Like Ward Bond in Hondo or, even more aptly, Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, Matt Hancock was born ready.
Well, that’s the impression you get from the first 40 or so entries in what he admits – in the Prologue to Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain’s battle against Covid – isn’t an actual diary. Although the entries look like, erm, diary entries, and they read like diary entries, and the book is actually called Pandemic Diaries, they’re not diary entries. They’re later reconstructions of events co-authored with Isabel Oakeshott, right-wing libertarian journalist and partner of Reform UK leader Richard Tice.
The impossibility of the pandemic diaries
“Of course, I didn’t have time to keep a detailed diary in the midst of the maelstrom”, Hancock (or Oakeshott) tells us. He (or she) then sententiously adds, “nor would it have been right to do so”.
There you have it. Right from the get-go, in the heart of the prologue, Hancock (or Oakeshott) shows an admirable concern for the kind of rigorous ethical stance which has guided him throughout his political career. It would have been wrong – or, at least, not right – to fritter away vital minutes writing a trivial journal at the height of the pandemic.
Hancock was responding to hundreds of emails a day, taking countless phone calls, journeying the length and breadth of the land, reading and annotating dozens of lengthy documents every night. His aides had to timetable five-minute loo breaks every few hours or he would have had to, I don’t know, do it in a bottle under the desk while talking to Kirsty Wark. The pressure was that intense. It was a war. He was a general. No, he was the general. Barely time to pee, let alone write a bloody diary.
“I say none of this for sympathy and deserve none”, Hancock (or Oakeshott) tells us. “I chose to accept the role of Health Secretary and a pandemic is an occupational hazard, as a war is to a soldier.”
No time for health secretary fun in a pandemic
Still, in the entry for Sunday 9 February, despite there being literally no time in the day to be doing something as pointlessly self-indulgent as keeping a written record of how he, the health secretary, spent his time during the biggest public health crisis since the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, Hancock (or Oakeshott) writes the following:
“Strangest ever trip to Center Parcs… For the past couple of years, a gang of us who have been friends since our student days have been going together to Center Parcs for the weekend…”
So, no time for frivolities like a political journal but a bit of time, at least, for the zipwire and the ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ at Center Parcs.
But I’m being churlish. Embattled soldiers get the odd bit of r ‘n’ r. Throughout WW2 Winston Churchill stayed in bed until 11am, drank champagne with his full English and started on the whisky before noon and his legendary three-course lunches. We can surely allow Hancock a bit of down time: zip-wiring, some subtropical swimming, a few five-minute loo breaks and, of course, the odd extra-marital affair.
Distinguishing fiction from reality
There’s a great sentence buried in the entry for Friday, 17 January 2020: “When I woke up today”, he writes, “I was briefly unable to distinguish fiction from reality”.
For what are probably very obvious reasons, this is my favourite Hancock sentence. Unless it’s Oakeshott’s. In which case it’s my favourite Oakeshott sentence. Anyway, it’s a killer. It’s up there with Meursault in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger: “Today, mother died. Or perhaps it was yesterday, I don’t know.” It could serve, really, as epigraph to the book and, eventually, epitaph to the man. As his appearance on I’m A Celebrity amply displayed, he still struggles with that tricky fiction/reality distinction. It’s a tough nut.
The previous evening, apparently, Hancock had watched the Hollywood pandemic thriller Contagion. He wakes up narrating like Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club. “Were millions dying on my watch?” he asks himself. “Had the pandemic gone global? Thank God, no.”
Hancock (or Oakeshott) could breathe easily. It was just a film. From New Year’s Day on, he had been fretting about the vague reports of a ‘mystery pneumonia outbreak in China’. No one much else, according to Hancock (or Oakeshott), had even heard about it. Even the Chinese were only dimly aware. Matt ‘born ready’ Hancock was all over it.
By 3 January, his diary entry is dominated by the topic of mandatory vaccinations and NHS preparedness. Over the next several days, he is busy doing all the stuff you’d expect from a conscientious health secretary who is increasingly concerned that a pandemic will go global.
Hancock was months ahead of everyone!
The entry for Monday 13 January contains this:
“The good news is we’ve got a billion items of disposable PPE stockpiled and ready to dispatch to hospitals…” A good two months before the rest of the country, Hancock is all about PPE, vaccines, the possibility of lockdown, the debate over asymptomatic transmission and, looking further ahead, how he can benefit the landlord of his local pub.
Hancock (or Oakeshott) complains that the rest of government “will need to crank up in case this goes global. So far I am not getting much back – the system is preoccupied with delivering Brexit at the end of the month”.
Not Hancock. Don’t get him wrong. He’s fine with Brexit – there’s a throwaway paragraph about his Union Jack socks (Gina doesn’t like them). But never mind all that. He’s been watching Contagion and keeping up with the mystery virus. You’re reminded, reading his pre-lockdown entries, of Kevin McCarthy in the last act of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, screaming at speeding cars on the highway: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” If only we’d listened.
Now Hancock wants forgiveness
Cut to a few short weeks ago on I’m A Celebrity:
“Do you know what it is actually”, Hancock said to Charlene White, using his best tremulous voice (a bit like the one he used when he pretended to cry on Good Morning Britain). “What I’m really looking for is a bit of forgiveness, that’s what I’m really looking for.”
It wasn’t quite Gazza bursting into tears at Italia ‘90. It wasn’t even Danny Dyer coming over all emotional on Who Do You Think You Are? Still, it did the job. Hancock finished third in the end. His publicity team’s aggressive, multiple-account, Tik-Tok-based approach to campaigning and voting formed a killer combination with his plucky I’ll-do-anything-to-be-popular attitude.
He won the hearts (if not the minds) of sufficient numbers to not only save him from an ignominious early exit but keep him in until the very end. He’s more popular than Mike Tindall. He’s definitely more popular than Boy George. Gina still loves him or, at least, is prepared to be photographed with him. His ex-wife and ex-children may even see the funny side. You can imagine Christmas.
“Oh, Dad, when you got bitten by that tiny scorpion…”
“It wasn’t that tiny!”
“I know, Dad, but you didn’t half whinge.”
“I didn’t think I whinged inordinately.”
“No, but when that comedian said that thing about you grabbing Gina’s booty…”
“Anyway, here are some presents. Where’s that sherry?”
The benefits of hindsight: the truth will one day come out
In the cloyingly awful prologue to his Pandemic Diaries, Hancock (or Oakeshott) pays tribute to his wife, Martha, to his mistress, Gina Coladangelo, and last of all mentions his gratitude for the “love of my children, who have given me plenty of advice about this book”.
One can only imagine what advice his children gave about the book. My advice, if he’d asked, would have been not to write it, or at least to stop Isabel Oakeshott from writing it. Still, with any luck the official inquiry will reveal the book for what it is, just as many months of obvious prevarication as health secretary and that excruciatingly ill-advised appearance on I’m A Celebrity revealed him for what he is.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏