Along with 98% of the population I thought I’d probably seen the last of the hapless and scandal-wracked politician when he resigned as UK Health Secretary in June 2021. You’ll recall he left his post after being spotted doing something in an empty office with advisor Gina Coladangelo. The office was empty except for the building-wide CCTV system, which is what did the spotting. The something was snogging.
Along with 99% of the population I thought I had definitely seen the last of him when he disappeared into the jungle of New South Wales in late 2022 to take part in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
But no, he emerged energised having done better than anyone would have believed and markedly better than in the Tory leadership race of 2019. Then he secured a mere 20 votes, less even than Dominic Raab, which is an achievement. This time he made the final, finishing third behind England footballer Jill Scott and some actor nobody has ever heard of.
It’s amazing what eating a cow’s anus and a camel’s penis in front of the cameras can do for your electoral chances. Someone should tell the SNP leadership hopefuls. It would spice up those hustings.
But even post-jungle Mr Hancock wasn’t done with us. There was to be a third act to his story. Like I said, the man has staying power.
Immediately after being released from the jungle – so soon afterwards you might imagine the whole thing a cunning publicity stunt – Mr Hancock published a book, The Pandemic Diaries, co-written with noted right-wing journalist Isabel Oakeshott. The publisher’s blurb promises a “candid account” showing the “inner workings of government during a time of national crisis”, one which would draw on “never-before-seen material, including official records, his notes at the time and communications with all the key players in Britain’s Covid-19 story.”
For that last bit about communications, read: the contents of Mr Hancock’s phone, specifically his texts and WhatsApp messages.
Now that the book is out, Ms Oakeshott has helpfully handed around 100,000 of these WhatsApp messages to the Daily Telegraph who are calling the scoop The Lockdown Files. They have assembled a Lockdown Files Team to sift through the millions of words the messages contain.
The big claim to date is that near the start of the pandemic Mr Hancock rejected advice to test everybody going into care homes rather than just those transferring from hospitals, in part because to do so would muddy the waters, as he put it. But also because at that point there was a shortage of tests (though not so few that some couldn’t be couriered to the home of Jacob Rees-Mogg to test a family member).
It’s important to note that the Telegraph, like Ms Oakeshott herself, was critical of many aspects of the lockdown. So you can take with a pinch of salt its claim that Covid turned Britain into “a curtain-twitcher’s paradise” akin to “East German under the Stasi”, or that politicians were ignoring “the long-term consequences of creating a temporary police state”. That particular story was spun out of messages from August 2020 showing Hancock telling Permanent Secretary Simon Case that “we are going to have to get heavy with the police” in order to enforce lockdown rules.
READ MORE: HANCOCK’S DISMAY OVER WHATSAPP LEAK ‘BETRAYAL’
My favourite revelation involves Nigel Farage and the question – asked in a group chat by one of Mr Hancock’s aides – if the old rogue could be arrested. This after Farage posted a picture of himself enjoying a pint in a Kent boozer having apparently broken quarantine rules on return from a Donald Trump rally in the United States. “Does he count as a pub hooligan?” the aide asked. “Can we lock him up?”
On Friday a gleeful Farage took to the pages of (where else?) the Telegraph to admit that, yes, he did break lockdown rules, and to put the boot in to Mr Hancock in his own inimitable fashion. “I for one don’t want little pipsqueaks like Matt Hancock telling me how I should or shouldn’t live my life,” he wrote, after having compared said pipsqueak to the “preposterous” Sir Joseph Porter from comic opera HMS Pinafore.
There’s more. “[T]o use the levers of the state in order to target a political opponent bears the hallmark of all undemocratic regimes,” he added. “The Chinese would be proud of such instincts, frankly.”
At the time of writing we were three days into the Lockdown Files revelations and there is already too much information to process. So on one hand it feels like everybody’s firing in different directions and at different targets. Farage bangs on about Gilbert and Sullivan and China and God knows what else. Hancock’s fellow Tories harrumph at their colleague’s naivety in trusting Ms Oakeshott further than you could throw a box of dodgy PPE. Piers Morgan calls Mr Hancock “an absolute arse” for joking about his departure from his TV show. Keir Starmer uses Prime Minister’s Questions to slam the “insulting and ghoulish” spectacle of politicians “writing books portraying themselves as heroes or selectively leaking messages”.
But the upshot is we’re all talking about lockdown, which is what Ms Oakeshott intended. And who is she, the source of all this fuss? If you’re a political junkie you’ll recognise the Brexit-supporting journalist from her appearances on Question Time and the like. If not, she was born in London, raised in Scotland (she attended an exclusive Edinburgh girls’ school followed by King Charles’s alma mater, Gordonstoun) and studied history at Bristol University. She cut her teeth on the East Lothian Courier, among other fine Scottish blatts, and has since worked for The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail. Oh, and she spent a year fronting a show on GB News, that hotbed of anarcho-socialism and eco-Marxists.
Oh no, sorry. I’m confusing it with the National Trust magazine.
Understandably some view the printing of the Lockdown Files as a massive betrayal of trust on the part of a journalist who did sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before undertaking work on The Pandemic Diaries.
Mr Hancock certainly thinks so and has called it that, adding that the leaked information produces “a partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda.” In terms of the care home claim, he has issued a statement via a spokesperson stating: “These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice on care home testing. This is flat wrong.”
Ms Oakeshott counters, quite reasonably, by citing a public interest defence. The UK Covid-19 Inquiry will begin its preliminary hearings on March 21 when it looks at decision making in Scotland. The public inquiry proper begins on June 13. She thinks the whole thing will be “a colossal whitewash”. And so she has made public what she says is a “real time record” of what went on, one showing what decisions were made and when and why.
Right wing libertarians such as Ms Oakeshott can point to lockdown free Sweden, which has completed its inquiry, as their poster child. Or they can whet the edge of their anti-lockdown arguments by chastising those who barred relatives from care homes or prevented people attending the funerals of loved ones. Fair enough.
But even those who supported the lockdowns (I’m one of them) cannot ignore the fallout from that awful spring three years ago when the sun shone but life as we knew it stopped in its tracks – the fallout in terms of children’s mental health, fractured relationships and so on.
He didn’t mean to do it, but in handing over the goodies to a journalist Mr Hancock has inadvertently kicked off something which has been long overdue: a reckoning not so much with Covid itself but with lockdown, both the good it did and the harm it caused. If this is how it has to happen, so be it.
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