By Paul Waugh
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What a difference a day makes. Or rather, what a difference an electric jolt of criticism makes. After the incoherent and evasive Downing Street press conference 24 hours earlier, Matt Hancock had a back-to-work vigour about him as he led the government’s message on coronavirus on Thursday.
But most of all it was Hancock’s rigour that was most striking, someone who finally felt totally across the detail of this huge and fast-moving national fight against the invisible enemy. It was the first time any minister, including the PM, had stepped up to set out a clear and precise strategy for the weeks ahead.
His two big announcements – a £13bn write-off of NHS trust debt and a new pledge to increase virus testing to 100,000 a day for England – were solid and practical moves. Just as important though was the fact that he had a routemap for the path ahead, his ‘five pillars’ designed to mobilise the private and public sectors in accelerating the tests needed.
The honesty was welcome. “I am going to level with you about the challenges we face,” he said, and for once, this didn’t seem like an empty Americanism. When he added that “there will be bumps in the road and criticisms made, some of them justified” it was a much needed recognition that governments are fallible and all the better when they admit it.
As the lockdown has begun to bite, the bitter politicking has increased, with both the government’s defenders and its critics guilty of accusing each other of bad faith. Yet in contrast to Tory cheerleaders, whose attitude to criticism is to yell ‘don’t you know there’s a bloody war on?!’, Hancock was smart enough to see it as an asset not a threat.
“My approach to tackling this is to listen to all complaints and work out what we can do better and whether people have got a point,” he said, praising Labour for pushing ministers harder on economic protections for workers. A keen observer will note however that Hancock didn’t also directly admit to any errors on his part, he simply alluded to the need to change tactics by saying the original plan was more detailed now “and we need new partners”.
There’s an old saying in politics that ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’, but in fact it was refreshing to hear someone go through methodically each issue in turn: why the UK was not like Germany in diagnostic testing, why some antibody tests were mistaken (a three out of four failure rate for one) and why he had prioritised patient testing before NHS staff (itself an admission that rationing had been needed).
Hancock’s tribute to the first generation immigrant health professionals who had “paid the ultimate price for their service” was accompanied by a heartfelt crack in his voice. And the praise for “this diverse and caring” institution was long overdue, especially after bogus claims that migrants freeload off the NHS.
Even the format of the press conference was a welcome change, with follow-up questions not just allowed but actively invited (I understand Hancock had insisted on that in the run-through beforehand). Far from waging a war with the media, he praised newspapers for praising NHS staff and even gave the tabloids the footballer-bashing headline. Compared to an inexperienced No.10 team (something many forget), it was a reminder that Hancock had actually served as a Downing Street aide.
Yes, there was quite a lot of ‘I’ and ‘my’ (“I’ve just been through it…i get that”, “I return from illness more determined than ever”, “my five pillar strategy”, “my plan to boost testing”). But many of the public who simply want someone, anyone, to look like they have a grip on this thing could be quite forgiving of that.
Of course, no minister should be hailed as a hero for simply doing their job. And it remains to be seen if these testing pledges can be delivered. There remain big problems with Universal Credit not being paid fast enough, the self-employed having to wait weeks for help, NHS and social care staff still lacking protective equipment. Yet when Hancock said he would rather not ‘over-promise’, it sounded a long way from Boris Johnson’s own 250,000 tests-a-day boast from just a fortnight ago.
The press conference was 75 minutes long, with 15 questions after a speech and presentation. It reminded me of those ‘take-all-comers’ monthly press briefings we used to have with Tony Blair, in the exact same wood-panelled room in Downing Street.
And maybe that’s not a coincidence. Rishi Sunak talked recently about his plan to ‘right this ship’ of state after the coming economic storm, and suddenly he was a potential future PM. But Hancock is proving he may well have what it takes, to one day become the ship’s captain himself.
Quote Of The Day
“It was absolutely necessary to stop people from dying. Half a million people would die..as health secretary, I was not prepared to see that happen.”
Matt Hancock explains why the ‘lockdown’ was so vital
Thursday Cheat Sheet
Matt Hancock unveiled a new ambition to deliver 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April, with community testing to follow so that “anyone who needs a test shall have one”.
The number of UK hospital deaths from Covid-19 rose by 569 to 2,921.
Both Hancock and No.10 suggested that “immunity certificates” could be granted to people who build up resistance to the disease.
The Chancellor unveiled plans to bolster business interruption loans for small businesses and announce on Friday a new scheme for larger companies.
Comedian Eddie Large, of the double act Little and Large, died at the age of 78 after contracting coronavirus.
Ministers announced a major overhaul of building regulations in an effort to boost fire safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
What I’m Reading
The Real Reason “Herd Immunity’ Was Pursued – New Statesman
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