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A Westminster car park, after dark. Our hero looks around nervously. She promised information. “Hello?” he calls out. A blonde figure steps out of the gloom. He steps closer. “You said you had something for me?”
She nods. “I do. Something extraordinary. Something that will blow the doors right off a cover-up going back years.” His eyes light up. Finally: the truth he has believed is out there for so long. “What is it?”
She smiles. “Matt Hancock’s WhatsApps.” Cut to titles.
I’m sorry readers. However hard you try, you cannot make these so-called ‘Lockdown Files’ half as alluring as their X equivalent. I don’t doubt that Fraser Nelson and Isabel Oakeshott would make excellent stand-ins for Mulder and Scully.
But the 90’s classic had monsters, Vancouver, and an alien conspiracy that not even its own writers understood. In response, The Daily Telegraph can muster only Hancock, Covid, and a depressing glimpse into the sorry state of our political system.
That is not to say these messages are unimportant – only unexciting. They provide a staggering insight into the Government’s decision-making during the worst crisis our country has faced since the Second World War. But the truth they offer for today’s Lone Gunmen is far more terrifying than any Roswell cover-up: that our government owes far more to cock-ups than conspiracies; that it is not evil, but inept.
For those unfamilar, these ‘Lockdown Files’ consist of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages handed over to the newspaper by Oakeshott. She received the texts from Hancock whilst helping the ex-Health Secretary write his Pandemic Diaries that emerged last year. The wisdom of handing over reams of dynamite information to a not-wholly-sympathetic journalist for the purpose of writing your diaries ex post facto need not detain us here.
What does concern us is the messages’ content, and what they tell us about how the former star of I’m a Celebrity, student radio, and the Matt Hancock app handled the Covid pandemic. Since Hancock has claimed the leaks are “partial” and portray a “distorted account”, they cannot be considered the final word.
Nevertheless, we have learned that Hancock seemingly acted contrary to Chris Whitty’s advice to test all people going into care homes in April 2020. He appears to have been more preoccupied with reaching his 100,000 tests target than testing residents and staff. This sits alongside Dominic Cummings’ previous insistence that both Boris Johnson and himself considered Hancock’s record on testing to be, ahem, less than stellar.
Since around 30 per cent of all Covid deaths took place in care homes, families who lost loved ones will want to hold Hancock responsible. That is especially as he persisted with a policy of separating husbands and wives that a fellow minister branded “inhumane”.
Further scoops pertain to Hancock pushing for the ‘rule of six’, masks in schools, and their closure despite a lack of medical evidence they were effective. George Osborne – for whom Hancock was once chief of staff – is shown telling his protégé that ‘no one thinks testing is going well’ after the Health Secretary boasted of his success.
We should be grateful for these messages. As Nelson points out, any student of history can appreciate that in an age where politicians no longer keep diaries, these 2.3 million-odd words offer an unparalleled insight into the most important months in recent history. For those mourning lost family members, ruing months of lost schooling, or waiting with faltering hope for an operation, this an opportunity to understand the logic – or lack thereof – behind their pain.
The argument runs that publishing these texts now helps to expedite the process of lesson learning. A public inquiry might not report until the mid-2030s. What if another pandemic strikes in the meantime? If France and Sweden can already finish theirs’, why can’t we? Yes, Oakeshott may have stepped her co-author very firmly in the front. But isn’t that a small price to pay for getting this information out there?
Sentiments with which it is hard to disagree. But I fear those hoping this might prompt a moment of self-reflection in our political system are being depressingly over-optimistic. Its capacity for introspection is decidedly limited; ignoring these revelations will be far easier than acknowledging the inconvenient truths they expose.
Like the French in 1940, our leaders discovered in early 2020 that they had prepared for one war but were fighting another. Our pandemic planning may well have rated the second-best in the world. But it was designed for influenza, not a Covid-style respiratory illness. Hence why South Korea and Taiwan – with prior experiences of these sorts of viruses – were shutting borders and instituting contact tracing whilst we were still shipping PPE off to China.
Our guns were pointing the wrong way. We could not cope. As Tom McTague put it, Covid showed our system of government was “simultaneously overcentralised and weak at the centre”. Ministers struggled to grip civil service and health bureaucracies that were maddeningly Byzantine.
The suggestion at those interminable press conferences was that the Government was “following the science”. What these messages reveal – if we needed telling – is that politicians and scientists were overwhelmed by a crisis for which they were unprepared and did not understand.
Failures to grip the situation early enough threatened to swamp the NHS and produce deaths on an unimaginable scale. Cue Neil Ferguson, lockdown, and a never-ending argument about whether the decision was the right one – displacement activity as we pick through the rubble. Fundamentally, the ‘Lockdown Files’ shine a light on a political system that is not fit for purpose.
The former Health Secretary was an ambitious man, successfully earning promotion by latching onto the Osborne Octopus as quickly as possible. He went from being Minister for Fun to being the employer of 1.34 million employees with no discernible consideration of whether it was a role he was in any way prepared for, and of the potential crises he could face. This is all considered to be run-of-the-mill in Westminster.
Nor do we muster anything more than a titter now that Hancock has swapped politics for shilling NFTs and eating kangaroo vaginas. That he came a cropper of his own regulations in the most embarrassing way possible was a source of national catharsis.
But so as the vaccine rollout obscured the fundamental flaws that undermined our initial pandemic response, so to did Hancock’s defenestration help us ignore what was wrong about a political system that expected him to handle this crisis in the first place. By making this story about Hancock, by making him Covid’s pantomime villain, we fail to see that his career embodies a system that is clearly dysfunctional.
That system is still in place. We are still more preoccupied with the tribulations of the greasy pole rather than governing effectively. The coverage of the ‘Files’ – of which this article is a part – is part of that. In the end, this is about who is up and who is down. I can provide a diagnosis, not a cure. And onto the next topic, reshuffle, ministerial faux pas the rest of the merry herd will go.
Like the authorities squirreling away the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the system would rather ignore rather than understand the terrifying truth. The scandal mill will move on. Hancock will continue to pursue his career as the next David Attenborough. And we will wonder, when confronted with the next crisis, why we handle it just as badly as the last.