The greatest diaries fizz with life, juxtaposing the serious with the mundane and quirky aspects of daily life. They’re written on the day. Alanbrooke’s classic account of the Second World War and working as CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) for Churchill are a case in point.
And so we turn to the Matt Hancock pandemic diaries.
When I read the extracts they struck me, immediately, as odd. They don’t read like diaries. They’re not diaries. And so it turned out. They were pieced together with the help of co-author Isabel Oakeshott, sifting through papers and matching it all up with news reports of the time. That’s why they read like an artificial construction after the event.
Whether Hancock realises it or not, and I suspect not, he has by accident produced one of the most interesting accounts of this period because it prompts so many questions about what might have been done differently during the Covid crisis.
Isabel Oakeshott wrote a piece for The Spectator addressing this. She sympathises with Hancock, as one of many people in government trying in tough circumstances to make decisions without the benefit of hindsight.
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And yet, she is troubled by what she found. She lists a number of areas – on masks, vaccines, cancer care, and the treatment of dissent – where draconian British policy failed or created side effects worse than the pandemic itself.
Many people won’t want to hear it. It is natural to want to forget pandemics. The H1N1 flu pandemic killed around 50 million worldwide after the First World War, and was almost entirely absent from literature and popular culture a few years later. No-one wanted to revisit a natural disaster. Move on.
Worryingly, this time many Britons seem to have liked being controlled by QR codes and testing regimes, and locked in their houses if of sufficient size and comfort. Lockdown, as someone said, was when middle class people hid in their homes and were delivered food and goodies by working class delivery drivers.
I’m broadly a Covid centrist, vaccinated and realistic having had the damned bug three times. It was a pandemic and a lot was unknown at the time, and still is. But British policy was so deranged and over the top that citizens were arrested for walking in the park for more than an hour a day. The entire population was vaccinated or offered the vaccine, which now looks like a terrible idea when there were deaths among young people who really had no need to be vaccinated. They were not at risk from Covid. The mantra was it limited transmission. We hear less about that now. Parliament was shut down. Government colluded with social media giants to suppress legitimate questions about the origin of the virus and all manner of other policy debates.
Now, put all that together with the rise of the AI machines I mentioned earlier in this newsletter and consider the potential for herding the population next time there is an emergency. Before then, shouldn’t we have a calm national conversation about the mistakes made and learn lessons?