Early evening summary

  • Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has been criticised for playing down the significance of a letter to NHS leaders warning of a “significant reduction” in vaccine supply. Asked about the letter at the No 10 press conference, he claimed it was a “normal operation letter” and that the vaccine rollout timetable was still on track. He said:

Supply is always lumpy and we are on course to deliver the offer that everybody who is aged 50 and above will be able to get vaccinated by the 15th of April. I recommit to that today.

But Hancock was ignoring the fact that the letter implies that under-50s may have to wait longer than had been expected for a first dose. And, although he said the government was still committed to ensuring all adults get their first dose of vaccine by the end of July, this official timetable has always been seen as cautious; privately, ministers have been hoping that this target could be met sooner. (One estimate claimed mid-May was realistic.) Labour said Hancock should have been more honest with the public. (See 6.09pm.)

  • More than 25 million adults in the UK have now had their first dose of vaccine, the government has announced. (See 4.06pm.)
  • Public Health England has published new research (pdf) confirming the effectiveness of vaccines. Describing the figures at the No 10 press conference, Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE, said:

We are showing good protection in the over-70s, we have compared individuals who test positive to those who test negative. There is a 60% reduction in your chance of catching Covid if you are over 70 and have been vaccinated with both vaccines.

Those effects are maintained for several weeks, they don’t go away. They are still there even after a single dose and you get additional protection from the second dose.

On top of that, even if you do get Covid, having been vaccinated, our data shows that your risk of requiring hospital admission is reduced by a further 40% based on whether you’ve had the AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer vaccine.

When you put those two figures together, it means that in the over-80s we are preventing 80% of hospital admissions.

She also said research from Scotland showed vaccinated healthcare workers had a “30% lower chance of passing infection onto their household contacts”. She added:

This is really the first evidence we have of a reduction in transmission from vaccinating. It means the more people we vaccinate, the more we are going to be able to reduce the spread of infection.

  • Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, has suggested he personally would find a public inquiry into Covid now “an unwelcome distraction”. Asked at the press conference if he backed calls for one to start soon, he said:

I think the timing of inquiries is entirely a matter for ministers and politicians, it’s not a matter for physicians.

Personally, would an inquiry be an unwelcome distraction for me personally, at the moment, when I’m very focussed on the vaccine programme and the vaccine programme we might need in the autumn? Who knows, I think it would be an extra burden that wasn’t necessary.

That’s all from me for today. But our coverage continues on our global coronavirus live blog. It’s here.

Updated

Labour has criticised Matt Hancock, the health secretary, for not being open about the impact of a reduction in vaccine supply. In a statement Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said:

People across the country will be anxious and worried that the booking of new first dose vaccination appointments will be paused form the end of March.

Matt Hancock needed to explain exactly what these supply issues are and what he is doing to resolve them. Trying to dismiss or downplay the legitimate concerns of anxious people waiting for a vaccine is simply not good enough.

Jane Kirby, PA Media’s health editor, also says Matt Hancock was misrepresenting the nature of the latter about a reduction in vaccine supply.

The tone of the letter on vaccine supply shortages is completely out of sync with the way @MattHancock is describing it (as just ups and downs, simple bumps in the road). Do not book any first appointments for under 50s

— Jane Kirby 💙 (@JanekirbyPA) March 17, 2021

Key extracts from NHS letter warning of 'significant reduction' in vaccine supply

Here is the full text (pdf) of the NHS letter about vaccine supply, which has now been published on the NHS England website.

It is addressed to a wide range of local NHS leaders. Here are key extracts.

On vaccine supply

From the start of the programme, the NHS has successfully had to adjust week-to-week vaccine delivery in the light of fluctuations in supply. As previously notified, pleasingly this week and next see significant increases in vaccine supply. However, the government’s vaccines task force have now notified us that there will be a significant reduction in weekly supply available from manufacturers beginning in the week commencing 29 March, meaning volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained. They now currently predict this will continue for a four-week period, as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply.

Impact on vaccination appointments

We are asking systems to renew efforts, working with local authorities, the voluntary, community and faith sectors and other local partners to ensure maximum cohort penetration, offering and re-offering vaccinations to those in Cohort 1 to 9 ...

Inviting patients outside of cohorts 1– 9 is only permissible in exceptional circumstances. Those aged 49 years or younger should not be offered vaccination unless they are eligible via a higher cohort because they are e.g., clinically vulnerable, unpaid carer or frontline health and care workers ...

From today, the supply constraint means vaccination centres and community pharmacy led local vaccination services should close unfilled bookings from the week commencing 29 March and ensure no further appointments are uploaded to the national booking system or local booking systems from 1 to 30 April. More detailed guidance is being issued directly to providers to support this action.

Impact on vaccination centre staffing

Revised vaccine supply is likely to result in a reduction in workforce demand in hospital hubs and vaccination centres. We are asking systems to start planning now about how they will deploy staff to alternative settings to support increased cohort penetration.

The letter is signed by Emily Lawson, NHS England’s chief commercial officer, and Dr Nikita Kanani, its medical director for primary care.

Matt Hancock claimed the leaked NHS letter warning of a “significant reduction” in vaccine supply (see 4.56pm) was just a “normal, operational letter”.

But Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, says she has been told that’s not true.

I'm told the problem is fewer Astra Zeneca vaccines are available than expected. There have been some other letters to health trusts about managing supply which has been 'lumpy' but this is more significant than previous bumps and lumps

— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) March 17, 2021

Source tells me this letter is not just a standard one like others than have been written in course of vaccine programme - really important to note tho, no one who has a slot for their vaccine should lose their slot

— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) March 17, 2021

Hancock says the dates in the roadmap still apply.

The data set out today by Public Health England gives him “increased confidence” that those dates can be met, he says.

And that’s it. The press conference is over.

Van-Tam says it takes time for antibody protection to build up after vaccination. In young age groups, it takes at least 14 days. In other people, it takes 21 days or more.

He urges people to “hold the line”, and to not assume that once they have been vaccinated, it is safe for them to meet others.

Hancock says he thinks people are being “unbelievably supportive” of the rules. There is nothing wrong with people playing football with their family in the park, he says.

Q: Wouldn’t it be useful to have an inquiry now?

Hancock says lessons are being learnt all the time.

Van-Tam says the timing of an inquiry is a matter for politicians. But he says, speaking personally, he would find an inquiry a distraction now.

Q: You are playing down the impact of this letter. But why should the under-50s have to wait while you strongarm over-50s into getting vaccinated?

Hancock says the government is committed to all over-50s getting their first dose by 15 April.

Q: But what about the under-50s? It looks like they will have to wait an extra month?

Hancock says the government is committed to ensure all adults get a jab by the end of July. It is still on track for that.

Updated

Q: How do you respond to Dominic Cummings’ comments about the failures of your department?

Hancock says the vaccine rollout has been a great success. A lot of people have been involved. There has been a positive esprit de corps, he says. He says he will leave it at that.

Hancock plays down significance of leaked letter about reduction in vaccine supply

Q: You did not mention the NHS letter about vaccine supply? (See 4.56pm.) What effect will this have on the rollout?

Hancock says vaccine supply is always lumpy. It varies. He says the NHS has often sent out letters about the rate of supply. This is just one of those letters.

Q: What do you make of the threat from the EU? (See 3.57pm.)

Hancock says he works with European colleagues all the time.

The AstraZeneca vaccine was funded by the UK government. The government signed a contract for the first 100m doses to come to the UK. It is happy for other people around the world to produce it at cost.

He says the supply of vaccines from the EU to the UK is in fulfilment of contractual obligations.

Hancock rules out easing restrictions just for vaccinated people

Q: In the US vaccinated people can meet other vaccinated people indoors. Will that be allowed here?

Hancock says in the UK we are all moving together. Different groups are getting it at different times. The fair thing to do is to lift measures for all groups at once.

He says we do not have the capacity yet to allow people to show they have been vaccinated.

Q: Will shielding end on 31 March? I have both doses of the vaccine, and want to go back to work as a nurse.

Yes, says Hancock. He says he is delighted she will be able to go back.

Updated

Van-Tam turns to concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine giving clots. But he says there is no evidence for this.

Vaccines do not save lives when they are in fridges, he says.

He says all medicines have benefits and risks. He reads out a list showing some of the side effects of paracetamol. He says people know this, but they understand the benefits.

Updated

Van-Tam is speaking now.

He says we are in the last stage of the phase 1 rollout.

It is important to get that done properly before moving on to phase 2, which will involve vaccinating the under-50s.

This sounds like a round-about way of confirming the implication of the NHS letter leaked to Sky - that the vaccine rollout will not be proceeding quite as quickly as planned. As the Times’ Chris Smyth points out, Hancock was hinting at this earlier.

Hancock effectively ruling out 40-somethings getting jabs before mid-April

"We're going to do whatever it takes to reach all those in the most vulnerable groups who haven't come forward yet, efore we move on to the next cohort which is people in their 40s"

— Chris Smyth (@Smyth_Chris) March 17, 2021

Ramsay says the new figures also show that people who have been vaccinated are less likely to pass on the infection. So it is reducing transmission, she says.

Ramsay is talking now.

She starts by thanking those involved in the vaccination programme.

She says PHE is publishing an update to its analysis of the impact vaccinations.

She says there is a 60% reduction in your chance of catching Covid if you are over 70 and have been vaccinated.

And she says, even if you get Covid, the chance of going to hospital is reduced by a further 40%, she says.

She says, combining the figures, that means the vaccination programme is protecting 80% of the people in that age group.

Hancock says there is also new research out today showing the vaccines are reducing transmission.

They are saving lives, he says.

He says vaccines are now being offered to all people over the age of 50.

But he says he also wants to do more to get vulnerable people vaccinated.

Hancock says he is 42. He wants the jab. But he also wants to ensure the most vulnerable are protected first.

Hancock says this is making a real difference.

He presents a slide a showing the increase in the proportion of people with Covid antibodies. Around 90% of people aged 70 and above had the antibodies at the start of March, he says.

Here is the figure for the end of March. The area shaded blue represents people with antibodies.

% of people, by age, with Covid antibodies
% of people, by age, with Covid antibodies Photograph: No 10

Hancock starts by saying that more than half a million vaccinations were delivered yesterday.

Today marks 100 days since Margaret Keenan got the first authorised vaccination. And now the UK has hit 25m vaccinations.

It has been a huge team effort, and the best project he has ever been in, he says. He thanks all those involved.

Matt Hancock's press conference

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is about to hold a press conference.

He will be joined by Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, and Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England.

Earlier Hancock posted this on Twitter about 25 million people having now had a first dose of vaccine.

The UK's vaccination roll-out is a national success story & shows what our country can achieve.

I'm delighted we've reached a new milestone - 25 MILLION people have now been vaccinated.

THANK YOU to the NHS, armed forces, volunteers, councils & the British public. pic.twitter.com/RkAG5nRsl8

— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) March 17, 2021

Updated

'Significant reduction' in supply to affect pace of vaccine rollout, NHS letter reveals

Sky’s Sam Coates has obtained a letter from the NHS saying there will be a “significant reduction” in vaccine supply from 29 March, which means people under the age of 50 may have to wait longer than previously expected for their first dose. Doctors are being told to focus on vaccinating people in the first nine priority groups (which in practice now means the over-50s and people with underlying health conditions).

NEW: Major contraction in supply of vaccine means new guidance issued today to focus on cohorts 1-9 from March 29 pic.twitter.com/bX6uPoClwj

— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) March 17, 2021

Updated

Positive coronavirus cases rose in Greater Manchester last week, when schools reopened after lockdown.

For the week ending 12 March, cases increased from 88.7 per 100,000 people, to 96.5. However, testing also doubled in the same time period, as school-based lateral flow testing kicked into gear.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said that schools reopening were a “significant factor”, but there “may be more complex reasons” for the increase in positive cases. He said his team were monitoring the situation closely in his weekly press conference.

Cases increased in seven out of ten of Greater Manchester’s boroughs, the majority of which are in the 16-29 age bracket.

In more positive news, hospital admissions in the region have dropped significantly, with around half the number there were a fortnight ago. There were 94 patients admitted to hospital on the 8 March, which is comparable to the admission rate in mid-October last year. On that date, there were 426 Covid-19 patients in hospital, 93 of which are in a high dependency unit or intensive care.

More than one million first doses of the coronavirus vaccine have now been given, amounting to 46% of Greater Manchester’s population. Roll out of second doses of the jab is also under way.

'Global Britain' is 'creative disruptor', says Raab

The full text of Dominic Raab’s speech to the Aspen security conference is here. In it, he fleshes out the concept of what “global Britain” might mean. Here’s an excerpt.

There is a golden thread running through all of this. The UK is not afraid to act, but we prefer to act with others, to form alliances and partnerships that multiply the force, the impact, that we would otherwise be able to bring to bear if we acted on our own.

More than that, Global Britain – our concept – is a creative disruptor willing and able to challenge the status quo but in the cause of good order and future stability.

A mould-breaker but also a rule-maker, a disruptor for stability if you like. We have got a buccaneering spirit, but we also strive and yearn to build bridges.

The concept of of Britain as a “creative disruptor” is likely to appeal to Boris Johnson, who sees himself in much the same way.

This is from my colleague Patrick Wintour.

Enjoyed Raab's speech & his many takes on "these islands, this rainy archipelago off the European coast". A force for good, a problem solver, a compelling brand, a disruptor for stability - confronting those trying to ransack the international system. https://t.co/mBxB4w4AAZ

— Patrick Wintour (@patrickwintour) March 17, 2021

Inspired by Boris Johnson’s call for a culture change to ensure women are treated with more respect (see 1.33pm), the Daily Mirror has dredged up some examples of the sort of comments he would presumably now like to consign to the dustbin.

12 things Boris Johnson said about women as No10 defends his 'strong record'https://t.co/Hcv3q1xHdg

— Dan Bloom (@danbloom1) March 17, 2021

Keir Starmer at PMQs earlier.
Keir Starmer at PMQs earlier. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

The UK has also recorded 141 further coronavirus deaths, and 5,758 new cases, the government dashboard reveals.

Covid dashboard
Covid dashboard Photograph: Gov.UK

Burnham publishes plans to tackle violence against women and girls in Greater Manchester

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has today published proposals to tackle violence against women and girls.

In light of the death of Sarah Everard and the urgency to address gender-based abuse, Mancunians are being asked to provide their feedback on the draft “gender-based abuse strategy” before going to a full public consultation in May 2021.

It comes as 36% of all violent crime in Greater Manchester reported to the police entails domestic abuse, while 80% of the domestic abuse cases that are prosecuted in Greater Manchester result in a conviction. This is higher than the national average, but only represents 1 in 13 incidents that are successfully prosecuted in England and Wales.

The proposals include funding for specific services and projects, training and development for frontline staff and targeted public engagement campaigns.

Burnham said:

We’ve been doing some serious long-term thinking about gender-based abuse in Greater Manchester for a while and we have deliberately brought forward our proposals for a new 10-year strategy because of the huge public engagement with the issue prompted by recent events.

It’s taken the tragic death of a young woman to begin a national conversation about how we can collectively tackle the abuse of women and girls – abuse that has gone on for far too long, attitudes and behaviours that go unchallenged.

I’m asking the public here in Greater Manchester to join our conversation and help shape our ambitious Strategy so we can do this together.

Updated

More than 25 million people in UK have now received first dose of vaccine, government announces

The government has just updated its coronavirus dashboard, and it shows that more than 25 million people have now had their first dose of a vaccine. The actual figure is 25,273,226

Boris Johnson has called this “an incredible achievement”.

The latest milestone is an incredible achievement – representing 25 million reasons to be confident for the future as we cautiously reopen society.

Thank you to the brilliant NHS, scientists, armed forces, volunteers and all those who’ve helped our rollout. pic.twitter.com/bR9sGMU3bo

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 17, 2021

Raab suggests EU acting like authoritarian regime after it threatens vaccine exports to UK

The EU may halt exports of Covid-19 vaccines to Britain to safeguard scarce doses for its own citizens unless the UK starts shipping shots to the bloc, Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president has said. My colleague Jon Henley has the story here.

In response, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has implicitly accused the EU of issuing the sort of threat associating with an authoritarian (or “less democratic”, as he put it) regime. Asked about Von der Leyen’s comment, he told Reuters:

I think it takes some explaining, because the world’s watching. We’ve, all of us, including with our European friends, been saying throughout the pandemic, that you’d be wrong to curtail or interfere with lawfully-contracted supply. We all said it last year on PPE. We’ve been saying it this year, on vaccines and other things ...

We, like our European friends are keeping supply chains open, keeping trade and vital supplies of medical equipment and vaccines is critically important. We all been arguing for this. And we expect those assurances and legally contracted supply to be respected.

Frankly, I’m surprised we’re having this conversation. It is normally what the UK and EU team up with to reject when other countries with less democratic regimes than our own engage in that kind of brinkmanship.

Raab also said Von der Leyen’s comment contradicted “direct assurances” the UK government had had from the commission in recent days that vaccine supplies to the UK would not be put at risk.

Updated

At the Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman, and Allegra Stratton, his press secretary, were unable to to give more details of what Boris Johnson thinks needs to be done to bring about the “cultural and social change in attitudes” towards women that he said was needed at PMQs. (See 1.33pm.)

They also sidestepped questions about misogynist comments made by Johnson in his previous career as a journalist.

But Stratton insisted that Johnson had a “strong record” on measures to protect women. She said:

If you look back to 2009, when he was London mayor, he launched a call to action to end violence against women. And that was first ever strategy of its kind for a major city.

It saw him quadrupling funding for rape crisis provision and opening three new centres in London, and a host of other measures ...

So this was “not something to which the prime minister has been recently converted”, she claimed.

She said the domestic abuse bill and the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill were both measures that would help women, and she said since the current consultation on violence against women and girls was reopened on Friday night last week, it had attracted 140,000 responses.

Updated

A total of 22,717,791 Covid-19 vaccinations took place in England between 8 December and 16 March, according to provisional NHS England data, including first and second doses, which is a rise of 433,751 on the previous day.

As PA Media report, of this number, 21,493,356 were the first dose of a vaccine, a rise of 370,842 on the previous day, while 1,224,435 were a second dose, an increase of 62,909.

Updated

Downing Street has defended the response of the Department of Health and Social Care to the coronavirus pandemic in the light of the claim from Dominic Cummings this morning that DHSC was an “absolute total disaster” and reduced to a “smoking ruin”. (See 11.56am.) Asked about Cummings’ comments, the prime minister’s spokesman told the daily lobby briefing:

Covid challenged health systems around the world. From the outset, it was always our focus to protect the NHS and save lives.

I would point to what was achieved last year in terms of establishing one of the biggest diagnostic networks in UK history, in terms of increasing the number of tests we are able to undertake every day.

We have procured over nine million items of PPE, we have established the NHS test and trace system which has contacted millions of people and asked them to isolate.

DH [Department of Health] and the NHS were central to the rollout of the vaccination programme.

Boris Johnson is expected to get his Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine later this week, PA Media reports.

It was understood that the NHS told the prime minister he would receive that specific jab because of the public interest surrounding the vaccine. But it has not been revealed whether Johnson specifically requested the AstraZeneca vaccine. Normally people have no choice.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, will hold a press conference at Downing Street at 5pm, No 10 has said. This will be the first Downing Street press conference this week. At the start of this lockdown the government was aiming to hold them about three times a week, but the frequency has declined as the coronavirus outlook has improved.

The doctor who led an inquiry into the UK response to 2009’s flu epidemic has backed calls for a review of the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic to start soon.

Dame Deirdre Hine, the former chief medical officer for Wales, suggested that it might be best to start with an independent, lessons learned review, which could be conducted relatively quickly. The swine flu inquiry she led took this form.

Such a review could be followed by a full public inquiry later, she said.

She told Radio 4’s the World at One:

It’s probably about time now, or perhaps in the summer, to start to learn lessons, but whether that should be in the form of a public inquiry or independent review is something the government really needs to think very carefully about.

A public inquiry … has a legal framework and has legal requirements throughout its operation which make it both expensive and usually very lengthy … whereas an independent review, of the kind that I chaired into the influenza pandemic, can operate faster and less expensively.

What I would be bold enough to suggest is that what is required in the short-term is an independent review with lessons to be learned which are applied immediately - because there is always the chance of yet another pandemic - and that that would be followed up by an independent review under the Inquiries Act 2005.

Asked if an independent review would have the powers it needed to get people to give evidence, she replied:

The review I undertook in 2009 I had no refusals of anybody to come and give evidence to us. An independent review would take something like a year, a public inquiry can take anything up to 10 years.

Updated

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has won a Freedom of Information battle to find out how Thurrock Council spent £1bn of public money.

The outlet revealed last year that the Essex council had borrowed £1bn from other local authorities to gamble on secretive deals in green energy. The media company was blocked by the council in finding out where the money came from and how it was spent via an FoI request.

The Conservative-run Thurrock Council tried to justify local government secrecy under the grounds of “commercial sensitivity”.

But the Bureau, after taking the case to a tribunal with the backing of the Times, regional publishers Reach and Archant, the Local Government Chronicle, the Municipal Journal and freedom of expression group Index on Censorship, has won its disclosure battle.

The tribunal ruled there was a “significant public interest in transparency in relation to the actions of councils borrowing for the purposes of making a profit” and ordered Thurrock to disclose the information by 12 April.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said:

I applaud the determination of The Bureau for pursuing this and winning a victory for taxpayers.

As the information rights tribunal judge says – responsibility for holding local authorities to account for their borrowing and spending decisions ultimately falls on voters. Voters must be informed to make those decisions. Let the public judge what level of risk they are content to bear with the money they pay in taxes for essential local services.

Business leaders have said they support the opening of an EU office in Belfast months after the UK government blocked the move.

Glyn Roberts, the head of Retail Northern Ireland told the Northern Ireland affairs committee this morning it would allow “business groups, civic society leaders and politician for all parties” to build relationships with Brussels and capitalise on Northern Ireland’s new status as a potential “gateway” to the EU for foreign investors. He said:

I think having an EU office on the same basis as the Chinese government and the American government have consulates in Belfast, that would help in terms of dealing with our future relationship, dealing with ongoing problems and challenges.

He said questions also needed to be asked about the Stormont “gameplan for their office in Brussels”.

SDLP assembly member and former Downing Street adviser Matthew O’Toole has been pushing for an office, saying political leaders need to be “knocking down doors” in the EU, Dublin, London and the US to get investment on the back of NI’s unique post-Brexit status with a foot in both the EU single market and the UK.

Food wholesaler Andrew Lynas told the committee Brexit would add around £50,000 to his annual costs but there were opportunities for Northern Ireland, with one “quick service restaurant” chain in talks about supplying the EU from NI.

Updated

The Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething, has expressed concern about growing rates of coronavirus in Anglesey, north Wales.

Gething said it was important to gain an understanding of why case numbers are rising but suggested that households mixing was to blame.

Local leaders in Anglesey have said it might be necessary to impose a local lockdown or close schools to bring infection rates back down.

Across Wales the overall rate of coronavirus “remains stable” at around 42 cases per 100,000 people. There are just under 1,000 Covid-related patients in hospital – the first time the country has dipped below the 1,000 mark for many months.

In Anglesey, however, the rate is at 112 per 100,000, according to the latest figures from Public Health Wales.

So far this month, 54% of the 174 positive coronavirus cases on Anglesey have been in and around the port of Holyhead.

Anglesey council deputy chief executive, Dylan Williams, said: “The situation in Holyhead and recent increase in cases is extremely concerning.”

The Welsh government is also concerned about rising numbers in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales, where the rate per 100,000 is at 94, and Conwy, north Wales, at 96.

Nicola Sturgeon has told reporters that she “strongly refutes” comments made by Conservative MP David Davis, who last night used parliamentary privilege to criticise the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond.

At her regular Covid briefing Sturgeon said:

I strongly refute the suggestions and insinuations from David Davis in the Commons last night. I’m not going to have this Covid briefing side-tracked by the latest instalment of Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theory. I have given eight hours of evidence to the parliamentary committee looking into this. They are now able to assess all the evidence they have taken, including I’m sure the evidence they have in relation to the claims made by David David last night. They have a job of work to do now, I’m going to get on with my job which is for the moment leading this Covid briefing.

Updated

Osborne praises Johnson for 'seeing off [Tory] hotheads' who favour cold war with China

Boris Johnson’s integrated review and its policy of avoiding confrontation with China, won praise from George Osborne this morning, who praised the prime minister for “seeing off the hotheads” who want greater confrontation with Beijing as he gave evidence to a Lords committee.

The former chancellor, who partly presided over a closer engagement with China when David Cameron was prime minister, also declined to accuse Beijing of engaging in genocide against the country’s Muslim Uighur minority, arguing you have to deal with the world “as it is”.

Osborne told peers on the international relations and defence committee that he saw “a lot of continuity” in Tuesday’s integrated review from his time in government. That described China as a “systemic competitor” – not a hostile state - as some Conservatives have demanded.

Osborne said:

I think Boris Johnson should be congratulated for seeing off the hotheads, who want to launch some new cold war with China, and instead promoting an approach that is realistic about the threat that China poses, but also wants to engage in the opportunity, talks about increasing trade talks about increasing investment from China, and essentially tries to co-opt China rather than confront China.

Whether such praise will be welcome in Downing St is unclear, as a widespread view in the party is that both Osborne and Cameron went too far in courting investment, allowing Chinese companies into the UK’s telecoms and nuclear infrastructure.

Osborne also declined to accuse China of genocide when pressed by Lib Dem peer Lord Alton.

“I just simply don’t have all the information about what exactly is going on in Xinjiang,” Osborne said. Referring back to his time in government, Osborne added:

Should we call those abuses out? Yes. Did we? Yes, we did. I think then the question is, what’s the best way of dealing with it? We are talking about the world’s most populous country.

Updated

Welsh government announces £500 bonus for NHS staff

The Welsh government will fund a bonus one-off payment for NHS and social care staff to recognise their “extraordinary contribution” during the Covid crisis, the health minister, Vaughan Gething, has announced. After deductions most people will receive £500.

It is estimated the payment will benefit 221,945 people in Wales - 103,600 social care staff, 90,000 NHS Wales staff, 2,345 deployed students and 26,000 primary care staff (including pharmacy, GP, dental and optometry staff).

At a briefing Gething said:

Over the last year, Wales’ NHS staff and social care staff have shown a remarkable amount of commitment and courage from the initial outbreak of the pandemic right through to the current second wave.

They will have suffered the impacts of the pandemic on their physical and mental health wellbeing in both their personal and professional lives.

This payment expresses our gratitude to our NHS and social care workforce for their extraordinary contribution in keeping Wales safe.

The Welsh government is working with local authorities and with trade unions to finalise details of the scheme.

Updated

PMQs - Snap verdict

After a horrific killing, for obvious reasons of taste and decency, politicians are reluctant to be seen to be capitalising on what happened. But these events arouse strong desire for change, and should be a matter of public policy (about which reasonable people can disagree) and so politicians have to and should link events like the death of Sarah Everard with a party political agenda. But it has to be done with a bit more subtlety than is usual in the Commons wrestling ring. Today Sir Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson both, to varying degrees, achieved this.

The debate between the two parties over the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill was at its most polarised on social media last night, as the former MP Anna Soubry pointed out.

This is a new low in inaccurate, distasteful, tribal nonsenses from both main parties. This doesn’t make women & young girls safer - it just makes our politics more rotten & broken than they already are. “A plague on both your houses” #Labour #Conservatives pic.twitter.com/JiYYdsHhGc

— Anna Soubry (@Anna_Soubry) March 16, 2021

Today Starmer insisted on a consensual tone, and he opened with a powerful statement about how the Everard case could be a watershed moment.

The Stephen Lawrence case showed the poison of structural and institutional racism, the James Bulger case made us question the nature of our society and the safety of our children.

Now the awful events of the last week have lifted a veil on the epidemic of violence against women and girls. This must also be a watershed moment to change how we as a society treat women and girls and how we prevent and end sexual violence and harassment.

I believe that if we work together, we can achieve that and the questions I ask today are in that spirit.

After that Starmer was in law seminar mode, with practical suggestions on harassment, stalking and support for victims. Later he did raise the issue of rape prosecutions highlighted by Labour on social media last night, but the avoided the contentious claim that rape had been “decriminalised”. And he ended with a direct appeal for cross-party talks. Tonally he was pitch perfect - serious, constructive, practical - while also managing to reiterate the argument that the police bill protects statues more than women. First deployed by Jess Phillips at the weekend, this is just about true enough to work as a brilliant piece of political framing.

Johnson was generally on the defensive. CCHQ has been using Labour’s opposition to the police bill to depict the party as weak on crime, but Johnson managed to wait until response number five before switching to sarcasm and going boots-in on Starmer’s vote against the second reading last night. (See 12.14pm.) It was a very good retort, but by question six Johnson was back being collegiate. He sounded fine, although this was probably not the space that he wanted to be in.

One of the ironies of the exchanges was that Starmer sounded more prime ministerial than Johnson, because he was focusing on the detail of legislative amendments (ie, he was talking like a departmental minister). In contrast, while acknowledging the importance of his bill, Johnson was calling for a wider, cultural change in the way that women are treated.

Unless and until we have a change in our culture that acknowledges and understands that women currently do not feel they are being heard we will not fix this problem.

And that is what we must do. We need a cultural and social change in attitudes to redress the balance and that is what I believe all politicians must now work together to achieve.

Johnson was probably right about this; law alone can’t solve everything. But whether Johnson is the best person to shift society’s thinking on the attitudes to women is another matter. Only last week (on international women’s day) at lobby his press secretary was having to field a question about whether he still deployed a “tottymeter” (a phrase he used in a Telegraph column in the 1990s). From the answer at the time, it sounds like he doesn’t, but women might be forgiven for thinking, if social change is needed, other people might be better qualified to lead it.

Updated

Johnson says it was a “regrettable mistake” for Labour to claim last night, in a tweet about the police bill, that rape has been decriminalised. He says victims of rape should be encouraged to come forward.

Under the Tories, rape has effectively been decriminalised.

We need to do so much more to end violence against women and girls. pic.twitter.com/Yp84qwP1W4

— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) March 16, 2021

Tahir Ali (Lab) asks why the PM has been economical with the truth in saying the government can only afford a 1% pay rise for nurses.

Sir Linday Hoyle, the Speaker, says “no honourable member on any side would actually lie or mislead the house”.

(Hoyle is referring to how the Commons is meant to operate, according to its own rulebook, not to what actually goes on.)

Johnson says the government is investing in more nurses for the NHS.

Updated

Sir Bernard Jenkin (Con) says the integrated review has been widely welcome as a statement about the UK’s place in the world. Does the SNP realise that, by rejecting the plan, they are rejecting jobs for Scotland?

Johnson says it is hard to know what motivates the SNP, but the UK is stronger together, he says.

Richard Burgon (Lab) asks the PM to take responsibility for some of the Covid deaths and to apologise.

Johnson says he takes full responsibility for what the government has done. He says he is “deeply sorry” about what happened to the country. An inquiry will allow us to understand what happened, and to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Felicity Buchan (Con) says she has been deeply troubled by what is coming out of the Grenfell Tower inquiry about the conduct of contactors. Will the government consider a tax on the building materials industry to pay for cladding removal?

Johnson says he will consider this. And the government is considering blacklisting contractors who have committed professional negligence from government contracts.

Johnson says he is having AstraZeneca jab 'very shortly'

Steve Brine (Con) asks why some EU states have abandoned the scientific evidence in relation to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Johnson says he will be getting his “very shortly”. And he will have the AstraZeneca one, he says.

Peter Grant (SNP) says he wants to ask again the question Ian Blackford asked: what gives him the right to impose more nuclear weapons in Scotland?

Johnson says this is another attempt to argue for an independence referendum.

Johnson says global Britain is all about promoting freedom of belief and religion.

Charlotte Nichols (Lab) says women do not have recourse to the criminal justice system because it deals with offenders so badly. How are women meant to get justice?

Johnson says Nichols is completely right. We can bring in more laws and tougher sentences. But we have to address the fudamental issue of “casual everyday sexism and apathy”.

Andrew Jones (Con) says he wants people to be able to go about their lives without being hindered by protesters. Will the police bill strike that balance?

Johnson says Jones has summed it up perfectly. And the bill will stop prisoners getting out early, he says.

Nicholas Fletcher (Con) asks if the PM will back a new hospital for Doncaster.

Johnson says Fletcher’s trust is in the running for one of the further eight hospitals, on top of the 40 the government is already building.

(As has been well established, the government is not building 40 new hospitals. It has plans to replace or renovate 40 hospitals over the long term.)

Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, says the Scottish people would be best served with a government living up to their values, prioritising children not bombs.

Johnson says the SNP government in Scotland is just obsessed with breaking up the UK.

Blackford says the Tories want a 40% increase in nuclear warheads. We should find ways to make peace, not war, he says. When did the Scottish people give him the authority to do this.

Johnson says the people of Scotland contribute enormously to this country. Our nuclear defence is vital for our long-term security.

Starmer says the bill imposes a longer maximum sentence for damaging a statue (10 years) than the sentences in the three cases he has just mentioned. Labour will publish amendments to the bill. Will the PM meet Starmer and his team to discuss this.

Johnson says he is grateful for the collegiate tone of Starmer. The average sentence for rape is nine years and nine months. The maximum sentence is light. What he is trying to do with the bill is toughen sentences.

He says until women feel their voices are being listened to, we will not fix this problem.

Starmer says he was DPP for five years. He does not need lectures on enforcing the law. He say sentences for rape and sexual violence need to be longer. He give examples of apparently lenient sentences.

Johnson says it would be wonderful if a bill were going through the Commons to do just this. That would be a fine thing. As it happens, there is such a bill. Labour should have voted for it, he says. Voting against it was “crazy”.

Starmer says Labour has been pushing this point for five years. He says many women report sexual violence to find no one gets charged. He says 98.5% of rapes don’t lead to a prosecution. That is shocking. What will the PM do about this?

Johnson says Starmer is right. Prosecution rates for rape are a disgrace. He says he wants to toughen penalties for men who commit these crimes. It would have been good if Labour had voted for tougher sentences for people who commit violent and sexual offences last night.

Starmer says the bill says more about protecting statues than protecting women. But he thanks the PM for his answer. On protecting victims, Starmer says a new victims bill from Labour is before parliament. Will the government back it, so it can become law in six months?

Johnson says he will look at proposals from all sides of the Commons. He agrees that victims need to feel confident coming forward. He says funding for advisers for victims has been increased. But he won’t pretend this is the entire solution. Long-term cultural change is needed, he says.

Starmer thanks Johnson. Many women feel unsafe on the streets. Labour wants a law on harassment and a tougher law on stalking. Will the PM take these measures forward?

Johnson says he is always happy to look at new ideas. Tougher measures on stalking are already being introduced. He says the police bill does a lot to protect women and girls. Labour should have backed it, he says.

Sir Keir Starmer says Sarah Everard’s family and friends will be suffering unspeakable grief. She was just walking home. Some cases are watershed moments, and this should be one. It should change the way women and girls are treated. He wants to work with the government on this. Does the PM agree this must be a turning point?

Johnson says he does. He says the reaction to Everard’s death has been wholly understandable. The government is trying to address this. Unless and until we have a change in our culture, which leads women to think they are not heard, we will not achieve change, he says.

Simon Fell (Con) says GSK reneged on a promise to invest in Barrow and Furness. Will the government try to get the company to deliver on those jobs?

Johnson says he will meet Fell on this. Bioscience should be a growth area for the UK, he says.

Boris Johnson starts by wishing MPs a happy St Patrick’s day.

PMQs

PMQs is about to start.

Here is the call list of MPs down to ask a question.

These are from Chris Cook, a reporter at Tortoise and a public policy expert, on Dominic Cummings’ evidence to the science committee.

I see Dominic Cummings would like to get rid of the bad bureaucracy and replace it with good bureaucracy. we should fund the good breakthrough science - and less of the [checks notes] not-as-effective incremental stuff.

— Chris Cook (@xtophercook) March 17, 2021

I do think the central point about him is that he doesn't understand what the _purpose_ of bureaucracy is

— Chris Cook (@xtophercook) March 17, 2021

The school reforms of 2010-13 are a lesson to anyone taking the Cummings shtick seriously: they tried to cut the role of bureaucrats in schools and accidentally turned the DfE into a massive, local authority with no operational expertise or local accountability.

— Chris Cook (@xtophercook) March 17, 2021

His legacy in schools is massively increased bureaucracy for school leaders and a wildly ungovernable central department that has struggled (unsuccessfully!) to stay inside its expenditure limits.

— Chris Cook (@xtophercook) March 17, 2021

Summary of Cummings' evidence to science committee

Here are the main points from Dominic Cummings’s evidence to the science committee. The session was mostly about Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) - see 9.30am - but Covid featured too.

  • Cummings, the former chief adviser to the PM, launched a withering attack on record of the Department of Health and Social Care in terms of procurement during the Covid crisis. He said that it was an “absolute total disaster” at acquiring PPE and that it had to be sidelined for the government’s vaccine procurement programme. Near the start of the session he said:

Obviously last year the Department of Health had an absolute total disaster in terms of buying, how it buys, how it procures, how it deals with science and technology. It’s why we had to take the vaccine process of the Department of Health.

And later he elaborated on this point. He said:

It is not coincidental that we had to take [vaccine procurement] out of the Department of Health. We had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister.

In spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that. You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics.

We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail - a debacle.

Therefore Patrick Vallance [the government’s chief scientific adviser], the cabinet secretary, me and some others said ‘obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister.

  • He confirmed that he was willing to give evidence to the joint science and health committee inquiry into the Covid pandemic. (See 9.30am.) He did not say when this would be. But he said he would be happy to talk about his time in No 10, and to correct “crazy stories” in the media.
  • He said that he turned down a pay rise when he started work in No 10 because he felt that, since he was sorting out the “Brexit mess”, he should be paid what he was paid at Vote Leave. (See 10.13am.)
  • He revealed that he set four conditions for agreeing to work as Boris Johnson’s chief adviser at No 10. One of them was reforming Whitehall, which, like the Department of Health (see above), he also described as a disaster zone. Describing his conversation with Johnson, he said:

The prime minister came to speak to me the Sunday before he became prime minister and said will I come to Downing Street to help sort out the huge Brexit nightmare.

I said ‘Yes, if first of all you are deadly serious about actually getting Brexit done and avoiding a second referendum.

‘Secondly, double the science budget, third create some Arpa-like entity and fourth support me in trying to change how Whitehall works because it’s a disaster zone’ and he said ‘Deal’.

  • He said the Whitehall system did not allow anyone to take decisions on science funding or procurement quickly, and that this was a problem at the start of the pandemic. He said:

In February, March, April last year there was no entity in the British - zero entities, including the prime minister himself - who could make rapid decisions on science funding minus horrific EU procurement, state aid etc, etc laws.

No entity in the British state that could operate at scale and at pace and that was obviously disastrous.

One of the most obvious lessons of last year is that a) we should go to extreme lengths to try to de-bureaucratise the normal system

Secondly, you need to have an emergency process where an entity of the state can actually move at speed and scale to do all sorts of things - buying and procurement and whatnot.

  • He said, to be successful, Aria would need to have a high failure rate for the projects it funded. (See 10.26am.)

In an interview on the Today programme this morning Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said he agreed with Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, about the need to do trade deals with countries with poor human rights records. (See 8.50am.) Kwarteng said:

What I don’t think is productive and what doesn’t make any sense is to simply metaphorically pull up the drawbridge and say we aren’t going to have any dealings with whatever country it is and then at the same time tell the country when we think they are not behaving properly or treating their minorities well.

I think you have to engage in order to be taken seriously and in order to have influence, and that’s what we are trying to do.

But Emily Thornberry, the shadow international trade secretary, said the UK should not be striking a trade deal with China at the moment. She said:

I think it would be an abomination to sign up to a trade deal, giving China preferential rates and access to our economy at the moment, I really do.

Q: Do you regret your decision to leave?

No, says Cummings. He says he told the PM in July that he would be gone by 18 December at the latest.

He says he would be happy to come back and answer questions about how No 10 works and why he left. And he would be happy to clarify the “crazy stories” in the media.

That’s it. The hearing is over.

I will post a summary soon.

Cummings says the Ministry of Defence has a £10bn black hole in its budget because of “disastrous” decisions taken in defence reviews when George Osborne and David Cameron were in power.

Now the MoD is using “honest” figures, he says.

Graham Stringer (Lab) says 90% of scientists voted to remain in the EU. That was partly because the EU funded research.

Q: I felt cooperation became more important than the science in those projects. Do you agree?

Yes, says Cummings. He says he and Stringer (a leave supporter) both took the view that it would be dangerous to let the EU regulate UK science.

The EU system has blown up over vaccines, he says. That shows what happens when you have an anti-science bureaucracy like the one in Brussels.

Cummings says the UK has a huge amount to learn from the approach to science policy in Asia.

He says the Chinese president sits down for days on end to discuss funding state-of-the-art science projects for the long term.

The UK will lose out if it does not do the same, he says.

He also says China and Russia have made great efforts to acquire British knowledge, both legally and illegally. That is because they take it seriously, he says.

He says the state should not be trying to decide whether Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is right.

But it should be thinking about how to fund science, he says.

He says, while PMQs was going on, he used to have meetings for something called Project Speed, to consider this. He had nothing to do with PMQs, he says. He says he hopes this work is still going on.

Q: Is the UK a science superpower?

Cummings says there are areas where the UK is doing world-class research.

But, when he was in government, there was a feeling the UK was “falling behind”, he says. He says Nobel prizes from the past have been used as branding.

The true situation “is more worrying and dangerous than it appears”, he says.

Rebecca Long-Bailey (Lab) goes next.

Q: What proportion of the budget should be going on R&D?

Cummings says he does not know what decisions were taken since he left. But he says Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is very committed to R&D. He says Sunak say his priorities are R&D and the skills agenda.

He says it is not particularly helpful to think of it as a share of GDP. It is more helpful to focus on the total spend, he says.

Countries like China and South Korea are taking science spending very seriously. But David Cameron and George Osborne were not serious about investing in R&D, he says.

He refers to the circle on the chart he showed earlier. (See 9.41am.) He says if the UK spends differently, it can spend more effectively.

Cummings says, in his last conversation with Boris Johnson before leaving No 10, he recommended moving responsibility for science funding for the business department to the Cabinet Office. Johnson agreed, he says.

Cummings is now talking about science funding generally.

He says when he arrived in government in 2019, anyone applying for funding for maths research needed to fill out an impact assessment. That made no sense for pure research, he says. He says Alan Turing would not have got support in 1930s on that basis.

He says he spent a lot of time trying to change the rules. In government it is important to “wage war on process”, he says.

Cummings says vaccine procurement succeeded because 'smoking ruin' health department sidelined

Greg Clark, the chair, is asking the questions again.

Q: Now you have left No 10, is there still enough support for doubling the science budget and for your reform agenda?

Cummings says he does not know.

He says there needs to be a very hard look, by parliament, into what went wrong, and why.

One of the issues is how to get science and technology right, and what happens when you don’t.

It is not coincidental that the vaccine procurement programme worked the way it did. It was taken out of the Department of Health, he says. No 10 took charge.

In the spring of 2020 the Department of Health was a “smoking ruin” after the PPE procurement problems.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, proposed taking the vaccine project out of health.

The EU scheme looked set to fail too, he says.

Cummings says Bill Gates was another person advising a new approach.

UPDATE: Earlier in the hearing Cummings also described the Department of Health as an “absolute total disaster” in terms of procurement for PPE. This is form Sky’s Sam Coates.

Dominic Cummings fires exocet at Matt Hancock and DH, suggested he/they couldn't be trusted with the vaccine rollout

"DH had absolute total disaster in terms of buying - how it buys, procures, how it deals with science and tech. Its why we had to take vaccine process out of DH"

— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) March 17, 2021

Updated

Cummings says, for Aria to be successful, its projects will need large failure rate

Katherine Fletcher (Con) goes next. She says she would happily wear a badge saying she is a bit of a scientific weirdo. She asks what failure rate would be acceptable.

Cummings says, with this project, a measure of failure is essential. “If it isn’t failing, it’s failing,” he says.

He says he would expect “a large percentage” of the projects to fail. If they don’t, they are not taking enough risks, he says.

He suggests that maybe one third of ideas might succeed, and the rest fail.

But then he suggests the failure rate needs to be higher. With venture capital, half their projects totally fail, he says. He says the big returns come from the tiny number of projects that succeed.

Carol Monaghan (SNP) goes next.

Q: How will you ensure that extreme freedom does not lead to extreme cronyism in funding?

Cummings says that is looking at the problem the wrong way round. The current funding model is flawed, he says.

He says, if you look at the history of the Manhattan project, when Congress went to look at it after the way, they were amazed by how productive it was. It spent up to 2% of GDP with very few checks. But the spending was effective.

When tighter checks were introduced in the 1960s, the corruption and cronyism got worse.

Q: But the Manhattan project had a specific goal. Aria doesn’t?

Cummings says the same argument he is making applied to Arpa in the 1960s.

Current systems reward high-status, well-connected people, he says.

Updated

Cummings says he turned down pay rise in 2019 while he still needed to 'sort out Brexit mess'

Q: Was your work with Aria the reason for your £45,000 pay rise?

Cummings says this has been misreported.

The only intervention he made on his pay was to cut it, he says.

He says when he went to work at No 10, they proposed putting him on a salary of around £140,000 - the normal pay for someone at his grade.

But Cummings says he insisted on a cut. He says he thought he should get the same as he was paid when he was at Vote Leave. That was because he was there to “sort out the Brexit mess” that had followed the 2016 referendum, he says.

He says his pay only went up to what it was originally intended to be when advisers were rehired after the general election.

Updated

Cummings says he would not take job with Aria

Dawn Butler (Lab) is asking the questions now.

Q: How will you stay involved?

Cummings says he is not seeking to be involved, he does not want to be involved and he shouldn’t be involved.

He says there would only be a point in him being involved if the wrong people were chosen to lead Aria.

Q: So if you were offered a job on Aria, you would not take it?

Cummings says there have been rumours about him being offered a post with Aria by No 10. He does not know if that is what they want, he says. But if they did offer him a post, he would say no.

Katherine Fletcher (Con) is asking the questions now. She asks, under Cummings’ plan, what would stop someone from the “tin foil hat brigade” pulling the wool over the eyes of the five people from Aria approving the funding.

Cummings says he wants Aria to have a flat organisational structure, with a director in charge with good taste able to identify good ideas.

He says he recently spoke to one of the physicists who published a paper in the early 1980s that was very influential in the development of computing. They said their research would never get funding now, he says.

Cummings tells the committee that one of his hires when he was in No 10 proved crucial in dealing with Covid.

Cummings: "Actually I brought over a brilliant young British neuroscientist who was working there [in a US research centre], and he now works in number 10 .And he made some critical contributions to how we, how the British government, dealt with COVID last year."

— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) March 17, 2021

From Tom Newton Dunn from Times Radio

Dom Cummings is back, testifying before the Science Committee to put a marker down on his science agency project ARIA. First barrage for No10, says he's "not confident about how it will work out”, as too many restrictions already being imposed on it.

— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) March 17, 2021

Cummings also fires a warning shot for Rishi Sunak, by revealing ARIA is already “pencilled in to get generous spending increases year on year in the Spending Review”, expected in the Autumn. ie, cut that if you dare.

— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) March 17, 2021

Cummings explains 4 conditions he set for agreeing to work for Johnson in No 10

Q: Was support for Aria a condition of your agreeing to work for Boris Johnson when he became prime minister?

Cummings says he met Boris Johnson on the Sunday before he became prime minister and set four conditions for joining him. He says, first, he wanted to know Johnson was serious about getting Brexit done. Second, he wanted an assurance the science budget would double. Third, he wanted a commitment to create an Arpa-type institution. (Arpa was the forerunner for Darpa.) And, fourth, he wanted Johnson to change the way Whitehall works. And Johnson agreed, Cummings says.

Updated

Dominic Cummings starts by explaining why he believes in the Aria concept. He says it should fund proposals that cannot get funding from other sources. He holds up a graphic to illustrate his point.

Four minutes in and Dominic Cummings is showing printed charts to the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “Hopefully you can see this - I’ll put it on my blog if it doesn’t show up very well.” pic.twitter.com/rjdMXsfKp3

— Ben Kentish (@BenKentish) March 17, 2021

Cummings has agreed to give evidence to parliamentary committee about Covid, MPs told

Greg Clark, the committee chair, is opening the hearing now.

Clark was a prominent Tory remainer in the last parliament, and he and Dominic Cummings at one point had a furious row about Brexit.

Clark starts by saying his committee, with the health committee, is also holding an inquiry into Covid. He says now that Cummings has left government, he has agreed to give evidence on this.

But Cummings will do so on a different occasion, not today, Clark says.

This is significant; it is the first confirmation that he will speak to MPs about Covid (although it was always obvious that, when the public inquiry into the pandemic takes place, he will be a key witness). Cummings was reportedly unhappy about Boris Johnson’s unwillingness to lockdown early, and his evidence could be damaging to the PM.

Updated

Dominic Cummings questioned by Commons science committee

Dominic Cummings, who was chief adviser to the PM and the most influential aide in Downing Street until he resigned at the end of last year, is about to start giving evidence to the Commons science committee. It will be his first proper appearance since he left No 10.

If he were to answer questions about all aspects of his time in government, it would be riveting.

But, almost certainly, he won’t. The hearing is part of an inquiry into a new UK research funding agency and Cummings has been invited because he was the main champion for a plan to develop a UK equivalent of Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. As the government announced last month, the UK version will be called the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), it will get £800m over the course of this parliament and it is meant to be up and running by next year. It’s job will be to fund “high-risk research that offers the chance of high rewards, supporting ground-breaking discoveries that could transform people’s lives for the better”.

Views about the plan are mixed. It is not impossible that it could end up being one of the best ideas produced by Boris Johnson’s government, although given what has happened to Cummings’ last brainwave to improve life in Britain, some observers are sceptical.

Updated

Good morning. Following the publication of the government’s integrated review of security, defence and foreign policy yesterday, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, will be giving a speech at lunchtime at the Aspen Security Forum warning that democracy is in retreat. He will say:

Democracy is in retreat. This decade, the combined GDP of autocratic regimes is expected to exceed the combined GDP of the world’s democracies, but think about what that means for a second.

Tyranny is richer than freedom, and that matters to us here at home. Because stable, freedom-respecting democracies are much less likely to go to war, house terrorists or trigger large scale flows of migrants and they are generally, not always, but generally easier to trade with, and easier to cooperate with to solve our shared problems.

According to extracts released in advance, Raab will also say that the UK’s mission is to be “a force for good in the world”. But his message has been somewhat undermined by a leak obtained by HuffPost’s Arj Singh revealing that Raab told Foreign Office staff that the UK would seek trade deals with countries with poor human rights records. Raab said:

I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world.

If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level [European convention on human rights-level] standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.

The Foreign Office said the original HuffPost report misrepresented what Raab actually said. It released a further extract from what Raab said, showing that while he believed in engaging with countries with poor human rights record, he accepted there were limits. Raab also said:

There will be moments, and I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale.

But fundamentally I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence even if it’s only a moderating influence, and I hope that calibrated approach gives you a sense that it’s not just words – we back it up with action.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to the PM, gives evidence to the Commons science committee about a new UK research funding agency; at 11am Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, will give evidence.

10am: George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor, gives evidence to a Lords committee about relations with China.

12pm: Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.

12.15pm: Vaughan Gething, the Welsh government’s health minister, holds a briefing on Covid.

1pm: Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, gives a speech at the Aspen security forum.

1.30pm: Downing Street is due to hold its daily lobby briefing.

2pm: Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, holds a press conference.

Politics Live has been mostly about Covid for the last year and I will be covering UK coronavirus developments today, as well as non-coronavirus Westminster politics. For global coronavirus news, do read our global live blog.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

Updated

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UK hospital death toll rises to 18,100 as health secretary says 15 social care staff are among those to die with Covid-19

Andrew Sparrow and Lucy Campbell (now); and Matthew Weaver (earlier)

22, Apr, 2020 @6:34 PM

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UK Covid: Matt Hancock says final decision on further unlocking to be taken on 14 June – as it happened
Health secretary says government will make decision on unlocking on 14 June as cases of Indian variant rise 28% in two days

Andrew Sparrow

19, May, 2021 @5:39 PM

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UK coronavirus: PM confirms 'rule of six' to apply in England from Monday; Whitty warns of rapid case rise – as it happened
‘Rule of six’ and Covid marshals to be brought in; Whitty says ‘huge’ expansion of testing needed before Covid-free passes can be introduced

Andrew Sparrow

09, Sep, 2020 @5:54 PM

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UK Covid: one dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine reduces hospitalisation in over-80s by 80%, data shows – as it happened
Health secretary says data shows that, for over-80s, a single vaccine shot leads to a more than 80% reduction in hospitalisation

Andrew Sparrow

01, Mar, 2021 @6:36 PM

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Sturgeon welcomes 'official, definitive, independent' ruling she did not breach ministerial code – as it happened
Latest updates: Scotland first minister had been accused over investigation into allegations against Alex Salmond

Andrew Sparrow

22, Mar, 2021 @6:39 PM