Matt Hancock came yesterday to the House of Commons and declared:
“At 6.31 this morning, 90 year-old Margaret Keenan from Enniskillen, who lives in Coventry, became the first person in the world to receive a clinically authorised vaccine for covid-19. This marks the start of the NHS’s Herculean task to deploy vaccine right across the UK, in line with its founding mission to support people according to clinical need, not ability to pay. This simple act of vaccination is a tribute to scientific endeavour, human ingenuity and the hard work of so many people. Today marks the start of the fight back against our common enemy, coronavirus.”
Such cheering news was also faintly disconcerting, for we have grown used to Hancock as one of the handful of ministers trusted by Downing Street to take to the airwaves and field question after question about the lethal onward march of the pandemic.
As Health Secretary, he is second only to the Prime Minister as the figure people seek to blame for the many grievous deficiencies in the official response to the crisis, ranging from care homes abandoned to their fate, through shortages of personal protective equipment, to the appalling deficiencies of the track and trace system and the dodgy use of statistics to justify restrictions on personal liberty.
The British media generally proceeds on the assumption that someone in high office has blundered. This is a healthy frame of mind, for it helps to ensure ministerial accountability, and to instill the fear of being found out which is one of the most effectual checks on corruption.
Hancock has proved resilient in the face of ferocious criticism. As a former minister remarks, “He’s got india-rubber bounce back – if you punch him he just gets up again.”
He received his early training in the George Osborne school of politics, which gave Hancock (in the words of Janan Ganesh in George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor, published in 2012) “a pitiless focus on the political bottom line”.
Unlike many of Osborne’s followers, Hancock survived and flourished in the era of Theresa May, who in the summer of 2018 promoted him to the post of Health Secretary, to fill the gap left by Jeremy Hunt, whom she moved to the Foreign Office, to fill the gap left by the resignation of Boris Johnson.
A year later, May was forced out and Hancock entered the crowded race to succeed her, but after receiving the votes of only 20 MPs in the first round, threw in his lot with Johnson and asked to be made Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Johnson conducted a ruthless purge of May’s Cabinet, but kept Hancock on as Health Secretary, always an arduous role, and during the pandemic far more arduous.
Hancock, who is still only 42, communicates a somewhat gauche decency, but is also a highly professional and intensely ambitious man of government, valued by three successive Prime Ministers for his ability to keep the show on the road where others might crumble.
Neither he nor Johnson is especially popular just now with Conservative Party members: in this site’s most recent Cabinet League Table the two of them were barely above zero.
But the arrival of several vaccines which work, and the world-beating speed with which the first of these is being administered in this country, could well transform those rankings.
The pandemic has led to astonishing advances, for which the Health Secretary deserves a share of the credit, just as he deserved a share of the blame for the many things which went wrong, so that towards the end of April Hancock was in acute danger of becoming, as this site put it, the Scapecock.
It is a mark of the sudden improvement in the country’s prospects that Hancock was yesterday able to tell MPs, without a murmur of criticism, that in only eight months’ time he intends to take some time off:
“It makes me very proud that we have managed to start this vaccination programme sooner than many people anticipated. People told me that it was not going to be possible and that it was all very difficult. It has been difficult, but we have got there, and we did so because of international science, working with German scientists and American pharmaceutical companies, and people right around the world working on this project. I have high confidence that the summer of 2021 will be a bright one, without the sorts of restrictions that made the summer of 2020 more restricted. I have booked my holiday—I am going to Cornwall.”