Matt Hancock lied about his handling of the pandemic and should have been fired, the prime minister’s former senior adviser Dominic Cummings has claimed. On Thursday, the health secretary and West Suffolk MP got his chance to respond to and reject the accusations. What do his constituents make of it all?
During an explosive seven-hour appearance before a parliamentary committee looking at “lessons learnt” from the pandemic, Mr Cummings was scathing about the government’s handling of it.
Nobody fared worse in Mr Cummings’ assessment than Mr Hancock.
In particular, Mr Cummings cited failings around care homes policy, personal protective equipment procurement and his public pledge on a testing target which caused disruption in Whitehall.
Responding in Parliament earlier, Mr Hancock said the allegations from Mr Cummings were “not true”.
He said he had been “straight with people in public and private throughout”, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said some of the “commentary” didn’t “bear any relation to reality”.
Mr Hancock’s West Suffolk constituency covers a population of about 81,000 and is a largely rural area including the towns of Haverhill, Newmarket and Mildenhall. First elected its MP in 2010, Mr Hancock emerged from the 2019 general election with a 23,000 vote majority.
As the fall-out over Mr Cummings’ remarks continues, what is the view of Mr Hancock’s constituents in Newmarket?
‘It will be interesting to see what happens’
“He’s not been my favourite and he’s not my choice to vote for and that hasn’t changed during the pandemic,” says stay-at-home mother Victoria Drake.
“It has been obviously a massively challenging time that nobody has been through, it is really, really complicated and I guess there were always going to be complications and things which came to light at the end of it in the way that its been dealt with.
“But I’ve always had reservations about different things throughout – the fact everything took a lot longer seemed to delay everything at the beginning.
“I’m sure he did his best, or felt like he was doing his best. It will be interesting to see what happens after this week.”
‘I think he’s done well under the circumstances’
David Graham, a stable lad in Newmarket, says: “I think he’s done an all right job, to be fair.
“It has been a difficult time with everything that’s happened with coronavirus so, yes, I’ve got no problem with him. I think he’s OK.”
Asked about the claims from Mr Cummings, Mr Graham says: “Yes, but I think he’s done well under the circumstances.”
‘Nobody trusts him at the moment’
“Everyone is thinking the same, that nobody trusts him at the moment,” says Diane Wilks.
She says she has seen him out and about in the constituency, adding: “I saw him opening the memorial park just before lockdown.”
‘I am going to reserve judgement’
“I don’t really see him around too much except at election time,” says chartered surveyor Mathew Hughes, “though that probably says more about me than it does about him.
“I think as health secretary he’s probably done as well as he could do. It was going to be difficult for whoever got it, it is unprecedented.
“We’ve got an inquiry next year and I expect it all to come out in the wash whether it is all the claims being made or the bigger picture.
“It is not great to hear these claims being made but I am going to reserve judgement.”
‘They have not done the job’
Retired nursing home worker Darmi Sarjono, of Beck Row, says: “Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are finished. I have no good words for the government.
“They have not done the job and have just upset everybody.”
‘We were put at the bottom of the barrel’
“I’m not really a fan of him because of his attitude,” says Hazel Seppings, who works in supermarket retail. “I just feel he’s a bit arrogant and I don’t really appreciate that.
“I think as health secretary you should be more caring.”
She adds: “It did not feel like the government was looking out for us. We were still working while everybody else was staying at home. I think they left supermarket workers to the companies.”
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‘He could certainly do more’
“As a local MP, I think he could certainly do more for the wider community, maybe more the local communities rather than the big towns,” says Michelle Mansell, an accountant.
“I think he’s been quite good through the Covid times from what I’ve seen. I think anyone going through Covid it is a tough time for anybody.
“It was a tough time for people.”
‘He has been the fall guy’
“I think he’s got himself into a bit of a scrape at the moment,” says Peter Thorne, a retired cabinet maker.
Mr Thorne says he was not aware Mr Hancock was his area’s MP.
Asked about Mr Hancock’s performance as health secretary during the pandemic, Mr Thorne says: “I think it has been a case of the blind leading the blind and he [Mr Hancock] has been the fall guy.”
He says he feels the government has “fallen far short” but added he could not think of an alternative government that would do a better job.
“I don’t follow the politics too closely because I find it exasperating,” he says.
Analysis: Andrew Sinclair, BBC East Political Correspondent
Last month Matt Hancock was campaigning for the local elections in Newmarket High Street and, according to several witnesses, he was mobbed.
“People wanted to thank him for their vaccine, they were so grateful, they said it had given them hope,” one person told me.
During the best part of an hour, I couldn’t find anyone in the town centre who felt he should resign as Health Secretary. Plenty of people were prepared to admit that the government had made mistakes, but they felt that Mr Hancock had tried his hardest in difficult circumstances.
Quite a few felt that Dominic Cummings was settling old scores and they all talked about the success of the vaccination programme.
It’s worth noting that Mr Hancock is very popular as a local MP, he increased his majority to 23,000 and won 66% of the vote at the last election. It will always be hard to find critics in his constituency
But opinion polls and this month’s local election results, where the Conservatives did very well in the East of England, suggest that many people have moved on and want to think about the future rather than what went wrong in the past.
Next year there will be an independent public inquiry. That might be when people take more of an interest in what went wrong and, perhaps, re-assess their opinions.
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