The Observer view of Matt Hancock’s cancer gaffe

Observer editorial

We are ruled by a government that has, in a very short time, acquired a striking reputation for the crassness of its members’ utterances and actions.

Examples include Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley’s admission that she had been unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and unionists did not vote for nationalists, the most elementary feature of politics there.

We also have a transport secretary, Chris Grayling, who tried to defend himself when it was revealed he had been pouring public money into a “ferry company” that possessed no ships, while Boris Johnson, despite only having the briefest of stints as foreign secretary, racked up a staggering number of howlers that ranged from an attempt to promote whisky in a Sikh temple (where alcohol is forbidden) to claiming the Libyan city of Sirte had a bright future once they “cleared the dead bodies away”.

But even by these hare-brained standards, last week’s pronouncement by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on the merits and implications of genetic screening represents a new low in ministerial ignorance, one that has rightly been denounced by the medical profession. Ahead of a speech at the Royal Society, Hancock discussed his decision to take a commercial genetic test to establish his risk of developing a number of medical conditions. Results indicated his chances of developing prostate cancer before he was 75 were almost 15%, he revealed, adding that he would now be making future bookings for further screening. The announcement provoked the derision of doctors and scientists.

As one geneticist, Professor David Curtis from University College London’s Genetics Institute, observed: “There is no such thing as a screening appointment for prostate cancer. We don’t do them because they don’t work; they’re a waste of time and money.” Yet these tests, shunned by the NHS, were promoted by Hancock, revealing the politician’s appalling ignorance about the health service he is charged with running.

In fact, scientists still find it difficult to predict from genetic tests who will develop cancers, heart conditions and other diseases. Nor is Hancock’s risk of prostate cancer, measured at 15%, particularly high. One geneticist described it as modest. Certainly his results do not merit his near hysterical reaction. Hancock’s remarks will be picked up by the public and will, undoubtedly, lead to more worried people visiting GPs to discuss borderline results from these tests – at a time when general practice is already struggling to cope with demand. Rather than helping the NHS, our health secretary’s thoughtless outpourings have only made its day-to-day running even harder.