Few public figures have emerged from the Covid-19 inquiry’s autumn hearings with more damage to their reputations than Matt Hancock. Admittedly, Mr Hancock’s public standing was not high at the outset. But he has been one of the prime targets in the Whitehall blame game that has played out in the inquiry since October. Only Boris Johnson, who will give evidence himself next week, has taken worse hits to his public standing, as politicians, advisers and civil servants jockey to explain how Britain proved so unprepared for a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 UK residents since the start of 2020.
Thursday was Mr Hancock’s chance to strike back. He certainly made a go of it. His “nuclear levels” of self-confidence, to which the Cabinet Office civil servant Helen MacNamara had drawn attention in her testimony, and which reached their zenith in his reported wish to decide which NHS patients should live and which should die, were prominent in all his answers. No question seemed to puncture his belief, which was aggressively argued in exchanges with the inquiry counsel Hugo Keith, that his own actions were consistently timely, wise and tough, and that any fault lay wholly elsewhere, and mainly in 10 Downing Street.
There are two fatal problems with this approach. The first is that Mr Hancock’s self-belief makes him overclaim. He puts a uniformly positive gloss on everything, leaving himself no room to retreat or compromise with dignity. He deserved credit for supporting lockdown and opposing herd immunity strategies. He was a critic of “Eat out to help out”. But his infamous claim to be putting a ring around care homes will haunt his reputation forever. His arbitrary promise of 100,000 tests a day left him with a target only achievable by creative counting. His claim, repeated on Thursday, that Britain was better prepared for Covid than other comparable countries is manifestly untrue. His insistence, again repeated, that Britain had a pre-pandemic plan is misleading, since it was not the right one to deal with Covid.
The second problem is that Mr Hancock’s accounts are directly contradicted by too many others. The former Downing Street chief adviser Dominic Cummings, with whom Mr Hancock has a reciprocal loathing, tweeted that the former health secretary was lying to the inquiry when he claimed to have advised the prime minister to impose an immediate lockdown two weeks before it happened. With his contempt towards all elected politicians from the prime minister down, Mr Cummings is certainly no paragon. Mr Hancock’s accusation that he encouraged a “culture of fear” in Downing Street is hard to dispute. But Mr Cummings’s charges that Mr Hancock made claims without evidence, and that they subsequently proved to be false, have often been backed up by other civil servants and politicians.
In one important respect, however, what Mr Hancock told the inquiry was correct. In the end, the principal purpose of the inquiry is not to decide which minister or adviser was individually most to blame for the UK’s failings in the face of Covid. Yes, that matters. And, yes, Britain was peculiarly hindered by the fact that Covid struck when a dithering Mr Johnson and his second-rate team were in government. Nevertheless, the more important task ultimately is to learn lessons. It is to put structures, approaches and resources in place so that the same lamentable errors, and the same egregious untruths that ministers told about them, are not repeated when the inevitable next pandemic arrives.