Jeremy Hunt cannot whitewash over his past support for lockdowns

HAVE SOME POLITICIANS never heard of Google? Are there really people in today’s politics who don’t realise we can look-up the internet via things called search engines and find what they and their colleagues have said in the past?

Either Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and losing candidate for the Conservative Party leadership in 2019, is extremely naïve or he takes us for fools.  Neither is a good look.

At the tail end of last week Hunt spoke to GB News and had the audacity to say, “Would I have done things differently during the pandemic if I had been prime minister and won that contest in 2019? For sure. Would I have made some of the mistakes that Boris made? I don’t think I would’ve because of my experience as health secretary. But I would’ve made different mistakes.”

Sure, Jeremy, everyone’s different, we know that – you could have performed better, then again you could have performed worse. Then he went on…

“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.”

Hunt must have the memory of a Goldfish. For not only was he a militant lockdown advocate he was all over the media back in October last year arguing they should have happened sooner.

Appearing that time on Good Morning Britain and reported in The Scotsman, Hunt talked positively about the joint report by the Common’s Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, the latter of which he chairs, arguing in favour of its findings that the Government should have moved far more quickly to introduce a full lockdown.

He argued that people with the responsibility for decisions in Whitehall and Westminster were under the spell of “groupthink” and acknowledged he was one such person. What he did not say is the groupthink flipped from supporting the original existing plan to protect those most at risk, to a new plan of introducing a lockdown despite warnings it would create a far worse second wave.

We know the rest. Lockdowns and a variety of restrictions, all given various degrees of legal force that some police forces took to with alacrity, became the new groupthink and those trying to urge caution were progressively silenced. But not Jeremy Hunt, he regularly spoke in favour of Government interventions that would mean more restrictions and lockdowns.

With the first lockdown restrictions significantly reduced in July and August, Hunt was reported in the i on October 17 2020 calling for a two or three week Circuit-breaker lockdown. The second national  lockdown arrived on 5 November – with his full support.

Once that lockdown was over the third came along on 6 January, but Hunt was already Tweeting on 4 January calling for it to be at least as tough as the first.

With the third lockdown having started with Hunt’s support, in an Observer interview of 24 January 2021 he was backing additional calls for FFP2 standard masks being mandated for public transport and shops saying, “Last time we waited too long before requiring masks, let’s not make the same mistake again” and wanted a review of the 2m social distancing rule as possibly inadequate.

By 5 February 2021 the Independent was reporting Jeremy Hunt as warning “against lifting lockdown restrictions until coronavirus cases fall to 1,000 a day amid calls for measures to be eased by May.” 

Boris Johnson ignored him and the many other calls to continue the lockdown restrictions. On 17 July Hunt was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme warning Boris Johnson may be forced to reimpose lockdown restrictions in the autumn of 2021 if Covid cases continued to spiral. He was not arguing against a lockdown, he clearly believed it would be necessary.

Fortunately the Prime Minister resisted those substantial siren calls for a fourth lockdown, we had tasted freedom and there was no going back. Progressively restrictions were further relaxed (except in Scotland). We experienced our restriction-lite Christmas, we got through the Winter despite Omicron (or maybe because of it) – but it would have been so different if the Government had listened to Jeremy Hunt.

Hunt’s latest musing is beyond simply rewriting the narrative, this is actually laying out a pitch that were there to be another chance for Conservative leadership he should be backed because he would avoid lockdowns. That, after all, was the context in which the question was put by the interviewer, his fellow Conservative MP, Esther McVey. My, how far we have come since the days when Hunt was actually calling for more intervention, more restrictions, all earlier and all harder. He even Tweeted he was in the harder, faster camp.

Are there any depths that Jeremy Hunt will not stoop to in trying to come over all seer-like and present himself as a safe pair of hands worthy of replacing Boris Johnson? There’s much criticism that can be said about Boris Johnson’s management of the pandemic but the prize for myth-making must go to Jeremy Hunt. 

There is a place for those who pushed lockdowns (and the institutional mechanisms that made them possible) to change their minds, show remorse and atone. Converts to the position that lockdowns were unnecessary and did great harm should be welcomed. To do so, however, they need to recognise and call out the censorship and cancelation of those questioning it, the limitations placed on the media so they would not report alternative views, their implicit arm-twisting through advertising support of media, the use of ‘fact-testing and endorsement’ as a way of constructing a single narrative, and the use of rules like mask mandates to promote fear – all of it has to be disowned and condemned. This is not what Jeremy Hunt is doing. 

What we are seeing here is an intellectual dishonesty. Those who simply want to rewrite history for their own advantage and pretend the mistakes they made were never really mistakes are a danger to our country. How can they be trusted not to turn round again and lock us down for monkeypox or whatever else comes along?

Had the likes of Jeremy Hunt from the backbenches and the opposition party leaders given more support to those challenging lockdowns then there would have been every possibility we either would have had fewer and shorter lockdowns. Which means we would have had fewer of the devastating consequences we have been reporting in our series of Testimonies.

The fact that people such as Hunt, and indeed Sir Keir Starmer, want to suggest to us they were against lockdowns tells us they are awakening to the growing public mood that the lockdowns were an error and they now are being left on the wrong side of history. But until such figures admit they got it wrong instead of simply saying they were the good guys all along they should receive nothing but our contempt rather than our compassion.

We shall not forget.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29151885