Matt Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT

He’s been the target of so much public anger over Covid. Now Matt Hancock is publishing his side in an electrifying – and astonishingly revealing – diary no one who lived through those dark days will want to miss…

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Standing in my kitchen in Suffolk after a quiet New Year’s Eve, I scanned my newspaper for clues as to what might be lurking around the corner. The only thing on my patch was a news-in-brief story about a mystery pneumonia outbreak in China.

There were enough people in hospital for Beijing to have put out an alert. It reminded me a bit of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) back in 2003, which killed hundreds, mainly in China and Hong Kong. I asked my private office to put together a briefing and made a mental note to raise it when I got back.

The first cases of a mystery SARS-like respiratory virus are reported in China’s Wuhan province

Sunday, Jan 5

There are now 59 cases in China; seven of these patients are seriously ill with breathing problems.

Tuesday, Jan 7

I found the PM in the voting lobby looking like he’d had a good Christmas and revelling in all the congratulatory back slaps from colleagues. We walked through the lobby together, and I told him about the new disease.

‘You keep an eye on it,’ he said breezily. ‘It will probably go away like all the others.’

In more trivial news, a picture of my Union Jack socks has somehow gone viral after I was pictured on my way into Cabinet yesterday. My old university friend and communications specialist Gina Coladangelo was not particularly impressed. She thinks they’re a bit Ukip.

Saturday, Jan 11

First death from the virus in China — at least, the first one they’ve told us about.

Friday, Jan 17

When I got into the department, Chris Whitty — whom I appointed Chief Medical Officer last year, and who is known informally as the Prof — asked for a word. Calmly, in his ultra-reasonable way, he explained that he thinks the virus has a 50:50 chance of escaping China. If it gets out of China in a big way, he says a very large number of people will die.

Wednesday, Jan 22

I found out tonight that Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, is blocking my push for a meeting of COBRA. Infuriating!

Jan 23: Matt Hancock addresses the House of Commons

Jan 23: Matt Hancock addresses the House of Commons

Thursday, Jan 23

No 10 has grudgingly agreed to let me make a statement to the Commons about the virus. No 10 are still saying calling COBRA would be ‘alarmist’. What utter rubbish.

Friday, Jan 24

Dominic Cummings [the PM’s chief adviser] thinks Covid is a distraction from our official withdrawal from the EU next week. That’s all he wants Boris talking about.

Saturday, Jan 25

We need to withdraw Brits from Wuhan. I try to raise these points with the Foreign Office, but I’m told in no uncertain terms that travel advice is a matter for them, and that because of the time difference their team in Wuhan are asleep. So I called [Foreign Secretary] Dom Raab. He is happy to order the evacuation.

Sunday, Jan 26

The Foreign Office machine is struggling to grind into second gear. This morning I discovered that officials are still working up advice on ‘whether’ to evacuate, not ‘how’ — when Raab has already made the decision!

Monday, Jan 27

Coronavirus is now the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed.

Jan 28: Chris Whitty tells ministers and officials 820,000 people could die from Coronavirus

Jan 28: Chris Whitty tells ministers and officials 820,000 people could die from Coronavirus

Tuesday, Jan 28

A proper ‘oh s***’ meeting today. The whole team gathered in my office to go through the reasonable worst-case scenario I’ve been requesting. There were about 30 people perching on every flat surface.

In his characteristically understated way, sitting at the back peeling a tangerine, Chris Whitty quietly informed everyone that in the reasonable worst-case scenario, as many as 820,000 people in the UK may die. The transmission is so high that almost everyone would catch it.

The whole room froze. We are looking at a human catastrophe on a scale not seen here for a century.

I asked what we needed to do to accelerate a vaccine. Professor [Jonathan] Van-Tam said developing a vaccine normally takes five to ten years, but there’s a team in Oxford working on an Ebola project that can easily be switched to the new disease.

‘I want it by Christmas,’ I said.

Wednesday, Jan 29

PMQs today was surreal: not a single question on the virus. I stood by the Speaker’s chair thinking: ‘Every question you lot are asking will be rendered completely irrelevant in a few weeks.’

I called the head of the World Health Organisation to try to persuade him — for the second time — to declare a public health international emergency. But China runs various projects in his private office, so he is scared stiff of upsetting them.

Thursday, Jan 30

The Wuhan Brits are on their way back. I’ve had a showdown with officials and lawyers over what to do with the evacuees when they land at RAF Brize Norton.

PHE [Public Health England] thinks they should be greeted with a smile and a leaflet and asked nicely to go home and stay there for a couple of weeks. I said they should go straight into quarantine. PHE started hand-wringing about human rights. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘let’s get them to sign a contract before they board. In return for the flight, they agree to go into quarantine. No contract, no flight.’ I was told the contract wouldn’t be legally enforceable and was too draconian. ‘Do it anyway,’ I instructed.

The World Health Organisation have finally declared the virus a public health emergency. The risk level in the UK has now gone from low to moderate.

PHE’s audit of PPE [personal protective equipment] came back and did not lighten my mood. There’s no clear record of what’s in the stockpile, and some kit is past its ‘best before’ date. I’ve instructed officials to work out what we need fast, and buy in huge quantities.

Touchdown: Flight carrying Britons evacuated from Wuhan province lands at RAF Brize Norton

Touchdown: Flight carrying Britons evacuated from Wuhan province lands at RAF Brize Norton

Friday, Jan 31

The Wuhan flight touched down at Brize Norton. The RAF crew and all our officials were in full hazmat suits, but the poor coach drivers taking them into quarantine were in their normal work clothes. Who on earth would give protection to air crew but not bus crew?

Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, who faced pressure from Dominic Cummings

Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, who faced pressure from Dominic Cummings

Monday, Feb 3

‘When SS off?’ Cummings asked. He’s not letting go of his [long-standing] mission to get rid of NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, despite the fact that we’re about to be hit by a pandemic.

Tuesday, Feb 4

As a liberal, I’ve always believed people make the best decisions for themselves. Now we are contemplating actions that could bankrupt millions of businesses and interfere in literally everyone’s lives. It is a very, very strange feeling; not me at all.

Monday, Feb 10

I called the PM to tell him this thing could go either way: maybe we manage to contain it, but more likely we’re going down. ‘Bash on,’ he said — a typical Boris refrain.

Tuesday, Feb 11

Driving home down the Harrow Road, I looked at the crowds spilling out of the pub on the corner and tried to imagine what it will be like if we have to shut these places. I felt like I inhabited another world, that no one outside had yet seen into.

Wednesday, Feb 12

Back in the COBRA room today for a civil service exercise to rehearse what we’ll do if the virus runs out of control. We role-played how we would do our jobs in two months’ time if the very worst-case scenario has happened and hundreds of thousands are dying.

Where in Hyde Park would the burial pits be? Who would dig them? Have we got enough body bags?

Worst of all was agreeing a protocol to instruct doctors which lives to save. Do we treat the young, because they have more years to live, or the old, because they are more vulnerable? Horrific decisions.

Later, I asked the PM about Dom’s insistence on getting rid of Simon Stevens. Boris said: ‘On no account must we force him out.’

Astonishing that Boris gives so much power to Cummings, someone with such a blatant disregard for his own agenda or instructions.

Tuesday, Feb 18

PHE says our current approach of tracing all contacts of anyone who’s infected is unsustainable. Apparently they can only cope with five new cases a week. This is infuriating since only a few weeks ago they told me they had the best system in the world.

Monday, Feb 24

Cummings has finally turned his attention to coronavirus. To show he means business, he’s organising a daily 8am meeting in No 10 for spads [special advisers] and officials, but in an act of total idiocy he’s timed it so that it clashes with my morning meeting and involves many of the same people.

He’s made it very clear that he expects this to be the ‘decision-making meeting’. He has a complete contempt for elected politicians — the Prime Minister included.

Thursday, Feb 27

PHE has outright refused a request from Randox, the UK’s biggest testing company, for coronavirus samples. Certain senior public health officials are absolutely allergic to anything involving the private sector. Evidently they’d rather risk lives than set aside these ideological objections.

No such sniffiness from the Chinese, who are snapping up Randox’s services.

Happy Birthday? The NHS advised children to sing while they washed their hands

Happy Birthday? The NHS advised children to sing while they washed their hands

Sunday, March 1

We’re telling everyone to wash their hands more frequently and encouraging parents to get their kids to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice to make sure they do it for long enough. What I really wanted people to sing was the national anthem.

Sadly, I was overruled, as the collective view seems to be that happy birthday is ‘less divisive’. Since when is the national anthem controversial? Sigh.

Thursday, March 5

First two UK deaths — a horrible landmark.

Saturday, March 7

There’s a crisis looming with ventilators. We have nowhere near enough. If the worst comes to the worst, we may need to put out advice on how to care for a critically-ill relative at home, a terrifying prospect for most people.

I took a few hours off today and took the kids to Planet Laser in Bury St Edmunds. It involves charging around in the dark in a ‘battle suit’ firing lasers at other players. I was looking forward to forgetting about coronavirus for an hour or so, but no such luck: it turned out that one of the games is called Infection.

Every time a player’s laser hit one of the other players, they would get ‘infected’ with a disease. In between attempts to dodge the fictional virus, I kept having to dart out to respond to urgent messages about the real one.

Don't panic: Brits rushed out to stock up on toilet roll... and rice

Don’t panic: Brits rushed out to stock up on toilet roll… and rice

Sunday, March 8

People have started panic-buying. Feeling a bit sheepish, [my wife and I] checked through our own kitchen cupboards, and while we didn’t do anything to exacerbate #toiletpapercrisis, we did order a huge sack of rice.

Monday, March 9

In my box of official papers this evening was a scientific briefing suggesting the NHS could have a deficit of 150,000 beds and 9,000 ICU spaces.

Tuesday, March 10

I’ve instructed PHE to produce plans for how they will get testing up from 1,000 tests a week to 10,000. I don’t care who does these tests — just that they’re fast and accurate.

Thursday, March 12

While the Prime Minister was standing before the nation declaring we’re doing everything possible to save lives, PHE have advised to stop all contact tracing. They’ve basically given up, having become overwhelmed by the number of cases. Infuriating!

Boris Johnson's advisor Dominic Cummings, pictured in Downing Street on March 12th 2020

Boris Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings, pictured in Downing Street on March 12th 2020

Friday, March 13

A call with my fellow G7 Health Ministers. Everyone sounded terrified.

Saturday, March 14

In just three days, the numbers have doubled. At 10am I went to Downing Street to talk to the PM and others. We wrestled with all the issues. What measures? How long? Would people comply? Are we doing enough to make sure the NHS can cope?

We were all struggling to get our heads round the enormity of what we were discussing. Boris set out the case for and against each option. After everyone had had their say, we collectively made the decision: to close large swathes of society.

A growing problem: COVID-19 case numbers as reported by MailOnline on March 16th 2020

A growing problem: COVID-19 case numbers as reported by MailOnline on March 16th 2020 

Monday, March 16

Cummings, [communications director] Lee Cain, Whitty and I went into Boris’s study garden and finessed the message he was going to give in a televised press conference. Then, at 5pm, it was time. Looking as grave as he ever does, Boris told the elderly and vulnerable they are going to have to stay at home for 12 weeks.

Tuesday, March 17

I’ve been told we have a billion items of PPE in a warehouse in the North-West. ‘Hooray!’ I thought. Just one problem — we can’t get it out. It turns out that it’s in a huge storage unit with only one door. Ergo, only one lorry can pull up at a time. What a classic government fail.

It was my son’s 12th birthday today, almost all of which I missed. My family is already paying a heavy price for this crisis.

Sunday, March 22

Crunch meeting in Downing Street, at which the Prime Minister weighed up all the options. He’s famous for this, so it’s impossible to know in the middle of the meeting where he’s going to end up. It’s his way of making big decisions. Today he agreed to a formal lockdown as soon as possible.

Monday, March 23

At 8.30pm, the Prime Minister gave his address to the nation. ‘From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction: you must stay at home . . .’

In my own household, I found an old computer in the attic and have set it up for our youngest, though I’m not sure how online school is going to work for a six-year-old. With me largely absent, it’s tough on the family.

Tuesday, March 24

Driving down Park Lane there wasn’t a single other car on the road — not one. I sat in the back of the car feeling almost sick. All I could think was: What have we done?

This evening it was finally my turn to front the daily Downing Street press conference. I was unusually nervous, knowing that more or less the whole nation would be watching. After all, we’d just banned them from doing almost anything else.

Friday, March 27

A nurse called first thing this morning to say I’ve got Covid. I called [the PM’s press secretary] Jack Doyle to break the news. ‘Erm, that’s interesting, as we’re just about to announce that the PM has tested positive, too,’ he replied. To cap it all, the Prof [Chris Whitty] also has symptoms.

Sunday, March 29

My throat hurts so much that I can’t swallow and I can’t eat or drink. [My wife] Martha has also got it, along with our daughter and our live-in au pair.

Meanwhile there are still dire supply issues with PPE. The BMA [British Medical Association] is going nuts. It’s not as if I think it’s acceptable: it’s not! There’s just no quick fix. When the whole world is after it, it simply isn’t possible to get as much as we need as fast as it’s required.

Monday, March 30

The government-owned company that gets PPE supplies to hospitals across the NHS has effectively collapsed. Total disaster.

I’m absolutely furious that the people who are meant to be experts in logistics have been unable to cope because there are too many actual logistics. WTF? We’ve been buying more from China, but the immediate problem is still lorry access to our storage facility in the North-West, where there’s only one door. Funnily enough, nobody has been able to magic up any extra entrances, so we’re still stuck with single lorryloads at a time.

Thursday, April 2

The Daily Mail has run a highly critical piece about not having enough tests. Privately, they’re right of course.

The Daily Mail's Page 1 story about a lack of tests. It was right, of course, Hancock said

The Daily Mail’s Page 1 story about a lack of tests. It was right, of course, Hancock said

In the end the hardest bit [at the press conference] was being asked what we’ve got wrong. I just said we could have brought in the economic package a bit quicker.

This didn’t get much pick-up, except from Rishi’s people, who went absolutely tonto. I’ve bought Rishi a box of wine to apologise. (Sadly, he won’t be enjoying it. Turns out he’s teetotal. He was extremely gracious about it, and said his dad would enjoy it.)

In truth I should have given a frank answer about something I was responsible for — like that we haven’t got the private sector ramping up testing fast enough. Not my finest hour.

Rishi congratulated me on my new testing target [of 100,000 tests done by May 1], or ‘BHAG’ — meaning ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ — as he put it. He loves all that American business-school speak, having done an MBA at Stanford and spent years working in California.

Always anxious to think the worst of people, Cummings has accused me of doing it for PR reasons.

Friday, April 3

Boris Johnson, seen on April 3rd 2020 as he battled Covid

Boris Johnson, seen on April 3rd 2020 as he battled Covid

A 13-year-old boy who died from Covid was buried without any mourners yesterday. His parents weren’t even at the graveside because they were self-isolating. I felt almost physically sick reading it as my own boy, just a year younger, slept peacefully in the room next door.

I told Boris and he was shocked and upset. He tries not to let on, but he is actually a very emotional man. He was coughing through the call. He’s very worried about looking weak: ‘A general’s job is to show strength, not weakness,’ he told me ruefully.

Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, from Brixton, died alone in hospital and was buried on April 3. Mourners were forced to stand two metres apart and pallbearers donned protective suits, gloves and masks

Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, from Brixton, died alone in hospital and was buried on April 3. Mourners were forced to stand two metres apart and pallbearers donned protective suits, gloves and masks

Saturday, April 4

President Trump has randomly and dangerously declared that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for Covid, despite a total absence of the evidence. What an awful, awful man.

Sunday, April 5

I was just about to go to bed when my phone rang for the umpteenth time. It was [Cabinet Secretary] Mark Sedwill, who informed me that the Prime Minister was on his way to St Thomas’s Hospital ‘as a precautionary step’. Boris is still furiously texting everyone.

April 5: St Thomas' Hospital in central London where PM Boris Johnson was being treated

April 5: St Thomas’ Hospital in central London where PM Boris Johnson was being treated

Monday, April 6

Boris has been taken into intensive care. Everyone is stunned. I’m told there’s a 50:50 chance he’ll end up on a ventilator; and if that happens, we know there’s a 50:50 chance he will die. The minute the news came out, pharma companies started calling my private office with offers of experimental drugs.

Tuesday, April 7

It looks like obesity is a significant risk factor. Maybe that is why the PM went downhill.

Wednesday, April 8

Boris spent a second night in intensive care. I worry about losing a close colleague and friend. When you spend time with Boris, it’s impossible not to like him.

He’s endlessly funny and engaging and thinks differently and more laterally than anyone I know. This can bring its challenges when straight-line thinking is required, but for grasping the big picture there’s no one like him.

Nobody speaks of it, but there is a ‘worst-case scenario’ plan for if Boris doesn’t pull through. We couldn’t possibly have a normal Conservative Party leadership election, so the Cabinet would have to take a quick decision, advise the Queen and rally round.

Stone’s secret stash 

Tuesday, February 16 

Days before social distancing: Ronnie Wood with Rod Stewart at the 2020 Brit Awards

Days before social distancing: Ronnie Wood with Rod Stewart at the 2020 Brit Awards

A rare semi-night off this evening as I shlepped to the O2 in Greenwich for the Brit Awards.

Inevitably I pitched up late because of work and missed the dinner. I was seated next to Ronnie Wood and told him I was ravenous. He looked at me rather pityingly and growled something about me obviously needing a pick-me-up.

Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a package covered in tinfoil and started ­unwrapping it. I was already looking pretty pale due to lack of sleep and food; now I was properly freaking out.

Even for a Rolling Stone, ­Ronnie had a reputation as a hell-raiser, and I was thinking ‘oh s***’ as I wondered what substance he was about to ­produce with the cameras all around us.

After some further rummaging, with a grand flourish, he finally unveiled . . . a Babybel.

It turned out that he has young twins and always carries some of the little cheeses with him in case they get peckish. It was exactly what I needed.

Bonkers plan to release prisoners

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

A bonkers proposal from the Ministry of Justice to let prisoners out, as they’d be easier to manage if they’re not in prison. Yes really: they actually thought this might be a goer. I was emphasising [my opposition] so hard that all of a sudden my chair could take the strain no longer and ripped, tipping me unceremoniously on to the floor.

Friday, April 3

Officials are still insisting that Justice Secretary Rob Buckland wants to release thousands of non-violent prisoners to take the pressure off the system. I keep writing ‘NO’ in large letters on submissions asking me to sign this off. It’s obvious the public won’t wear it, yet the idea keeps going back and forth on paper.

After about the third iteration I called Rob Buckland, who to my astonishment told me he’d been advised that I was the one who wanted to release them.

Unfortunately, this still wasn’t the end of the matter. Clearly someone in Whitehall still thought it was a good idea and kept pushing it, to the point that the PM asked to talk to us both. I made my views crystal clear.

‘We cannot lock up literally everyone in the country except prisoners, who we instead release!’ I spluttered.

Wow. I’m shocked. At least 40 care homes have knowingly been using staff with Covid

Friday, March 13 2020

Simon Stevens [NHS England chief executive] says frail elderly patients who don’t need urgent treatment need to be discharged from hospital, either to their home or to care homes. He’s spoken to the PM about it and is determined to make it happen.

Care home residents bore the brunt of Covid lockdown restrictions (stock image)

Care home residents bore the brunt of Covid lockdown restrictions (stock image)

Thursday, April 2

Negative tests won’t be required prior to transfers/admissions into care homes. The tragic but honest truth is we don’t have enough testing capacity to check anyway. It’s an utter nightmare, but it’s the reality.

Under the circumstances, we must make sure that anyone going from a hospital into a care home is kept away from other residents. I hope this message filters through and is followed.

It’s been a choice between very difficult options. If we keep people in hospital, the NHS will be overrun. If only we had more tests.

Wednesday, April 15

From today, everyone going from hospital into social care will be tested and then isolated while the result comes through.

Saturday, April 18

Care homes haven’t yet grasped the fact that we’re only going to get out of this if we test, test, test. According to figures I received today, the average care home has carried out 0.5 tests, which is exasperating, given how hard we’re working to increase capacity.

Thursday, May 14

People are starting to blame us for discharging elderly people from hospital into residential settings without testing them properly, before we introduced strict rules. The evidence simply doesn’t bear that out: care home outbreaks rose sharply long after we had enough tests to put that right.

Thursday, July 16

In my box tonight was one particularly startling note relating to the way Covid has been getting into care homes. The main takeaway is that the virus is primarily being brought in by staff, not by elderly people who’ve been discharged from hospital.

This explains a lot, including why the rise in care home deaths came so much later than would have been the case if hospital discharges were the primary cause. We must ban staff movement between care homes, fast.

Wednesday, July 29

Officials say we mustn’t eliminate staff movement across care homes because it might lead to a shortage of staff. Yet research shows the risk of outbreaks in care homes doubles if carers are coming and going.

Hancock addresses ways to help alleviate Covid problems in British care homes (stock image)

Hancock addresses ways to help alleviate Covid problems in British care homes (stock image)

Friday, July 31

Good news on banning staff movement in care homes. After I blew my top, officials got the message.

Wednesday, December 23

We’ve finally started vaccinating care home residents. We’re paying GPs £25 per resident, pretty nice money for something that only takes a few minutes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A bunch of GPs are refusing to go into care homes where there are Covid cases. Apparently there are cases in about a third of care homes, meaning many residents aren’t getting vaccinated. Evidently I was naive to think £25 a jab would be enough of an incentive. We may have to use the Army to fill the gap.

Thursday, January 21

[Social Care minister] Helen Whately wants to find a way of allowing indoor visits again. I’m hardline on this: we cannot have Covid taking off in care homes again.

Friday, January 29

Scandalous behaviour by certain care home operators, who are unscrupulously using staff with Covid. Inspectors have identified no fewer than 40 places where this is happening.

Wow. I am shocked. It underlines why we need to make jabs mandatory for people working in social care. The PM supports me on this.

Monday, February 8

I’ve finally, finally got my way on making vaccines mandatory for people who work in care homes.

Matt Hancock at a 2020 Covid press conference. He was 'unusually nervous' before his first such public briefing

Matt Hancock at a 2020 Covid press conference. He was ‘unusually nervous’ before his first such public briefing

Thursday, May 27

Of all the many accusations Dom Cummings has hurled at me, the media seem most interested in his claims that I lied about the arrangements surrounding hospital discharges into care homes at the beginning of the pandemic.

Annoyingly, it was only after this evening’s [Downing Street] press conference that I received some very pertinent PHE [Public Health England] data. They analysed all the Covid cases in care homes from January to October last year and found that just 1.2 per cent could be traced back to hospitals.

The vast majority of infections were brought in from the wider community, mainly by staff.

Overall, England did no worse at protecting care home residents than many countries, and better than some — including Scotland, where [Nicola] Sturgeon’s team has been responsible for decision-making. Regardless, the awfulness of what the virus did to people in care homes around the world will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Extracted by Corinna Honan from Pandemic Diaries: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle Against Covid by Matt Hancock & Isabel Oakeshott, to be published by Biteback on December 6 at £25. © Matt Hancock & Isabel Oakeshott 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 17/12/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3176 2937.