‘Hopeless’ Hancock: The catalogue of errors and misjudgments that meant he had to go

Matt Hancock - Avalon
Matt Hancock – Avalon

When Jeremy Hunt pinned his ever-present NHS lapel badge on to his successor Matt Hancock in July 2018, he gushed that he “couldn’t ask for a better successor”.

After just six months as culture secretary, Mr Hancock, then aged just 39, was seen as the rising star of the Cabinet, full of Tiggerish enthusiasm for whatever role he was given.

Health workers were rather less certain, pointing out that Mr Hancock had no relevant experience and had not made a single mention of GPs or doctors during his eight years in Parliament.

Almost as soon as he had got his feet under the desk, Mr Hancock’s lack of experience was cruelly exposed as the NHS faced the biggest crisis in its history with Britain in the grip of a deadly pandemic.

Month after month, the Government took a series of calamitous wrong turns, which led Boris Johnson privately to dismiss his Health Secretary as “totally —-ing hopeless”.

Had it not been for the success of the vaccine rollout – which was masterminded by the highly capable Dame Kate Bingham – Mr Hancock might have been long gone before humiliating footage of him devouring his aide Gina Coladangelo led to his resignation on Saturday evening.

One of the central themes of the charge sheet against him is that he was driven by personal ambition ahead of the country’s needs: as one former colleague said on Saturday, “when the pandemic hit he gave the clear impression that he thought it would be great for his career”.

Dominic Cummings told MPs Mr Hancock “should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things” and that the then cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill also wanted him sacked.


Hancock’s “lies” over PPE

Colleagues who claim Mr Hancock misled the Prime Minister in order to save his own career repeatedly cite the shambolic shortage of personal protective equipment in the early months of the pandemic.

Many claim Mr Hancock simply lied about the situation to buy himself time to fix it, and there is ample evidence to suggest they are right.

Mr Hancock said earlier this month that there was “never a national shortage of PPE” at any stage of the pandemic, ignoring the fact that many NHS workers had to buy their own masks and gloves or make gowns out of bin bags.

Leaked emails obtained by The Telegraph, sent by chiefs at two NHS trusts last year state that the country was in the middle of a “national shortage” of the long-sleeved gowns used to protect medics at risk of infection from Covid-19.


And senior procurement officials insisted that there were “significant shortages” of several types of PPE, including gowns and FFP3 face masks, last year.

One senior Government source said: “Hancock would be asked in meetings about the situation with PPE and he would insist that everything was fine. That patently wasn’t true. We hadn’t stockpiled enough equipment and we ended up sending RAF planes to Turkey to get emergency supplies that turned out to be unusable when they arrived.”

According to Dominic Cummings, Mr Hancock tried to blame NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens and Chancellor Rishi Sunak for the PPE problems, prompting Sir Mark Sedwill to say he had “lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings”.


Mr Cummings told MPs that Mr Hancock had given the Prime Minister a sugar-coated report of pandemic preparedness, saying there were “full plans up to and including pandemic levels regularly prepared and refreshed…we’re stress testing now, it’s our top tier risk register.”

In fact, the pandemic plan only covered influenza and proved inadequate for a respiratory virus with asymptomatic infection.

Mr Cummings memorably recalled the then deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara declaring in March last year: “There is no plan…I think we’re absolutely —-ed.”

Care home chaos

Mr Hancock’s harshest critics believe he bears responsibility for thousands of avoidable deaths because of the decision to discharge NHS patients into care homes without first testing them for Covid.

 Health Secretary Matt Hancock showing the new 'Care' badge, described as a "badge of honour" for social care workers so they can get the same public recognition as NHS staff - PA
Health Secretary Matt Hancock showing the new ‘Care’ badge, described as a “badge of honour” for social care workers so they can get the same public recognition as NHS staff – PA

Since March 2020 more than 42,000 care home residents have died with, or because of, coronavirus, a fact that will be central to a forthcoming public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

Dominic Cummings claimed Mr Hancock lied to the Prime Minister over the discharge policy, telling him that patients would be tested before being sent from hospitals into care homes.

Mr Hancock responded by saying that his “recollection” was that he had committed to testing people discharged from hospital once the testing capacity existed, but that he did not have enough tests to do so when hospitals were told to clear their wards in March last year.

Mr Cummings claimed Mr Johnson was furious when he came back to work after recovering from coronavirus in hospital in April last year, to find that untested patients had been discharged to care homes in England, asking: “What on earth has happened with all these people in care homes? Hancock told us in the Cabinet Room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes, what the hell happened?”

Care home bosses have also accused Mr Hancock of failing to grasp the fact that staff often work in more than one establishment to top up their meagre pay, which meant Covid was being spread from one care home to another by the very people trying to save residents’ lives.

A “world beating” test and trace programme

In May last year Boris Johnson promised a “world beating” test and trace system, but Mr Hancock failed to deliver it, and ended up butting heads with officials over the strategy to achieve it.

Once again, colleagues claim his own strategy was driven by a day-to-day desire to make upbeat announcements in press conferences rather than by any long-term plan, with his promise to achieve 100,000 tests per day by the end of April 2020 a case in point.

One former colleague said: “Whenever we had meetings with him, the overriding impression you got was that he was spending his time trying to find positive things he could announce in press conferences rather than getting to grips with what actually needed doing.”

Mr Hancock’s allies claim the target was a success, because not only did he achieve it, but he also drove up capacity by setting such an ambitious goal.

But detractors claim tests had to be deliberately held back in the days leading up to the deadline in order to achieve a brief spike in numbers.

Total tests jumped from 86,000 on April 29 to 122,000 the next day, despite having crept up by only a few thousand per day until then; they then fell back to below 100,000 per day before picking up again.

Mr Cummings described the 100,000 target as “incredibly stupid” because it caused chaos in Whitehall in order for Mr Hancock to “go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’,” and was “criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm”.

Laboratory capacity was so paltry that swabs were sent to Italy and Germany for processing, and people trying to book tests were told the nearest available slot was hundreds of miles away.

It was the tracing element of the plan that proved the biggest embarrassment, however: months after its May 2020 launch, test and trace was still managing to reach fewer than half of infected people’s contacts in some of the worst-hit areas, and delays in processing test results meant that by the time those contacts were reached, they had already spread Covid to others.

Yet on July 12 2020, Mr Hancock declared that the figures showed that Test and Trace “is working”.

He said: “The vast majority of people are engaging with NHS Test and Trace, isolating when asked and providing their contacts quickly.”

A recording obtained by The Telegraph told a different story.

The following day, The Telegraph revealed that a senior DHSC official had admitted that the system would, at that point, fail to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 infections because it was only identifying a third of people it needed to track down.

Alex Cooper, who was put in charge of efforts to test the public said the system was only identifying 37 per cent of the people “we really should be finding”.

Contracts for his chums

One of the beneficiaries of the Government’s headlong rush to find suppliers during the pandemic was Alex Bourne, whose firm Hinpack was awarded a £30m contract to supply test tubes.

Mr Bourne happens to be the landlord of Mr Hancock’s local pub in his West Suffolk constituency, the Cock Inn, a picture of which hung on the wall of his study in his London home.

Mr Bourne told the Guardian that he had exchanged WhatsApp messages with the Health Secretary over several months, offering his company’s services.

He said there was “no evidence” he had been given preferential treatment by the Department of Health and Social Care, and Mr Hancock said he had “absolutely nothing to do with that contract”.

Mr Hancock took down his picture of the Cock Inn and replaced it with a different photo. The matter is currently being investigated by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency.

It also emerged this week that a £28 million NHS contract was awarded to a firm of which Ms Coladangelo’s brother Roberto is a director, though the company has denied the contract had anything to do with Mr Hancock.

Mr Hancock himself, meanwhile, owns 15 per cent of the shares in Topwood Ltd, of which his sister Emily Gilruth is a director, which has won NHS contracts for document storage and shredding. He failed to declare his sister’s involvement when he registered his shareholding with Parliament.

The positive vaccine data he held back

Last weekend saw a further breakdown of trust between Mr Hancock and his colleagues in Government and on the backbenches when The Telegraph revealed that he failed to tell Mr Johnson about a major Public Health England (PHE) study showing the effectiveness of vaccines against the Indian or delta variant during a key meeting to decide whether to extend Covid restrictions.

The Health Secretary had known about the PHE data three days before the “quad” of four senior ministers, led by the Prime Minister, met to decide whether to postpone the planned June 21 reopening until July 19.


However, multiple sources familiar with the meeting said it was not raised by Mr Hancock or discussed at all during the course of the talks.

The data was also not included in briefing papers given to Mr Johnson, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, in advance of the meeting.

Mr Hancock ordered officials to issue a public rebuttal to the story, but the statement did not dispute any of the facts in the article.

Curfew-busting drinks in the Commons bar

Mr Hancock’s admission this week that he had broken the Government’s social distancing rules by kissing Ms Coladangelo was not the first time he had been accused of ignoring diktats he had so often told the public to abide by.

In October last year he was accused of ignoring the Government’s hugely controversial 10pm pub curfew by carrying on drinking in a House of Commons bar well past the deadline.


An MP who witnessed the scene said Mr Hancock was still drinking wine at 10.25pm. Mr Hancock’s spokesman disputed the timeline but the MP insisted: “I know what I saw and I can tell the time.”

Commons venues were not at the time legally required to close at 10pm because they were classed as “workplace canteens”, but Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle had made it clear that bars in Parliament should abide by the same rules as pubs across the country following a public outcry over the exception.

Questions over hypocrisy

Mr Hancock managed to combine hypocrisy, rule-breaking and womanising into one toe-curling moment when he was captured on film in a passionate embrace with Ms Coladangelo.

The married Health Secretary apologised for breaking social distancing rules by kissing his adviser, but initially refused to resign despite saying last year that government scientific adviser Prof Neil Ferguson was right to resign after The Telegraph exposed him for breaking lockdown rules to meet his lover.

Mr Hancock had already faced questions over the appointment of Ms Coladangelo, an old friend of his from his time at Oxford University, as he failed to declare he had appointed her as an unpaid adviser and later to a taxpayer-funded role as a non-executive director on the Department of Health and Social Care board.

In the end, the entanglement with his aide proved one disaster too many, signalling the end of his Cabinet career.

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