Matt Hancock was back at the Covid Inquiry. Having been emotionally present as a sort of verbal punching bag for every other witness, the man who his constituents delight in calling a West Suffolker was forced to take time out from Naked Attraction, or whichever other inanity has most recently featured on his great redemptive pilgrimage round the TV studios, to appear in person.
Despite the pressure, the empty-domed head of Britain’s anti-Profumo remained distinctly sweat-free. This, plus his infamous fake tears at the announcement of a vaccine, might have led us to believe Hancock has acquired some sort of tantric control over his bodily functions, were the CCTV footage of him with that Gina De Campo lady so obviously indicative of the contrary.
You’d be amazed by the size of the inquiry. Row upon row of note-taking lawyers, fleets of paralegals, ushers, security staff and an “emotional support team” to boot. Not since the epic film Waterloo in 1970 has such a cast of extras assembled in one place. As Hancock arrived, members of the Covid-bereaved group waved laminated photographs of their loved ones in his direction. Someone had mocked up a picture of Mr Hancock himself, scribbled over in red pen; presumably signifying “blood on his hands”.
A focal point of the questioning was Mr Hancock’s diary, which despite being called Pandemic Diaries, was not a diary at all, at least in the sense of being a contemporaneous record of events. Hancock claimed he’d warned Boris Johnson about the supposed need to lock down very early on, but had conveniently not managed to write this down in his diary. Presumably, it was full of love hearts with his mistress’s name in them or practised signatures for “Rt Hon Matt Hancock: Prime Minister”.
Was the Health and Social Care department overwhelmed, asked Hugo Keith KC – the suave, silver-tongued lawyer from central casting. “We were certainly whelmed,” replied Hancock. Not content with making up diary entries, Hancock was now making up words.
Technically, this inquiry is not tasked with attributing blame, yet this seemed a favourite line of questioning; who said what about whom, and when. Keith, in his lawyerly way, kept putting such allegations to Hancock, all the while insisting this was not trivia but actually Very Important Stuff and vital to the scope of the inquiry. It was a jarring mixture of childish tittle-tattle and complex legal procedure – the Teletubbies do the Bloody Assizes.
“Forgive me,” Keith would say, or “with respect”, followed by something utterly damning. “The prime minister, his chief adviser, the deputy Cabinet secretary, the Cabinet secretary questioned your candour and fitness for the job.” (Translation: they all think you’re an idiot.) Hancock reacted with surprising courtesy to these jibes.
Was Keith enjoying all this a bit too much? He luxuriated in arcane metaphor; an “uncoiled spring” to describe the virus spreading after restrictions were lifted. It would be pedantic to point out that springs don’t uncoil to release their pent-up energy. On protecting care homes, he delightedly quoted Jonathan Van-Tam’s professional opinion that “a ring is a circle without a break in it”. But circles don’t have breaks in them either! Good job we called in those expert witnesses, eh?
The inquiry’s drooling anticipation of a satisfying “Gotcha!” peaked on the question of lockdown. Hancock described his doctrine; “as soon as you know you’ve gotta lockdown you lockdown as soon as possible”. With hindsight, he said, this should have happened three weeks earlier.
“Mr Hancock,” gushed Mr Keith, finally surveying his target with undisguised admiration. “You have been heard… loud and clear.” That was it, we could all go home. The inquiry had got what it came for.