Yet again, what a week it’s been, many items temporarily pushed off the news agenda by the emergence of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s affair during the pandemic (and ongoing) with ‘a friend’ who he subsequently made a non-executive Director of the NHS. Many were up in arms about Hancock having been instrumental in making the social distancing rules, giving former government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson no choice about resigning when he breached those rules back in 2020, yet having had no qualms about breaching them himself. The epitome of hypocrisy, though the case has raised many questions including the state of security arrangements which allowed the theft of the incriminating CCTV footage. The most galling thing for many, especially those who suffered bereavements during the pandemic, was the Prime Minister’s easy acceptance of Hancock’s apology, saying it was a personal matter and that he now considered the matter ‘closed’. Not so fast: the public’s reaction has been one of almost unequivocally condemning Hancock’s lack of principle when they were having to distance themselves from loved ones and accept not being able to visit care home residents.
Housing Minister Robert Jenrick must have spent all Friday afternoon rehearsing responses for the inevitable question on Radio 4’s Any Questions and his attempted defence of Hancock (using the unfortunate construction of ‘Matt being on the job’) resulted at times in uproar from the audience. It’s not only shaming that Boris Johnson was prepared to let Hancock continue, but his own position was weakened by the subsequent resignation, partly as it leaves him without a scapegoat. As we’ve seen, Boris Johnson’s stock response regarding proven wrongdoers (eg Cummings, Patel, Williamson and Jenrick) has been to allow them to continue, declaring the matter ‘closed’, but this is now open to question. We can wonder what further scandals are waiting in the wings to be instantly branded as ‘closed’, this verdict then being overturned via pressure from Tory MPs, the public and the media.
It’s not surprising to hear the theory that Dominic Cummings is behind this. Now Hancock has fallen on his sword Cummings has his first scalp. How many more? It’s most interesting, though, that this government, having demonstrated immunity from any sense of shame in public life, now finally has this resignation. Perhaps Hancock has started something here. Within 24 hours we learn that Gina Coladangelo has left her position on the Board of the Department of Health, Hancock ended his marriage, the couple are moving in together and former Chancellor Sajid Javid has stepped up to the health portfolio. This is an interesting choice as it’s not only a comment on junior health ministers, most of whom are most unsuitable for any office, but it could be seen as a silo in the war against Cummings, who had dismissed Javid’s adviser, prompting his resignation from the Chancellor role.
A medic tweeted: ‘A note on Matt Hancock: for Boris Johnson to back Hancock, announcing that he “considered the matter closed” a day before the pressure caused Hancock to resign… …shows the PM to be weak, of poor judgement & out-of-touch. Like with lockdowns, he cannot make timely decisions’. Another opined: ‘The point is that it shouldn’t have come down to Matt Hancock doing the so called “honourable thing”. He should’ve been sacked rather than allowed to resign and Boris Johnson’s refusal to deal with this shows a serious failure leadership’. Boris’s Johnson’s response to Hancock’s resignation letter made an extraordinary claim: ‘…you should be proud of what you’ve achieved’….. As at least one tweeter observed: ‘Very proud of 150,000 people dead, the carnage in care homes, PPE fiasco, contracts given to mates via his personal email, selling off the NHS, 1% pay rises to staff. Is this what UK pride looks like now?’ Perhaps the most worrying aspect is the hint of a possibility that Hancock could be rehabilitated at some point, another Johnson tactic. ‘I am grateful for your support and believe that your contribution to public service is far from over’.
Whether or not Hancock’s ‘contribution’ is over, the problems definitely aren’t, as health commentator Roy Lilley says: ‘The NHS will have a new Secretary of State and a new chief executive at a critical time; a new Covid wave likely in the autumn, a workforce crisis, busted budgets and waiting lists around the block, social care in ruins and no IT strategy. Apart from that it’s easy!!’
And the questions keep coming: it’s not only the breaching of social distancing guidelines at issue but also evidence of ‘chumocracy’, for example Hancock giving Coladangelo a paid role after the initial unpaid one, sponsoring her for a Westminster pass, enabling the use public money for her to accompany him to a meeting of G7 health ministers, and easing the path for the company owned by her brother (Roberto Coladangelo) to receive a £28million contract last year to carry out work for the South Central Ambulance Service NHS Trust.
As if this wasn’t enough, Hancock is also in deep water for having consistently used a private email address for government business, meaning, amongst other things, that his conduct can’t be subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
If it wasn’t so serious, it would be almost amusing witnessing senior Conservatives publicly struggle with their massive disappointment in Hancock and their leader at the same time as trying to maintain that they’re doing a great job. Could it be that these Tories, who entered politics in the Major and May eras, are finally seeing the light about the populist and unprincipled ethos of today’s party?
With the headline ‘Matt finished: front pages deliver final humiliation to departing Matt Hancock’, the Guardian describes how the Sunday press has weighed in heavily (‘a bonanza’) to condemn Hancock, the broadsheets only expressing more moderately what the Mail and Express screeched: ‘Matt finished’ (The Sun); ‘Hancock forced to quit (The Express) etc.
Although Hancock’s conduct has been reprehensible, the anger expressed by politicians, the public, NHS staff and groups like the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK seems beyond what this would merit. It’s likely that it represents the coming to a head of resentment and anger which have gathered a head of steam over the last 15 months, when we have been deprived of so much and there has been next to no democratic outlet for our frustrations with government corruption, cronyism and mismanagement.
Also making headlines today is news, highly embarrassing for the government, that on Tuesday confidential and sensitive Ministry of Defence documents had been found at a bus stop in Kent, featuring the destroyer HMS Defender, which we heard a lot about last week. ‘Following the controversy generated by HMS Defender’s mission, the documents discovered in Kent confirm that passage through the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme near the south-western tip of the Crimea) was a calculated decision by the British government to make a show of support for Ukraine, despite the possible risks involved…. The documents don’t stop there. The bundle includes updates on arms exports campaigns, including sensitive observations about areas where Britain might find itself competing with European allies… and observations on President Biden’s first few months in office.’ Interestingly, the anonymous finder of the documents decided to pass them to the BBC, which didn’t hold back on analysing them and detailing their contents, except, it seems, when it came to policy on Afghanistan. The MOD is investigating and surely it won’t take long to discover who had access to such classified material and who could have left them in that particular location. Boris Johnson must be cursing these Matt Hancock and defence document debacles in the lead-up to the Batley and Spen by-election this week.
Meanwhile, as most ministers continue to flag 19th July as the poorly-named Freedom Day, at least some clinicians and commentators are expressing doubts because of the rising number of Covid cases, the fact that the government is using the criteria of hospitalisations and deaths rather than cases, the rise of the Delta variant and the highly transmissible Delta + variant, and the use of ventilators increasing by 41%. There’s also increasing awareness of the extent and debilitating effects of Long Covid, more than 2m adults still experiencing symptoms three months after their illness, some for far longer. It seems important to enjoy things while we can as further restrictions can’t be ruled out despite the PM’s bullish declaration that the roadmap steps would be ‘irreversible’.
Amid the travel and entertainment industries’ complaints about restrictions they see as unfair and illogical, some people have been irritated by what seems the media’s obsession with going on holiday. Despite what’s thought to have been a Cabinet rift on the issue of giving more freedom to twice-vaccinated travellers, the ‘green list’ for overseas travel was extended to 16 more countries, meaning no need to quarantine on return to the UK. There’d still be the need for tests, though, before and after returning, and it does seem disingenuous to trumpet about travel opportunities without mentioning that more countries are placing restrictions on travellers from the UK because of the Delta variant risk. Whereas EU countries have been deciding their own policies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said there should be a coordinated EU policy requiring all UK arrivals to quarantine. It certainly makes for a confusing picture for UK travellers, especially when we’ve seen changes overnight to the green and amber lists. It could easily defeat the purpose of going on holiday if tourists suddenly hear the goalposts have changed yet again and they feel compelled to change their flights before the deadline requiring quarantine. Skegness, anyone? Perhaps a mass return to Britain’s own resorts is way overdue, complete with fish and chips, candy floss, buckets and spades.
One of the ongoing complaints the travel and entertainment industries have with the government, one which will add to others in raising public anxiety, is the refusal so far to publish the data on which decisions regarding restriction easing are based. We have to wonder why the secrecy, especially over the pilot mass events, some of which took place in April. ‘The organisers of summer events and the owners of music and sports venues are eagerly awaiting the findings, but Downing Street is still unable to say when they will be published. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said only that they would come shortly’. It seems that the Department of Media, Culture and Sport reported positive findings but Downing Street didn’t want anything to undermine its cautious messaging following the 21st June delay. It’s interesting that the government is even ‘facing legal action’, to obtain research disclosure, by key figures like Lord Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Lloyd Webber on record as saying he would go ahead with his production of Cinderella whatever the government says. ‘We simply must now see the data that is being used to strangle our industry so unfairly…..The government’s actions are forcing theatre and music companies off a cliff as the summer wears on, whilst cherry picking high-profile sporting events to go ahead. The situation is beyond urgent’. Lloyd Webber turned down the government’s offer for his production to be one of the pilots and Cinderella opened on Friday with an audience capacity of 50%.
Anything prior to ‘hopeless Hancock’s’ resignation might seem like ancient history now but it’s hard to resist mention of the Prime Minister’s first in the flesh audience with the Queen for 15 months. John Crace wrote a spoof account in the Guardian: ‘There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” said the Queen, her heart sinking. It was the moment she had been dreading. Why on earth couldn’t she have carried on her weekly meetings with the prime minister on Zoom? Not having to deal with Boris Johnson face to face had been one of the few upsides of the coronavirus lockdown. She couldn’t stand the way he put his feet up on the furniture and generally acted as if he owned the place. There was only so much entitlement a Queen could take….’.
The Queen’s allusion to the Health Secretary (‘poor man’) was probably her way of admonishing the PM for his ‘f……. hopeless’ WhatsApp messages, but when she said of Hancock ‘he’s full of………’, the PM suggested ‘beans’ when perhaps some of us would have supplied a less flattering noun. Boris Johnson, looking embarrassingly casual in his crumpled suit and with his scarecrow hair, surely broke protocol by finishing the Queen’s sentence for her – it would be interesting to know if he was pulled up on this later.
Especially given increasing criticism of the BBC, there was alarm last week at plans to sell Channel 4. ‘The broadcaster – home to shows such as the Great British Bake Off, It’s A Sin and Channel 4 News – is editorially independent but has been owned by the state since it was created by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982. It operates with a remit to commission distinctive programming and serve diverse audiences across the UK. Unlike other broadcasters it is required to reinvest its profits in new shows, funnelling cash to the independent production companies that make all its programmes’. It’s no coincidence that the move comes at the same time as complaints from Conservatives about what they see as anti-Tory bias. ‘The announcement came as the government takes an increasingly aggressive approach towards broadcasters, welcoming the new rightwing discussion channel GB News while regularly battling with the BBC over funding and so-called “culture war” issues. This has led to criticism from figures such as Sir David Attenborough, who signed an open letter warning Dowden against dismantling the UK’s public service broadcasting ecosystem – the heavily regulated channels run by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5’.
Privatising Channel 4 was first mooted 25 years ago and the channel has fought off regular attempts to do this ever since, most recently in 2017. Let’s hope the latest attempt doesn’t gain a foothold.
With the Northern Ireland protocol problems rumbling on, negotiator ‘Lord’ Frost has again been in the news, astonishingly having expressed surprise on the part of Leavers that relations with the EU had deteriorated so badly. No doubt many leavers had no idea of what this Protocol was or how it would work. ‘The Brexit minister, David Frost, said they had dreamed of a sovereign Britain, which could set forth on a global mission while maintaining friendly relations with its neighbours…. Asked if the British government had “underestimated what sort of impact” the protocol would have on the movement of goods, Frost hinted this was the case. “I don’t see what is wrong with learning from experience. This is a very unusual agreement and we’ve learned a lot about how economic actors behave … we underestimated the chilling effect.” It’s a bit late to be talking now about this kind of learning, yet despite sour relations the PM and ministers still cynically continue to refer to the EU ‘as our friends and partners’. When asked what all this would look like in 10 years time, Frost predicted that the UK will have ‘settled into a more normal relationship with the EU … one where we have gone our own way in a number of areas and succeeded … nobody is questioning Brexit. It was self-evidently the right thing to do’. I would think a good many will still be questioning Brexit after ten years.
Frost also didn’t cover himself in glory at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, by the sound of it. ‘Having established his credentials as being rather more important than a minister for Europe, Lord Frost then did his best to prove why he wasn’t really up to the job. He got off to a bad start by saying that the decision not to fully accredit the EU ambassador to the UK had been “over-interpreted” and that petty point scoring had been the last thing on the government’s mind. For some reason, the EU had seen it differently and taken offence’. He also maintained that the current impasse with the EU over Northern Ireland couldn’t have been anticipated. It seems Frost believes himself to be a force to be reckoned with, the opposite of how many now see him, an example of the Peter Principle.
It will be seen as worrying in some quarters, that following on from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s avowed intention to compel government-funded cultural institutions to reflect a traditional view of British history, former Chancellor and Evening Standard editor George Osborne has been made chair of the British Museum. The government doesn’t want cultural organisations giving the bigger picture, including institutions’ links to Britain’s colonial past and slavery, regarded by some as a ‘woke’ agenda, so pressing for Conservative chairs and trustees will be one way of fending off such attempts. ‘The former chancellor, 50, will take up his new role in October after stepping down last year as editor of the Evening Standard. He will combine his position with a partnership at Robey Warshaw, a Mayfair investment bank.’ He’ll really be able to give it his all, then.
Finally, we’ve heard about the idea of incentivising hesitants to get vaccinated and in the US this seems to be common, some states people being offered free beer and baseball tickets in exchange for being jabbed. Washington State has gone quite a bit further, with cannabis shops offering ‘joints for jabs’ to anyone over 21, a plan approved by the local drug and alcohol licensing board. We can just imagine the collective shudder around the Cabinet table at the thought of anything like it ever happening here.