The first lockdown deepened during a luridly warm spring. Strange things began to happen in England. Mr Motivator MBE returned to television, and a TikTok about pubs made young men cry. The middle-classes baked until the flour ran out; the bus drivers, cabbies and chefs contracted the virus, then died. The rich just became richer; they were like the aristocrats who viewed Borodino’s bloodbath from the heights. But strangest of all was the daily, hourly, minute-to-minute ubiquity of Matt Hancock.
Long before SARS-CoV-2 was a twinkle in the eye of a Wuhan cave bat, Hancock worked on the student radio station at the University of Oxford. A contemporary, Gina Coladangelo, reminisced that Matthew read the sport “because he wasn’t good enough to do the news.” Another remembered Hancock as the “butt of everyone’s humour”. He wanted to go to Westminster and be an MP.
He nearly blows himself up. Guildford, 2001. Young Matt does an election leaflet for the Tory candidate Nick St Aubyn. Instead of saying that St Aubyn wanted to “unite” the community, a 22-year-old Hancock writes: “I want to untie the community”. The leaflet lands in 50,000 letterboxes. St Aubyn loses his seat by 538 votes.
Shortly after becoming a junior minister, Hancock compares himself to Pitt the Younger, Disraeli, and Churchill; their achievements are quite well known, but he will make history on his own terms in 2018 when he becomes the first MP to launch a personal app: The Matt Hancock App.
Its creation leads to the memorable onscreen prompt “Matt Hancock would like to access your photos” — and he appears to get them even if users deny the ‘The Matt Hancock App’ access to their libraries. A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s office admits, “We are checking reports about the operation of The Matt Hancock App”.
In a party where the average age of a member is 57, Hancock appears young and bright. He is marked out by the early patronage of Osborne, who says of his protege: “In a political system that is full of Eeyores we could do with a few more Tiggers.”
That nickname fits well. Tigger Matt has the tamped energy of the short man, over-exercised. Enthusiastic; readily and sycophantically agreeable. His colleagues mock him — Matt Wankcock and Matt Handjob will be insider nicknames for him — but they are usually reluctant to fire him, even when it makes sense to do so.
As the Conservative Party tortures itself in 2019, Hancock decides he would like to be leader. Or raise his profile. So he attacks Boris Johnson and a hard Brexit: “To the people who say fuck business, I say fuck fuck business.”
He fuck fuck’s himself into sixth place in the first ballot of the party’s MPs. Then he withdraws; he spends a month on television and radio praising the new leader… Boris Johnson. Hancock expects a promotion for his breathy verbal parkour. He keeps his job as Health Secretary instead.
To run the NHS is no Conservative’s idea of a dream. Neville Chamberlain was the last Tory Health Secretary to become Prime Minister. The service itself is a patched-up patchwork, a tax sink, an organisation colossally vast and maddeningly confusing. Hancock’s real brief is to make sure the whole thing doesn’t fall apart when people are looking.
The pandemic is the greatest health crisis to face Britain since mad George III thought that an oak tree in Kew Gardens was Napoleon’s ambassador. Fate, or a lab-leak, means that soon everybody will look at the NHS.
A relaxed, Prime Minister-less COBRA meeting is held at the end of January 2020. After chairing it Hancock tells reporters the risk Covid posed to the public was “low”. On the same day a study published by Chinese doctors in The Lancet suggests SARS-CoV-2 is comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed around 50 million people.
The risk to the UK is deemed so low that on 24 February the Government supplies 1,800 pairs of goggles, 43,000 disposable gloves, 194,000 sanitising wipes, 37,500 medical gowns and 2,500 face masks to China. Looking back at meetings that month, one senior Department for Health official remembers thinking “‘Well, it’s a good thing this isn’t the big one.’”
A clip of Boris Johnson, patiently explaining possible Covid strategy to fellow scientific luminary Phillip Schofield goes viral. “One of the theories,” Johnson had said on March 5, was that “perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking many draconian measures”.
Loo paper soon begins to disappear nationwide. Hancock is rolled out — he was always being rolled out, like a new carpet to be trodden on — into a breakfast TV studio to deny that the Government wanted to massacre the Grannys. “Our goal is to protect life and our policy is to fight the virus.”
Then Neil Ferguson releases his controversial paper. It claims hundreds of thousands will die if Britain is left to take the virus on the chin. Sage advises the Government to embark on a full lockdown that day.
It arrives on 26 March 2020, as Covid cases double every 72- hours. Between 89% and 94% of the public support lockdown. And the Grannys? Care home deaths accounted for 40% of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales during the pandemic.
Like other ministers, after the passage of the Coronavirus Act, Hancock develops war fever. “Our generation has never been tested like this”, he writes to a nation frantically, pointlessly washing its hands. “Our grandparents were, during the Second World War, when our cities were bombed during the Blitz… they pulled together in one gigantic national effort.” The allegory is both ugly and lazy, but Britain is a country where poppies are made to wear poppies.
Prince Charles opens the first Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel centre in London. He says the Nightingale “will be a shining light”. The hospital is constructed in nine days, and holds 500 extra intensive care unit beds. (For every hundred thousand members of the population the UK has 7.3 intensive care beds — less than Spain, Greece, and Estonia. This lack of provision will mean more deaths.)
More Nightingales open across the country. They cost the taxpayer 500 million pounds. Only three of the seven hospitals end up treating patients. They are described by one MP as a “massive white elephant conjured up by Matt Hancock to create a good headline”.
It’s not really worth it, going outside. A family of five is sent home by the police in Conwy after being caught having a day at the seaside. They scuttle back to Merseyside. Police in Derbyshire “divide opinion” when they use drones to film people walking in the Peak District. A “major incident” is declared when thousands travel to Bournemouth beach, to swim, eat ice cream, and burn in the sun. (Belatedly, it is revealed that the “major incident” did not lead to a spike in Covid cases.)
Speaking to Andrew Marr, a concerned Hancock threatens to ban outdoor exercise. “Let’s not have a minority spoiling it for everybody.”
Nothing works properly. The Test and Trace App doesn’t work. PPE doesn’t work — because it’s all out of date. Protecting care homes doesn’t work. Dido Harding doesn’t work. The Civil Service literally doesn’t work. Big-hitter commentators start saying that the entire British state doesn’t work. It is described as “simultaneously overcentralised and weak at its centre”.
But ‘The Matt Hancock’ app still functions. In May 2020 the Telegraph reports that it is becoming a “virtual home for online pranksters and trolls”. Posts to the ‘Have Your Say’ section include drawings of cocks, general abuse, and a date invitation for the (then) married Health Secretary.
When ‘The Matt Hancock’ app is updated a year later, access to the ‘Have Your Say’ section is hidden. One of the last posts read: “Is there a portal on here where I can be awarded a Government contract for an area I have little experience of scale please?”
Hancock always looks caught between a giggle and a sob. A new round of Covid restrictions makes casual sex illegal. Or at least that’s how Sky News’ Kay Burley interprets the guidance when she interviews him about it. “You are saying that no social distancing is needed in established relationships,” she notes. “But what about people who are not in an established relationship?”
The Health Secretary, embracing his role as national sex cop, confirms that Government rules do ban shagging someone who is not your normal partner. Apropos of nothing, he adds that, fortunately “I’m in an established relationship”.
A few weeks later, the Times reveals that Gina Coladangelo was appointed to a £15,000-a-year advisory PR role in the Health Ministry. The appointment was never declared. Coladangelo and Hancock are described as “close friends”. A source tells the paper: “Before Matt does anything big, he’ll speak to Gina. She knows everything.”
He appears to cry on television when the first Pfizer jabs are stuck into the arms of two pensioners: Margaret Keenan and William Shakespeare. “It’s been a tough year for so many people,” he sobs, rubbing his waterless, unreddened eyes.
The Government spends £12 billion on vaccines. Total pandemic spending is estimated to reach £372 billion. Research finds that under-30s will be disproportionately forced to bear the brunt of these costs. They are described as the “packhorse generation”. The median age of death from Covid is 83 years old. There is no national discussion, parliamentary inquiry, or interest from the Government in working out how the old can make it up to the young.
William Shakespeare dies naturally within a few months of taking the vaccine.
In January 2021, a week after the virus death toll tops 100,000, a focus group asks some ordinary people questions about the Health Secretary. A man called Jason compares Hancock to Ian Beale from Eastenders — “He wants people to feel sorry for him.” Asked what sort of car he would be, mother of two Donna suggests that he would be “something that breaks down.”
During a committee hearing Dominic Cummings says that Hancock should “have been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly”. Cummings then puts a WhatsApp screenshot on his blog that shows the Prime Minister describing Matt as both “hopeless” and “fucking hopeless”. When he is interviewed about the message, Hancock says: “Boris has apologised for the way that came over.”
The story and the footage and the photo are exquisitely simple. After nearly 18 months of tiers, colour-codes, R-numbers, powerpoint slides, and graphs, here is something everyone could understand: a hand on an arse.
Yes, Hancock’s downfall was exquisitely simple. His affair with Gina Coladangelo was unambiguous. It made sense like fairy tales make sense. The Princess in the tower must let her hair down. The wolf is wearing sheep’s clothing. The apple offered by the witch is poisoned. The politician who spent the pandemic agitating for the harshest restrictions, who would describe Professor Neil Ferguson’s lockdown sex fiasco as a “matter for the police”, who ensured that the public could be fined for sitting on park benches, who threatened them with 10-year prison sentences for breaking quarantines, this ogre of the new common sense, would — of course! — be breaking all his rules.
The press is devastating, and relentless. With a deep understanding of public humiliation, the Queen describes Matthew as a “poor man”. He resigns, his only consolation being one of the most Googled news stories of 2021.
Hancock keeps coming back, like Covid. His head pops out of the ground. Phillip Schofield asks him: “Was it your dyslexia that meant you misread the social distancing guidelines?” The nation laughs, bitterly. It is reported that, off air, Hancock “almost seemed euphoric… He didn’t seem to mind being the butt of the joke.” He has returned to his student days, but made them the business of the entire country. He buys stonewashed jeans, and new turtlenecks. He does podcast interviews, and goes to the BRIT awards. He says he is writing a book for Harper Collins. Harper Collins says he is not writing a book for Harper Collins, and Hancock never mentions it again. A role with the UN is torpedoed, and a comeback video — unanimously described as “cringe” — is swiftly deleted. It is impossible to tell, as with England’s experience of three lockdowns, whether he is enjoying all this, or if he is the saddest man in the world.
Everybody wanted a lesson from the last 24 months. Neat, comprehensible wisdom. An intelligible narrative. They wanted to say that it finally proved that Germany was a better country than England, or they wanted to say that our vaccine programme proved the EU was useless. They thought England’s experience of Covid could tell us about the national character, the flaws in our state, or otherwise be used to justify every kind of pet project, ideological hang-up, or personal vendetta. There was no narrative line. All that the pandemic proved was that what happened a hundred times before in history could happen to us too.
The number of children referred for specialist mental health help rises above one million for the first time in 2021. Cases involving those 18 and under increase by 26% during the pandemic. The Royal College of Psychiatrists warns it is “becoming an impossible situation to manage”.
People, including Hancock, like to talk about learning the lessons of the pandemic. So we can prepare better for the next one. They don’t realise that between the million mentally hamstrung teenagers, the NHS waiting list hitting 9.2 million within two years, an endless backlog of cases in criminal courts, and inflation, that the pandemic hasn’t ended yet. It’s barely started.
26 March 2020 — 26 March 2022