A Hancock & bull story

Snogging your taxpayer-funded aide is bad. Covert herd immunity for kids is worse

Welcome to Keeping the Receipts— a newsletter from the Citizens, written this week by Carole Cadwalladr. You can read about the mission behind this here.

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We are so very shocked

Correction: not shocked at all

A Conservative politician in high office conducts extra-marital affair with workplace colleague he appointed to role and paid out of taxpayer funds. If the current government was an HBO premium drama, you’d send this back and ask for a rewrite. It’s like they’re not even trying any more.

And of course, it would have to be Matt Hancock, the man revealed last week to be, in the words of the Prime Minister who appointed him, “totally fucking hopeless”.

The plot twist that no-one saw coming is that last night, just in time to catch the Sunday papers, Hancock resigned.

There’s something remarkably old-fashioned about this. About everything that has happened this week. A sex scandal that appeared to be straight out of the 90s. A development so rare we’d forgotten it was possible: a minister actually resigned. And the agent of change? A red-top tabloid. It was the Sun wot did it.

It’s a turn of events so surprising and unexpected, it’d be easy to get carried away with what this means: to believe that Britain still has some functioning system of accountability.

Here, on the other hand, is a thread put together by Max, our Receipt Keeper, on Friday on Hancock’s previous. It’s currently at 25 tweets and growing: all evidenced instances of questionable, incompetent, unethical or downright illegal behaviour.

Because shagtastic-Matt Hancock-who-employed-his-friend-as-a-non-executive-director-and-whose-brother-worked-for-a firm-that-won-PPE-contracts is the latest in a long line of Matt Hancocks, including acted-unlawfully-Matt Hancock and threw-a-protective-ring-around-care-homes-which-killed-40,000-people Matt Hancock.

None of these Matt Hancocks have borne any consequences for their actions. Public outrage, judicial reviews, Cummings’s thermonuclear testimony, mass death: none of these have had any impact. This government operates in a culture of absolute impunity.

Hancock has gone because someone who had access and motivation wanted him gone. That is not accountability. It’s a mafia-style execution.

In a related story in the Sunday Times, Gabriel Pogrund reports that Hancock and Lord Bethell have been revealed in official documents to be conducting government business using private email accounts.

This should be shocking but Michael Gove and a then little-known special advisor, Dominic Cummings, were referred to the ICO and found in breach of the law for doing exactly this to deliberately circumvent FOI rules way back in 2011.

The systemic lack of transparency and industrial-level evasion of FOI across Whitehall is a much bigger can of worms. One which we’re trying to rip the lid off with the help of everyone who’s contributed to this crowdfunder.

The other special advisor involved in the 2011 case, Henry de Zoete, can these days be found in the Cabinet Office where he’s a non-executive director – the same role that Hancock appointed Gina Colangelo to at the Department of Health and Social Care.

As I noted endlessly and repeatedly on Twitter last year, Gove appointed four friends and allies to non-exec roles at the Cabinet Office. Roles which the Cabinet Office claims, with an entirely straight face, are filled by “open competition”.

One small ray of hope is that some light may now be shone on the appointment of these directors. See Martin Williams and Peter Geoghegan kicking this off with this piece in Open Democracy.

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Meanwhile…

There’s still a global pandemic going on.

And as this slide of Independent SAGE’s Friday briefing shows, the virus is once again out of control.

This is what the Department of Health and Social Care should be focussed on right now. An alarming rise in cases. And a disturbing and almost entirely unreported situation happening right now in schools.

In previous newsletters we’ve detailed our repeated attempts, including legal action, to find out the truth about the spread of the Delta variant in schools, why Number 10 has been suppressing the data on this, and what was behind Boris Johnson’s decision to lift the mandate on mask wearing in schools.

There was no update on this last week because we’ve been timed out. Not due to the legal process but due to the growth of the virus. The Delta variant is now dominant. That data is now historic. What we’re now seeing is the consequences of this rapid and undocumented spread, especially in school-age children.

What Hancock’s snogathon obscures is – as Rupert Pearse, an intensive care doctor in East London, described on Twitter yesterday – we are now squarely in the middle of a third wave. Older, unvaccinated patients and younger ones in their 20s and 30s are now being admitted to hospital. Pearse says his hospital is preparing for an ICU surge in early August.

None of this needed to happen. This wave, like the previous waves, was the result of political miscalculation, lack of respect for evidence-based science, and the aforementioned culture of impunity. The government has faced zero political backlash for the 152,000 people who have died as a direct result of its policies.

We know it was a political choice not to close the UK’s border to India ahead of Boris Johnson’s trade negotiations. That’s what let the virus in. But has what happened since – particularly with the spread in schools – also been a political choice?

On Thursday, Nafeez Ahmed in Byline Times suggested so. He had found evidence that the Cabinet had asked SAGE to model a herd immunity scenario of COVID-19 infection in school-age children on the erroneous and unethical belief that COVID-19 does not cause “much harm”.

On Friday, a member of the public put this question to Independent SAGE:

Is this a nation-scale unethical experiment happening now in real time that will result in harm to children? And isn’t it disturbing that we’re even having to ask that question? The broadcast is worth watching in its entirety for the raw anger of some of the scientists’ answers.

"You should be alarmed at what is being allowed to happen (in schools) and the disruption that is being caused,” - Dr Kit Yates

"There's no question that they must be pursuing herd immunity through children because they're not protecting them,” - Dr Zubaida Haque

“I have no idea of their intent, but if this was their intent, this is how I would do it,” - Professor Christina Pagel

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NB: We began broadcasting Independent SAGE’s weekly briefings exactly a year ago this week after the government announced its decision to end its daily press briefings in Number 10.

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Auf Wiedersehen Pet

Was it something we said?

They say a week is a long time in politics. In Andrew Neil’s case, it was 11 days from the launch of GB News to his surprise announcement on Thursday that he’d be stepping down for “a couple of weeks”.

Who knows what the story behind this is, though in his closing monologue he referenced the “rocky start” but said he’d back “before summer is out”. Let’s see.

Even the Express, GB News’s most devoted cheerleader had this to say:

(We’ll note in passing that the number of people who watched Andrew Neil’s show last Thursday – 31k – is roughly the number of viewers we get for Independent SAGE’s weekly briefing. And five times less than S4C’s Patrol Pawennau, a Welsh language version of Paw Patrol.)

Last week, I wrote about Neil’s central place in the right-wing news and information system and the role that I fear GB News will play in boosting fake news and misinformation. I reserved a special mention for “coordinated troll accounts” and noted how Neil’s abusive tweet about me had poured rocket fuel onto a certain type of misogynistic abuse I get.

Cue 72 hours of near-constant trolling.

And I’m not the only one. A man with an even bigger target on his back has been Richard Wilson, the founder of Stop Funding Hate, who’s been running a campaign targeting GB News’s advertisers. Neil launched a broadside against him calling the pressure group “far-left” and “bigots bent on censorship” and making counter-threats to the brands who’ve decided they don’t want to be associated with GB News.

Richard has been under constant fire ever since, both from the troll army and the red-tops. We gave him the chance to answer Andrew Neil’s criticism directly; something he will never get the chance to do on GB News. Watch him go head-to-head with Neil to explain that where brands choose to advertise has nothing to do with free speech.

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Us v the PM

We’re out of space so we’ll send you a special report on the latest on this legal challenge next week.

A reminder in the meantime of what it’s all about. This film is only two minutes, 20 seconds and still manages to convey how completely nuts it is that the only course available to this cross-party group of MPs and Lords to protect us from a hostile foreign government is to go to court.

Enjoy what’s left of your weekend. More soon, Carole

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