Matt Hancock accused of rejecting care hom testing advice


efore we begin, I ought to declare an interest: I have for many years defended Matt Hancock. As health secretary, he made significant errors in his handling of the pandemic, not least the way in which Covid was allowed to spread into residential care homes in the spring of 2020. But Hancock also got some big decisions right.

First, on calling for lockdowns and second, that there would be a highly effective vaccine quickly enough to make the furlough scheme relatively short-term and therefore affordable. Incidentally, the chancellor at the time was to varying degrees opposed to both of these policies. Of course, Hancock lost his job and ended up in the Australian jungle while Sunak got a promotion.

Still, I can’t conceive of how handing over 100,000 WhatsApp messages to Isabel Oakeshott could have ended well for anyone. And now, Hancock has now been forced to reject claims that he ignored the advice of chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, who recommended that everyone entering a care home be tested and segregated while awaiting their result.

A spokesperson for Hancock condemned the leaks as a “distorted account” being “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda” and that the public inquiry was the appropriate place for an objective assessment. On that final point, he is right, though I can’t help but note these principles didn’t prevent him from publishing his pandemic diaries in partnership with Oakeshott.

Yet, much like the Northern Ireland Protocol, I wonder how much cut-through this will all have. On Hancock specifically, most people have already made up their minds – and anyway, he is no longer in the government and soon to be an ex-MP. But I mean Covid more broadly.

Keir Starmer raised the issue at PMQs today, but only belatedly and after having spent his first five questions on topics relating to the cost of living and taxation.

The independent public inquiry into Covid-19 should prove valuable, both for holding ministers to account and preparing the country for the next pandemic. Millions of people who lost loved ones before their time deserve nothing less than full disclosure.

At the same time, it feels as if we have already moved on. I mean, how much cultural stickiness did the 1957-58 H2N2 pandemic, which killed 1-4 million people globally including an estimated 33,000 in the UK, retain? Even the Spanish Influenza of 1918-20, which killed anywhere between 17 and 100 million, is treated as some sort of World War I annex.

The Covid-19 pandemic was awful. It is scarcely for me to declare it over, not least when two million people in the UK continue to report experiencing symptoms of long Covid. But the pandemic must now fight for salience with more recent and pressing developments, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and falling living standards. Soon enough, something else will come along to knock Covid further down the list. History is one damn thing after another.

Elsewhere in the paper, London Assembly members have urged Sadiq Khan to consider making some homes in the capital available at lower rents for women, due to the gender pay gap.

In the comment pages, Economics Editor Jonathan Prynn explains why the mini-budget is still inflicting maximum pain. Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, warns that London’s secondary school lottery gap is still too wide. While Martin Robinson admits to cheating his way through life with the help of every shortcut there is.

And finally, forget Paris, Berlin and Prague. Check out Europe’s most exciting second cities packed with culture, art and fabulous food.

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