Why Matt Hancock was asked to quit the UK cabinet

A picture is worth a thousands words. Videos are priceless. And when the clip emerged last week of UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock salaciously embracing his aide (Gina Coladangelo) in his Whitehall, you knew it just had to be a matter of time before he was gone.

There he was, in a full-frontal embrace that shredded social distancing guidelines and crossed the lines of his marriage too with scant else to his government’s own rules on keeping apart during this time of pandemic.

The images were soon all over social media, traditional media and filling the ‘In’ email boxes of MPs from furious voters up and down Britain, and you knew his time in office could be counted in hours, not days.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood by his man initially. Boris has stood by other ministers feeling the heat — heck, his own closest advisers remained in office despite the palpable public anger of his pandemic drives testing his eyesight and visiting family — and remained loyal to Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick as they faced calls to go.

But Hancock was on far shakier ground. The relatives of the nearly 130,000 who died in the UK during the pandemic have called for a public inquiry into the way the government handled the crisis. Johnson says that will happen next year, but those grieving kin want it far sooner. And central to that will be Hancock’s handling, or not, of a number of issues ranging from the preparedness of the National Health Service, the shortage of personal protective equipment, the track and trace programme and why elderly and vulnerable people were released from hospitals into residential care homes that were woefully ill-prepared to cater to them never mind the coronavirus pandemic itself. And then there’s the issue of very lucrative contracts being handed out with little regard for oversight, and Hancock’s relatives benefited from that lack of tender process.

So, Hancock was a marked man. And unmasked too. And that video of their awkward embrace was too much. After 24 hours, where even the most loyal Conservatives fell silent in his defence, Hancock, to use the expression, “fell on his sword”.

His teary wife had left him, Coladangelo left her husband, and the new couple plan to set up a new life together.

The funny thing about politics is that one man’s disgrace is another’s opportunity — and Sajid Javid, out in the cold for the 18 months since resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer for disagreeing with Johnson over the role of Special Advisors, such as Cummings, was ready and waiting.

Taking over as Health Secretary in the middle of the pandemic is never going to be an easy task, but Javid, the son of an immigrant from Pakistan who arrived in Bradford in Northern England is a breath of fresh air — exactly the sort you need when windows are opened to blow what remains of this coronavirus crisis clean away.

He is no stranger to taking on big jobs and already served as Home Secretary when Theresa May was elevated to 10 Downing Street in the wake of the Brexit referendum fallout.

But he faces a Herculean task, one that leaves little room on his desk as the In-box overflows with files that need urgent attention.

If you want to make an impression in a new job, do something at complete odds with the previous incumbent. That’s advice straight from any management playbook and it holds true in politics too.

The Delta variant which originated in India is causing care numbers to rise, not only in the UK but across Europe too. But the UK has the jump when it comes to vaccinations, with some 70 per cent of adults now vaccinated and the nation has one of the highest “double jab” rates in the world.

There were doubts that the spread of his variant might put full reopening plans on hold, and that July 19 date looked dubious. On Monday, a little over 24 hours after being brought in from the political cold to fill the hot seat at the Ministry of Health, Javid was telling the Commons that he would ensure the Britain would open up then for sure.

Javid was cheered by backbenchers as he told MPs he was “honoured” to take up the role. He said the “past year has been a difficult one” as he was “frustrated” to not have been able to play a full role in battling coronavirus from the front bench.

In many ways, that the easy decision to deal with — the low-hanging fruit in management parlance. The rest is much higher up that tree, and Javid will need to step up very high indeed if he is to succeed.

More than five million procedures have been postponed because of coronavirus — that’s a backlog that will take years to clear — and each case of a knee or hip replacement, a prostate cancer patient, a senior needing extensive physio, are voters. Disgruntlement can easily grow.

Health too is a portfolio that consumes a third of every pound raised in revenues. Given that the hole in the exchequer is closing in on one third of a trillion pounds, there will be scant room to maintain services, never mind expand them to deal with the backlog of cases.

And then there is that matter of a 1 per cent pay rise offered to NHS staff. For months nurses, cleaners, doctors, all the support staff, bore the brunt of this pandemic, working tirelessly to save people or to be the last to be with the patients as the health secretary flouted all rules in the book.

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