politics

Matt Hancock: Let’s put our year of Covid hell behind us


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att 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.

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.”

Describing himself as a natural optimist,  Mr Hancock did admit that “December was terrible” as the Kent variant took hold, but that early January had been the darkest hour for him. “We went into lockdown and we didn’t know how long… for and how long the numbers of deaths would keep going up.”

He denied there was rivalry with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and sought to brush off a question over whether he would one day want to be Tory leader and prime minister.

Asked whether there was anything he would feel embarrassed about in his texts and WhatsApp messages, which he is now being forced to hand over as part of a High Court battle over PPE contracts, he insisted, “Well, no, I know for absolute certainty that everything we were doing in that period was to get PPE to the frontline as soon as possible.”

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.

• Said he had spoken to Tony Blair personally and “talked to all of the former prime ministers and I learned something from each and every one of them”. Former prime ministers include Theresa May and David Cameron.

• 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.”

• Hailed the Government’s vaccine-purchasing strategy to “buy at risk”, which proved crucial in getting millions of early supplies. “We backed horses that won but we backed horses that didn’t either. I think there’s a lesson in that for how governments should operate.”

• Believes there will be “permanent shifts” in the way people work, after so many people did so from home.

• 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.



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