Jeremy Hunt is currently enjoying something of a renaissance – all the more interesting in light of Boris Johnson’s ongoing difficulties. The former Health Secretary has been touring the TV studios recently, promoting his new book Zero: Eliminating Preventable Harm and Tragedy in the NHS. It aims to ‘reduce the number of avoidable deaths to zero and in the process save money, reduce backlogs and improve working conditions.’ An ambitious goal, to say the least.
Allies of Hunt though have been keen to stress that such activities are absolutely, positively, NOT part of any leadership manoeuverings – even if he doesn’t rule out another bid in future. Hmm. Still, it can’t helped but be noticed that the Tory backbencher appears to have shifted his position on lockdown, just as Covid skepticism has become the default position of most of his parliamentary colleagues. Their votes, incidentally, would be crucial in any future leadership contest…
For appearing on GB News this morning, the Health Select Committee chair told hosts – and fellow Tory MPs – Esther McVey and Philip Davies that, if he had been running Britain during the pandemic ‘I would have done things differently.’ Asked: ‘Would you have locked us down for as long?’ by McVey, Hunt replied that:
I actually thought we could have avoided all lockdowns if we had been much quicker and set up test and trace as they did in South Korea and Taiwan. Those two places actually didn’t have any lockdowns in 2020 so that would have been my preferred route.
Curiously though, when such debates were going on during 2020 and 2021, Hunt’s voice was completely absent from the anti-lockdown side. With the benefit of the hindsight, Hunt may now indeed wish that such measures had never been implemented. But throughout the pandemic Hunt very much represented the mainstream scientific consensus on all of this. Indeed, his position tended to be more pro-lockdown than the average Tory MP. In July 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic Hunt spoke to Independent SAGE, which consistently supported stronger Covid restrictions. He told the group that:
I very much agree… that we should be aiming for zero infection and elimination of the disease because that is basically the approach taken in countries which have a SARS strategy as opposed to a flu strategy and those are the countries that have overwhelmingly been the most successful in tackling coronavirus. My sister lives in Beijing and she flew back to Beijing in the middle of lockdown. Just to give you an idea of the contrast, she was escorted from the airport in Beijing to her home by Ministry of Health officials and then put into her home for two weeks’ quarantine. The door was sealed and she had a police car sitting outside her house periodically. Now I’m not saying that we go that far in this country but I just think it’s an indication of how serious they are, in the countries that have had to deal with SARS, about stopping, at the route, every possible source of infection.
In February 2021, as his colleague Mark Harper was leading the Covid Recovery Group in demanding the removal of pandemic restrictions, Hunt was insisting that they stay until cases were below 1,000 a day. In October, Hunt welcomed a report by a joint parliamentary committee into Covid on which he sat as one of two chairs. The report itself said that the delay to impose a first lockdown last spring was ‘one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.’
Asked on Good Morning Britain about whether the UK should have locked down sooner he replied: ‘That’s what we conclude in the report, that we should have gone earlier.’ And then, in December that same year, the onetime health minister also voted with the government on ‘Plan B’ and was not one of the 128 MPs who defied Boris Johnson’s ‘vaccine passport’ scheme.
Jeremy Hunt may now argue that he would have done things ‘differently’ as PM during the pandemic. But it’s probably better to judge what he actually did do at the time, given his support for restrictions throughout Covid. Talk about revealed preferences…