Sorry to anyone who’s been wondering why I haven’t published another instalment of my diaries for a while. Well, I’ve been pretty darned busy protecting Britain and our NHS from this ruddy pandemic. Sometimes posterity just has to wait.
Luckily, I’ve managed to snatch a few minutes every day to post something informative or encouraging on Twitter – and when I don’t have time to do it myself, Lucinda has a stock of material she can tweet on my behalf: happy Diwali, we’re still jolly committed to delivering 40 new hospitals and 50,000 nurses, thanks for all your hard work, together we’ll beat this ruddy virus, that sort of thing.
Anyway, I stayed up well past 11 o’clock last night to jot down a few thoughts about this momentous year from the point of view of someone who’s been very much on the front line.
Nobody has worked harder than me to ensure that the country has adequate supplies of masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators and other vital supplies to keep our NHS heroes safe.
I’m afraid to say it’s sometimes been a thankless task. This stuff doesn’t just appear overnight, like things you order on Amazon Prime. There’s something called the supply chain that has to be overcome first – and everyone agrees I did a pretty ruddy good job of breaking it. I threw everything I had at the problem.
Rishi told me that money was no object. He’s been saying that a lot. By the time anyone notices how much we’ve spent it will be someone else’s problem, he says. Rishi’s loaded: apparently his wife is immensely rich. That’s what you want in a Chancellor: someone who isn’t afraid to spend other people’s money.
It’s amazing how many offers of help you get when you have a blank cheque in your hand. Being a resourceful chap, I didn’t just rely on the usual suspects, but kept an eye out for new suppliers with the imagination to think out of the box.
For instance, I got a text from the landlord of the pub I used to drink in. He said he had hosed down the bouncy castle in the pub garden and turned it into a “clean room – or cleanish, LOL” for making lab equipment – was I interested? You bet I was. This is just the entrepreneurial spirit that made Britain the greatest country in the world.
When I told Lucinda, she said there was something called a procurement process that we had to follow. Lucinda can sometimes be a bit of a stickler for rules, but I explained to her that as these were unprecedented times we should create a “fast track” for agile suppliers that might not be on existing frameworks – starting with people in my contact book and anyone else who knows Mummy.
Needless to say, I got a bit of stick in the lefty media, except from Peston and Kuenssberg, who are true professionals. They are the only journalists who can expect one of my hand-made Christmas cards this year.
It’s also disappointing that the National Audit Office has been carping from the sidelines – or “scrutinising” as they call it – while we’ve been busy getting Covid done.
I know that ordinary people will think £15bn is a lot to spend on PPE, particularly when half of the stuff we’ve bought is still sitting in containers at Felixstowe or racking up £1m a day in charges from Lok’nStore, but then they’re not in possession of all the facts – which, as Dom used to say, is how it should stay.
I don’t let any of this get me down. As Boris rightly points out, the reputation of the government depends on the public’s perception of our pandemic response. “Don’t worry about the wonga,” he says, giving me a friendly dig in the ribs. “You can’t put a price on personal protection,” he adds, as he helps me to my feet.
We also got a bit of flak about the test and trace system, despite the fact that we have the biggest one in the world. As Dido said, we’ve built something the size of Asda’s entire retail operation in the space of a few months. That shut a few people up. D is brilliant at coming up with meaningful comparisons.
Yes, to someone without experience of the workings of government, the £22.3m paid to Deloitte may sound like a lot. But let’s put this in perspective. That’s a mere 0.1% of the overall cost of Test and Trace, which by any reasonable standard is excellent value for money.
Again, I have to say that the National Audit Office have not been helpful. There’s a time and a place for accountability and, as Govey says, it’s rarely now. Until then, the NAO should remember the fate of the Audit Commission and put a ruddy sock in it.
SAGE and onion
I’m often asked what it’s like to attend Cabinet meetings. Well, you might be surprised to learn that while we mostly concentrate on important matters of state there are also lighter moments.
I usually bring a box of Krispy Kremes or takeaway pizza for everyone. Priti Patel is often the first to come back with some good-natured banter along the lines of “You f***ing little creep, Hancock” or “Who invited the intern?”
She has a wicked sense of humour, but I’m afraid not everyone gets it.
Priti can also be very kind. I can reveal that I was quite worried about my recent appearance on Good Morning Britain where, to celebrate the amazing British PR achievement of being the first country in the world to use the Pfizer vaccine (thanks to Brexit), it was agreed that I should shed some “convincing tears”.
Things didn’t go terribly well in practice sessions. Onions are good for making your eyes water, but I couldn’t risk Piers catching me peeling one before I went on air. Lucinda told me to stick a pin in my leg or think of something sad. I thought of Govey getting my job, but to be honest, that just gave me the giggles.
It was only when Priti agreed to shout at me for a couple of miniutes that the tears really began to flow.
Later, when the cameras were rolling, I just closed my eyes and thought of handing Priti a chocolate iced doughnut and – well the rest is history. Everyone agreed that I gave a pretty convincing performance.
My moment of triumph was only slightly diminished when Govey explained that what the comms team had really been after was for me to produce some evidence of “convincing tiers” in the run-up to Christmas. He did concede that it was an easy mistake to make. “Besides,” he added kindly, “it can be quite useful that people feel so sorry for you all the time.”
I can honestly say that without the support of my colleagues I’m not sure how I’d have got the country through this year.
As told to Julian Patterson
(c) 2020 Julian Patterson