Despite feeling at times like the latest Real Housewives spinoff, yesterday’s Select Committee evidence session with former No 10 Adviser Dominic Cummings provided a fascinating insight into the mindsets of key players at the start of the pandemic.
COBRA and SAGE meetings where public health experts seemingly knew about as much as the general public. The Prime Minister was quoted as calling the virus ‘Kung Flu’ with officials advocating for ‘Covid parties’ to help spread the infection akin to chicken pox.
However, front and centre of Cummings’ firing line was undoubtedly the Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP.
Today therefore, Matt Hancock finds himself on a knife edge. Pinned in a corner after a brutal tirade of criticism and the lukewarm backing of his PM, is Hancock being kept on as the COVID fall guy?
According to Cummings, then-Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill advocated for Hancock to be sacked back in April at the very start of the pandemic. Cummings argued that he then should have been sacked for at least “15-20 things” and accused him of “criminal, disgraceful behavior that caused serious harm”.
In the sessions, Hancock was accused of lying to the public and Cabinet about claims that everyone received the high standard of care they deserved, despite being briefed by the Chief Medical Officer the week before that this was not the case.
If Hancock really was so inept at his new role, why has the Prime Minister kept Hancock on? The more mundane explanation is disruption. Moving a Secretary of State into a new Department and learning the ropes amid the worst pandemic seen in 100 years seems counterproductive. Learning a ministerial brief does not happen overnight and the nation could not wait even that long.
However, the Prime Minister knows an inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic is fast approaching. The only other member of the Cabinet who is senior and involved enough with the pandemic response to convincingly take the hit is Hancock. The lack of preparedness the nation had for an event such as this falls at his and the Prime Minister’s feet.
In a lobby briefing, Hancock was given a lukewarm backing from the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson – not the reassurance he was most likely looking for. Hancock himself took to the dispatch box to give the expected categorical denial of the accusations. He suggested that the running of Government had become easier since Cummings’ departure, with the simple and effective message that whilst Cummings has been calculating and plotting, he has been leading the NHS response to the pandemic.
The opposition and the media are now taking Cummings as the sole arbiter of truth, which given the perception of him by the public is surprising. Politico collated the polling data; 57 percent of the public said Cummings wasn’t a reliable source (the i), with 21 percent believing he can be trusted. Opinium has 18 percent trusting Cummings to tell the truth, and YouGov had this figure as low as 14 percent. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see if Cummings’ testimony will impact voting intentions, or see a dent in the support for the Conservatives however given the sheer volume of accusations, it’s hard to see them all failing to stick.
Either way, yesterday’s super session was merely the preamble to the inquiry that is coming. A full-scale investigation into the Government’s handling of COVID is what’s really keeping Johnson and Hancock awake at night, not Mr Cummings.