What we learnt from the Matt Hancock WhatsApp revelationsBMJ 2023; 380 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p583 (Published 10 March 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p583
Most of the time, the health sector doesn't have to think too much about its former secretaries of state for health.
Occasionally, they have enlightened second lives as chairs of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee—as both Stephen Dorrell and Jeremy Hunt did. Their deep knowledge of the brief can make them particularly effective in this role.
Even more occasionally, they become bigger beasts in government: both Kenneth Clarke and Jeremy Hunt became chancellor of the exchequer, following their time in the health brief. The dynamic here is fascinating: they must move from making the case for increasing resources to the NHS, to become the fiscal equivalent of a GP receptionist—being relentlessly firm about what is and is not available.
These are the exceptions: most former secretaries of state depart leaving little material trace.
So recent revelations from former health secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages during the covid-19 pandemic, published in the Daily Telegraph, have given us remarkable glimpses of how Hancock—always a celebrity in his own mind, and latterly perhaps moving into that zone via his third place finish on ITV’s “I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here!”—and his team conducted themselves in office.1
“The Lockdown Files” source WhatsApp messages were given to the Daily Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott. She obtained them while working with Hancock as the ghost writer on his Pandemic Diaries.
Hancock’s effort to “comms” a credible response to the revelations was a PR-first approach. He sought to complain about a “massive betrayal of trust” by Oakeshott, whose revelations emphasise Hancock's own repeated massive betrayals of trust.1
These range from his prioritising his “100,000 tests for a day” target over testing care home residents (the latter was scientifically advised);1 his in-fighting with then chancellor Rishi Sunak2; or trying to find ways to excuse his office affair with DHSC employee Gina Coladangelo as an “exemption ... for charitable purposes” as well as seeking to collude in covering it up in a Parliamentary answer, it's all integrity-free stuff.2
The WhatsApp messages reveal that the Nolan Principles and the Ministerial Code, which are meant to govern standards in public life, were smashed to pieces regularly by Hancock and his team.
The aspiring “sack race” maestro
It’s impressive that Hancock got any work done at all while he was in the Department of Health and Social Care role, so busy was he trying to undermine or dismiss others.
We learnt about Hancock’s conspiring with the prime minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings to try to get NHS England’s chief executive Simon Stevens removed from his job during the pandemic.2
An unreliable diarist
This revelation also makes us question Hancock’s reliability as a diarist. His Pandemic Diaries book recounts how he had asked then prime minister Boris Johnson about Dominic Cummings' “insistence on getting rid of Simon Stevens ... Boris said “on no account must we force him out. He's done a long stint, so he may want to go, but let him go in his own time.” That was my view exactly too”, he diarised.
One has to wonder whether the heroic Matt Hancock described in Pandemic Diaries ever met the real Matt Hancock and, if so, how they got along.
Likewise, these leaked messages reveal Hancock tried to get Jeremy Farrar sacked from SAGE;2 and that he slated vaccines taskforce leader Kate Bingham2 while trying to get the credit for the vaccines roll-out.2 On this last point, Kate Bingham’s vaccines taskforce second-in-command and successor Clive Dix's view of Hancock is well worth reading.2
Matt Hancock hearts Matt Hancock
It remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle that it was the revelation by The Sun of his affair with his communications adviser Gina Coladangelo (whom he had appointed to a paid role on the Department of Health board) that caused Hancock’s downfall.
These leaked WhatsApp messages confirm what political observers spotted a long time ago: the person with whom Matt Hancock is deeply and enduringly in love is Matt Hancock.2 It takes a truly remarkable type of human being to make Hancock's claim that his affair with Coladangelo was “arguably charitable”, but he did so with his characteristic Alan Partridge energy.
Is there any more to all this than evidence that substantiates what most Whitehall-watchers and political gossip mongers already knew, and what many of us guessed?
It seems clear that there is. You can't help feeling Oakeshott and Hancock deserve one another, but she’s done the nation a service by surfacing just what a low standard of people we had in high office during one of the biggest global health crises in decades. In one particularly grim revelation, it emerges that Hancock discussed a plan to block funding for a new centre for disabled people, so as to pressure a rebel Tory MP to support new lockdown restrictions.2
In particular, we should be struck by the massive amounts of time and energy that Team Hancock deployed in trying to control the media political narrative. This should also teach us to be much, much warier of much of what passes for UK political journalism.
Competing interests: none declared.
Provenance and peer review: commissioned, not peer reviewed.