If you happen to be having a bad day, spare a thought for someone called Matt Hancock, possibly the most hapless person on the planet.
A former British health minister, Mr. Hancock has become a national laughing stock across the Atlantic.
First, he got fired from his job presiding over the UK’s National Health Service for breaking his own Covid lockdown rules. Unlike Gavin Newsom or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who did something similar, Hancock managed to get caught out in spectacular fashion. After helping issue edicts making it illegal for anyone in Britain to socialize with someone outside their family, Hancock was filmed canoodling his mistress like a high-school senior at prom night.
A real-life version of Britain’s Mr. Bean, Hancock then thought it would be a good idea to salvage his reputation by appearing on a reality TV show in which he was required to eat a kangaroo’s private parts. It gets worse.
In an effort to tell his side of the Covid story, Hancock collaborated with a journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, to write a book, the Pandemic Diaries. This was supposed to be an insider’s account of how he seized the initiative to combat Covid, appearing in almost daily press conferences and saving the country from catastrophe.
What Hancock actually did was give the journalist he commissioned to write the book about 100,000 unedited text messages exchanged with ministers and officials via a social media platform, Whatsapp.
A bit like Matt Hancock, no one in America seems to have heard of WhatsApp. Both are currently ubiquitous in Britain. WhatsApp is wildly popular across the pond (unlike Hancock), perhaps in part because it is supposed to be discreet. With its end-to-end encryption, anything you send is supposed to be 100 percent secure. Unless of course you happen to have been sending text messages to Matt Hancock, who it turns out was foolish enough to hand it over to a journalist.
Unsurprisingly, the journalist in question did what one might expect from members of that honorable and trustworthy profession: she took the lot to a newspaper.
The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s biggest selling papers, has now set to work mining this rich treasure trove of information — and the results have got the country gripped. Think of Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes, but recording what was being said for months.
Dozens of top ministers and officials are reeling from the implications of having had Matt Hancock make their most private comments and observations available for a newspaper. It’s safe to say that he is not popular among politicians. Among the public, he is a figure of contempt.
Thanks to hapless Hancock’s indiscretion, people can actually read what those making key decisions that would affect the lives of millions were actually thinking at the time. Unlike official memos or retrospective accounts, it is almost as if the conversations within the corridors of power were being recorded in real time.
The results are not pretty.
Britain experienced some of the most draconian lockdowns in the Western world. Millions of people were forced to remain in their homes for weeks, only allowed out under the most stringent of circumstances. Schools were shut for months. It was declared illegal to sit on a park bench.
After a close friend of mine died during the lockdown, I — in common with tens of thousands who faced a similar situation — was prevented by law from attending their funeral. The late Queen herself was forced to sit almost alone at the funeral of her husband Prince Philip. Grandparents were not allowed to hug their grandchildren. Terminally ill people were left in isolated rooms to face the end alone.
We might like to imagine that the people who decided to impose all that did so cautiously, solemnly and with careful regard for scientific facts.
What Hancock’s text messages show is almost the opposite.
Far from making decisions based on scientific method, Hancock’s messages reveal that children were forced to wear face masks in school on little more than a whim.
Britain’s second national lockdown, the messages suggest, was imposed across the country without compelling scientific evidence. The so-called “Rule of Six” which made it illegal to meet in large groups, was introduced to include children under twelve despite officials admitting that there was “no robust rationale” for doing so. Periods of self-isolation were extended for political expediency.
The files reveal an irrationality in the decision making at the apex of Britain’s administrative state that beggars belief.
Instead of asking if the stringent lockdowns were effective in arresting the trajectory of the virus, Hancock, key ministers and officials exchanged messages dripping with contempt for anyone that questions what they were doing. It would have been as though Dr. Fauci and two or three White House officials were imposing federal laws to incarcerate every American in their own home — and enjoying it.
The most disturbing revelation of all is the way in which incompetent ministers and officials seemed to actively relish wielding the power that they exercised.
Hancock, together with Britain’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, sent messages to each other that mocked travelers forced to quarantine during the lockdown. “I just want to see some of the faces of those coming out first class and into a Premier Inn shoe box”, wrote the latter. “Hilarious” Case added.
The police were already arresting people for walking in the countryside and setting up roadblocks to question people as to the necessity of their car journey. Hancock seemed more concerned that police were not being aggressive enough in dealing with errant citizens.
“So what?” you might say. “What does this idiotic limey minister have to do with the US?”
Mercifully for America, not much. But there are no shortage of Matt Hancocks in America. Politics in every country attracts its fair share of charlatans. The genius of the American system is that your Founders saw the Hancocks coming — and designed a system that is much more effective at keeping them at bay.
Sure, you had your Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsom in California, who seemed more Hancock than John Locke. But with power dispersed among fifty states, you also had your Kristi Noem in South Dakota and Ron DeSantis in Florida, free to take a different approach. We can see which worked.
In Britain, a daily press conference was held in Downing Street at which a quad of ministers (one of whom was Mr Hancock) instructed us on what we could or could not do. In America, there was no single response. Sure, President Trump gave occasional press conferences, but what he said did not determine if the schools would be open the next day, or if you could still go see your grandparents.
However much Americans might have resented the rules they had to observe when entering a federal building, or flying on a federally regulated airplanes, many Americans needed only to pay attention to what their state and local officials decided.
Matt Hancock shows what a precious system you have inherited. Don’t forget that. Look across the Atlantic and learn from our less happy experience — or you could end up being run by people like Matt Hancock.