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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.

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.

On Monday, October 12, 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a three-tier system for England in an attempt to make new coronavirus restrictions easier to understand:

He delivered a statement in Parliament and later addressed the nation. In the video clips below, Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty is on the left and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is on the right:

These plans run for the next six months:

Earlier that day, Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam presented an update. It is unnerving when SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) members make an announcement of upcoming health policy before the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock. They did this on September 21 as well, against a Government backdrop. They have official permission to do so, but it is unsettling to see. It looks as if they are in charge. Perhaps they are.

Hmm.

I very much agree with this tweet about SAGE members who are physicians, such as the aforementioned three men (emphases mine below):

‘Drs’ go into epidemiology and PH because they want the same salary as the frontline grafters without the hours, stress or risk.

So, how accurate were Sir Patrick Vallance’s alarming projections from September? Not very accurate at all, as many people in England suspected three weeks ago, and deaths are thankfully minimal compared to springtime statistics:

The SAGE members spoke on Monday morning. Boris addressed MPs that afternoon.

The Conservative MP for Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan, rightly pointed out that a Conservative government should let citizens make informed choices for themselves:

As Conservatives, we often speak of levelling up. However, now is the time to level with the British people. There is no silver bullet. All measures to stop the spread of covid have painful effects on our economy, social lives and mental wellbeing. Voices on the Opposition Benches believe that British people are incapable of understanding complex issues such as Brexit. The Conservative party is the champion of individuals’ rights to make autonomous decisions without state interference. Will the Prime Minister double down on our party’s historic commitment to invest greater trust in the individual to decide what is best for themselves?

Boris gave his standard communitarian response:

Indeed, and I hope that the individual will also recognise that the risk that we carry—he or she carries—is not just to ourselves, but to the whole of the community because, in the end, we are all potential vectors of this disease and we may bring it inadvertently to someone who is more vulnerable than ourselves. That is the risk. That is why we are bringing in these measures, why we have had the package of measures that we have had throughout this pandemic, and why we now need to intensify them in some local areas now.

Boris answered over 100 questions in two hours. The session ended just before 6 p.m.

He addressed the nation on television at 7 p.m.

The adjournment debate in Parliament that evening revealed that the National Health Service would be more aptly named the National Covid Service.

Labour’s Fleur Anderson, who represents Putney in south west London, spoke about the continued closure of the Urgent Care unit at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton. Excerpts follow:

In August 1997, Queen Mary’s Hospital, which is in Roehampton, ended its A&E service, and has since had a minor injuries unit, which the trust gave a gold-standard accreditation in November last year. So there is no A&E service in my constituency. The minor injuries unit was upgraded to an urgent treatment centre, with a GP added to the excellent nurse practitioner staff, earlier this year. In a normal year, the centre serves 16,000 to 18,000 people, so it is a vital service in our community.

During the peak of the pandemic, the decision was taken to temporarily close the service because of a lack of space for social distancing and to be able to adhere to Government guidelines, and also to move the staff to other areas that needed them more. The pharmacy for out-patients has only recently been closed, and at very short notice. Of course I understand, as do local residents, that changes had to made and that health services had to adapt. I fully appreciate that our NHS managers had to make some extremely difficult decisions on service provision as they faced the prospect of being overwhelmed, which they are now facing again, with the second wave. The continued closure makes us in Roehampton feel overlooked, and it is putting additional pressures on NHS services at Teddington, the walk-in centre at Kingston, St George’s Hospital A&E and local GP surgeries. I am concerned that this will cause untold long-term damage to the health and wellbeing of our community.

I have been asked, “What about the person with the dislocated shoulder, the chest pain, the allergic reaction?” They all need to be assessed and stabilised urgently, but at the moment they are being turned away. I have met the chief executive of the hospital trust and raised these issues. I asked her to assure me that the centre would be reopened as soon as it was safe to do so, but she has not confirmed when it will reopen, if at all. That is very worrying. I hope to hear from the Minister this evening that he will support the trust in making plans to reopen the walk-in urgent treatment centre. 

I would like briefly to explain the impacts that the closure is having on local people. Anyone who goes to where the minor injuries unit used to be is asked to travel far away to the Teddington walk-in centre, to Kingston A&E or to St George’s A&E in Tooting. Those bus journeys can take an hour, which can result in painful journeys or in many people not making the journey, not being seen and not being treated. I am sure the Minister will agree that an hour on public transport is an unacceptably long journey time when there is a really good hospital right there in Roehampton, but it is just not open for walk-in urgent care. One of my constituents wrote to me this week to say:

I took my elderly father, who is nearly 90 years old, to Queen Mary’s just over a month ago, because he had cut his fingers quite badly and they were bleeding. The kind staff there had helped us when my father had a similar problem last year and they knew how to bandage his fingers because he has very thin skin…Because the Centre was closed, we had to go all the way to Kingston Hospital which was quite stressful. While his treatment there was good, it would have been far easier if we could have gone somewhere more local to him as my father isn’t used to travelling that far.”

Also, some patients are unable to travel or should not travel. An example is patients with diabetic foot ulcers, who should keep their activity to a minimum to allow ulcers to heal. At the same time, if they have an infection, it needs treating immediately as it could deteriorate rapidly leading to the need for amputation. That is one group of patients who are not getting the care they need because the urgent treatment centre and the pharmacy are not open. There is an obvious health risk to people needing to travel further if they are seriously ill.

There is also an increased risk of covid infection through asking people to travel greater distances by public transport during the pandemic, especially when they are unwell or chronically ill. They could have an underlying condition, which might be the reason they are going to the urgent care centre in the first place. That would make them more susceptible to the effects of covid-19. Closing the pharmacy is having the effect of delaying patients receiving treatment, as they are now being referred to their GP by the clinics. If they cannot immediately get an appointment with their GP, this can lead to delays of up to 48 hours before starting their treatment. That is another impact.

There is also a knock-on effect on services in other places. The fact that 16,000 to 18,000 people a year used to be treated at Queen Mary’s is putting pressure on St George’s and Kingston, along with the increasing demand at the momentGP surgery appointments are already at a premium, and this demand will only worsen as the difficult winter months approach. Even before the pandemic, it was reported that over 11 million patients had to wait more than 21 days for a GP appointment. In my constituency, there are 14 main surgeries and three branch practices. My team has called round all the local GP services. Several are still only doing appointments over Zoom, and in one local medical centre, a member of staff begged for the urgent care centre to reopen due to the pressure its closure is causing for GP surgeries.

Increased demand for overstretched GP surgeries with finite resources ultimately means fewer local people’s conditions or illnesses receiving treatment, and even more concerningly, serious and urgent illnesses such as cancer being missed and going undiagnosed. It is cancer diagnosis that I am particularly concerned about. As the Minister knows, lots of cancers are diagnosed when people present at hospital with a symptom. With the doors of the urgent treatment centre still closed, many cancers that might otherwise have been spotted will have been missed

Edward Argar, Minister for Health, responded on behalf of the Government:

… I am conscious that the trust has yet to set out a firm commitment to a reopening date, but I join the hon. Lady in saying that I hope it will set out its future plans as soon as possible. I am conscious that she has met the trust’s chief executive, Jacqueline Totterdell, to discuss these issues and plans for the reopening of the urgent treatment centre. Although that reopening date is still to be confirmed, I understand that the trust and local commissioners are undertaking work to agree a new covid-secure model of care before reopening, which is the right approach.

The hon. Lady highlighted not only the urgent treatment centre but its role in helping early diagnosis and treatment of cancers. I completely understand and recognise her concerns about the impact of the pandemic on cancer services and the importance of ensuring that cancers do not go undiagnosed. The NHS is working to restore the full operation of all cancer services, with local delivery plans being delivered by cancer alliances. Systems will be working with GPs and the public locally to increase the number of people coming forward and being referred with suspected cancer to at least pre-pandemic levels—I will come on to the performance of her local trust in a moment.

To support that, systems will help to ensure sufficient diagnostic capacity in covid-19-secure environments, through the use of independent sector facilities and the development of community diagnostic hubs and a rapid diagnostic centre. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that diagnostic capability is a considerable challenge, not least because, to put it perhaps a little bluntly, many diagnostic tests are very close and personal, and the equipment used is intimate in terms of looking inside the human body. The cleaning and infection control measures that are necessary between each patient make it challenging to see as many patients as would have been the case before the pandemic.

That last sentence worried my far better half, who asked, ‘Does that mean they weren’t cleaning between patients before coronavirus?’

After discussing cancer services, Argar discussed the Urgent Care pharmacy in question:

The hospital pharmacy is absolutely vital for people being able to have timely access to the medicines they need and being able to get them on site. Although people using it will have been treated and advised in hospital, they can none the less get very helpful advice from the pharmacy as well, so I share her view about the importance of that. As I have said, I include that in my offer to her—to discuss that with her and with the chief executive. I will endeavour to do that later this week …

I simply reiterate that I share the hon. Lady’s view that, where services for perfectly good and legitimate clinical reasons have been temporarily closed or altered, it is extremely important that they are reopened as soon as trusts are able to do so and, where in the future any changes are proposed, that they are subject to the usual full public consultation, engagement and consideration. I do not want to see temporary measures becoming permanent by default, and she can read that as perhaps an expression of my view on what is happening in Roehampton

I hope that I have been able to offer the hon. Lady some reassurances today. I thank her for securing the debate, and I very much look forward to meeting her

Fleur Anderson was reassured. I hope that Queen Mary’s Hospital gets back to full service soon.

The content of that debate was alarming.

Apologies for the digression, but this is the state of play for the NHS, or should I say NCS, not only in Roehampton but all over the nation. It is an absolute shambles.

Tuesday, October 13 — the almighty SAGE, no evidence needed

On Tuesday, October 13, Treasury Minister Steve Barclay laid out the Chancellor’s expanded plans for financial support during the continuing coronavirus crisis.

The 10 p.m. curfew for pubs was also voted on later that day.

Mel Stride, the Conservative MP representing Central Devon, asked for scientific evidence about the curfew:

My right hon. Friend and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have done a great deal to support the economy, but there has to be a careful balance struck between protecting against the virus and avoiding further economic destruction. With that in mind, what scientific evidence has the Treasury received that closing pubs at 10 pm gets that balance right?

Steve Barclay did not answer the question and inadvertently pointed out SAGE’s woefully inaccurate modelling (see graph at the top of the post):

We have to balance the evidence that the Government receive from a range of quarters. My right hon. Friend will recall that when the initial advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was put forward, the Government came forward with a range of measures, such as the rule of six and the curfew. Indeed, if we look at the projections that were made at that time, we see that we could potentially have had 49,000 or so daily cases by 14 October when in actual fact the figure on that date was 12,872. That indicates the fact that the package of measures put in place by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have had an influence. However, listening to the SAGE advice, it is recognised that we need to go further and that is why the tiered approach has been set out.

Mike Wood (Con, Dudley South) sounded the alarm about pubs in his West Midlands constituency:

A tenth of pubs have not reopened since lockdown in March while two thirds were already trading at a loss, even before restricted opening times, mandatory table service and the new restrictions announced yesterday. Will my right hon. Friend look at the support that is available for pubs that are not yet compelled to close, but are legally prevented from operating economically, and in particular state aid limits that threaten to prevent 10,000 pubs from receiving the support they need? Without that support, many thousands of pubs will close their doors and never reopen.

Barclay responded:

Ultimately, that is why the Chancellor set out the wider package of support, recognising the concerns he speaks of with the tax deferrals, the loans, the business rate support and the measures on VAT, which are targeted at the sector because of the very real concerns he correctly articulates.

Bob Seely (Con, Isle of Wight) asked for evidence that compels swimming pools and gyms to close in some areas under the new restrictions:

Is there any specific evidence that swimming pools and gyms are centres for covid transmission? Has any research been done into rising obesity and unfitness levels, and has any research been done into rising unemployment caused by the closure of gyms and pools that is now happening in parts of the UK?

Barclay reiterated that those sectors were part of the reason for the Chancellor’s expanded support package. Again, he could not provide any scientific evidence:

In some ways, that is slightly more of a Health question than a Treasury question, but I recognise that there is read-across from those businesses into the economy. In short, the opinion of the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer is that those businesses do carry significantly more risk, which is why they have been harder hit in the guidance that has been issued.

What if it turned out that Whitty and Vallance were as wrong about that as they are with their astronomically mistaken ‘case’ projections?

I fully agree with the assessment of Sir Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough):

It is not surprising that more and more Members are calling for more Government support, because the Government are forcing more and more businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, out of business. The Chief Secretary says that his priority is to help business. The best way to help businesses is to let them get on and do business. We are going bankrupt as a nation—there will not be the money to pay for the NHS or pensions. What is the Treasury doing to row back against other parts of the Government and insist that we must allow British business to operate? He did not answer the question from the Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride)—what is the scientific evidence for pubs closing at 10 o’clock? Is he leading the fight to help Britain to stay in business?

Barclay replied:

With respect, I did answer it. I pointed to the projection given by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser at that time, the SAGE guidance and the fact that the package of measures put in place by the Prime Minister has resulted in a lower infection risk. The CMO and others would recognise that this is a range of measures. My right hon. Friend says that the Government have gone too far and that there is no evidence for the curfew. The tenor of most of the questions one gets is that we have not moved far enough and should be taking more drastic actions. That speaks to the fact that this is a balanced judgment. One needs to look at the range of measures we are taking, and that is what I would refer him to.

After that, MPs debated then voted on all the new coronavirus measures. All passed, including the 10 p.m. curfew for pubs across the nation.

Matt Hancock delivered the statement which opened the debate.

He took strong exception to the Great Barrington Declaration:

Some people have set out this more relaxed approach, including those in the so-called Great Barrington declaration. I want to take this argument head on, because on the substance, the Great Barrington declaration is underpinned by two central claims and both are emphatically false. First, it says that if enough people get covid, we will reach herd immunity. That is not true. Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, such as measles, malaria, AIDS and flu, and with increasing evidence of reinfection, we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to covid, even if everyone caught it. Herd immunity is a flawed goal without a vaccine, even if we could get to it, which we cannot.

Well, not all of us get flu every year, and, in the wide scheme of things, COVID-19 has a 99% survival rate.

I agree with Hancock’s second point about the impossibility of isolating older members in multi-generational households.

However, overall, Hancock really is in thrall to SAGE. They must be relishing the power they have over him:

John Redwood (Con, Wokingham) asked a simple question:

How long do the scientists think we will need these lockdowns for, and what is their exit plan?

Hancock had no real answer. The one he gave proves that lockdowns do not work. So much for SAGE advice:

We have seen the exit plan from local lockdowns. For instance, in Leicester, where we had a firm local lockdown, the case rate came right down. We lifted that and we have sadly seen it start to rise again. The case rate is determined by the amount of social mixing, and it reduces during a lockdown. In some parts of the country where the case rate has continued to rise, there is an argument for further ensuring that we do not reach the level of contact that is at the root of the virus spreading. The challenge is how to calibrate the lockdown to get the virus under control while doing the minimum damage to the economy and to education.

Huw Merriman (Con, Bexhill and Battle) pointed out the futility of a 10 p.m. curfew, as everyone pours out into the street and onto public transport at the same time:

The Secretary of State talks about a regulation on pubs closing at 10 o’clock, which has been in force for four weeks. There may be some undoubted positives for health, but we see some negatives with people amassing together on public transport and in the streets. Do the positives outweigh the negatives, as far as the science is concerned?

More waffle from Barclay, I’m sorry to say.

You can see some of Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth’s reply to Barclay in the video below. Ashworth says that the Government have not gone far enough, even if he opposes another full lockdown, or circuit-breaker, as it is now called.

The debate continued.

Addressing Matt Hancock, Dr Andrew Murrison (Con, Southwest Wiltshire), who is a physician, cautioned him against being closed-minded and advised looking at other voices in the medical world, including those of those who say that lockdown serves little purpose and should be confined to the vulnerable only:

I support these restrictions with a heavy heart. On balance, I will be supporting the Government this evening, but I want to make just a few quick points.

I would be very careful about subscribing to the Vallance/Whitty orthodoxy that informed these regulations, while not at all examining very carefully respectable bodies of medical opinion to the contrary. I would cite particularly the Heneghan/Sikora/Gupta line. It is important that the Secretary of State and his ministerial team address those things head-on and treat them with the respect that they deserve

We need to be careful about groupthink, confirmation bias, a thin evidential basis and uncertainty masquerading as certainty. There is a huge margin of uncertainty with all this, and we all need to develop a level of humility in our attitudes towards dealing with this crisis. That is why I shall be supporting the Government this evening …

In all this, we simply do not know and we are learning all the time. We have to accept, I think, the expertise of those advising Ministers and that we have experts for a reason, but there is an alternative view. Unless we get a vaccine—goodness me, I hope we do—I think we may find that the cure is worse than the disease in terms of lives lost directly to covid, incidental lives lost to other common diseases—stroke, heart attack and particularly cancer—loss of liberty, loss of livelihood and the compete trashing of our economy. That is what is at stake. I do not envy the Secretary of State in his work.

Labour’s John Spellar (Warley) made excellent points. I agree with every one of them:

There is a huge principle to be debated here. At the heart of it is the false dichotomy posed again by the Secretary of State today between hospitality and the economy and jobs, as though hospitality were not part of the real economy and millions of jobs did not depend on it. Tell that to the workers and businesses owners in pubs and clubs, restaurants and cafes, hotels and wedding venues, theatres and cinemas, betting shops, bingo halls and casinos and gyms, all of which are facing really hard times and challenges. They are facing closures, ruin and job losses on a massive scale. At the same time, as we heard earlier, Treasury support is weakening and the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not only losing the cost of support but suffering a major loss of revenue.

Unfortunately, the approach seems to be driven less by deep analysis and more by the dreaded doctrine of “something must be done”. This is something; therefore we must do this irrespective of proportionality, outcome or impact. But this time it is even worse. It seems to be “something needs to be seen to be done” without any cost-benefit analysis or considering the impact on a beleaguered industry and a workforce facing mass redundancies. Accordingly, I and many other Members are unclear about the basis, either at a local or national level, of these proposals. The Chief Secretary talked earlier of anecdotes. I want a bit more than anecdotes.

Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, rightly said on Radio 4 today that a far better way than closures and curfews is to give powers to local councils to take rapid action to shut down non-compliant venues. In my authority of Sandwell, which has an enviable contact rate of 85% led by the excellent public health director Dr McNally, we have had one case linked to a hospitality venue, and that was early on in the pandemic in a pub in Smethwick. The Express & Star, our evening newspaper, investigated and found that across the Black Country, which is home to 1.25 million people, there have been just 10 such incidences of covid, again all early in the pandemic.

In his opening speech, the Secretary of State did not give an indication of how long he thinks this can go on. It could last almost indefinitely unless we develop a vaccine, an event that, as the Prime Minister candidly admitted yesterday, is uncertain and would not be 100% effective. One of the tests of an exit strategy is considering how we contain the virus if we are not able to eliminate it, as we have had to do with major diseases throughout history and as many of parts of the world still have to do today.

Steve Baker (Con, Wycombe) brought up the economic damage done and his support for the Great Barrington Declaration. He said that the Government must find a middle way:

three problems. The first is that a vaccine may not come. The second is that a vaccine may not be effective. The third is that all this is propped up on quantitative easing and ultra-cheap credit. Indeed, now we are reading in the newspapers about negative interest rates, and this is why I declared the interest. I think you have to have a peculiarly high level of economic education to believe that we can head towards £745 billion of QE and ultra-low or negative interest rates and that all this will not be a problem. I will not say any more about it. I think it will be a problem, and it is precarious indeed that the Government’s strategy is propped up on such a monetary policy

Personally, I think that privately the Government are a little more optimistic about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned, but here is the thing: even suppose the Government had vaccinated the public with a successful, safe vaccine by Easter or possibly the summer, that still leaves our economy and Government spending propped up on ultra-cheap credit. The problem with that is that the Bank of England has told us on the Treasury Committee that if inflation comes in it will have to, under its mandate, fight inflation. That would effectively mean pulling the plug on Government spending. This is precarious indeed …

For the reasons that I have given, I am convinced that the Government must find an alternative strategic plan between the Great Barrington declaration and where we are today.

All Government measures passed in the votes that night.

Labour’s mixed messages

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow cabinet are all over the shop.

On Tuesday, Jonathan Ashworth opposed a national lockdown, while saying that the Government were not going far enough with measures:

However, Labour leader Keir Starmer announced on national television that he wants a national lockdown, as Guido Fawkes points out (emphases in the original):

Why does Keir Starmer support imposing a national lockdown on areas with low Covid incidence whilst opposing regional lockdowns on areas with high Covid incidence? Whatever side of the argument you are on, surely it is clear that being on both sides of the argument at the same time makes no sense logically? Unless it is pure political opportunism…

Ashworth said, rightly that a national lockdown “would be disastrous for society… but I don’t believe anyone in the house is proposing that…” Hours later Starmer proposed precisely that…

Tiered lockdown: public money from taxpayers or private enterprise?

In closing, this is what is allegedly happening in Essex, which is just to the east of London. This is puzzling, because Essex has low positive test rates.

Adam Brooks is a publican:

Essex Council deny that money is involved. The councillor giving the following statement said that the Council is doing it for health, not financial, reasons:

Fair enough.

The leader of the Council issued this video announcement, which was not well received by Essex residents (read the replies):

Essex aside, on the subject of lockdown money, Laura Dodsworth has written a lengthy article for Spiked, ‘There’s a financial incentive for councils to lock down’.

She stands by her article:

She explains that Liverpool Council made sure they received commitment to a financial package from the Government before entering Tier 3:

Liverpool mayors Steve Rotheram and Joe Anderson said that they did not agree with some aspects of the Tier 3 lockdown, but were aware that government would bring in rules ‘with or without them’. And so rather than argue forcefully against lockdown, they negotiated to secure the best financial package possible.

This policy is not without its drawbacks:

The new funding package for councils is designed to alleviate the pain of lockdown, to sugar the pill. But the structure of the funding might end up providing local authorities with the ingredients to make lockdown cake indefinitely. It is specifically intended to support more testing, including door-to-door testing, sometimes with help from the military. But more testing leads to more cases. More cases lead to more lockdowns.

the funding is also going towards enforcement of lockdown regulations and self-isolation, which there are fines for breaching. That, in turn, raises more funds – the revenue from fixed-penalty notices, whether they are issued by local police, environmental-health officers or new Covid marshals, goes into local-authority coffers. In theory, the lockdown fixed-penalty fines should be going straight back into public health (as littering fines would go towards the environment). But, in reality, revenue from fines is not always that well ring-fenced in local authorities.

Liverpool Council is nearly broke:

Back in April, Liverpool council warned it was facing bankruptcy. It’s easy to appreciate that local leaders are anxious to secure funds to deal with the ongoing lockdown crisis. I am not suggesting that councils and local politicians would make calculated decisions to push areas into lockdown. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This financial model has the potential to become a vicious circle. Seasoned disaster-planner Lucy Easthope tells me: ‘There is a tendency in reactive disaster funding to create dependency and to actively avoid thinking through the long-term harms and over-reliance [on emergency funds].’

Allegedly, London is likely to be next:

It will be interesting to see how this turns out in the months to come. I hope that the Treasury have terms and conditions attached to this funding.

The end of the road for England’s pubs?

Since the smoking ban in 2007 and the financial crisis the following year, the number of pubs decreased from 50,000 to 39,000 in the UK. That was as of 2018.

Because of the earlier lockdown this year, more have no doubt closed — for good.

The new coronavirus regulations began on Wednesday, October 14:

Below is a video of the ‘last hurrah’, as my parents’ generation would have called it, in Liverpool, before Tier 3 regulations set in.

Regardless of what one thinks of the video, according to the pie chart, when workplaces and schools/universities are factored in, according to Public Health England, hospitality accounts only for 3 per cent of coronavirus ‘case’ sources:

Not all pubs have to close, but in order to stay open, they must serve ‘a substantial meal’, as in New York City. A packet of crisps or pork scratchings will not do. The Pub Curmudgeon said that the Government have not precisely defined the term ‘substantial meal’, which could be problematic.

Meanwhile, Adam Brooks, the aforementioned publican from Essex, has given an interview to Spiked:

More to come tomorrow on how his business has fared during the coronavirus crisis.

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