Hancock’s half-truths

Th abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power

Almost three years to the day since the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on our telly screens to tell us we needed to stay home, save lives and protect the NHS, Covid-19 is back at the top of the news headlines.

The publication of some of the gazillion or so WhatsApp messages from and to former Health Secretary Matt Hancock is bringing it all back, just when we thought it was safe to started reading the papers again.

I haven’t read all the articles the Telegraph is splashing every day, just the snippets that some of the other papers have picked up. Isabel Oakeshott was well known throughout Covid for her anti-lockdown views. What kind of idiot hands over thousands of messages like that to a known lockdown sceptic? Talk about a lack of judgement. Parliamentarians be warned, choose your ghost-writers carefully.

It’s not just Hancock’s lack of judgement that bothers me, it’s the lack of empathy that screams out from all those messages. That was what enraged me about Partygate, it’s what enrages me now. That and the fact that it is clear from many of those messages that much of the lockdown policy was developed on-the-hoof, as a reaction to perceived public perception and potential political gain. Not necessarily what might have been in the best interests of much of the population. Maybe much of that was gallows humour, the chit-chat of people caught up in stressful days trying to work out how best to navigate these unchartered and extremely choppy waters. Plenty of us have made off-colour remarks or quips at inappropriate moments. It doesn’t make us heartless and cruel; it just makes momentarily thoughtless.

The failure to live-up to the promise of the protective ring of steel around care homes is a betrayal of some of our most vulnerable in society. I know there were issues with getting hold of testing in the early days. But anyone with even the most rudimentary grasp of the science of  viral transmission (e.g. Me) and a knowledge of the way our care system is set up could work out that sending people from hospitals into segregated care homes without regular testing was going to go wrong. The way our care system is structured, with members of staff going in and out every day, especially if they were agency staff, visiting a number of different establishments, meant that  there  was extra risk.

The other thing about the messages that’s cropped up is the tussle between the then Education Secretary and Hancock over whether to close schools for a second time. I’d forgotten, until all this blew up again, that schools went back for one day after the Christmas break of 2020, to then be closed until March. I’ve seen first-hand the horrible effect that two lockdowns had on teenagers. Some children did OK with remote learning. Others did not. How much potential has been lost because children grew disillusioned with the learning process through being forced into home schooling? If those school closures were more about political posturing, and ensuring that Scotland (aka Sturgeon) didn’t appear in a better light, then that is another huge betrayal, and a betrayal of the very people we are going to need in the future.

On a side note, the fact that Oakeshott has broken a Non-Disclosure Agreement also concerns me. As a journalist I know that there are things I am told, in confidence, that must never be published. If I put all the “by-the-way-this-is-off-the-record”s, and the “strictly-not-for-printing-but-I’ll-tell-you-because-it’s-you”s on paper, no-one would ever tell me anything ever again.

Oakeshott claims that this is all in the public interest. Is it? Is it really? No matter how many WhatsApp messages we read on this, we’ll only be getting part of the story. We won’t know what stuff got discussed in the meetings and briefings until the official inquiry. As the Grenfell Inquiry and that into the scandalous betrayal of the Sub Postmasters by the Post Office (yes, I have some very, very strong opinions on this for sharing in a later blog) show, there will be plenty for us to get angry about when that happens.

Hindsight, of course, has 20:20 vision. If we – the public, the government, the health service, the civil service – had known what we know now about the progress of the pandemic, would we have acted differently? Possibly. We can’t ever know for sure and no amount of reading Hancock’s private messages can tell us that.

copyright the incomparable: @MattCartoonist, in the Telegraph

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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