To hear him speak, you’d think Matt Hancock had come up with the coronavirus vaccine on his own, using a yoghurt pot and a chemistry set his mum got him at Christmas.
While boasting of the jab rollout in Parliament, he declared magnanimously: “I am proud of everyone in my department.” What a nice guy, sharing the honours like that. In descending order of importance he went on to applaud “all those working in health care and public health, the armed forces who fought on this home front, the volunteers, who stood in cold car parks with a smile, colleagues across the House who have done their bit, and most of all the British people”.
The fact he led the fight to do all that, while keeping care home residents safe and being absolutely and completely straight with everyone, makes this one man’s personal achievements all the more worthy of headlines. “We shall overcome!” he almost sang.
Britain’s vaccine was designed by Professor Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University, who told colleagues on January 30, 2020, she could repurpose one she had already developed for Ebola and MERS. They gave her £1m to keep going. The same day, the first Brit died from coronavirus.
The next day, the Mirror splashed on ‘KILLER FLU’ and 150 Brits who’d flown from China forced to isolate in a RAF base. Boris Johnson had just returned from a £15,000 holiday in Mustique with a pregnant Carrie Symonds, where they had become secretly engaged.
As Gilbert and her team worked, Boris Johnson missed five COBRA meetings about the growing epidemic, allegedly to write a book about Shakespeare for which he’d been paid years earlier, and without which he could not afford to divorce his wife for the sake of his new fiancee, their baby, and avoidance of a scandal.
But in his absence, those meetings were chaired by Hancock. And nothing was done. No alarms sounded, no pandemic plan was prepared, no PPE sourced, no advice sought from other nations already battling the virus.
Then on February 25 Public Health England – of which Hancock is the ultimate boss – said there was no reason to lockdown care homes.
On March 11, the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic. Liverpool played Atletico Madrid in front of 52,000 fans. Dominic Cummings texted the PM in a panic about mass deaths. Hancock announced he was expanding testing from 1,500 a day to 10,000, but declined to give details. A day later, the PM said there were so few tests they’d be restricted to those in hospitals.
On March 12, the same day that Donald Trump wanted UK help to bomb Iraq and Carrie was raging about a shaggy dog story, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill repeated “the official advice to him from the Department of Health”, and told the PM to tell the country they should hold ‘chicken pox parties’ so everyone could catch the new disease.
On March 13, Chief Scientist Patrick Vallance told the nation the official plan was “to build up some degree of herd immunity whilst protecting the most vulnerable”. Johnson said: “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” And care homes were told merely that visitors should wash their hands.
The same day, Cummings wrote on a whiteboard: “Who do we not save?” He said former deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara told him: “I think we are absolutely f****d. I think this country is heading for a disaster, I think we are going to kill thousands of people.”
On March 16, Imperial College London published a model that predicted 500,000 deaths without lockdowns. On March 17, NHS hospitals were told to “urgently discharge” all patients they could, including those needing social care, to free up 15,000 beds.
There was no requirement to test them first.
In the days that followed, Hancock said everyone over 70 would have to stay indoors for four months; said he was buying thousands more ventilators; and was told that was stupid, without enough staff to use them.
He called for an army of 250,000 covid volunteers, who when they signed up found there was nothing much for them to do.
Shortly after the first lockdown was announced on March 23, government demands led to the collapse of a deal between Prof Gilbert’s vaccine team and pharmaceutical company Merck.
On March 28, Hancock and Johnson tested positive for coronavirus and locked themselves away. Two days later the Mirror reported the first NHS medic had died of coronavirus, and footage emerged of doctors and nurses working without adequate PPE.
The same day, Hancock got a cheery Whats App message from friend and former pub landlord, Alex Bourne, whose technically insolvent company wound up with a £30m PPE contract.
On April 1 it was revealed that only 0.4% of NHS staff had been tested, and a day later the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care urged care homes – which had by this point had 25,000 untested hospital patients dumped in them – to allow only essential visits.
A few days later Hancock insisted the PM was hale and hearty, and shortly afterwards the PM was fighting for his life with the help of a New Zealand nurse yet to be disgusted at the second wave and a 1% pay rise.
When he got out, he realised Hancock had not been testing in the way he’d promised. He didn’t fire him. A few weeks later, the entire country was told lockdown was optional when he refused to fire Cummings for a highly-infectious dash to Durham and day trip to Barnard Castle.
It was not until April 30 that the government’s demands were met by Astra Zeneca, and a contract was finally signed to make the vaccine. On May 1, Kate Bingham was appointed head of the vaccine taskforce, with one already in the bag. It greased the supply chain, procured other vaccines, and organised logistics.
In July, Johnson refused to impose border controls. Bingham revealed a vaccine was on the way. In August Rishi Sunak told people to Eat Out To Help Out, and seeded the disease anew. In September, the PM told everyone to go back to work, school, and university, which turned into a super-spreader event for teenagers.
A month later, multiple people report hearing the PM say: “No more f***ing lockdowns… let the bodies pile high in their thousands!”
The High Court subsequently found that, by October, Hancock had unlawfully failed to publish details of 94% of covid contracts on time.
When the first vaccines were approved, Hancock said it was due to Brexit. Experts said it was actually due to the UK’s own medial regulators, which had always been quicker than those of the EU.
The vaccine is a brilliant, life-saving, pandemic-ending thing. But it’s not due to the government, or peculiarly Tory policies, in any way, shape or form.
The vaccine was due to vaccinologists. The delivery to arms was due to the NHS. The money that the government finally threw at it was due to panic, not vision.
And even if you think the government’s vaccine efforts are the best thing ever, then you might like to know what Matt Hancock is not shouting about quite as loudly.
Firstly, the vaccine task force was supervised by Business Secretary Alok Sharma from its creation in May 2020 until November 28, when Nadhim Zahawi was made Vaccines Minister. By the time it was put under Hancock’s official control on March 1 this year, 17.3m people had a first dose – all without a jot of help from him.
Secondly, while the vaccine will no doubt save millions of lives worldwide over time, it has so far saved 13,200 in the UK. Compare that to 30,000 lost in care homes that were shielded only from notice last March, and a further 120,000 who died in hospitals where infection control was a victim of a decade of funding cuts by successive Tory governments.
All those working in health care and public health, the armed forces who fought on this home front, the volunteers who stood in cold car parks with a smile, the MPs who ‘did their bit’, and most of all the British people, have done bloody well, considering Matt Hancock was in charge.
But we shall overcome.