Matt Hancock reveals what it's like to be Health Secretary during the coronavirus pandemic
As The Daily Star newspaper hit out at the ‘Covid testing fiasco’ complete with a vivid image of its target as a green-haired, red-nosed jester, the headline screamed a simple, withering message – ‘Clown’.
Health Secretary and West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock is used to his share of bad press and this front page last month, defining him as a ‘figure of fun who makes people laugh by being stupid’, joined a growing list of those hammering the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
As the man tasked with managing an unprecedented crisis, with a series of well-documented missteps and errors threatening to topple confidence in the Government’s competence, how does he cope?
“You don’t choose the cards you’re dealt but I feel a very strong sense of duty to do my best,” he said.
“I get up every morning and try to make the best decisions I can and drive things forward as fast as I can and support my team.
“I’ve tried to bring in as many talented people as I can. I’ve tried to ignore the criticism where it’s unreasonable because this isn’t a popularity contest – this is about saving lives.
“Of course there’s pressure but I feel I can cope with it because I’ve made a choice in terms of the attitude I take and the attitude is if you’re doing everything you possibly can then nobody can ask more.
“I’ve also tried to be as upfront as possible about when things have gone wrong – the testing data (which saw 16,000 coronavirus cases missed in daily figures) was a case in point and I was really proud of how the team fixed that over a weekend.
“It was a classic operational problem and when you get a problem like that you just need to be open about it, straightforward about it and solve it as quick as you can and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
As well as the missing data, there have been other mistakes. Surgical gowns ordered from Turkey did not meet British safety standards, a problem with the NHS coronavirus app saw some users unable to record a positive test result and those seeking a test have had to travel hours – and that’s if they were even able to book one.
I couldn’t eat or drink for two days. Thankfully I made a quick and full recovery - Matt Hancock on contracting coronavirus
How does he react when he is presented with these blunders?
“You can measure the character of someone by how they respond to bad news, not how they deal with good news and everybody in my team is highly motivated to get this right so when something goes wrong they don’t need me shouting at them,” Mr Hancock said.
“I try to build a sense within the team of common mission and, of course, that’s easier when there is such an obvious common mission to defeat the virus.
“If you end up with a divisive attitude, it doesn’t work.”
Criticism comes with the turf and politicians at the top table learn to grow a Teflon skin but in an era when the language we use about elected officials can quickly turn toxic, does it hurt?
He smiles at mention of The Daily Star front page.
“The Daily Star was hilarious,” he said.
“It doesn’t hurt at all because all that matters is saving lives and saving livelihoods.
“It matters because communicating what’s needed is such an important part of responding to the disease but it doesn’t matter about me because all that matters is beating the disease and limiting the damage it wreaks.”
In March, he contracted the virus, which although a mild case was ‘scary and deeply unpleasant’.
“It was very painful to swallow,” he remembers. “I couldn’t eat or drink for two days. Thankfully I made a quick and full recovery.”
In the all-consuming tsunami that is coronavirus, the good news is sometimes washed away and forgotten.
Funding to rebuild West Suffolk Hospital was announced recently and Oakfield surgery moved to its new base at Newmarket Hospital.
“That’s just one of the many many frustrations of the disease. I’ve just finished my surgery and someone in my surgery lost their mother to Covid – it puts whether or not you get the new hospital for West Suffolk on the front page into perspective.
“Of course it really matters to me we are getting a new hospital – it’s much needed – but the situation is so significant that the brickbats are less important.
“The majority of people are on the same side – we all want to deal with this virus and that isn’t represented in the media but it is represented in how people treat me.
“People come up to me in the street and say ‘thank you’ and I in turn say you’ve got to thank the team, the NHS, the social care workers and everybody. A lot of people are making sacrifices.”
As cases surged though, Boris Johnson recently said: “Everybody got a bit, kind of complacent and blasé.”
However, the Government was advising people to Eat Out to Help Out, to take their children to school and to return to work.
“When there was less virus about, it is safer to do more things,” Mr Hancock counters. “Now that the virus is rising we need to be much more cautious again. A lot of the criticisms we’ve had for changing things have been because when the data changed, change the position.
“I think everybody being able to have some time in August when thankfully the number of cases was very low – it was important. This is a long slog and, as the Prime Minister said, tough months ahead.”
He admits to regrets and highlights rules which were ‘interpreted as not allowing anybody to go to funerals’.
“That was really awful,” he said. “It was Archbishop Sentamu who said ‘do you realise wives of men who’ve died when they’ve been married 50 years are not going to each other’s funerals?’ I regret that.”
Should the country have entered lockdown sooner to curb the spread of the virus?
“Based on the information we had at the time I think it was the right decision and even the scientists who now say we should have done, they were advising based on the best information that we had.”
Pressed on whether he fought to go into lockdown sooner, Mr Hancock said: “I’m not going to get into that.
“We have very good relations inside Government. I come from a small business background, (Chancellor) Rishi Sunak comes from an NHS family. We all understand each other’s differing departmental responsibilities.”
Last week,Bury St Edmunds pub and bar owners called on the Government to scrap the 10pm curfew, which they said was ‘disastrous’ for trade.
Mr Hancock said: “There’s lots of terrible consequences of this pandemic and one is that the virus breeds off the social interaction that makes life worth living.
“I get that, I’m a very gregarious person and it is one of the sad truths of the virus. We’ve put in unprecedented economic support and we’ve got to make sure that we help people as much as is possible.”
On when the nation will return to normal, he said: “The vaccine programme is going well but is always uncertain.
“The Prime Minister has said by this time next year we should be ‘face to face and cheek by jowl’ and we know we’ve got a difficult few months ahead of us but I hope we can get back to normal after that.”
West Suffolk has been placed on a coronavirus watchlist after a spike in cases. Mr Hancock’s message to residents is simple.
“This too will pass,” he said. “We will get through it but the best way is to follow the doctors’ advice which is to follow the basics – hands, face and space; stick to the rule of six and the less social contact you have the less likely it is you will either catch or pass on the disease.”