Never judge a book by its cover. Just because this one is by Matt Hancock doesn’t automatically mean it should be pulped, and though it sells itself as “pandemic diaries”, Hancock acknowledges in the prologue that “of course, I didn’t have time to keep a detailed diary in the midst of the maelstrom, nor would it have been right to do so”. Instead, these are hindsight “reflections” on running a health department in a pandemic – by a man who many of us dislike, but who was nevertheless witness to something very important.
A co-author credit goes to Isabel Oakeshott, also responsible for a biography of David Cameron, and the voice they adopt suggests they are fans of Alan Partridge: “this afternoon I found myself sitting in the back of the car in a car park outside the ExCel Centre, making my views crystal clear”.
He is amusingly tactless, as when he tried to persuade Sir Jonathan Van-Tam to deliver a press conference standing on a box: “You’re a wonderful man but not blessed in the height department. It’s that or heels.”
He is always right; his opponent is always wrong, especially if his name is Dominic Cummings. When Hancock had to rebut Cummings’s charges before a committee, Nadine Dorries, messaged him, “Good luck today Matt. You will knock it out of the park.” “Thank you” “He is a little s--- and you are a good man. Karma does its stuff.”
Before we get to what Karma eventually did to Hancock, let’s acknowledge that he worked damned hard – 18 hours a day – and that his determination to save lives is indisputable (even if the means were iffy). He insists his red eyes on TV when he heard the news of the first vaccinations were real, and we had just missed his “heaving sobs”. “I feel like I’m running this entire [PPE] operation,” he once told a civil servant. “Effectively you are,” said the mandarin, as if they knew this would someday sound good in a memoir.
If you can read beyond his massive ego, Hancock paints a vivid picture of how difficult it is for our leaders to translate policy into action: “You are constantly pushing water uphill. Ministers may think everybody’s listening when they issue instructions, but if they sit back and wait for people to follow through, nothing materialises.”
The NHS has a reputation for being a Stalinist monolith, yet it is heavily decentralised and dominated by idiot quangos and selfish GPs. (He recalls that a group of GPs refused to go into care homes to do inoculations when there were Covid cases: “Evidently I was naive to think £25 a jab would be enough of an incentive.”) It took a crisis of this scale, necessitating the hands-on management of Hancock & Co, plus the private sector, to get the NHS working to targets. You might conclude that, for all the controversies around empty hospitals and costly contracts, the coronavirus actually saw the British state operating at its best.
Hancock is reluctant to apologise for his record as health secretary, which is understandable. I’ve always found his attitude towards adultery more perplexing. “What price love?” he asks on June 24 2021. (The sex parts of his book really are worthy of a Midmorning Matters phone-in.) “I’ve always known from the novels [sic] that people will risk everything.”
Well, affairs do happen, and we are all sinners – and Hancock does confess the “pain” he and Gina Coladangelo caused their families. Many readers will be furious that while they suspended their own lives to “protect the NHS”, the lovers disregarded guidance they themselves promoted. But what I find most incomprehensible is why, despite all this trauma, Hancock keeps dredging his private life up in print and on telly. How do his children feel about this? Or their poor mother? Would it kill him to shut up for five minutes?
I really fear it might. A lot of 21st-century people have turned their lives into a saleable commodity. In a better age, they would build cars or care for the sick, but now they talk about themselves for a living, mining every last detail of their biography as if it were a seam of dirty black coal. This book – revelatory and silly – is a mirror to our times.
Pandemic Diaries by Matt Hancock with Isabel Oakeshott is published by Biteback at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books