Early evening summary
- Two of Britain’s leading health officials have provided assessments at the Downing Street press conference that help to justify Boris Johnson’s claim at PMQs earlier about being increasingly confident in the contest against the Indian variant of coronavirus. The variant, known as B.1.617.2, is responsible for Covid spikes in several areas in the UK. But Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, told the press conference that these cases were not leading to corresponding “sharp rises” in the number of people going to hospital. She said:
[In] every area where we’re seeing variants across the country we’re looking continuously to see if we are getting increased hospital admissions, and if there are any fatalities associated with it.
And actually we are not seeing that at the moment. The change in numbers ... is really too small [to serve as evidence the variant is driving hospital numbers up]. We’re seeing a fairly flat level of admissions. We have cases and we expect people to come in and out of hospital. We’re not seeing sharp rises at the moment but clearly we will continue to monitor that.
This backs up the claim that the vaccines are effective against the Indian variant, which is what Johnson said at PMQs. (See 2.32pm.) And Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, told the press conference most experts did not think that the Indian variant was 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant (B.1.1.7). Asked how much more transmissible the Indian variant was thought to be, he replied:
I think scientists are sure that this virus is more transmissible than the strain that it is beginning to replace, which is the old Kent B.1.1.7 strain.
The million dollar question is how much more transmissible - we don’t have that yet.
We have a credible range that goes from a few percent more transmissible through to 50% more transmissible - I think most people feel it is going to be somewhere in the middle ... but it is just too early.
The best estimate that I can give you is that the data will begin to firm up some time next week and I think next week will be the first time when we have a ranging shot at what the transmissibility increase is.
This is significant because last week Sage said 50% was a “realistic possibility” and that, if that was the case, it could lead to “a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations”.
- Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has said no decision will be taken until the week before 21 June whether to proceed with the final stage of removing coronavirus restrictions.
- Cases of the B.1.617.2 Covid variant that originated in India have increased by 28% since Monday, Hancock has said, as he announced that surge testing would now be expanded to six more areas.
- Ministers have been accused of using “confused and contradictory” language over foreign travel, with Keir Starmer using prime minister’s questions to say this risks allowing more new variants of coronavirus into the country.
- Thousands of volunteers will be injected with a third dose of Covid-19 vaccine as part of a trial to investigate which ones could be used as “booster” doses to protect against new variants and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by a potential fresh wave of infections this winter.
- Nicola Sturgeon has prioritised the Covid recovery and difficult transition to a net zero economy in a significant reshuffle of her cabinet that boosts the roles of younger ministers.
- Starmer should resign if Labour loses the Batley and Spen byelection, the former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott has said, suggesting the party’s left wing would endorse a leadership run by Andy Burnham.
- The head of a loyalist group in Northern Ireland with links to former paramilitaries has warned of the prospect of more violence in the region, describing tensions over Brexit as “probably the most dangerous for many years”.
That’s all from me for tonight. But our coronavirus coverage continues on our global live blog. It’s here.
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, says there are 41 India variant cases in Wales – but only 25 cases of the variant of concern, B.1.617.2.
The latest edition of the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast is out. Heather Stewart and Rafael Behr look at domestic pressures over the India coronavirus variant as the UK continues to unlock. Plus, to celebrate The Guardian’s 200th birthday, Heather speaks with three former political editors about how the job, and its challenges, have changed.
Q: The EU is going to say people who have been vaccinated can visit Europe. But under British rules, they face quarantine when they return. Why aren’t vaccinated people exempted from the rules?
Hancock says most EU countries have lower rates of vaccination, and they have higher rates of the South Africa variant. In France it is about 5% of cases.
He says it is sensible to take a cautious approach to international travel.
Most areas of Europe have a higher rate of the virus than we do, some significantly, and there is also a much more significant presence of the so-called South African variant of concern in mainland Europe, and that’s why we’ve chosen to put only Portugal out of mainland Europe on the green list.
On the latest data, a proportion of the South African variant in France was around five per cent, and hence we’ve kept it on the amber list.
Van-Tam says vaccine protection is not 100%. It will vary among individuals, and it may vary by age. It may not work so well with people with a compromised immune system or chronic illnesses.
He says if a vaccine fails to give the maximum amount of protection, it will first lose its ability to stop you getting infected and stop you transmitting the infection to others. The last thing you will lose will be the protection against hospitalisation and death.
That is why we need to move cautiously, he says.
Harries says the India variant has been detected in 48 countries.
And that’s it. The press conference is over.
Q: Given the concerns about the India variant, would it be sensible to wait until all adults had the vaccine before lifting measures like masks?
Hancock says a decision will be set out on 14 June looking at all this. In the vast majority of cases, it is young people getting Covid now, he says. He says that suggests the vaccine is working. Younger people are much less likely to go to hospital, or to die, from coronavirus. That assumption underlines the roadmap.
Q: Would you advise people in places like Bolton not to take advantage of the new freedoms?
Van-Tam says people should cautious. If they can meet outside, they should. As he has said before, people should not “tear the pants” out of the rules. People will have to learn to manage risk. And they should get the vaccine when offered it.
UPDATE: Van-Tam said:
I would advise the residents in those areas to think very carefully about the freedoms they have, weigh up the risks and be very cautious.
It is possible to do something outside, better to do it outside. If it is possible to do something with smaller numbers, with people you know rather than multiple new contacts, it’s better to do that. Take it steady.
The government has given people freedoms to start to make these judgments for themselves and I understand that we can’t live for years and years on end with rules, people will have to learn to manage these risks from Covid for themselves because this is not going to go away in the short term, medium term and probably the long term.
Hancock says in the past week there have been 30,000 checks on people who are meant to be quarantining at home.
Covid spikes driven by India variants not leading to 'sharp rises' in hospital cases, Harries says
Q: Can you give an example of an extreme reason that might justify a visit to an amber list country?
Hancock says he thinks the public understand what the government is saying; you should not got to an amber list country on holiday, but only in exceptional circumstances. That might be to visit a very ill family member, or to attend the funeral of someone you were close to.
He says in this crisis there have been some things the government has banned, and some things the government has advised against.
Q: Is the increase in the hospital cases in Bolton - up six from last week - a cause of concern?
Harries says they are looking out for increased hospital admissions in places with Covid spikes, and they are not seeing “sharp rises” in numbers. Admissions have been “fairly flat”, she says.
This is from the Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith on what Matt Hancock said about the timing of the announcement about moving to the next step on the roadmap. (See 5.28am.)
Most experts don't think India variant 50% more transmissible than Kent variant, Van-Tam says
Q: What is your estimate for the transmissibility of the India variant?
Van-Tam says scientists are sure the variant is more transmissible than the Kent strain. But they don’t know by how much. A credible is range is between a few percentage points more transmissible and 50% more transmissible. Most people think it is “somewhere in the middle”, rather than at the extremes.
The data will firm up next week, and at that point they will have a “ranging shot” at what the figure is.
- Van-Tam says says most experts don’t think the India variant is 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant. That is significant because last week Sage said 50% was a “realistic possibility” and that, if that was the case, it could lead to “a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations”.
Hancock says final decision about further unlocking of restrictions to be taken on 14 June
Q: When will you have enough data about the India variant to make a decision about further easing of restrictions?
Hancock says the government is committed to making a decision on 14 June about whether further unlocking will go ahead on 21 June.
But data is coming in every day, he says.
- Hancock says the final decision about further unlocking of restrictions will be taken on 14 June. Yesterday Boris Johnson implied it might happen earlier. (Leaving it until next month might be good news, because if the data was really alarming, ministers might want to act sooner.)
Q: Why are pregnant people not being prioritised?
Dr Jenny Harries says the advice has been precautionary.
At the start they did not have information relating to pregnant women. They have that information now. Now they are being called in with their own age group, but not to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, because most of the data relates to other vaccines.
Hancock is now taking questions.
Q: How long will vaccination protection last?
Van-Tam says the short answer is, they don’t know.
Antibodies last for at least six months. But antibodies are not the only protection. There is also T-cell protection, which is harder to measure.
He says they are looking out for people who were vaccinated early.
It is plausible that vaccine protection, particularly in younger people, may last “for quite some time”.
He says the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is looking at this.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, is now showing the slides with the latest data. They contain no surprises, he says.
Here are the cases.
And here are the hospital figures.
Hancock says the UK has donated more than £500m to Covax, the global initiative to distribute vaccines to poorer countries.
He says the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is now being distributed in more than 160 countries. He says every British taxpayer has played a part in supporting this.
Covid ‘booster’ trial will give third vaccine dose to UK volunteers
Here is my colleague Linda Geddes’ story about the vaccine booster trial.
Hancock says the government is also working on its booster programme.
He can announce a new £90m trial to look at which of the current Covid vaccines can be used as boosters.
Hancock shows a chart showing vaccinations by age group.
He says take-up has been very good, but even amongst the older groups there are a few more people who could be vaccinated. He says he wants to reach 100%.
Hancock says when the government used surge testing against the South Africa variant in south London, it worked, and he says the same techniques are now being used against the India variants. He repeats what he said in the Commons early about the six areas in England where testing and vaccinations are being surged. (See 3.29pm.)
Hancock says the early evidence suggests that the India variant passes on more easily than the Kent variant. But, as the PM said at PMQs, the government has “increasing confidence” that the vaccines are effective against it.
He says it is “even more important” that people get vaccinated.
He repeats the figure he used earlier in the Commons, about 2,967 cases of the India variant being discovered.
He says the government is throwing everything at the new variant in Bolton. He says the weekly case rate in Bolton is now 283 per 100,000, and it’s doubled in the last week.
He says there are 25 people in hospital in Bolton with Covid, and 90% of them have not had two doses of the vaccine.
Matt Hancock's press conference
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, starts by saying hospitalisations and deaths remain very low.
In a written statement to the Senedd (Welsh parliament), Eluned Morgan, the new Welsh health minister said that “80% of all adults in Wales have received their first vaccine and 36% of all adults in Wales have received their second dose to complete the course”.
Giving evidence to the Commons international trade committee, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, said British farmers “will not be undercut” by any future trade deal with Australia. She said:
I have had discussions with the National Farmers’ Union, I’ve been very clear with them that, of course, I’m always looking to make sure - as I have committed to - that British farmers will not be undercut by unfair practices from elsewhere.
We will make sure in all the deals we do that British farming thrives and I’m absolutely confident that will be achieved through the Australia deal.
The Australia deal is also the gateway to CPTPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), which has huge opportunities for British farming.
We’re seeing 66% of the world’s middle classes are going to be in Asia by 2030, growing demand for products like beef and lamb, so both Australian access and CPTPP access, I think, is positive for British farming.
The former boss of the Post Office during the subpostmasters scandal has confirmed she is willing to appear as a witness in the inquiry into the UK’s biggest miscarriage of justice. As PA Media reports, Paula Vennells, who ran the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, was speaking after the government announced it would give the inquiry statutory powers to compel witnesses to appear or risk jail for non-attendance.
Vennells said in a statement:
It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted.
All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.
The UK has recorded three more Covid deaths and 2,696 more cases, according to the latest update to the government’s dashboard. Week on week, deaths are down by 22.9% and new cases are down by 0.9%.
The dashboard also shows that more than 70% of adults have now had a first dose of vaccine - as Boris Johnson announced at PMQs.
Why are new variants more transmissible?
Here is a question from below the line.
Recently Sage published a paper (pdf) from Nervtag (the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) that addresses this. It is about the Kent variant (B.1.1.7), but doubtless some of it applies to the Indian variant too.
It is a technical paper and hasn’t been written for the general reader, but you’ll get the gist. Here’s an extract.
The biological processes that underlie virus transmission can be broken down into: (i) duration and level of virus replication in donor, (ii) emission/shedding of the virus from the donor into the environment including the air, (iii) survival of infectious virus in the environment, (iv) infectious dose, which is related to attachment and entry of virus into cells and, (v) evasion of innate or adaptive immunity.
It is likely that B.1.1.7 infection is associated with lower Ct values, suggesting higher viral RNA load, than ‘wild type’ infection (moderate confidence). However, lower Ct values do not necessarily equate to an increase in infectious virus. Lower Ct values may indicate faster replication, a change in the relative expression of a particular gene target, or a change in replication kinetics.
Ct stands for cycle threshold. A higher Ct value implies lower infectivity, so - to put it simply - lower Ct values are bad.
Scotland has registered three deaths due to adverse reactions to Covid vaccinations, measured against 2.81m people receiving at least one dose by 30 April, the statistics agency National Records of Scotland has said.
In its weekly Covid bulletin, NRS said that 10,061 people in Scotland had now died with Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate, including six fatalities registered in the week ending 16 May. They were recorded in three council areas: North Lanarkshire (3), Glasgow (2) and Perth & Kinross (1).
The vaccinations-linked fatalities were registered between December 2020 and the end of April, the agency said. Its monthly data showed that 11 people had died as a result of post-Covid complications, including so-called long Covid cases.
The NRS report was silent on the causes of the vaccine-related deaths but concern has been raised by health authorities about a very low incidence of blood-clotting linked to the Astra Zeneca vaccine.
In early April, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) reported seven deaths involving recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine; those fatalities were amongst 30 reports of either blood clots on the brain and low platelet counts. Those led to many countries suspending its use in younger age groups.
Prof Linda Bauld, of Edinburgh university, said severe reactions were very rare. “The vast, vast majority of side effects from the Covid vaccines are very mild. You do have severe cases, but only very rarely,” she told BBC Scotland.
Pete Whitehouse, the agency’s director of statistical services, said the weekly fatalities figure was the lowest since early September. He added:
The report also shows that deaths from Covid-19 continues to have a greater impact on people living in Scotland’s more deprived communities. Over the course of the pandemic, people living in these most deprived areas are 2.4 times as likely to die with Covid-19 than those living in the least deprived areas after adjusting for age.
Women, as well as young people, are swinging behind the SNP in greater numbers than ever before, polling guru Prof Sir John Curtice says in his latest analysis of the Scottish parliament election results.
While voters remain polarised on the subject of independence itself, and when to have another referendum, Curtice suggests that a Savanta ComRes post-election poll for the Scotsman provides a first glimpse of new demographic variations in his blog for What Scotland Thinks. He says:
It suggests there were sharp differences in support for the SNP by both gender and age, with women and younger people being more likely to support the party than men and older people. In contrast, the academic British Election Study found little difference in the level of support for the SNP by age group in 2016, while what had been a long-standing tendency for the party (and for independence) to be more popular with men than women was somewhat still in evidence.
Hancock says testing and vaccinations to be surged in six areas in England after wastewater analysis detected variant threat
In his speech in the Queen’s speech debate Matt Hancock, the health secretary, also told MPs that testing and vaccinations were being surged in six areas because analysis of wastewater suggested the India variant posed a threat. He said the government studied case figures, but new data was also available to show which places were at risk, he said. He went on:
Mobility data shows how often people travel from one area to another, and we look at this in deciding where the virus is likely to spread.
And we analyse now wastewater, in 70% of the country, and we can spot the virus, and the variants in the water, to identify communities where there is spread.
As a result of all this analysis, I can tell the house that we will now surge testing and vaccinations in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, and North Tyneside. And we’re supporting the Scottish government who are taking a similar action in Glasgow and Moray.
What this means in practice is we’re putting in place more testing and more testing sites and on vaccinations we’re making more vaccinations available to everyone who’s eligible.
Hancock tells MPs India variant cases now number 2,967 - up almost 30% since Monday
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is now speaking in the Commons in the Queen’s speech debate.
He has just told MPs that the number of cases of the India variant uncovered in the UK has now risen to 2,967.
On Monday the figure was 2,323. That means the total has gone up by 28% in two days.
Summary of Downing Street lobby briefing
At the Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman said that, when the PM told MPs that he had seen data giving him “increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants”, he was referring to the routine daily data, not some special research. (See 2.32pm.) Here are the other lines from the briefing.
- Matt Hancock, the health secretary, will be joined by Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, and Dr Jenny Harries from the UK Health Security Agency at the 5pm press conference tonight, the spokesman said.
- The spokesman insisted that the trade deal with Australia would involve protection for the farming sector. He said:
Negotiations are ongoing on a trade deal with Australia, so I’m not going to pre-empt the outcome of those talks.
We want to secure an ambitious deal that benefits businesses and consumers across the UK, and of course any agreement will include protection for the agriculture industry.
- The spokesman was unable to produce the figures that would justify what Hancock told MPs on Monday about why India was not added to the red list earlier. (See 11.23am.) But, as Bloomberg’s Emily Ashton reports, Hancock subsequently addressed this in a point of order in the Commons.
- The spokesman refused to comment on a Daily Mail story saying that the £840 per roll wallpaper in the PM’s Downing Street flat (which partly explained the hefty refurbishment bill) keeps falling down. The spokesman said he did not want to comment on that “speculation” (which implies the report is true).
No 10 says PM's increasing confidence in vaccines based on latest daily data from Covid dashboard
At PMQs Boris Johnson suggested that new data was available that gave the government “increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant”. (See 1.22pm.) That implied some sort of special research.
But at Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman said Johnson was just referring to the local figures produced by Public Health England that are published daily on the government’s dashboard. The spokesman said:
That’s the information that the prime minister is seeing and currently in that data we’re not seeing any sharp increases or significant areas of concern there. Clearly it’s important to stress that we want to give more time, as the prime minister set out yesterday, to get more data in so we can make decisions on our approach and the next step.
The dashboard is here and it features localised data, as well as the headline UK statistics. No 10 may be referring to figures suggesting that, in areas where the India variant has caused a serious Covid spike, the hospitalisation or death figures may not be getting much worse, or that older people (who have generally had both doses of vaccine) are much less affected. For example, here is the chart from the dashboard showing cases in Bolton (where the Covid spike is particularly serious) by age. The dark blue line shows cases among people aged 60 and over, and the light blue line shows cases amongst people who are younger.
On the Today programme this morning the epidemiologist Prof Neil Ferguson said the most recent figures provided a “glimmer of hope”. (See 9.12am.)
The PM’s spokesman said he was not aware of any new government research specifically addressing the effectiveness of vaccines, although he added: “There continue to be, globally, studies published which show, broadly, continued efficacy of the vaccines against variants and this variant.” And the spokesman said there was no new data available specifically on the transmissibility of the India variant.
Scottish government sets up vaccination status letter scheme for travellers
The Scottish government has announced details of a vaccination status letter scheme that will allow Scots to acquire a document showing they have been vaccinated if they need it to travel abroad. In the news release giving details, the Scottish government says:
A vaccination status letter can be downloaded from the NHS Inform patient portal or - for those not online - requested in the post via a Freephone Covid Status Helpline.
Only those planning to travel to a country or territory where a record of vaccination status is needed as an entry requirement should download the record or request it.
While there are no countries currently requiring vaccination status to travel, international travel restrictions can change quickly requiring such measures to be in place.
The measures are intended to ease the burden on the NHS by removing the need for people to ask their GP for a status record.
Dr Gregor Smith, Scotland’s chief medical officer, said that, despite the launch of the scheme, the government is still advising Scots to limit their foreign travel and to plan for a domestic summer holiday.
The use of violence in opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol is a “last resort” but not “off the table”, a member of the Loyalist Communities Council has said. As PA Media reports, representatives from the LCC appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) this morning, as part of its inquiry into the Brexit protocol. PA says:
Committee chairman Simon Hoare MP questioned the LCC representatives on their past comments on the use of violence.
Joel Keys, 19, was asked about a post he made online on April 12, that stated: “To say violence is never the answer is massively naive, sometimes violence is the only tool you have left.” Asked if he stood by the comments, Mr Keys replied: “I would stand by the comments. You know there are certainly certain circumstances where violence is the only tool you have left.
“For example, I don’t think the people living under Kim Jong-un’s sort of dictatorship is going to get anywhere with peaceful protests anytime soon.”
He was then asked specifically about the use of violence were the Northern Ireland protocol to become “embedded” and deemed to be working by the UK government and the EU.
He said: “I am not sure if and when violence will be the answer. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t sort of rule it off the table.”
Put to him that his answer was “incredibly worrying and dispiriting”, Keys replied: “Well, let me make it clear. I’m no fan of violence, I think that it has to be an absolute last resort. But it worries me that we could potentially reach a point in this country, or in any country, where the people feel that they do have to defend themselves.”
But he added: “I want to emphasise I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point at the minute. I think that the political process is one that we all have to use and take advantage of.”
The Loyalist Communities Council is an umbrella group that represents three outlawed paramilitary groups: the UVF, the UDA and Red Hand Commando.
Travel confusion risks letting in more Covid variants, says Starmer
Here is my colleague Haroon Siddique and Peter Walker’s story about PMQs.
And this is how it starts.
Ministers have been accused of using “confused and contradictory” language over foreign travel, with Keir Starmer using prime minister’s questions to say this risks allowing more new variants of coronavirus into the country.
Amid particular criticism about seemingly contradictory guidance on travel to amber list countries, the Labour leader told Boris Johnson he had “lost control of the messaging”.
But Johnson insisted the guidance on travel to the 170 or so amber list countries was “very, very clear”. He told the Commons: “You should not be going to an amber list country unless for some extreme circumstance such as the serious illness of a family member. You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday.”
PMQs - Snap verdict
This was the first PMQs since the elections less than two weeks ago that saw Labour suffer a wretched defeat in Hartlepool, and less awful but still very poor results in the English council elections. Boris Johnson’s own opinion poll ratings continue to rise, and Sir Keir Starmer’s are sinking. In the circumstances Johnson might have expected that today he would be enjoying a victory lap. Starmer did not pull off a clear win, but he more than held his own and given the wider dynamics in play, that must count as something of a result.
Starmer started with a gentle opener (“Does the PM agree that new variants are the biggest threat to reopening?” Of course, everyone does) and from there he proceeded to precise, incriminating questions that Johnson could not or would not answer. Why is the government making it easier to visit amber list countries? How many people are arriving from them every day? It was the sort of interrogation that Starmer does best, and Johnson was on the defensive throughout. You could tell he was in difficulty because by answer three he was resorting to the “it’s your job to support the government” line - a poor argument to deploy against someone whose actual job title is leader of the opposition.
Johnson did, though, land one effective line as he fought back, when he made a jibe about Starmer defending government policy “using what authority he possesses”. It was a subtle dig but it worked because authority is about the most valuable currency available to an opposition leader and Starmer’s has been shrinking in recent weeks. His own MPs used to see him as a future prime minister, but since the May elections an increasing number have their doubts. That might be the most important consequence from 6 May, and Johnson was rubbing it in.
It is also possible that Johnson might be closer to where public opinion really is on border controls than some of the opinion polling (which generally shows strong public support for tighter rules) implies. Labour’s position may be more logical than the government’s, but it is close to shutting the door on all holidays abroad this summer.
This was one of those PMQs where the exchanges with Starmer were less important than some of the other things Johnson had to say. Johnson started with what he framed as an announcement:
We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the house we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.
Given that the scientists have until now been saying there is no evidence that the vaccines are less effective against the Indian variant, and little evidence that they are less effective against the South African one (which is only present in the UK in small numbers anyway), this did not sound that new, but perhaps Matt Hancock will flesh it out at the press conference this evening.
But on trade with Australia, Johnson was more definitive. This is what he told Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, when he asked if the proposed trade deal with Australia would contain specific measures to protect British farmers from competition. Johnson said:
I don’t think that [Blackford] does justice to crofters, to farmers across the country and in Scotland as well because I think he grossly underestimates their ability to do great things with our free trade deals, to export Scottish beef around the world. Why doesn’t he believe in what the people of Scotland can do?
Why is he so frightened of free trade? I think there’s a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the UK and he should seize it and be proud of it ...
[Blackford] is grossly underestimating the ability of the people of this country, the agricultural communities of this country, the farming industry to make the most of free trade. This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade on exporting around the world.
Yesterday the Financial Times (paywall) said in a report that the cabinet was divided over whether or not the deal should offer tariff-free access to the UK market for Australian farmers (which would pose a threat to British agriculture) and that ministers did not know where Johnson stood. This afternoon it seems clearer; he sounded as if he has decided to side with Liz Truss and not George Eustice.
UPDATE: In the Times today (paywall) Oliver Wright said Johnson had decided “to offer Australia tariff-free access to British food markets despite warnings that it could put farmers out of business” - ie, to back Truss, not Eustice. The story is based on a quote from a “source” who told Wright: “In principle the prime minister believes that we should be offering the same terms to Australia as we offer to the EU.”
David Linden (SNP) asks about plans to close the McVitie’s factory in Glasgow.
Johnson says the Scottish secretary will have a meeting with Linden about this.
Justin Madders (Lab) asks Johnson if he has a plan to fix social care.
“Yes,” says Johnson. He says Labour failed to address this when they were in power. “This government is going to tackle it,” he says. He says if Labour want to support it, with their customary resolve, and without their “wibble-wobbling”, then he is all ears.
Andrew Slaughter (Lab) asks what Johnson thinks of the comments from Jenny McGee, the nurse who looked after him in hospital last year who is now leaving the NHS.
Johnson acknowledges his debt to nurses. The pay review body is looking at their pay. But he has also recruited 11,000 more nurses, he says.
James Cartlidge (Con) asks if the government will set a timetable for delivering an offshore grid for offshore wind.
Johnson says it is essential to address this.
Gerald Jones (Lab) asks what the PM is doing about youth unemployment.
Johnson says £2bn is being invested in the Kickstart programme. Many businesses are facing shortages of workers, he says.
Danny Kruger (Con) asks for an assurance that there will be legislation this session to protect veterans from protection over historic cases in Northern Ireland, unless compelling evidence has come forward.
Johnson confirms the government is committed to legislation this session.
Richard Thomson (SNP) summarises the SNP’s success in the Scottish election. Why does the PM think the SNP did so well?
Johnson says the SNP did less well than under Alex Salmond is in 2011. That was because the people of Scotland have been very disappointed by the record of the Scottish government on matters like education and crime, he says.
Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) quotes Johnson as saying he would back British farmers. But now he is backing Australian farmers.
Johnson says it is a disgrace that no Welsh lamb has passed the lips of Americans for 20 years. He says Williams should have more ambition for Welsh farmers.
Andrew Bowie (Con) asks if the PM will visit Bowie’s constituency in Scotland to plant a tree to celebrate trade links with Japan.
Johnson says he would like to.
Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, says planning reforms introduced by Lib Dem ministers in the coalition promoted development in line with what communities wanted. So why does the PM want to rip them up?
Johnson says Davey is completely wrong. The plannnig bill will protect green spaces. But young people need help to get on the housing ladder.
Johnson dismisses claims proposed trade deal with Australia poses threat to Scottish farmers
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, says as a member of a crofting community in Scotland, he knows how disastrous a trade deal with Australia offering tariff-free access to lamb and beef. Will the PM rule this out?
Johnson says Blackford “grossly underestimates” the ability of Scottish farmers to benefit from the opportunities of a trade deal.
Blackford says Johnson’s answer was pathetic. He would not give a straight answer. He says NFU Scotland said Scottish farmers would feel betrayed. Will the PM think again?
Johnson says there are massive opportunities for fisheries (which Blackford mentioned), and he repeats the point about Scotland being able to benefit from free trade.
Starmer says Labour has been calling for blanket hotel quarantine for months.
He says he wants to raise the appalling rise in antisemitism seen in recent weeks. The government is working on this, he says. The PM and he have condemned these attacks. But Jewish communities are worried. What more can be done to reassure them?
Johnson says he shares Starmer’s horror at these incidents. The government will continue to support the Jewish community in any way it can. He says as a country we must call this out at any stage. He says Starmer’s stance on this is one of the most important changes in policy from Labour seen in recent times. (Johnson is making a reference to Jeremy Corbyn.) He suggests Labour should back the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.
Starmer says the messaging is confused and contradictory. Many people are travelling to amber list countries. The government does not know how many. We are an island nation. He says we have the power to stop this.
Johnson says Starmer should use “what authority he possesses” to support the government. Labour’s policy is confused, he says. He says the UK relies on imports for food.
Johnson says 70% of UK adults have now been vaccinated
Starmer says Johnson did not answer the question. He says 150 flights a day are going to amber list countries. How many people are now travelling to and from Britain from amber list countries every day.
Johnson says there has been a 95% reduction in travel to and from this country. He says the government can continues as it is because it has the fastest vaccination rollout anywhere in Europe. He says 70% of adults have now been vaccinated.
Starmer sums up the mixed messaging on amber countries. The government has lost control of the messaging, he says. If the PM does not want people to travel to amber list countries, why has he made it easier for people to do so?
Johnson says what the public want is some effort from the opposition to back up what the government is saying. They want to move away from legal bans, and to rely on guidance. He says you should not go to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance, like a family illness. You should not go to an amber list country on holiday, he says.
Sir Keir Starmer welcomes what Johnson said about Ballymurphy. Does the PM agree new variants are the biggest threat to unlocking next month?
Johnson says he can update MPs. He says the government has “increasing confidence” that the vaccines are effective against all variants.
Starmer says he takes that as a yes. So why on Monday did the government move 170 countries to the amber list, weakening protections?
Johnson claims the UK has some of the strongest border controls in the world. People returning from amber countries have to self-isolate for 10 days. There are checks. And if they do not comply, they can face fines of up to £10,000.
Andrew Rosindell (Con), MP for Romford, asks if the PM backs his campaign for Havering to take back control from the mayor of London.
Johnson says Sadiq Khan is not supporting outer London in the way he did when he was London mayor.
Labour’s Gareth Thomas asks about people at risk from Grenfell Tower-style cladding.
Johnson says the most dangerous cladding has already gone. People in high rise buildings will pay nothing to replace unsafe cladding, he says.
Boris Johnson starts by referring to the results of the inquest into the Ballymurphy killings in Northern Ireland in 1971. He says he wants to say sorry to the families of the 10 people who were killed. He reads out their names. And he says no apology can lessen the lasting pain of the families. He hopes other families will find answers with less distress and delay.
PMQs is starting soon.
This is from my colleague Severin Carrell on Nicola Sturgeon’s new cabinet.
UPDATE: From the BBC’s Lynsey Bews
The veteran Scottish National party politician Angus Robertson appears to have been given a cabinet secretary’s post in Nicola Sturgeon’s reshuffle, in a substantially rejigged cabinet which is again expected to be gender-balanced.
Robertson, who was the SNP’s Westminster leader until he lost his Commons seat amid the Tory surge in the 2017 general election, was among half a dozen SNP MSPs who arrived at Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence in Edinburgh, Bute House.
With their job titles due to be announced shortly, the arrivals at Bute House on this morning suggest Sturgeon has reappointed Humza Yousaf, formerly justice secretary; Kate Forbes, latterly finance secretary; and Michael Matheson, latterly transport secretary, and Shirley-Anne Somerville, social security secretary, to cabinet secretary posts.
John Swinney, her highly-trusted deputy, was shifted from education, where he had a mixed record, to become her Covid recovery secretary on Tuesday evening.
The former health secretary Shona Robison, a close personal friend of Sturgeon’s, and Mairi Gougeon, who garnered a good reputation as a junior environment minister, are also among those who turned up at Bute House, a Georgian townhouse on Charlotte Square.
Keith Brown, the SNP’s depute [deputy] leader and former Royal Marine who was sacked as economy secretary in a previous reshuffle, also arrived at the building, to the surprise of political reporters.
There was a heightened air of theatre to this reshuffle: while Bute House has been the focus of significant cabinet reorganisations in the past, the candidates generally arrived by car. This reshuffle has seen appointees walk down Charlotte Square, with their cars or taxis tucked out of sight. PA reports that physically-distanced dots have been marked out on the upper step for a ritual photocall.
Robertson, another former SNP deputy leader, is widely seen as a potential successor to Sturgeon. His appointment belies a rather waspish comment about his prospects in a Sunday Times report at the weekend which forecast he may get a job “although some insiders have cautioned that he is not as close to Sturgeon as he might care to think”.
On Monday Matt Hancock, the health secretary, tried to justify the decision not to put India on the red list earlier by quoting figures implying that in early April the situation there was not as bad as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which were added to the red list on 2 April. But, as reported in the blog yesterday, Sky’s Ed Conway found government figures about the Covid positivity rates for people arriving in the UK from those countries that contradicted what Hancock told MPs.
Downing Street was unable to defend Hancock’s claims yesterday. We asked the Department of Health, and after 7pm last night they finally sent out a response that failed to explain the discrepancy. Conway posted it on Twitter, alongside the questions he put to the department.
Ministers who inadvertently mislead the House of Commons are, of course, expected to correct the record as soon as possible. If they knowingly mislead the Commons, they are expected to resign. Hancock is taking the Downing Street press conference at 5pm, and so he can address this then.
The government only announced that India was being added to the red list on 19 April, with the ban taking effect from 23 April. It is widely assumed that the government delayed the decision because until 19 April Boris Johnson was planning a major trip to India - although this has been denied by ministers.
Government guidance on visiting amber list countries 'doesn't make sense', says travel industry
ABTA, the trade body representing the travel industry, has criticised the government for trying to stop people travelling on holiday to countries on the amber list. In a statement issued this morning it said:
It doesn’t make sense for the government to tell people they shouldn’t travel to amber destinations when the government itself has put a plan in place that allows them to do this in a risk managed way, with mitigations such as testing and quarantine. The recent comments and mixed messages from ministers undermine the government’s own system for international travel and further erode consumer confidence.
While we understand that public health is the priority, the government has moved the goalposts on the return to international travel. In April it laid out a sensible plan to enable people to travel overseas, with a traffic light system of measures and mitigations to help prevent the reimportation of the virus on the return home. This is supported by the Foreign Office advice which manages the risk to people in destination. International travel is now legal again and the traffic light system needs to be allowed to work as originally intended.
Local lockdowns could provoke civil unrest, Tory council leader warns
Imposing local lockdowns could provoke civil unrest, a Conservative council leader said this morning.
With ministers refusing to rule out a return to local lockdowns, David Greenhalgh, Conservative leader at Bolton council, told the Today programme that they did not work. He said:
We’ve been there before and they don’t work - not in a dense conurbation like Greater Manchester.
This happened before, the spread increased because people travelled 50 yards across the county boundary to access hospitality that they can’t in their own area.
When asked if it was true that he had told Matt Hancock, the health secretary, in person that another local lockdown could provoke civil unrest, Greenhalgh did not deny this. He replied:
I do think there is a danger of unrest. There is a great deal of resentment. Bolton was ... we were disproportionately affected really since July last year.
Even when our rates were coming down, we still remained in lockdown when other areas’ rates were higher than ours, so there was a build up of resentment.
The people of Bolton have a great spirit and they come together when times are difficult.
But this would be a very, very difficult situation to manage I believe - if we went into a lockdown that we have personal experience of as a town, which did not work.
Bolton currently has the highest Covid rates in the UK, with the Indian variant now the dominant variant in the town. Greenhalgh said that cases were still rising, and that he expected that to continue for another fortnight. He said:
We have community spread, there’s no doubt about that, and we’re holding back a variant that would appear - although the evidence is still being gathered - to be a little bit more transmissible, easily transmissible.
The majority of our cases are in very much our younger age groups - primary school, secondary school and in their 20s.
We still haven’t got an increase in hospitalisation and severe illness, which is hugely welcome, those figures still remain low.
We’re doing everything we can. The government has sent in surge vaccinations, surge testing ... We’re doing everything we can, but I think the next two weeks we will still see our cases rising.
EU leaders will call on Boris Johnson to respect the rights of their citizens in the wake of scandals over their treatment in the UK, including their detention in removal centres, according to a leaked draft statement seen by the Guardian. My colleague Daniel Boffey has the story here.
Labour seeks Commons vote to force government to publish its internal review of handling of Covid
Labour is trying to force a Commons vote this evening on an amendment that would oblige the government to publish its internal review of what went wrong with the handling of the pandemic.
Downing Street confirmed that such a report exists at a lobby briefing last week, but it said the work was informal, and not for publication.
The amendment uses the language of a “humble address”, and in the last parliament the opposition used this procedure to get the government to publish its legal advice on the final Brexit deal. Governments can ignore certain votes in parliament, but not “humble address” ones.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, told Times Radio this morning that the Labour move was not about point scoring. He said:
We need to learn lessons and prepare for the next stage.
This isn’t about scoring points or anything like that, it’s about being aware we have got this particular variant spreading in parts of the country.
It seems to be spreading quickly and we need to make sure the government is doing all it can to quickly contain the spread.
If we have the lessons learned document published it will help all of us better scrutinise the government’s plans and response to this variant.
Today is the final day of the Queen’s speech debate and 11 amendments have been tabled to the government motion. Labour’s is the one most likely to be put to a vote when the debate ends at 7pm.
But, although the opposition had some success with humble address motions in the last parliament, when the Conservatives had no overall majority, Boris Johnson now has a working majority of more than 80 and has almost no chance of losing.
Here is the text of the Labour amendment.
At end add ‘but respectfully regret that the government has provided insufficient information for its proposals properly to be scrutinised; and therefore beg leave that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before parliament: the DHSC internal review of their operation during the pandemic as referenced by the prime minister’s official spokesman on 12 May.’
Flights still arriving in UK from India show border controls under Tories an 'utter mess', says Labour
As Ben Glaze reports in the Daily Mirror, three flights from India landed at Heathrow yesterday morning - even though India is on the red list for travel. The red list rules do not stop Britons or others with residence rights from travelling from India to the UK, although they will be subject to hotel quarantine.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, says this report shows that border controls under the Conservatives are an “utter mess”.
Sturgeon sacks two ministers at start of Scottish government reshuffle
Nicola Sturgeon has sacked two of the Scottish National party’s longest-serving ministers, Fiona Hyslop and Fergus Ewing, as she prepares for the biggest cabinet reshuffle in her time as first minister.
Hyslop, until now the economy and fair work secretary in Sturgeon’s cabinet, had served as a minister since the SNP first won power in 2017. As culture and external affairs secretary, she expanded Scottish government arts policy and the Scottish government’s international reach.
Ewing, another veteran rural affairs minister in government since 2007, and a member of the SNP dynasty founded by his mother Winnie Ewing, had been a controversial figure inside government. The focus of bullying allegations involving government officials, which he has denied, Ewing was viewed by his critics as a conservative force on environment and rural policy.
Sturgeon is expected to make swingeing changes in this reshuffle, as she attempts to bolster her party’s tarnished economic, social policy and climate credentials in advance of a fresh push for a second independence referendum. Four former cabinet secretaries, including Mike Russell, her Brexit minister, left politics at the election.
In the first cabinet change, she effectively sacked her highly-trusted deputy John Swinney late on Tuesday by stripping him of his role as education secretary and putting him in charge of the Scottish government’s Covid recovery strategy - another key priority for her government.
The BBC journalist Philip Sim tweeted Swinney was now being made “minister for Good Morning Scotland”, a reference to BBC Radio Scotland’s current affairs programme.
Opposition parties were less complementary. Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, said Swinney was to blame for a string of education policy failures, including the debacle over exam grading during the Covid crisis, and presiding over a fall in Scotland’s international schools rankings.
Swinney was also subject to no confidence motions during the Salmond inquiries crisis after he repeatedly ignored Holyrood votes to release government legal papers.
It is right that John Swinney has been moved on from his previous role. He has left a wake of damaging failures behind him that require urgent action to fix.
Putting him in charge of our recovery is potentially gambling with the health and well-being of the nation. While we wish him well, he must demonstrate quickly that he is up to the job.
Ferguson says home quarantine rules won't stop new variant entering UK
And here are some more lines from Prof Neil Ferguson’s interview on the Today programme, in addition to what he said about the latest data on the transmissibility of the Indian variant offering a “glimmer of hope”. (See 9.12am.)
- Ferguson said home quarantine rules would not stop new variants entering the country. He said:
One thing the import of this Indian variant has shown us - everybody coming back from India had to home quarantine, had to test - is an imperfect way, it basically didn’t work. It’s an imperfect way of stopping viruses coming into the general community, but it probably does have some effect.
But he also broadly supported the government’s policy on travel, suggesting the public might not accept a total travel ban. He said:
Clearly, if we want to stop any new variants coming in, then arguably the sort of strategies that Taiwan and New Zealand and Australia are adopting are what we need to implement here, but I’m not sure if the majority of the population would support that.
I think we have a strategy at the moment of trying to reduce the risks, but not eliminate them.
In terms of personal behaviour, I think the government recommendations are clear. The green list countries pose less risk than the amber risk countries, but nothing is risk-free.
People have to bear in mind this is not a panacea.
- He said vaccine hesitancy amongst minority ethnic groups was not a major factor in the spread of the Indian variant. “I don’t think it’s playing a role in the fast spread, well not a significant role in the fast spread,” he said. “This virus ... is principally circulating among unvaccinated groups [ie, younger people who have not been offered the vaccine].”
- He said he thought it was “very much in the balance’ whether England would be able to go ahead with the lifting of all remaining restrictions on 21 June as planned. Asked if the plans would have to be revised, he said:
I think that’s actively being considered. I think it’s very much in the balance and the data collected in the next two to three weeks will determine that.
- He questioned the effectiveness of local lockdowns. He said the tier system used last year “to some extent worked, it slowed spread”. But he said if the variant was widespread and highly transmissible, then locking down hotspot areas “may work in those areas, but just allows the rest of the country to reach a high infection level - and we know what the consequences of that were last year.”
Latest data on transmissibility of Indian variant offers 'glimmer of hope', says Prof Ferguson
Good morning. The Covid oracle, Prof Neil Ferguson, was on the Today programme this morning and he had some moderately encouraging news for Boris Johnson and everyone else who wants to know exactly how serious is the threat posed by B.1.617.2, the variant of coronavirus originating in India. The variant does not seem to be more vaccine resistant, or more likely to trigger serious illness, but it does seem to be more transmissible, and as the UK discovered with the Kent variant, this can be worse. Last week Sage, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said that there was a “realistic possibility” that the Indian variant was 50% more transmissible, and that this could have severe consequences.
Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist who heads the team that produces some of the main modelling used by government and who produced the paper credited with persuading the government to launch the lockdown last March, was on the Today programme this morning and he was asked what the latest assessment was of the transmissibility of the Indian variant. He explained that it was hard to tell because of how the variant came to the UK in the first place. He said:
It was introduced from overseas principally into people with Indian ethnicity, a higher chance of living in multi-generational households and often in quite deprived areas with high density housing. And so we’re trying to work out whether the rapid growth we’ve seen in areas such as Bolton is going to be typical of what we could expect elsewhere [ie, whether the Kent variant would have spread just as quickly, because of the social conditions], or is really what is called a founder effect, which is often seen in these circumstances.
Then came the good news. Ferguson went on:
There’s a little bit of, I would say, a glimmer of hope from the recent data that whilst this variant does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data. The curves are flattening a little. But it will take more time for us to be definitive about it.
I will post more from the Ferguson interview shortly.
The lower the transmissibility advantage of the Indian variant, the less likely it is that Johnson will have to revise or abandon his plans for further lockdown easing less month, and so No 10 will be hoping Ferguson is right. But Johnson has plenty of other issues to worry about. He has his first PMQs of the new session of parliament and he is likely to face questions about the confusion over the government’s travel advice. My colleague Haroon Siddique has the story here.
Here is the agenda for the day.
10am: Tony Sewell, chair of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, gives evidence to the Commons education committee about left-behind white pupils.
12pm: Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.
1.30pm: Downing Street is expected to hold its lobby briefing.
3.30pm: Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, gives evidence to the Commons international trade committee.
5pm: Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is expected to hold a press conference.
Politics Live has been a mix of Covid and non-Covid news recently, and that is likely to be the case today. For more Covid coverage, do read our global live blog.
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