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Thursday, November 26, 2020

It’s time to remove Matt Hancock and call in a no-nonsense outsider to win the coronavirus war

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Boris Johnson and his health secretary Matt Hancock
Boris Johnson and his health secretary Matt Hancock CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG /AFP

‘Action this day’ was stamped by Winston Churchill on every crucial government document during our country’s greatest test in the Second World War, and he meant it. It is now vital that Boris Johnson assumes his great hero’s style of leadership and acts quickly. If he does not, his reputation will collapse and so will the public’s respect for the lockdown.

In a time of crisis, people want to support their leader. That is why in the immediate aftermath of the decision to close down the country, the prime minister’s approval ratings were very high. But the public mood is fickle. True, Johnson’s popularity survived the reversal of the herd immunity strategy that his government had been pursuing (conceivably because he did not utter this phrase himself but left it to his Chief Scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance). However, the result of his indecision is that the UK is far behind other countries like Germany when it comes to the crucial question of testing. I wonder for how much longer the public will be so forgiving.

When the Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove pitifully told the daily PR exercise that is the 5pm Downing Street briefing on Tuesday that there is a shortage of “chemical reagents”, did he seriously expect public sympathy? He lives in a parallel universe if he did. Since then, it has become clear that the nation’s rage is growing at the failure to start wide scale testing. Even frontline NHS staff are being denied this basic practical measure. So far, only 2,000 out of 500,000 NHS employees have been tested for the virus. And Johnson’s attempt last night to reassure people by video link from Downing Street bombed. Frankly, he insulted people’s intelligence by explaining that testing is “so important”. Everybody already knew that.  

Remember: on 19 March Johnson stated that once the target figure of 25,000 tests per day had been reached, he might even push on as far as ensuring that 250,000 tests were conducted daily. Two weeks on from that date, fewer than 10,000 people are being tested each day. Compare this with Germany, which is managing to test 80,000 people per day. It is dismal.

I feel that quangos such as Public Health England, together with Whitehall mandarins, are managing this crisis in a way that is reminiscent of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations. The smell of failure is in the air. To say that the UK is following scientific opinion makes no sense either because experts have widely divergent views. What is needed is a decisive move away from the bad old days of managerial career politicians who thrived under the administration of David Cameron.

We have been told repeatedly by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, that the NHS is fully prepared for the situation and that there are ambitious plans for testing. The idea that self-testing kits would be sent out in huge numbers has even been bandied about. Yet nothing that Hancock has promised has come to pass, including the distribution of sufficient quantities of protective equipment to NHS workers.

Instead, he and Gove have engaged in a round of self-indulgent mutual backslapping on social media. Their arrogance is breathtaking.

Perhaps I should not be so surprised, though. When it comes to career politicians, Hancock is a classic of the genre. Whenever I see him I think of nobody so much as the preposterous character Sir Joseph Porter from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S Pinafore, who rises without trace to become an MP and then First Lord of the Admiralty despite having no naval qualifications. In the brilliant song “When I Was a Lad”, Porter sings: “I always voted at my party’s call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all…I thought so little, they rewarded me by making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!”

Hancock, who seems to think of little other than his own career prospects, could have sung those lines. He has never run anything before. He does not command the respect of senior NHS figures. I very much doubt that he strikes fear into any of the quangos either. Does he even realise this is not an election campaign in which empty and utterly undeliverable promises can be made and then forgotten later? This is a national crisis, or “emergency” as Boris Johnson has said. 

The time has come to remove Hancock. This must happen quickly. I agree with those who say the country needs a Lord Beaverbrook-type wartime figure. This fearsome newspaper owner and businessman was by no means an easy man and was very probably a tyrant, but he got things done. That is why Churchill asked him to serve as his Minister of Aircraft Production in 1940. Will Johnson have the courage and foresight to ask an outsider like Beaverbrook to step in?

If Britain sticks to its existing course, not only will the death toll be higher than it should be as a result of inefficiencies, but there will be other consequences too. For one thing, other countries which will be ahead of the UK on antibody testing will re-emerge and their economies will start to grow far more quickly than Britain’s. I want Boris Johnson to succeed as prime minister, but his time in office will end in ruins unless he grasps the nettle now.

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