Matt Hancock and I have almost nothing in common. For starters I’m terrified of spiders and hopelessly squeamish. I physically retched as I watched him eating unmentionables in the Australian jungle. Far more importantly, we fundamentally disagree over his handling of the pandemic.
The passage of time has not left me any less angry about lockdowns. My blood still boils when I think of the unnecessary suffering: the broken homes and broken businesses; the lost last moments with loved ones; the missed cancers and operations; a generation of children scarred forever.
This country paid a catastrophic price for what I see as a reckless overreaction to a disease that was only life-threatening to a small number of people who could have been protected without imprisoning the entire population. As each day passes, more evidence emerges that shutting down society for prolonged periods to ‘stop the spread’ and ‘protect the NHS’ was a monumental disaster.
Hancock, obviously, disagrees. The Rt Hon Member for West Suffolk is not just unrepentant: he still wholeheartedly believes that as health secretary during the pandemic, he made all the right calls. He is utterly scathing of anyone who argues that repeated lockdowns were avoidable; does not have the slightest doubt over any aspect of the government’s vaccine policy; and thinks anyone who believes any other approach to the pandemic was either realistic or desirable is an idiot.
What better way to find out what really happened than to align myself with the key player?
How then could I have worked with him on his book about the pandemic? Some of my lockdown confidantes suggested it was a betrayal and that he should be punished, perhaps viciously so.
Well, hold on a minute. Journalists don’t only interrogate people they agree with. Quite the reverse. I wanted to get to the truth. What better way to find out what really happened – who said what to whom; the driving force and thinking behind key policies and decisions; who (if anyone) dissented; and how they were crushed – than to align myself with the key player? I might not get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I’d certainly get a good dollop of it, and a keen sense of anything murky requiring further investigation.
In the event, Hancock shared far more than I could ever have imagined. I have viewed thousands and thousands of sensitive government communications relating to the pandemic, a fascinating and very illuminating exercise. I was not paid a penny for this work, but the time I spent on the project – almost a year – was richly rewarding in other ways. Published this week, co-authored by me, Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries are the first insider account from the heart of government of the most seismic political, economic and public health crisis of our times.
I am not so naive as to imagine that he told me everything. However, since he still does not believe he did anything wrong, he was surprisingly inclined to disclosure. In an indication of how far he was prepared to go, the Cabinet Office requested almost 300 deletions and amendments to our original manuscript. Under pressure from me and out of his own desire that the book should be both entertaining and revelatory, to his credit, Hancock fought hard to retain as much controversial material as he could. The resulting work is twice as long as I originally intended, and half the length he wanted it to be. His desire to make it a book of record and mine to do journalistic justice to the sensational raw material he shared with me led to periodic creative differences. At times I pushed him further than he wanted, while I was forced to accept the watering-down of some material.