Wanted: a scapegoat for the coronavirus chaos

That sinking feeling: A cartoon from the Times predicting Matt Hancock’s downfall. © Peter Brookes

Should Matt Hancock be fired? With the opening of Britain’s first ‘virtual’ Parliament, attention is fixed on the government’s mishandling of the pandemic – and who is most to blame for it.

Yesterday’s reopening of Parliament was a bizarre one. It was the first chance for Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, to confront the prime minister, but – since Boris Johnson is still recovering from the virus – Dominic Raab faced him instead.

And because of the lockdown, only a few MPs were present, with the rest taking part via video links – the first time in history this has happened.

Of those few, no one was under more pressure than the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who was there to give an update on the pandemic. The newspapers were brimming with articles about government blunders and suggestions that he would be made a scapegoat.

The list of accusations was a grim one, chiefly focusing on the government’s failure to supply enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to health workers.

While the RAF has been sent to bring supplies from Turkey, it has emerged that thousands of British companies manufacturing PPE have tried in vain to offer their stocks to the NHS. But the government failed to respond, so some UK-made face masks were sent abroad when they are in short supply in the UK.

Meanwhile, experts have condemned the NHS procurement service as “chaos”, with hospitals competing for supplies.

To add to the government’s woes, a senior civil servant, Sir Simon McDonald, said this week that its decision not to join an EU scheme for obtaining PPE was politically motivated.

Testing for the virus is another huge problem.

Should Matt Hancock be fired?

Blame game

Yes, some say. Hancock should go. Somebody has to be held responsible for all the mistakes, which may have cost thousands of lives, and the health minister is the obvious person.

No, says others. It is unfair to put all the blame on one person. The NHS was already in crisis from years of governments cuts when Hancock took over: even making it work properly in normal times was impossible.

You Decide

  1. Should the most senior person in a team always take responsibility for its failures?


  1. Some people have been making their own masks to stop them from touching their faces. Using a sewing kit and spare material, make masks for yourself and the rest of your family.

Some People Say...

“Real leadership is not about prestige, power, or status. It is about responsibility.”

Robert L Joss, American businessman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The government ministers closest to Boris Johnson are the ones who campaigned strongly to leave the EU – whereas Matt Hancock was a Remainer. Although he declared his support for Brexit after the referendum, and endorsed Boris Johnson after dropping out of the leadership contest, his changes of position have lost him credibility with the public. So, Johnson would not be sorry to see him go and has no reason to expect people to be upset if he fires him.
What do we not know?
Whether Hancock’s promise of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month will be his undoing. Few believe that he can deliver on it: there is a shortage of testing equipment; health workers have complained that the testing stations are difficult to get to, and not open long enough. If the target is missed, that will be a good excuse to get rid of him. Although Boris Johnson had previously said he was aiming for 250,000 tests a day, he did not stick his neck out by giving himself a deadline.

Word Watch

Keir Starmer
A lawyer by training, he was elected Labour leader a fortnight ago and is expected to take a more moderate line than his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Dominic Raab
The foreign secretary. He is a passionate supporter of Brexit.
Someone forced to take the blame for a bad outcome, even if it wasn’t their fault. The term comes from an ancient Jewish ritual of choosing a goat to take on the people’s sins, and then driving it into the wilderness.
Royal Air Force.
In vain
Without success or a result.
The process of getting hold of something.
Politically motivated
When something is done in the interests of a particular government or political party. In this case, because the government is taking the UK out of the EU, it is being accused of rejecting PPE because the offer came from the EU.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.