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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions - In Conversation with Matt Hancock MP

Posted on 27 February 2023

When COVID-19 swept the world, governments scrambled to protect their citizens and chart a course back to normality. As Health Secretary, Matt Hancock MP was at the forefront of Britain’s battle against the virus. 

Matt Hancock MP joined Katy Colton, Head of our Politics and Law Group, to discuss his new book Pandemic Diaries, his account of the inner workings of government during a time of national crisis. 

Watch the highlights of this session in the video above, and the full recording below.  

Full recording

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  Conversations on the legal topics affecting businesses and individuals today.

 

Katy Colton. Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy session today. I am Katy Colton, I am the Head of our Politics and Law Group here at Mishcon de Reya and I will be hosting today’s event.  I am pleased to introduce today’s guest, Matt Hancock, MP.  As I am sure many of you know Matt was elected as the MP for West Suffolk in 2010.  He served as a Minister under three Prime Ministers, most notably as the Minister for Health and Social Care first under Theresa May and then lastly under Boris Johnson during the Covid Pandemic.  I want to start with the book, in the process for writing a book.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

So the clue is in the title of the book, it’s written as a diary…

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…but on the first page you say you didn’t keep a diary at the time.  How do you counter criticism that what is said that you were thinking at the time is pregnant with hindsight?

Matt Hancock

Well it is a totally reasonable question and it is one we addressed as I was writing the book and what I’ve tried to do is go to primary sources from the time and this I see as a compliment to the Inquiry which will go through what is in effect the line by line objective analysis, this is about how I felt about the reality of taking decisions at the speed that we were as opposed to the sort of the dry policy formulation element which, which the Inquiry will undoubtedly capture but doesn’t really capture the experience of being in that hot seat.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

And on that point in terms of setting precedent and having a guide for people to follow, right I think it is interesting your immediate predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, obviously now the Chancellor, he admittedly had a much quieter Covid than you did and he spent that time writing his book ‘Zero’ which is a manifesto for how to deal with the NHS and change and reduce excessive deaths.  So I am interested in why you chose the diary format rather than say...

Matt Hancock

Yes.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…writing a whole book on lessons learnt?

Matt Hancock

Yes so my, actually my initial instinct was to write a book about lessons learned and the, actually my favourite chapter in the book is the epilogue which is a lessons learned with hindsight chapter and the reason that I didn’t is simply the scale of the material.  And I wanted to make it, to write a readable book as well you know, and so the answer to the question really of that judgment of to do it in diary format pieced together was about tractability.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Yep, and I take that point, I think one example of you know, lots and lots of things discussed is the issue of care homes and obviously as you would expect, it pops up throughout the book if your, you know if your Junior Minister is asking you, what should we do about care homes?

Matt Hancock

Yeah. 

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

I think as from a lawyers perspective and particularly as a specialism in public law, we are really interested in outcomes of judicial reviews and in April 2022 the High Court ruled that the policy documents that your department early, from your department early in the Pandemic were unlawful because they failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from non-symptomatic transmission.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Do you accept the criticism of the High Court?

Matt Hancock

Of course I accept the Judgment and the department decided not to appeal it.  I think that judicial review is a, a very odd tool to use in these circumstances because it isn’t, there was no rectification, there was no, there was no consequence of that action and in fact the finding that asymptomatic transmission wasn’t considered was in my view, inaccurate because I considered it.  What it actually found was that asymptomatic transmission was not presented in the formal policy papers to me as a, as an assumption or a significant risk but we had been talking about it since January.  Now with hindsight, my mistake was not to insist that we base our policy on a worst case scenario of significant asymptomatic transmission.  But you know, there is only so many times you can overrule the scientific advice and I wish I had on that occasion, on that subject and I didn’t.  But of course, as the Secretary of State you are the legal personality.

Audience Member

Yes.

Matt Hancock

And so I, of course I understand all of that but I personally think the judicial review should be amended to formally take departments to Court but they can’t because the Government…

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Departments have no legal personality.

Matt Hancock

…because departments have no legal personality so therefore they should take HMG to Court rather than the individual like the Secretary of State simply because I don’t think it is an appropriate use of the Courts to essentially go chasing tabloid headlines saying you know, Hancock broke the law.  I didn’t break the law.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

But do you think that is, that is what the Court’s doing?  I mean it’s clear importance it’s a key element of our constitution that we have clear separation of powers and that the Judiciary holds the Executive to account?

Matt Hancock

Yes oh absolutely and I think judicial review is, is important and especially where there is the necessity for a change because of, because of the consequence of a judicial review.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

So I will put another judicial review to you.  So the judicial review, Gina Miller, the second Gina Miller judicial review which this firm acted on in relation to propagation, so when you were standing for the leadership against, when Boris Johnson…

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…was, was meant to be…

Matt Hancock

Yeah, I was very strongly against propagation.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…you were strongly against propagation…

Matt Hancock

Yeah, yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…but then you supported propagation…

Matt Hancock

Well I kind of just tried to keep my head down.  So, I, I was running the NHS and I thought my job was to run the NHS and I, I ducked as much as possible.  I decided this is on Brexit, so pre-Pandemic, I decided I wasn’t going to resign over the issue of propagation so the best thing was to say as little about it as possible. I thought that it was a mistake.  In the end it was not only counterproductive… it wasn’t only you know, the wrong approach, it was actually counterproductive because in that battle at that time it galvanised the opponents, the supporters of the so called Ben Act.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Turning to our theme and next issue that you raise that had also been challenged by judicial review is the procurement of PPE.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

I think what’s clear from the page in the book is that you, you feel angry.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

You describe yourself as incandescent…

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…about the, what I would say, the dominant, the dominant narrative about PPE procurement.  You describe Meg Hillier, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Which you were formerly a member of.

Matt Hancock

With her, yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

With her, as acting in a pitifully low manner...

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…in her descriptions of contacts for cronies.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

So do you think it is right that questions are being asked about PPE procurement?

Matt Hancock

I think that the, the narrative being peddled by some is completely wrong and I find it offensive and I find it offensive as opposed to just wrong for this reason.  That when the nation was in crisis and we desperately needed PPE to save lives, a huge number of people stepped forward and tried to help and we were, and we basically did everything we could to get as much PPE into the country as possible in a moment of crisis.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

I understand that there was a huge crisis and you describe quite well in the book about the International scrambled for PPE.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Every country was trying to get PPE.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

And that you say in those circumstances you couldn’t have done it perfectly which I think is entirely reasonable.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

But I just want to put a few figures to you and you may not accept these figures and that will be interesting in itself but the Public Accounts Committee has estimated that of the 12 billion pounds spent on PPE, the department’s written of 8.7 billion pounds of that value including 4 billion pounds on PPE which did not meet NHS standards and as a comparator the entire budget for the Ministry of Justice in 21/22 was 9.4 billion pounds.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

So I understand it couldn’t be done perfectly but when I put those figures to you, should it be that a Government in times of crisis has cart blanche just to get on with things in any way possible or do you wish that things had been done slightly differently to reduce the amount of waste both from a monetary perspective and also just the sheer volume of PPE that is sitting in warehouses that you now have to pay for storage costs or to get rid of it?

Matt Hancock

Well of course, PPE is sitting in warehouses that can be easily used is a very important thing for the country to have and so to be criticised for having a big store of PPE is something you know, it is a criticism I wish we had to withstand in January 2020 you know, so criticise me all you like for having too much PPE, I’d rather save lives.  On the numbers side, of course what those figures don’t take into account is the fact that the market moved so a lot of the losses on PPE is because the market for PPE moved very aggressively against us i.e. prices went up and then after the crisis passed, the prices came down but we didn’t know how long the crisis was going to be and how much PPE we were going to need.  We knew the run rate but we didn’t know how long it would last for.  So it is totally reasonable yes, to buy, to over purchase PPE and the thing that I find odd about this is that I get criticised for both under buying and over buying PPE.  So that probably makes me feel like we got it about right.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Okay, so you think you got it about right?

Matt Hancock

Well I would say that the, it’s impossible to land this one on the pin right.  It’s impossible to buy exactly the right amount of PPE for a crisis that you don’t know how much PPE is going to be used and you don’t know how long it is going to last for and you can, so it is perfectly reasonable to say we bought too much, it is perfectly reasonable to say that you bought too little but it’s not reasonable to say both and it is also very reasonable to have a debate about how much we should have bought but what really matters is how much, how much we should have in storage.  The one obvious lesson is we should make sure you can then get it out rapidly because that was a massive screw up.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Well yeah, that’s an interesting…

Matt Hancock

So that’s about it being pickable but the Public Accounts Committee figures that you report were what I regard as tabloid figures as opposed to substantive ones.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

In terms of anecdotes I think a notable one comes from April 2020 and I think it touches on a point you just said, that you think you got it about right on PPE.  The question that was asked in the press briefly was what have you got wrong and it’s personally the things that you think you got wrong or would have done differently?

Matt Hancock

Oh definitely, well on all, right the rules around funerals, the rules around exercise in the first Pandemic, allowing people to exercise more.  Obviously the implement… on asymptomatic transmission.  I would have taken in house the growth of the testing programme earlier instead of waiting to mid-March because it was clear, I was already frustrated by that at the end of the performance of PHE on that at the end of January and it took until March 17th for me to take command of that programme and then it expanded but we could have gone faster on that.  Yeah there’s loads of things.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

I think in synergy in terms of my next topic which is on leadership and governance and the way the message was communicated, I think that the book really does give a fascinating insight into the way decisions were made at the top in the eye of the storm.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

And I must admit that at times it did appear to be rather dysfunctional; I’ll just give a few examples, so Boris Johnson appears to be entirely absent at the beginning.  When you are given a worst case scenario of 820,000 deaths, it seems his response is shrug shrug.  You don’t hide your opinion of Dominic Cummings as we discussed.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

There is multiple allegations of stories being leaked to the press by different parties.

Matt Hancock

Absolutely awful yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

At one point Boris Johnson asked you to bring your phone in to see whether you were the source of one of the leaks.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

There are rivals.

Matt Hancock

I wasn’t by the way.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

There are rivals uninviting each other from different meetings.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Meetings that you weren’t invited, to a high level meeting with the Prime Minister on coming out of lockdown in June 2020 and you say in the book that ‘managing Number 10 is a massive and extremely frustrating part of my job’.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Would you say that there was a vacuum of leadership during the Covid Pandemic?

Matt Hancock

The irony is there were, there were too many people trying to do that and what I would say is that what you need is really clear lines of accountability and we didn’t always have that.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

So that free agent, Dominic Cummings in a Select Committee hearing was heavily critical of you, it can’t have made for comfortable viewing.  He said he thinks that you should have been fired on 15/ 20 occasions, was this…

Matt Hancock

Yeah I think he said 40 later actually.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

…was it really.  Was this book a way of settling scores and do you think that his involvement lead to failures in the Covid response?

Matt Hancock

Oh there’s absolutely no doubt and the, the book is about telling the truth.  It isn’t about settling scores but I am pretty harsh about Cummings because that’s, that was my observation at the time.  He was I think he was particularly aggressive against me and that Select Committee for purely for tactical reasons, he admitted many things that he got wrong and he didn’t want the headlines to be about what he got wrong and so he chose to be extremely aggressive about somebody.  It’s called a Dead Cat Strategy, it’s absolute classic and it was obvious to me what he was doing at the time.  It was obviously frustrating.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Now over this period we’ve seen quite a few attacks on the role of law, we’ve seen issues such as Party Gate, Owen Patterson, your own resignation, recent events such as the BBC Chairman loaning money to Boris whilst he was going through his selection.  Do you think these issues have damaged the public’s trust in politicians and do you think that will affect the response to any future Pandemic?

Matt Hancock

I think you have just got to be careful with the accusations so as not to come over as partisan.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Just for the record we are not partisan.  As a firm we are politically neutral, I just want to make that clear.

Matt Hancock

Yeah, of course but I am just saying…

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

No absolutely you’ve got to be as you said from the start; we’ve got to be careful with our language.

Matt Hancock

So I don’t understand the link from the defence of the rule of law which I feel very strongly about to, to those things.  Patterson for instance, you know, he ended up having to stand down as an MP.  So there was accountability there.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

But rule of law isn’t the same as accountability. Rule of law is abiding by the laws and the guidance so if we take Party Gate.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

The serving Prime Minister, the former Prime Minister, they were found to have breached the law and they were issued with fines.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.  I wasn’t invited to any of these parties.  I am quite glad I wasn’t invited to any of these parties.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

But I think it is important as you say to be careful with language.

Matt Hancock

I mean the irony of all of this is that I wasn’t invited to the parties and I banned alcohol in the department because I you know, I didn’t want people you know, working late and then to have a few beers and that then end up being, people being more social than they should.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

The Health Foundation has stated that the pressures on the NHS resort from a decade of under investment in the NHS and other public services, a failure to address chronic staff shortages, raiding capital budgets and the longstanding neglect of adult social care.  Now you’ve been involved in frontline politics for over 12 years, you were the Chief of Staff to George Osborne when austerity policies were being discussed.

Matt Hancock

Yeah.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

And you served under Cameron and then Theresa May.  Do you accept that the NHS is in crisis and do you think the current Secretary of State should be dealing with the issue?

Matt Hancock

Yeah so firstly there was a successful effort to protect NHS budgets during the initial austerity under the coalition and NHS budgets were one of the few areas that weren’t cut when that Government was trying to resolve the financial consequences of the crash in 2008.  The absolute foundation of sorting out the NHS is making it better organised and that comes down to data and the way that data is used in the NHS.  The, the, there is no organisation in the world as large as the NHS or even a tenth as large of it that fails to use modern logistical capabilities that data and technology gives you to bring forward efficiency and the lack of efficiency is about literally wasting huge amounts of time of highly valuable clinicians.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Normally at this stage we open things up to the audience but due to the high interest in this event we have asked for questions to be submitted in advance and you and your team have selected some of the questions that you feel comfortable answering which are not necessarily the ones I would have chosen and I think that’s an interesting point because of the way that you have been treated and I am just interested as a sitting MP, who has gone on I’m A Celebrity, who has gone on SAS Who Dares Wins and who has written a book.  What does that sensitivity come from in terms of answering questions?

Matt Hancock

Oh it entirely comes from protecting my family.  I mean there is only so much that, that you know, there’s only so many times I can answer questions about my resignation that’s fair on them and I don’t, there’s no more.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Another question from Divia, how did you hope your appearance on I’m A Celebrity would change public perception of you and how successful do you think your appearance has been?

Matt Hancock

Yeah well good question. If it is just by what happens when I walk down the street, it’s been a, it’s been a real success.  There are few things in British public life big enough to actually try to show who you are as a person and people had a particular view of me and parts of it were accurate and parts of it were inaccurate and basically views of me go all the way from total love and adulation to the exact opposite right and there is a group of people who, you know, there’s a group of people who, who blame me for what they should be blaming, in my view, should be blaming, well definitely should be blaming the virus for but that’s human right, I was the face of the thing and so that’s life.

Katy Colton, Head of Politics and Law Group
Mishcon de Reya

Thank you so much for coming in, I think it has been a fascinating talk and we’ve covered a huge amount and there is so much more that we could cover but thank you so much for your time.

Matt Hancock

Thank you.

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit Mishcon.com. 

Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

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