s Sebastian Payne.

How can one read both in chronological order?

Harry Cole says to read the first ten chapters of Out of the Blue, then Payne’s biography of Boris, then end with the final four chapters of Liz’s biography:

An MP writes

Recently, Simon Clarke, the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland who served as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in Liz Truss’s Government, and before that as Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Boris Johnson, wrote an article for the December 2022/January 2023 edition of The Critic on Truss’s premiership: ‘How did it all go so wrong for Liz Truss?’

Simon Clarke is one of the better Conservatives, in my estimation. He is diligent, good at the despatch box and is self-effacing. He is also very tall and, as such, when pictured with Rishi Sunak, walked some distance behind him so as not to accentuate the difference in height between the two of them.

Clarke begins his article with a weekend at Chevening, the Foreign Secretary’s country residence, and concludes with Truss’s last one at Chequers, as she closed out her premiership:

From Chevening to Chequers. For me, two weekends, eight weeks apart, will forever bookend my friend Liz Truss’s time as prime minister. The first, a wash of August Bank Holiday sunshine over the Kent countryside. Walking the grounds of the Foreign Secretary’s home with her on one of the last days of a leadership contest she had already won, listening as she outlined her vision for government, stalking ahead impatiently through the yellowing grass.

The second, an October Sunday in Buckinghamshire, an afternoon of bruised clouds and close heat foreshadowing the storm which broke as we dispersed. A small circle of family, ministers and aides, gathered in the Great Hall to say goodbye. A day defined by the quiet dignity and absence of self-pity of its principal protagonist, entirely typical of our host.

These memories are appropriate, because so much of what happened in between was decided at Chevening in the dog days of August.

Clarke has read Out of the Blue, which he liked, calling it:

a brisk and insightful canter through Liz’s career and the forces that shaped her …

In four breathless chapters at the close of their book, Heale and Cole do a good job of unpicking what went wrong, and why.

However, Clarke is disappointed they did not reach the conclusion he did — that Truss was right all along:

they largely decline to address an inconvenient truth — a truth perceived by those much-maligned Tory members all summer. Namely that in her diagnosis of the situation at home and abroad and what should be done about it, Liz Truss was fundamentally and importantly right

He goes through the failed mini-budget from September but points out that some of the fallout would have happened anyway:

In the eyes of millions of British voters, the fallout from the mini-budget meant the Government alone took responsibility for sharp spikes in both interest and mortgage rates, even though the majority of those increases were already in motion independently

He admits his error in the mini-budget but adds that Truss had a different economic plan during the summer:

The whole package was an exercise in Reaganomics without, fatally, the support of a reserve currency. Indeed, it was launched at the very moment when the strength of the dollar left sterling desperately exposed. As one of her Cabinet ministers, I take my share of the responsibility. But it is important to note that for much of the summer, there was a different plan. 

In July, in the days following Boris Johnson’s resignation, I spoke with Liz about how best to implement her vision for a higher growth, lower tax economy. The role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury is to be a voice of caution, and speaking as the incumbent to a predecessor, I highlighted the need for credible savings options to accompany her tax cuts, warning that without these we would be monstered. She agreed.

We settled on a new spending review, the exercise by which departmental budgets and priorities are determined in conjunction with Number 10 and the Treasury. Events in Ukraine meant the review conducted in September 2021 now strays close to being a fiction: the world has changed. It was time for a reassessment.

We discussed the relative merits of requiring five and ten per cent reductions in expenditure, achievable given how far spending has soared in recent years, and capable of being cushioned by the size of so many Whitehall departments’ Covid-driven underspends. 

Her only caveat, quite reasonably, was that it would be better to identify specific saving plans in the run-up to a budget once safely in office, as opposed to in the heat of a brutal campaign. But the overall approach of securing those savings was not, I believed, in any doubt. 

There was, therefore, a conscious and spectacular change in her policy from mid-July to the end of August. The latter two weeks of August seem to have been pivotal. With an unassailable polling lead and most votes already safely cast by party members, Liz settled in at Chevening for a blizzard of meetings. Here her distaste for “abacus economics”, always present, won out over caution. 

She was well within her rights to point out that the guardians of Treasury orthodoxy are bad at conducting dynamic modelling of the positive impact of both lower taxes and supply side reforms. But this was not the time to try to test that weakness.

Clarke thinks that Truss should have brought on board some of Sunak’s people. Personally, I do not think they would have helped. Perhaps they would have if she were a man:

As the storm broke from the mini- budget, so a second fundamental error of the Chevening days was laid bare: Liz’s choice of personnel. It was a mistake to have excluded from government so many of those who had backed Rishi Sunak. Her administration had too few allies when its momentum faltered, while a pared-back Downing Street operation found itself fighting on too many fronts.

The opposition was real and it was destructive:

What Heale and Cole could acknowledge more clearly is that there was a sizeable group of MPs who were unpersuadable from the beginning. From those who shivered at the thought of making the case for lowering the top rate of income tax back to the level at which it had stood at for all but the last six weeks of New Labour’s 13 years in office, even if it would raise more revenue, to those who did little to hide their desire for revenge for the summer’s reversal, the kindling was dry

Clarke says it is now important for Conservatives to look ahead to the next general election or face a Labour government:

And so we return to the fundamental point: that for all the brickbats, the platform on which Liz was elected PM remains important and urgent, and still needs to be delivered

Who can dispute the need for a plan for growth, at a time of flagging living standards when the Bank of England is forecasting a two-year recession? Taxes are at a 70-year high, and she was right to ease the burden by cutting National Insurance.

The opportunity for further tax cuts may have passed with the mini-budget, but supply-side reform is now more important, not less. Growth since the 2008 crash has been sluggish, and some of the principal reasons for this are the result of policy challenges that a Conservative government with a majority of 70 ought to confront.

I disagree with his plan to build more houses on the green belt but agree that the Conservatives need to maximise Brexit opportunities:

Productivity matters. We need to curb the culture of judicial review that ensures major infrastructure projects take years longer to deliver than they should. We also need to grasp the opportunities of Brexit, rather than just talk about them. Reform of EU rules such as Solvency II, proceeding with painful slowness, desperately needs to be accelerated if the City is to succeed

Liz saw this with total clarity and planned a series of interventions this autumn. If we are to get our economy moving, it is essential that we should act. None of these problems will resolve themselves of their own accord.

If her instinct for action on the home front was sound, it was doubly so abroad. The Northern Ireland Protocol legislation, so vital to ensuring that all parts of our country get to leave the EU, is very much Liz’s legacy from her time as Foreign Secretary. She understood better than almost anyone in the senior ranks of Government that Brexit cannot be a partial or half-hearted endeavour. Delivering this will be a central test for the new Government. 

And then there’s China:

With regard to China, Liz again rose to the level of events. Too many in British and European politics still cling to the German dream of Wandel durch Handel, or inspiring change through trade. Liz did indeed aim to deliver change through trade, but of a different kind. In one of the boldest policies of recent years, she had set out plans to build a democratic alternative to the Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative, not least by championing UK membership of the CPTPP trading bloc.

When she fell, she was poised to designate China officially as a threat to the UK. From the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong to the genocide being perpetrated against the Uighurs, we should be in no doubt as to the true nature of Xi’s regime. The West will only be able to resist this challenge if we readopt the Cold War trinity of moral confidence, economic dynamism and military strength, and Liz instinctively recognised this.

He concludes:

It was precisely because Liz’s sense of the kind of country we ought to be was so compelling that the Conservative party gave her their decisive backing this summer. It is her tragedy that the mistakes made at Chevening risk diminishing the vision she set out of a more successful Britain, walking tall abroad and better able to offer opportunity and dignity to her citizens at home …

In words which could be the epitaph for her short, extraordinary time as our prime minister, she reflected: “I think I could have gone out and done a better defence, and got on the front foot. On the other hand there is no point in doing these jobs unless you stand up for what you believe in.” 

Rishi laughs, but should he?

At last week’s Spectator Awards, everyone was there except Liz Truss.

The notional great and the good, politicians and journalists, gathered together. Pictured on the left is Grant Shapps MP and ex-BBC presenter Emily Maitlis:

Those who received awards and/or gave speeches, included witticisms:

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace won Minister of the Year:

As we had four Chancellors this year, it must have been hard for the magazine to choose, so they opted for Labour’s Rachel Reeves for Chancellor of the Year:

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer won Politician of the Year:

Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy won Parliamentarian of the Year. It looks like Transport Secretary Mark Harper gave the speech on his behalf:

During this annual starry schmoozefest, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak felt free to get a dig or two in about Liz Truss and the book:

Sunak quipped that the BBC turned down a request to make a television series about Cole and Heale’s book, because ‘it is hard to work with just one episode’. How they laughed:

Except things aren’t so funny for Rishi.

He had no honeymoon as Prime Minister and, within a month, Conservative backbenchers began rebelling.

On Wednesday, November 23, the aforementioned MP, Simon Clarke, tabled an amendment to relax the ban on onshore wind farms in England:

Late on Thursday, November 24, The Telegraph reported that Clarke’s proposed amendment was gaining traction. Furthermore, it had support from none other than Boris Johnson and Liz Truss:

Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have launched a challenge to Rishi Sunak’s authority by joining a Tory rebellion backing wind farms to tackle the energy crisis.

In their first major interventions since leaving Downing Street, the two former prime ministers have demanded an end to the ban on new onshore wind farms.

They both signed an amendment to the Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, just days after Mr Sunak’s government was derailed by a separate Tory revolt on the same legislation.

The bill is designed to speed up housebuilding, which is crucial to Mr Sunak’s growth agenda.

The two former prime ministers have had tense relationships with Mr Sunak.

Mr Johnson’s supporters view Mr Sunak as having dealt the fatal blow to his premiership by resigning as chancellor.

Ms Truss and Mr Sunak clashed repeatedly during the leadership race.

It is unusual for former leaders to oppose their successors, with Theresa May choosing the issue of partygate to make a rare criticism of Mr Johnson

Mr Johnson signed the pro-onshore wind amendment, tabled by Simon Clarke, who was levelling up secretary under Ms Truss – even though he supported the ban, which has been in place since 2015, during his three years in office.

Ms Truss said she wanted to end the ban when she was in Number 10, because she believes the energy crisis means Britain needs more energy independence

The onshore wind revolt is the second blow to Mr Sunak’s bill. 

On Tuesday night, more than 50 Conservative MPs rebelled against his plans to impose centrally-dictated housebuilding targets – forcing the Prime Minister to delay the votes until December.

That revolt risked the prospect of Mr Sunak only being able to get the measure through with Labour support.

The latest rebellion looks set to be even more serious – not only because it has attracted the support of two former prime ministers, but because it is considered more likely that Labour would back measures to promote onshore wind.

By Thursday night, a total of 18 Conservative MPs had signed the amendment.

It demands that Michael Gove, the present Levelling Up Secretary, revises the National Planning Policy Framework to allow councils to grant new onshore wind applications.

The amendment would also force the Town and Country Planning Act to be amended to allow the installation of “new onshore wind sites not previously used for generating wind energy or for repowering existing onshore wind applications”.

On Monday, November 28, The Guardian reported that Sunak was likely to give in to Clarke, Boris, Liz and the other Conservative rebels:

Good morning. Rishi Sunak has only been prime minister for about a month, but already he is learning that a large part of his job consists of playing Whac-a-Mole with Tory party rebellions.

All party leaders face backbench rebellions from time to time but, with its poll ratings still in landslide defeat territory and MPs rushing for the post-parliament lifeboats, the Conservative party is more ungovernable than usual.

Sunak has had to postpone votes on the levelling up and regeneration bill (originally scheduled for today) because of two rebellions on it. One group of Tory MPs (the anti-growth coalition, as Liz Truss would call them), want to amend the bill to ban mandatory housebuilding targets, while another group of Tories (from the pro-growth coalition) are backing an amendment tabled by Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary, that would lift the ban on onshore windfarms. Although only 25 Tories have signed the Clarke amendment (less than half the number backing the one on housebuilding targets), Clarke’s is more dangerous because it has Labour backing.

This morning Grant Shapps, the business secretary, was doing the morning interview round and he signalled that the Whac-a-Mole mallet is coming down on the Clarke rebellion. As my colleague Peter Walker reports, Shapps hinted that the government will avert the onshore windfarm rebellion by giving in.

In immigration news that morning, Conservative backbencher David Davis told Sky News that the easiest way to stop the influx of Albanians via the English Channel is to send them back home. Albania is classified as a safe country, therefore, claiming asylum should be discounted. Davis has the backing of 50 other Conservative MPs. He said:

[Legislation] would go through and basically we would say to the Albanian population, anybody else who comes across the Channel will be sent back. When that starts to happen, there is no bigger deterrent … than if somebody in your village pays thousands of pounds to a human trafficker and then ends up back in the village three weeks later.

We shall see what happens on both wind farms and immigration.

For now, the Conservatives will have to make the best of Sunak’s premiership, as they cannot reasonably have any more Prime Ministers before the general election, which, all being well, is some time away, either near the end of 2024 or early in 2025.

Returning to Liz Truss, there was no question that she had insurmountable enemies, a subject I will explore later this week. In some respects, if she were a man, she would have been allowed to remain in office. Perhaps men deal with contrarian men better than contrarian women.

Tomorrow’s post looks at Liz Truss’s life.

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