A male British government minister has attracted a storm of criticism after telling a female opponent to watch her “tone” in the House of Commons.
Matt Hancock—Boris Johnson’s Health Secretary—has yet to respond to the public outrage over his remarks, or offer an apology to Dr. Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow mental health minister, whom he was addressing.
Allin-Khan, who as well as being MP for Tooting, South London, is also an accident and emergency doctor in a British hospital serving on the coronavirus frontline, had just asked, in an extremely measured tone, “The [coronavirus] testing strategy has been non-existent. Community testing was scrapped, mass testing was slow to roll out and testing figures are now being manipulated.
“Does the secretary of state commit to a minimum of 100,000 tests each day going forward? And does the secretary of state acknowledge that many frontline workers feel that the government’s lack of testing has cost lives and is responsible for many families being unnecessarily torn apart in grief?”
Hancock, who is also MP for West Suffolk, responded, “No I don’t… I welcome the honorable lady to her post as part of the shadow health team. I think she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary of State’s [Jonathan Ashworth] book in terms of tone.”
On Twitter, Allin-Khan responded, “I will respectfully challenge the Government—I want our country to succeed. However, I will not ‘watch my tone’ when dozens of [National Health Service] and care staff are dying unnecessarily.”
Hancock’s own words and “vicious” tone were then roundly criticized. He was variously accused of racism, sexism, and general condescension. It was not Allin-Khan at fault for asking a question in a reasonable way, Hancock’s critics said; it was Hancock whose tone and words were at fault.
David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called on Hancock to apologize: “This is no way for the Health Secretary to speak to a serving A&E doctor.”
Labour MP Harriet Harman tweeted there was “something creepy about a man telling a woman to watch her tone! Worse that he recommends she adopts the tone of another man. I suggest Matt Hancock changes his.”
“By tone, does he mean skin tone?” asked comedian Nish Kumar as part of a sequence of tweets. “Because if it’s not that what in the name of God is wrong with her ‘tone’ in that question?” It was, said Kumar, “bleak to see a woman of color be tone policed. Bleak to see someone who works for the NHS having their concerns dismissed. Double bleak to see both.”
“Tone policing a female NHS worker is a nasty look, dude,” tweeted award-winning author and newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran, adding later, “Still boggling over Matt Hancock reprimanding Dr Rosena Allin-Kahn over her ‘tone.’ If he thinks that is an extreme tone, he’s clearly NEVER had a woman—52% of the population—actually shout at him. And you have to wonder how you’d get a life like that. It’s creepy.”
The award-winning writer and campaigner Caroline Criado Perez said she could “only conclude that Matt Hancock simply doesn’t like being challenged by a woman. There is absolutely nothing noteworthy about @DrRosena’s ‘tone.’ It is calm and professional.”
According to the Guardian, the U.K. now has the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe, at 32,313—well above Italy’s death toll of 29,029. The grim figures contrast with Prime Minister Johnson’s bullish rhetoric. On Monday, he characterized coronavirus as an “invisible mugger” which Britain had “wrestled to the ground.”
It has also emerged that on the same day (March 3) Johnson said he was proudly still shaking people’s hands, the government’s own scientific advisers had told the government it should be telling the public not to do that.
Allin-Khan had started her speech by thanking her fellow NHS workers for their hard work on behalf of MPs, and people watching on television. “Frontline workers like me have had to watch families break apart into pieces as we deliver the very worst of news to them—that the ones they love most in the world have died.”
After he had insulted Allin-Khan, and not thanked her for her medical service, Hancock responded, “I’m afraid what she said is not true. There’s been a rapid acceleration in testing over the last few months in this country, including getting to 100,000 tests a day.
“We’ve been entirely transparent on the way that has been measured throughout, and I have confidence that the rate will continue to rise. Currently capacity is 108,000 a day, and we are working to build that higher.
“Of course, we’ve been working very hard to make the testing capacity grow as fast as possible and as more tests are available so we are able to make them available to more people and test people right across the NHS.”
As social media outrage over Hancock’s remarks snowballed, Allin-Khan tweeted to thank people for their support, noting the kindness of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who before her speech had thanked Allin-Khan for what she and “all NHS staff” were doing “saving lives. It is appreciated.”
Perhaps Hancock can learn something from the Speaker’s tone.