Keener than a terrier on two breakfasts, Jeremy Hunt got stuck into Matt Hancock: HENRY DEEDES watches another confrontation between the Health Secretary and his predecessor
Borg v McEnroe; Prost v Senna. Coe vs Ovett. To that list of great rivalries we should now add Hancock v Hunt. Forget those weekly snoozeathons between Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.
By far the most intriguing confrontations during the pandemic have been between Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his vulpine predecessor, Jeremy Hunt.
Their contests have a deliciously subtle flavour. No insults, no name calling. Like two gentleman pugilists, they maintain a façade of respectfulness during their bouts. But beneath the exaggerated courtesies, a mutual resentment bubbles. They were at it again yesterday when Hancock appeared in front of a joint session of the health and science select committees.
Matt Hancock appeared in front of a joint session of the health and science select committees on November 24
Hunt opened by thanking Hancock for his attendance. ‘I know how busy you are,’ he smiled. Hancock pulled a squiffy expression as if to say ‘actually mate, you don’t know the half of it’.
First thing to note was the marked contrast in energy levels between the pair. Mr Hunt was keener than a terrier who’d just scoffed two breakfasts. Couldn’t wait to get stuck in. With no Cabinet posting to occupy his unquenchable ambitions, these sessions are his cup final.
Hancock meanwhile looked zapped. His eyelids were heavy, his skin drained and sallow.
At times he looked as though he wanted to flop his head down and rest it on the desk in front. Hunt made early probes into the scientific advice Hancock had followed at the start of the crisis. He wanted to know why we didn’t immediately set up a mass testing programme.
Mr Hancock was speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee on November 24. Hancock is pictured front centre and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is pictured back centre
Contrary to World Health Organisation advice, we didn’t start building ours until April.
Hancock shrugged and claimed he had received ‘the best scientific advice my scientific advisers could give me’. He stared down awkwardly as he said this, possibly due to the paucity of his answer.
Or possibly his interlocutor was making him uncomfortable. Mr Hunt possesses the most unsettling glare.
Hunt clearly felt Hancock’s eventual testing programme had been an expensive failure. Otherwise why the need for a second lockdown? A defensive Hancock said it was unfair to lay this solely at test and trace’s door.
Already the Health Secretary was peeved. His mood didn’t improve when Hunt ushered in the SNP’s Carol Monaghan (Glasgow NW) over the video link.
She went off on one about Sage’s membership needing to be more diverse. She thought it should include people from the manufacturing sector. Hancock closed his eyes slowly to calm himself. One imagines this is what embattled call centre workers look like when they have a particularly loopy customer ranting down the line.
Eventually he interjected that Sage was a scientific body. It didn’t need engineers.
Poor old Matt. How he would’ve loved to be back in his department surrounded by civil servants delivering him frothy lattes and calling him Minister. Instead, here he was being made to feel like a police suspect, answering the same daft questions over and over.
Once again, he had to give Dawn Butler (Lab, Brent C) instruction on how the private sector worked. Once again, Rosie Cooper (Lab, W Lancashire) was incapable of locating her computer’s mute button.
An overly aggressive skinhead from the SNP called Neale Hanvey got all excited about a report he’d stumbled upon in the British Medical Journal which described Hancock’s testing programme as an ‘underevaluated, undersigned costly mess.’
Hancock gave a weary sigh as though he’d been accosted by the pub know-it-all. ‘My assessment of that description,’ he replied, ‘is that it is wrong.’
The final insult for Hancock came when Sarah Owen (Lab, Luton N) took a pop at his department, which as this paper revealed this week, spent over £50,000 on takeaways during the crisis.
Hancock explained that during that time, his staff worked 18-hour days, seven days a week.
The very least they deserved was to be fed. ‘I will defend them to the death,’ he hissed.
His teeth were by now clenched together so firmly I feared he might crack a molar.
Note to Boris: Your Health Secretary may need a holiday.
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