COVID-19: Matt Hancock's speech in Oxford seemed like a dry run as an unmentioned figure loomed large

·4-min read

On the face of it, Matt Hancock's speech in Oxford was about celebrating the success of the UK's vaccination programme ahead of a meeting of G7 health ministers.

But while international diplomats, journalists and leading scientists were in the physical audience at the Jenner Institute, another unmentioned figure loomed large.

Repeatedly the health secretary appeared to use his half hour speech to rebut aspects of the explosive testimony Dominic Cummings gave to the science and health select committees last week.

It seemed at times like a dry run ahead of Mr Hancock's own appearance in front of that same joint committee next Thursday.

Early in the speech Mr Hancock described how he "vividly remembered" his very first meeting to discuss the need to commit all the resources possible to the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

It was, he said, in January 2020 - long before even the first case of the virus had been confirmed in the UK, but even then he claimed it was already understood that a vaccine would be the best possible way out of the pandemic.

Such a recollection seems a clear effort to push back on two aspects of the narrative set out by Boris Johnson's former chief adviser Mr Cummings.

Firstly, that the government had failed the public by acting too slowly and not taking the virus seriously until March, and secondly, that until mid-March the government strategy was focused on achieving the herd immunity required to end the pandemic via natural infections rather than inoculations.

Mr Hancock went on to describe how he had spoken to the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam around that time and asked what the best case scenario was in terms of delivering a vaccine, and received the response that it would be 12 to 18 months - but the work began earnestly in the hope it could be faster.

Again, this was Mr Hancock trying to confront Mr Cummings head on.

Pointing out the role of Mr Van-Tam, who sits firmly within the Department for Health and Social Care, in the initial drive to get work on a vaccine under way, he was offering a riposte to Mr Cummings's suggestion that the department had failed on every level.

During his evidence to the select committee last week Mr Cummings talked at length about how the central planning assumptions had been completely inaccurate and that by mid-March the reasonable worst case scenario had become the most likely.

Mr Hancock appeared to try and tackle this too - describing himself as a "rational optimist" who believes a focus on the reasonable best case scenario is as important as the reasonable worst case scenario.

He explained that a vaccine being available early would have its own ramifications in terms of ensuring the infrastructure was available to get jabs into arms and that planning for that was as important has planning for no vaccine being available until 2021 or 2022.

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But Mr Hancock's reference to being "rationalist" will no doubt leave Mr Cummings grinding his teeth in annoyance, given the regularity with which he claims a rationalist approach to political decisions is precisely what government is lacking.

Finally there was the issue of trust and honesty - two things that Mr Hancock claimed were central to the effective vaccine rollout, and that Mr Cummings had suggested were absent in both the government's response and the health secretary's own actions.

So why would the health secretary use this speech in Oxford to take on some of the accusations made by Mr Cummings, given he has his own appearance in front of the committee next week?

Perhaps he wanted to test the arguments, or more likely he wanted the opportunity to set out his case at length without interruption or much in the way of interrogation (with exception of a few questions from journalists at the end).

Like Mr Cummings before him, Mr Hancock will be given the opportunity to make an opening remark at the joint select committee next Thursday - but it certainly won't be the 30 minute monologue he was able to deliver from the podium in Oxford.