When Matt Hancock was made health secretary in 2018, he probably didn’t foresee a pandemic on the list of challenges he’d be facing while in office.
And it shows.
Hancock has come in for some major criticism for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis over the last few weeks, including questions around the UK’s non-participation in an EU procurement scheme, repeated failures to meet promises of testing targets, a shortage of PPE and initially slow response to the threat posed by the virus.
But he’s not taken these criticisms lying down.
Instead Hancock has regularly appeared to shift blame for any mistakes onto other factors or groups, even though healthcare is a remit he’s ultimately in charge of.
As opposition MPs call for Hancock to resign, Westminster insiders have started to predict that Hancock is being lined to take the fall for any mismanagement of the crisis (even though Downing Street has strongly denied any such movement), here’s a few times he may have engaged in a little more deflection and a little less action himself...
1. NHS staff
Hancock induced widespread ire when he seemingly tried to point the finger at NHS staff for shortages of PPE, urging workers not to overuse it during a daily briefing.
“We need everyone to treat PPE like the precious resource it is,” Hancock said. “Everyone should use the equipment they clinically need, in line with the guidelines: no more and no less.”
This didn’t go down well with healthcare workers who have been raising major concerns about the lack of protective equipment for weeks (with some even having to use bin bags in lieu of proper kit) and rejected Hancock’s implication that there was enough to go around if staff didn’t use it too much. Because it’s not true.
What do sports stars have to do with the mismanagement of a national health crisis? Not much on the face of it. But in a bad week for Hancock, he insinuated that footballers were apparently not playing a big enough role in tackling coronavirus.
He said, during a daily press briefing:
Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice... I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.
He also later urged them to donate directly to hospices struggling for funds, despite the government failing to make a similar funding commitment publicly at the time.
Footballers and the public alike weren’t impressed by Hancock’s comments though, accusing him of “deflecting” blame. Wayne Rooney even penned a column accusing Hancock of scapegoating footballers and publicly shaming players, despite behind the scene talks in the Premier League of pay cuts.
Footballer-turned-pundit Gary Neville also suggested players were organising behind the scenes, a theory proven to be true when dozens of Premier League footballers unveiled a multi-million pound #PlayersTogether initiative in partnership with NHS charities. Hancock then thanked them on Twitter for “playing their part”.
In March Hancock suggested that food shortages would be fixed thanks to the government working with supermarkets on home deliveries.
We are working with the supermarkets to make sure that, if people are self-isolating, then we will be able to get the food and supplies that they need.
This was interpreted as shifting responsibility on to food suppliers. In response supermarkets said that no such discussions had taken place.
"Matt Hancock has totally made up what he said about working with supermarkets,” one executive informed the BBC. “We haven’t heard anything from the government directly.”
It’s no secret that the UK is short of basically all the crucial things needed to fight coronavirus, from ventilators to PPE. However, multiple suppliers across the UK have said that their offers of manufacturing help have been ignored or missed by the government. Labour MP Rachel Reeves even said she’d been “inundated” by UK textile businesses who had heard nothing back, despite reaching out in order to help produce or supply much-needed PPE.
However, the way Hancock tells it, the problem is sorting through “credible” offers from manufacturers, despite at least one PPE producer reporting that an offer of 10 million masks had only been responded to eight days after it was sent, by which time the masks had been sold to another country.
5. London Mayor Sadiq Khan
With photos circulating of overcrowded tubes due to reduced services, Hancock hit out at London Mayor Sadiq Khan, saying there was "no good reason” for infrequent trains.
However, Khan said there was a very good reason: Transport for London was apparently unable to run full services because so many staff were sick or self-isolating due to Covid-19. As of last week, 15 TfL workers were confirmed to have died from coronavirus, with shortages of PPE also causing major concern.
6. The general public
If in doubt, blame it on the great unwashed. In a move that will potentially not be well reflected upon by history, Hancock appeared to attempt to shift partial responsibility for the spread of Covid-19 onto people in parks.
“It’s very selfish,” Hancock said in a video interview.
The NHS is doing everything it can and preparing for the spread of this virus.
If people go within two metres of others who they don’t live with then they’re helping to spread the virus – and the consequences of that costs lives and it means that, for everyone, this will go on for longer.
He also threatened stricter measures if the behaviour was to continue.
However, others have argued that the majority of the public are socially distancing in parks and a further lockdown would disproportionately impact people living in cramped accommodation without access to green spaces.
Hancock has also been accused of failing to follow social distancing measures himself after claims from an NHS leader who said he made video calls surrounded by staff.
Remember Matt: when you point the finger, there's four pointing back at you...