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Sensemaker audio

A political assassination attempt

A political assassination attempt

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s old adviser, tried to finish off the health secretary’s career this week. Will he succeed?


transcript

Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker, from tortoisemedia.com.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

This week…the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, dropped a lot of bombshells.

He said tens of thousands of people had died unnecessarily because the government was incompetent.

But the person he really had a go at. Well, that was Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Dominic Cummings tried to finish his career. 

Is his plan going to work?

***

[Matt Hancock running. Reporter says: “Are you worried about Dominic Cummings giving evidence today Mr Hancock?”]

Sky News

That was on Wednesday morning. Journalists were asking him if he was worried about what Dominic Cummings – his old colleague and Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, once upon a time – might say in front of a committee of MPs later that day. 

…and he literally started to leg it…

To be absolutely fair, he was in his jogging kit…BUT… there’s some hefty symbolism there and reading into it, it’s safe to say that Matt Hancock seemed at least a bit nervous about what Dominic Cummings might reveal.

Turns out he was right to be apprehensive. 

In a marathon, seven-hour committee session, Dominic Cummings launched volley after volley of explosive allegations about the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. 

Boris Johnson, his ministers, SAGE, the Cabinet Office, senior civil servants and Boris Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds were all in the firing line. 

But when it came to Matt Hancock’s pandemic decision-making, Dominic Cummings really went on the attack…

“I think that the secretary of state should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things. Including lying to everybody in multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.”

“I was getting calls saying Hancock was interfering in the test and trace system because he’s telling everyone what to do to maximise his chance of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month. In my opinion he should have been fired for that thing alone. It was criminal disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”

Dominic Cummings evidence session

Being accused of lying and “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” in public by a former colleague is hardly going to be career-enhancing.

But how bad will Dominic Cummings’ accusations really be for Matt Hancock?

When Matt Hancock became health secretary under Theresa May, his priorities were all of the normal ones for any British health secretary: 

Sorting out A&E waiting times, setting the agenda for spending and working out how the NHS will serve the needs of an ageing population…all of that ‘super easy’ stuff…

And Matt Hancock brought his particular passion for tech to the job too. 

He did a computing course at a further education college back in the day. And later he worked for his family’s IT software business for a while. 

So, he’s been a tech obsessive in all of his government roles. At the Department for Culture, Media and Sport his main goal was to bring the country super-fast broadband.  

And he was the first MP to bring out his own app: 

“Hi I’m Matt Hancock and welcome to my app –  it’s a chance to find out what’s going on both in my role as MP for West Suffolk and as culture secretary.”

Matt Hancock, speaking on his app

So when he got the job at the Department of Health in 2018, improving tech in the NHS was going to be his big thing

“One of the things that I’ve done in different parts of the government is make sure that the government is more tech savvy and digital. There’s loads to do in that area on the NHS.”

Matt Hancock on the BBC, 2018

Step one: banning hospitals from buying new fax machines. 

Making the NHS digital was a big challenge for sure. And Matt Hancock is fond of ambitious targets.

Still, those problems absolutely pale in comparison to the mammoth task he faced two years later: managing a country in the midst of a pandemic. 

*** Break***

“As health secretary and as a citizen and on behalf of the whole country, I want to thank the staff of the NHS, those who work in social care, all of you. Not just the doctors and nurses who normally get mentioned. But the pharmacists, the paramedics, the managers, and all staff across the board. You are the frontline in this war against this virus. You are going to give your all in the next few weeks and I want you to know that we salute you and I will strain every sinew to get you everything you need to keep you safe, so you can do your job keeping us safe.”

Matt Hancock speaking at a government Covid briefing on 24 March 2020

Matt Hancock has had a lot on his plate throughout the pandemic:  

He’s been the person ultimately responsible for what happens in hospitals and care homes.

He’s had to secure supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators and life-saving drugs. 

And his department has rolled out a mass vaccination programme too. 

But in those early days back in March 2020, things weren’t going well at all. 

In Wednesday’s evidence session, Dominic Cummings described the chaos in Downing Street. A disaster zone – with Boris Johnson in charge:

“Nobody could find the way around the problem of the prime minister, like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other.”

Dominic Cummings giving evidence

For weeks, the PM couldn’t make up his mind whether to lockdown or not 

And Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings claims, was telling lies in meetings. 

The accusation which has really hurt is that Matt Hancock lied about testing elderly patients for Covid before they were discharged from hospital back to care homes: 

“We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to care homes. We only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened. The government rhetoric was we put a shield around care homes – it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them – we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”

Dominic Cummings giving evidence

The chances are, that decision to move elderly people out of hospitals – where Covid was running riot at the time – and send them into care homes full of vulnerable people…that might turn out to be one of the most catastrophic decisions of the whole pandemic.

More than 30,000 care home residents have died of Covid since the beginning of the crisis. 

***

“These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true. And I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout. Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked what must I do to protect life.”

Matt Hancock speaking in Parliament, 27 May

Matt Hancock has tried to defend himself. He hasn’t told any lies, he says. He was just doing his best at a really difficult time. 

But he hasn’t quite denied the accusation on care homes: 

“My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care comes when we could do it.”

Matt Hancock, answering journalists’ questions, Thursday 27 May

But he’s getting support from Boris Johnson and the rest of his party, so Matt Hancock probably isn’t going anywhere. 

Firing him now would make it look like Dominic Cummings was right about the health secretary…and about all of the other accusations he’s made…

Which is the last thing anyone in government wants to do.

Politics is a funny old game sometimes. 

You can be attacked, you can be called useless and a liar – and at the end of it all, you can end up being safer in your job than you were at the start!

That’s probably where Matt Hancock is right now.

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.

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