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JANET STREET-PORTER: Matt Hancock’s meltdowns have revealed a mediocre minister

This morning the government’s carefully constructed strategy for dealing with coronavirus fell apart when Health Secretary Matt Hancock lost his temper in two media confrontations. First, a feisty exchange with the Today programme’s Nick Robinson, and then on ITV’s Good Morning Britain he exploded in a combative exchange with Piers Morgan.

Two meltdowns in less than an hour make a PR disaster for the caring Conservatives, the people who say we are safe in their hands, and on the day when more bad news – an extension to lockdown – will be announced.

Mr Hancock is incandescent because people are daring to ask (if we are to be confined to home for another 21 days) – what’s next? Does the government have a Master Plan, an Exit Strategy? When can schools reopen, businesses go back to work…or like Brexit, will this exit go on forever? According to one Minister, Nadine Dorries, it could last until there’s a vaccine next year. By then the UK will be bankrupt.

A few weeks ago, Matt Hancock said the government would be inclusive and clear in it’s approach, but today he seemed to have forgotten those words, complaining ‘everyone wants to know what the future looks like…but talking about it would send the wrong messages’. On taking office, Boris Johnson talked about transparency – but while he’s absent, recovering his health – that message seems to have got lost in the wash.

This morning we could have been listening to official broadcasting in China or North Korea – a government minister telling the public that too much information is a bad thing, that only politicians will decide when to reveal the next step in this battle with a fatal disease. A battle that not only affects human life but is also decimating our economy and could bankrupt the country.

For three weeks now the government have been treating the public like children, dishing out the same simple messages over and over again.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock exploded in a combative exchange with Piers Morgan on ITV's Good Morning Britain today

Health Secretary Matt Hancock exploded in a combative exchange with Piers Morgan on ITV's Good Morning Britain today

Health Secretary Matt Hancock exploded in a combative exchange with Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain today

Stay at home, don’t go out, wash your hands, observe social distancing – do all this to protect Our NHS and save lives. Can there be anyone in the UK who doesn’t know and understand the rules by now? Even my dog could probably bark them out.

Every day at 5pm, a series of lacklustre ministers flanked by scientists and medical experts robotically reel out the latest death toll and announce that testing is increasing – using language that is intended to pactify and sedate a population increasingly begging for answers.

In Europe, there is a gradual relaxation of lockdown- in Spain factory and construction workers are returning, in Denmark the schools have reopened. In Germany, cautious Angela Merkel has announced that shops will open on Monday and some schools will open on May 4. In France, President Macron has gone on television to apologise for his mistakes and to announce a gradual easing of restrictions.

But in the UK, our government has adopted a very different approach – one which implies too much information might be bad for us. Chris Whitty says the pandemic might have ‘peaked’ and there might be ‘a light at the end of a tunnel’ – not exactly words which signal a carefully constructed return to rebuilding Britain. President Trump is talking about easing the lockdown imminently – because he’s desperate to re-boot the economy and get re-elected in the autumn. In the UK, we seem to be walking off a cliff wearing a blindfold.

As we face another three weeks of imprisonment, it’s time for the government to admit some mistakes. Here’s a few to be going on with:

  • Calling in the Army to build huge hospitals, unveiled as great PR stunts, but which have only seen a handful of real patients. Over Easter weekend the 4,000 bed hospital in London’s Docklands treated just 19 patients.
  • The government ‘s daily death toll turning out to be massively misleading because it didn’t include the people who had died in care homes or at home, when in fact the true figures are much higher.
  • The testing shambles – Matt Hancock announced that 100,000 people a day would be tested by the end of the month, when they haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of acheiving that figure.
  • Telling companies to step up and make ventilators and then giving them the wrong specification so that they can’t be used.
  • Ordering protective clothing from China which isn’t fit for purpose.
  • Telling Care Workers they were going to get a badge to ensure proper recognition of their amazing work, something that was already announced a year ago – just another example of the patronising approach that this government has adopted when confronted with an unexpected problem.
Chris Whitty (pictured yesterday), the Chief Medical Officer, says the pandemic might have 'peaked' and there might be 'a light at the end of a tunnel'

Chris Whitty (pictured yesterday), the Chief Medical Officer, says the pandemic might have 'peaked' and there might be 'a light at the end of a tunnel'

Chris Whitty (pictured yesterday), the Chief Medical Officer, says the pandemic might have ‘peaked’ and there might be ‘a light at the end of a tunnel’

What about the news that up to half the care homes in the country have outbreaks of the virus, and that the staff still can’t get the protective clothing they need and relatives have been refused the right to say goodbye to their loved ones until Mr Hancock backed down yesterday?

Oh, and the fact that up to now, testing in care homes has been limited to up to five cases. All these shortcomings were exposed by journalists, given information by the people on the front line, the greiving relatives, the anxious and over-worked staff on the brink of exhaustion. As a result, tough questions are being asked of a government that claims it’s in firm control of the worse crisis since the last war.

This is not something that second division politicians are capable of handling, as this morning’s meltdowns confirm.

The NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel Centre in East London is pictured yesterday. Over Easter weekend the 4,000 bed hospital in London's Docklands treated just 19 patients

The NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel Centre in East London is pictured yesterday. Over Easter weekend the 4,000 bed hospital in London's Docklands treated just 19 patients

The NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel Centre in East London is pictured yesterday. Over Easter weekend the 4,000 bed hospital in London’s Docklands treated just 19 patients

Matt Hancock told Nick Robinson, ‘frankly, the way questions are being asked by journalists irritates a lot of the public at the moment’. When told that a key government scientific advisor, Neil Ferguson had observed that a Covid-Exit department should be set up in the same way that a Brexit one had been, Matt Hancock retorted’ scientists can say what they like…he advises government, he’s not part of it’.

Other EU countries have included the public in all their plans, but according to Matt Hancock that would be ‘a mistake’ in the UK. He says there is a plan, and that it relies on medical and scientific advice. The same advisors who said that 250,000 people would die in the UK? Does Mr Hancock’s exit plan exist or is it written on the back of an envelope?

Today, the first of six fights from Europe arrives in the UK bringing workers from Romania, after British farmers complained that they cannot find enough people to pick our fruit and vegetables. Builders are trying to work to provide new homes but they can’t get materials because factories have shut down, some craftsmen are remaining at home in lockdown.

The construction industry – which is fundamental to our recovery – can’t reboot without the government altering it’s guidelines and announcing which sectors are a priority for testing and a swift return to work.

In short, there is no evidence that Mr Hancock cares about the measures needed to gradually get the UK back on it’s feet. Far easier to keep telling us to wash our hands and stay indoors. Like naughty children.

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