SIMON WALTERS: Like Arnie, minister Matt Hancock was back and armed with a five-point plan after battling coronavirus in self-isolation
A man who has just got over coronavirus is not the obvious choice to saddle up when the cavalry is called in to save the day.
After a series of dire performances by a procession of ministers in the daily Downing Street briefings, the pressure was on Health Secretary Matt Hancock to respond to nationwide calls for someone – anyone! – in the Government to ‘get a grip!’
And Hancock, the Covid-19 comeback kid, is less likely to fall at Becher’s Brook than most. In 2012 he won a real race – astride Dick Doughtywylie – at Newmarket in his West Suffolk constituency. He is, however, better known for his ability to don the political colours of whichever Tory leader will serve his interest the best. Pragmatic rather than principled, cocksure rather than compassionate.
Boris Johnson regularly channels his inner Churchill and Hancock did the same. Coronavirus was ‘a war on which the whole of humanity was on the same side… a common foe over which we will prevail’; he would ‘strain every sinew’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street, London on Thursday
Then suddenly it was Arnold ‘I’m back’ Schwarzenegger in full-on Terminator mode, ‘I’ve been away, now I’m delighted to be back. I’ll tell you this, I’ve come back with redoubled determination to fight this virus with everything I’ve got. I will stop at nothing.’
The shiny NHS badge he wears on his lapel glinted under the lights. He’s so attached to it, he probably pinned it on his pyjamas while in self isolation.
Keenly aware of claims by critics that he is to blame for failing to provide NHS staff with lifesaving personal protection equipment, he devoted time to those who had ‘paid the ultimate price’ and died on the NHS frontline. He was ‘awed’ and ‘profoundly moved’ by their dedication, singling out migrant hospital workers for their sacrifice for their adopted country.
Only after paying fulsome tribute to NHS staff, did he approach the intimidating political fence that has prompted less steady Tory ministers to refuse in recent days: public fury at the shambles over testing.
For this, he came over all Tony Blair, deploying the folksy glottal stop: ‘Testing, I geddit!’ he said. He conceded the Government could expect ‘criticism’ over its handling of the outbreak.
Charts show the number of new cases have jumped sharply in the latest information released by the government today
Another 569 deaths have been declared in the UK on Thursday, taking the total death toll to 2,921
SIMON WALTERS: After a series of dire performances by a procession of ministers in the daily Downing Street briefings, the pressure was on Health Secretary Matt Hancock to respond to nationwide calls for someone – anyone! – in the Government to ‘get a grip!’
Then to the high point – Hancock’s well trailed ‘five point plan’ to put things right – the cliched response of any politician trying to show they are in control of a crisis. In fact, he gave it a near sacred gloss, presenting his ‘five pillars’, as though they were at least half as important as the Ten Commandments.
When he got round to explaining how he was going to get more testing kits and more protective gear for doctors and nurses, he made it sound like a good news story.
The Government intended to create an entire new British industry to provide them, he said. Did he want us to clap him, as we all did for NHS workers again last night?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson applauds in support of the NHS during Clap for our Carers, outside 11 Downing Street on Thursday
By the time he walked back past the Union flags that frame the lectern, we had little grounds for believing the near vertical rise in the coronavirus trajectory we’ve witnessed will start to fall like a firework whose fuse has sputtered out. But to give him credit, Hancock did bring some confidence, competence and candour as well as energy to the Government’s public response.
With Boris Johnson still in the No 10 sick bay, a revitalised Hancock held the reins more firmly than senior Cabinet ministers like Michael Gove and Dominic Raab who have faltered badly in the spotlight in recent days.
In a typically canny move, he diverted attention away from the Government’s failures with a headline grabbing promise to increase tests to 100,000 a day within a month.
But can he really reach German-style efficiency in just four weeks? It is an ambitious target set by an ambitious man.
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