Early evening summary
- Boris Johnson’s attempt to ignore questions about a No 10 party held during lockdown by urging people to wait for the outcome of the ongoing inquiry into “partygate” has failed to quell growing uproar about his conduct in his party, and in the country at large. While relatively few Tory MPs have criticised him in public, in private their mood is reportedly more unforgiving and Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has said that if Johnson did attend the lockdown-busting event (as witnesses say he did), while ministers were telling the public that gatherings of this kind were banned, that would be “utterly despicable”. (See 4.38pm.) Ross said Johnson must resign if he has broken the rules. Two polls suggest more than half of voters have already decided Johnson should quit. (See 3.57pm.) Michael Ellis, a junior Cabinet Office minister, spent almost 90 minutes in the Commons ducking questions about whether Johnson had attended the party, and having to listen to heartrending accounts of the anger felt by constituents who missed key moments with loved ones while No 10 staff were partying. (See 2.22pm.) There will now be intense focus on tomorrow’s PMQs, where Johnson’s performance may determine whether his MPs decide to push for his removal.
- The Metropolitan police have been accused of “deferring to the powerful” by not investigating Downing Street parties held in apparent breach of lockdown rules.
- Government MPs have voted down a Labour motion calling for VAT on household energy bills to be cut. In the past government MPs have often abstained on Labour motions they do not support, because normally opposition day motions are non-binding, but they felt obliged to vote down this one because the wording would have set aside time for the Commons to pass a bill cutting VAT. Only one Tory, Anne Marie Morris, voted with Labour. Labour has posted this on Twitter.
- Restrictions on large outdoor events in Scotland will be lifted from next Monday, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed, as she told Holyrood that the latest Covid infection data indicated “we may be starting to turn a corner”.
That’s all from me for today. But our coronavirus coverage continues on our global live blog. It’s here.
The Conservative former minister Johnny Mercer has joined the list of Tory MPs speaking out about the No 10 party. (See 5.42pm.) He says it is “humiliating” for his party.
John Caudwell, a major Tory donor, has told the BBC that Boris Johnson should “sort it out ... or step aside and let someone else sort it out so that the Tories aren’t wiped out at the next election”.
And here the BBC’s Carolyn Quinn quoting a Tory MP critical of Boris Johnson who does not want to go on the record.
George Grylls from the Times has got a Twitter thread starting here naming seven Tory MPs who have publicly expressed concern about the No 10 party. They are: Philip Davies, Robbie Moore, Laura Farris, Philip Dunne, Douglas Ross, Christopher Chope and Bob Blackman.
Tory MPs will consider no confidence vote if PM has broken law, Scottish Conservative leader says
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, has said backbench Tory MPs will discuss tabling a no confidence vote in Boris Johnson with the party’s 1922 committee if he is found to have broken the law by attending the No 10 party.
Speaking to STV, Ross said he was “furious” that while other Britons were unable to meet dying or hospitalised relatives “people in 10 Downing Street were enjoying the sunshine out the back of No 10 and quaffing the booze”.
Ross, the Tory MP for Moray as well as an MSP, said he could no longer support the prime minister if he was found to have attended the event and then failed to resign voluntarily.
Asked whether he would himself send a letter to the 1922 Committee to trigger a leadership election, Ross did not confirm he had done so but said:
It doesn’t trigger an election, it triggers a vote in whether you have confidence or not. These are discussions I know that colleagues will be having in Westminster.
I would not in any way support the prime minister if he broke the law and attended that party.
UK may be closer than other countries to stage where Covid no longer pandemic, says expert
Mass vaccination and past waves of infection mean the UK may be closer than other countries to emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and Covid becoming a more manageable disease, a leading public health expert has said.
Prof David Heymann, a distinguished fellow in global public health at Chatham House and former chair of the UK Health Protection Agency, said immunity in the UK seemed to have reached a sufficient level to prevent widespread severe illness from Covid, though he stressed it was impossible to rule out more virulent variants in the future.
“Probably in the UK, it’s the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic, if it isn’t already out of the pandemic, and having the disease as endemic as the other four coronaviruses,” Heymann told a Chatham House webinar today. The other coronaviruses he referred to have been around for centuries and are among the many viruses that cause common colds. He went on:
Countries are now seeing population immunity build up. That means immunity against serious illness and death after one is vaccinated, or after reinfection if one has had the illness before, and that population immunity seems to be keeping the virus and its variants at bay.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that about 95% of the UK population have antibodies to Covid from vaccination, infection or both. Antibodies bind to the virus and disable it before it infects cells. Another arm of the immune system deploys T cells which destroy infected cells and limit the spread of infection.
Immunity is “keeping the virus at bay, and it’s now functioning more like an endemic coronavirus than one that is pandemic,” Heymann said.
In fact, the people who are getting seriously ill are those who have not had previous infection or vaccination. And if you look in the intensive care units, you’ll see that unfortunately, the majority of those people are not vaccinated.
But Heymann warned that we are not out of the woods. We should expect further resurgences of the virus, he said, adding that it is impossible to predict where or when new variants will emerge and how virulent and transmissible they will be. “We don’t know what’s in store for us,” he said. “It could certainly be a bumpy road.”
UK records 120,821 new cases and 379 further deaths
The UK has recorded 120,821 new Covid cases, today’s government dashboard update says. That means the total number of new cases over the past week is now down, by 13.1%, on the total for the previous week. Until now the week-on-week total has been rising.
But deaths are up 80.8% week on week, with another 379 recorded today.
Scottish Tory leader says PM must resign if he broke lockdown rules because such hypocrisy 'utterly despicable'
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has said that Boris Johnson will have to resign if it has found that he broke lockdown regulations by attending the party in Downing Street on 20 May last year.
In what is probably the most significant Tory criticism of Johnson so far, Ross – who still sits as an MP, despite also being a member of the Scottish parliament – told Sky News that Johnson should say now whether or not he attended the event, instead of dodging the question and saying it is a matter for the Sue Gray inquiry (as he has been doing). Ross said:
It is not pre-judging Sue Gray’s inquiry for the prime minister to come forward and say if he was at the party or not. That’s a crucial question. It won’t in any way undermine Sue Gray’s investigation. It will let the public know, right now, if he was there or not. It’s a crucial question that shouldn’t have to wait until prime minister’s questions tomorrow. We should hear the answer right now.
Ross said that, if Johnson and his staff did break the lockdown rules being followed by everyone else, such hypocrisy would be despicable. He said:
I can’t understand why [the PM would not answer the question now]. If there’s nothing to hide here, if there’s no issue, then just answer the question. And if there is, then that is an acceptance that he himself breached the guidance that his government were putting in place.
This is the guidance that stopped people going to family members’ funerals. It stopped people grieving together. It meant that doctors and nurses were working flat out to get this virus under control and people across the country were following some of the strictest guidance we’ve ever seen.
And if the prime minister and others within No 10 breached that guidance, while earlier that afternoon a cabinet minister had told people what they were expected to do, yet out the back in No 10 people were enjoying the sunshine in the garden - I think that is utterly despicable.
Asked if Johnson could stay on as prime minister if he were found to have broken the law, Ross said:
No, absolutely not. This is a law that he and his government put in place. This is a law ... that constituents up and down the country have suffered as a result of. They have been fined, they have been punished, for breaking the rules that the UK government put in place. And if the UK government and the prime minister have broken those rules, then they must be punished to.
Johnson is significantly more unpopular in Scotland than he is in England and in one respect distancing yourself from him is an essential survival mechanism for a Scottish Conservative leader. Ross resigned from government in May last year because he was unwilling to defend Dominic Cummings over the Barnard Castle trip, and this was a factor that bolstered his credibility when there was vacancy for the Scottish Conservative leadership.
But it is not just Scottish voters who are angry about No 10 partying, and Ross’s willingness to speak out might encourage some of his parliamentary colleagues to break cover too.
Two polls suggests more than half of voters think Johnson should resign following latest No 10 party allegations
YouGov has also released some snap polling suggesting a majority of people (56%) think Boris Johnson should resign. YouGov’s Patrick English has just told Sky News that this is the first time in YouGov polling that more than half of people have said he should quit.
That makes two polls this afternoon suggesting more than half of voters think Johnson should resign. (See 3.40pm.)
YouGov also found that more than half of people say they are following partygate stories either very or fairly closely.
Nicola Sturgeon says that the latest revelations about Downing Street’s “serial” rule-breaking are “deeply angering and upsetting” to people who had made significant personal sacrifices to follow government guidance.
Asked at her weekly Covid statement about the impact of the latest reports on Scotland’s public health messages, Sturgeon said:
People across the country are aghast at the revelations about Downing Street’s conduct.
It appears not just one isolated breach but serial breaches of guidance that people were following through painful sacrifices through this pandemic, and a prime minister who apparently is not being truthful about his knowledge of these matters. I don’t think it will surprise anybody to hear my view that the office of prime minister would be greatly enhanced by Boris Johnson’s departure from it. But more importantly, I think at this moment in time, the interests of the United Kingdom would be enhanced by that as well.
Savanta ComRes has released the results of a snap poll suggesting that, by a margin of almost three to one, voters do not see Boris Johnson as an asset for his party. Even among people who voted Conservative in 2019 opinion is evenly divided as to whether or not he is an asset.
And two-thirds of voters (66%) think he should resign over the latest revelations, the poll suggests. This is a 12-point increase on the percentage of people saying Johnson should resign when Savanta ComRes asked the same question last month, in the light of the original partygate revelations.
The poll also suggests that 77% of people think the Metropolitan police should investigate the latest revelations and and that 36% of people say they would be less likely to follow government Covid rules as a result of this story.
Catch-up tuition programme for pupils set to miss its targets, latest figures suggest
The government has published figures that show take-up of its flagship national tutoring programme is falling woefully short of targets, putting catch-up plans for the nation’s children in doubt.
Schools appear to be rejecting the government’s tuition scheme run by the Dutch multi-national Randstad in favour of their own in-house tuition provision. Just 10% of this year’s target for the Randstad-led scheme has been reached so far, while tuition provided by academic mentors - a separate strand of the NTP also run by Randstad - is at 8% of target.
Last term, an estimated 230,000 school-led tutoring packages got under way to help children with the greatest learning loss. Just 52,000 were provided by the Randstad scheme, which has a target of 524,000 this academic year, plus 20,000 through the academic mentoring scheme, which has a target of 252,000. One source described the results as “scandalously poor”.
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said schools had found accessing tuition support through the NTP confusing and difficult. He explained:
Unfortunately, the story behind these numbers is that there are still many children that would benefit from tutoring support who are not getting it.
The government’s tutoring revolution risks stalling unless more is done to ensure that high quality easy-to-access tutoring support is available to every school, for all pupils that need it, in every single part of the country.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added:
The government’s theory behind aiming to reduce the workload on schools may have been good but its decision to use an expensive commercial partner has backfired.
Schools minister Robin Walker said: “We know there is still work to do, but its hugely encouraging to see so many students from all backgrounds have been directly reached through the government’s tutoring programme and I encourage all schools to take advantage of it.”
One in 12 NHS staff in Wales are off sick with Covid-19 or are self-isolating, the Welsh health minister, Eluned Morgan, has said.
She said 8% were off – around 10,000 people - the highest number since April 2020 and there are more than 1,000 Covid patients in hospitals in Wales.
Morgan said Wales remained in a grip of a “huge coronavirus wave” that had not yet reached its peak, despite statistics seeming to show a levelling off in the last few days.
The minister also conceded a shortage of social care workers meant that 1,000 people were in hospital waiting to be discharged but could not because of a lack of support.
Asked if restrictions on the number of people able to attend a sporting match may be lifted in time for the rugby Six Nations, Morgan said that “we are keen to dismantle any restrictions as soon as we possibly can” and the matter was already being discussed in cabinet.
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, is resisting pressure for large crowds to be allowed back into football and rugby grounds.
Drakeford’s Labour government has been criticised for its restrictions, which include a limit of 50 people meeting at an outdoor event.
At first minister’s questions, the Tory leader, Andrew RT Davies, said Wales had become an “outlier” by maintaining such restrictions and called for a clear roadmap out.
Drakeford said that Wales remained “in the teeth of the Omicron storm”, adding:
We have the latest modelling - it shows that the peak of the on wave is yet to be reached in Wales, we may be 10 days away form the peak. Every week we take advice from the chief medical officer and others. When they tell us it is safe to lift restrictions, we are eager to do that. We are not in that situation yet.
Scotland to lift Covid ban on large gatherings from Monday
Restrictions on large outdoor events in Scotland will be lifted from next Monday, Nicola Sturgeon has told the Holyrood parliament, as she said that “cautious optimism” around the impact of the Omicron wave would mean a phased lifting of the limits on events and hospitality settings introduced before Christmas. My colleague Libby Brooks has the full story here.
Drakeford living in hut to protect relatives during time when Johnson partying in No 10, Welsh Labour says
At the time of the Downing Street party, the Welsh first minster, Mark Drakeford, was living in a hut in the bottom of his garden to protect shielding relatives, Welsh Labour has pointed out
The shadow Welsh secretary, Jo Stevens, said:
The continuing series of revelations about parties at Downing Street have made a mockery of all those across Wales who have diligently followed the rules - often at great personal cost.
Whilst Boris Johnson was attending BYOB house parties in Downing Street, Wales’ first minister, Mark Drakeford, moved out of his home to protect his shielding wife and mother-in-law. The contrast in leadership could not be clearer.
Truth and integrity matters. No one is above the law. It damages trust and confidence in government if the person leading it and the people around him break the law, lie to us and laugh about it. Wales deserves so much better than Boris Johnson.
The Welsh health minister, Eluned Morgan, has claimed the controversy over parties at No 10 made it impossible for Boris Johnson to bring in restrictions to counter the Omicron wave.
Speaking in Cardiff, Morgan said Johnson’s authority had been so severely undermined that he could not take the advice of experts and impose the sort of stricter rules that are in force in Wales.
“Clearly people are likely to be less willing to follow the example set by a prime minister who is not following his own rules,” Morgan said.
She described May 2020 as “an acute time” in the crisis. She went on:
I think about the sacrifices that so many people in Wales made at that time, sacrifices of not being able to say goodbye to loved ones in hospital, the sacrifices people made in not being able to leave their homes, not being able to see loved ones, not being able to reach out for the support so man people wanted at that time.
To have that juxtaposed with a situation within Downing Street where a party was going on really defies belief. I do hope the prime minister will do his duty and report to the House of Commons. It is his responsibility to lead from the front and lead by example. He has failed to give very clear answers on very simple questions and I think the public deserves to know what was going on.
Nearly 5% of teachers in England absent with Covid infections last week, DfE figures show
Nearly 5% of state school teachers in England were absent because of Covid infections on the very first days of term, according to the latest official attendance figures that also reveal more children stayed off school last week because of Covid than at the end of last term.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the official data matched the union’s reports from its members of significant levels of staff absence.
“Schools are doing a brilliant job to keep things going in the face of very challenging circumstances but it is very far from business as usual. And the concern is that the situation could worsen over the coming weeks,” Whiteman said.
The Department for Education figures show that on 6 January some 315,000 students and pupils were absent for Covid-related reasons - 3.9% of all pupils nationally and 14,000 more than on 16 December. The January total includes 159,000 pupils absent with confirmed cases of Covid and 102,000 with suspected cases - but it does not include those isolating after a positive PCR test result, who are defined as ill.
More worryingly, the figures also show rising numbers of staff absences. Among teachers and school leaders, 4% were off on 6 January with a confirmed Covid infection, nearly double the 2.2% absent for the same reason on 16 December. Among teaching assistants and other school staff, 5% were off with a confirmed Covid infection, compared with just 1.5% on 16 December.
Overall attendance in primary schools was 91%, while in secondary schools it was 85.9%.
The latest figures are likely to be distorted by the beginning of term, with many secondary schools staggering their start dates in order to conduct on-site testing.
However the government’s statisticians warned that a “large number of secondary schools misinterpreted” the data collection forms, and mistakenly indicated that their school was “closed due to coronavirus reasons” at the start of term. Any school that said it was closed for that reason has been excluded from the data.
What we've learned from the No 10 party UQ
The Spectator dishes out numerous awards for parliamentarians every year, but they don’t have one for best defence of the indefensible. If they did, Michael Ellis would be a shoo-in. For almost 90 minutes, he batted away perfectly reasonable questions about whether Boris Johnson did attend the No 10 party on 20 May last year, where he was seen by witnesses, and almost everything else. He sounded less oleaginous and more compassionate than when he last went round this course, and from No 10’s point of view it was a job well done.
From what Ellis said, we learnt almost nothing – although his disclosure near the start that, if there is a police investigation the Gray inquiry may be paused, could turn out to be significant. He said:
As with all internal investigations, if evidence emerges of what was a potentially criminal offence the matter would be referred to the Metropolitan police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused.
That could turn out to be useful delaying tactic for No 10 – albeit one that would probably involve Martin Reynolds, the PM’s principal private secretary, getting his collar felt by the Met.
But often in parliament you learn more from the questions than from the answers. Three things stood out.
First, whatever they feel in private, Conservative MPs are not prepared to attack Johnson over this in public. No one from the Tory benches had a go at him in the chamber, and even on Twitter the few Conservatives speaking out have mostly been longstanding critics of Johnson from the House of Lords.
But, second, there was almost no attempt to defend him either. Only about two backbenchers (Maria Miller and Suzanne Webb) wholeheartedly went out to support him, and even then only on the appropriateness of debating this now. No 10 may find that silence ominous.
And, third, anger about what happened is deep, visceral and unlikely to go away. Commons proceedings are normally dull, and outrage is often confected, but these exchanges – dominated by MPs relaying accounts of the betrayal felt by constituents who made terrible sacrifices because they were obeying the rules last May – were remarkably moving and compelling. Parliament is there to channel the views of the nation, and this afternoon it felt as if it were doing its job brilliantly. If Johnson thinks he can just sit this one out and hope the anger will go away, he is deluded.
Stephen Flynn (SNP) says we have all seen the footage of Johnson smirking when asked about these allegations. He says Johnson has been lying about them.
Ellis says that characterisation is unworthy and unfair.
Rachael Maskell (Lab) says normally when someone is under investigation they are suspended. Why has the PM not been suspended?
Ellis says gatherings are being investigated, not individuals.
Richard Thomson (SNP) says the authority of the PM is draining away. He says he must have known about a party in his garden.
Ellis says No 10 is not a normal domestic building.
Jonathan Edwards (Ind) asks about constituents who could not have a proper funeral when their mother died last year. What would be an appropriate sanction if the rules have been broken.
Ellis says it is not for him to say.
Munira Wilson (Lib Dem) asks what Ellis would say to a constituent who could not visit her dying mother last year.
Ellis says he apologises unreservedly for the upset these allegations have caused.
Kerry McCarthy (Lab) says her constituents do not want to hear from Ellis. They want to hear from the PM.
Ellis says Johnson will be hear for PMQs tomorrow.
Alison Thewliss (SNP) asks about a constituent unable to visit a brother with learning disabilities during lockdown, while they were partying in No 10. Her brother thought his family had died. What would Ellis say to them?
Ellis expresses his sympathy, and says he regrets what people have gone through.
Asked for a list of the PM’s engagments on 20 May, Ellis says those are a matter of public record.
Kim Johnson (Lab) asks if Ellis agrees the PM should resign.
Ellis says he does not agree. He says the PM has been serving the people of this country, and has led the way through the pandemic.
Martin Docherty-Hughes (SNP) says if the PM sanctioned this party in any form, that will be a fatal blow to the PM’s premiership.
Chi Onwurah (Lab) says the government is a laughing stock if it won’t say where the PM was on 20 May last year. She says NHS staff in PPE were able to obey the rules.
Ellis says the PM has thanked NHS staff from the bottom of his heart, including those who saved his life.
Helen Hayes (Lab) asks about a constituent who died on the day the PM had cheese and wine in his garden with others, and only five days before the No 10 party. Only 10 people were allowed at the funeral, and her friends had to attend via Zoom. What can Ellis says to them?
Ellis says there is nothing he can say that will ameliorate their loss.
Geraint Davies (Lab) says at the time of the No 10 party people in Wales could be fined up to £1,920 for attending similar events. That shows how seriously they took matters, he says.
Catherine West (Lab) asks about a constituent unable to attend her grandmother’s funeral, while No 10 staff were partying. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Ellis offers his condolences.
Diana Johnson (Lab) asks why the PM is hiding behind Sue Gray’s investigation.
Ellis says the PM is not hiding behind anything. Johnson respects the Nolan principles of public life, Ellis claims. He says Johnson is a person of integrity.
Barbara Keeley (Lab) quotes a constituent left alone, unable to have visitors, after having a baby last year. How does Ellis feel about this?
Ellis says he feels considerable regret and sorrow. But his feelings are irrelevant.
Joanna Cherry (SNP) says she was pleased to hear Ellis says earlier the PM has recently visited a police station. She hopes he is visiting another one soon, with his solicitor.
She calls for a review of all fixed-penalty notices issued during the pandemic, and for pardons for all of those held to a higher standard than those who govern us.
Ellis says the rules apply equally to everyone in this country, and will continue to do so.
Andy McDonald (Lab) asks Ellis if he has been told whether or not the PM attended the party on 20 May. If so, what was the answer?
Ellis says he will not discuss private conversations with government ministers. He accuses McDonald of wanting to prejudge the matter. He says it is not a matter for him; it is a matter for Sue Gray.
Alison McGovern (Lab) says it is “the height of disrespect” for Ellis to come here with no answers. Can he say when the investigation will be over?
Ellis says the investigation must be allowed to continue.
Sam Tarry (Lab) says his constituents, unable to go to church or the mosque, were furious. When will the PM apologise?
Ellis says people unable to celebrate holy days suffered a loss. One can only express sorrow for them, he says.
Ellis claims Johnson acknowledges the importance of the Nolan principles of public life and follows them.
Julie Elliott (Lab) says she felt sick when she heard what was happening in No 10 when she and everyone else were making sacrifices. When will the PM take responsibility?
Ellis says he will be in the Commons for PMQs tomorrow.
Christine Jardine (Lib Dem) says one of the things that kept us going last year was the sense we were all making sacrifices together. She says people feel they have been betrayed, and treated with contempt.
Ellis says Johnson is in a better position than most to know the impact of Covid, because of all the visits he makes. “He’s on the side of the people of this country,” says Ellis.
Ellis claims there is “no indication” that the PM has misled parliament.
Jim Shannon (DUP) asks about his mother-in-law who died alone last year. He breaks down with grief asking the question, and is unable to finish.
Ellis says he is sorry for Shannon’s loss.
Ellie Reeves (Lab) asks about a constituent not allowed visitors in hospital last year after giving birth. Will the minister apologise to mothers of lockdown babies who did the right thing while No 10 partied?
Ellis says he cannot prejudge the investigation. But of course it is a matter of regret that people were affected by the restrictions. Of course he expresses regret about that, unreservedly.
Naz Shah (Lab) mentions another family that lost a member last year, with only limited numbers allowed at the funeral. Will Ellis tell the PM to apologise?
Ellis says he is not trying to minimise what happened. But the restrictions were there for a good reason.
Vicky Foxcroft (Lab) ask what Ellis would say to constituents who lost a father last year, with only limited numbers allowed at the funeral.
Ellis offers his condolences. But the inquiry should be allowed to conclude, he says.
Kirsten Oswald (SNP) asks Ellis if he has asked the PM about this party.
Ellis says he will not say. He is answering questions today, the investigation will take its course, and Oswald will get answers then, he says.
Ruth Jones (Lab) criticises Boris Johnson for not being present and asks why anyone should ever believe the PM again.
Ellis says Johnson will be here tomorrow for PMQs.
Richard Burgon (Lab) says the public believe the PM is a liar. Isn’t the only way to restore public confidence for him to resign?
Ellis says he does not think the public believe that. But Burgon shouts out that two-thirds of them do.
Burgon is right.
Tony Lloyd (Lab), who had Covid last year, says his life was saved by medical staff who came forward to help him. Don’t they deserve better than what they are getting from No 10.
Ellis says we should not prejudge what happened. There are claims based on unknown sources. He says we should wait for the results of the inquiry.
Maria Eagle (Lab) says no self-respecting minister would come to answer this UQ without knowing the facts. Does he know if the PM attended the party?
Ellis says that is a matter for Sue Gray and her investigation. It is not a matter for him, he claims.
Charlotte Nichols (Lab) says a constituent was fined for breaking lockdown rules. She asks when he and all other people fined will get their money back, given that No 10 broke the rules too.
Ellis says Nichols should await the results of the inquiry.
Afzal Khan (Lab) says his mother died in hospital in March last year. He had to be outside in a car. When asked about the parties on Sky News, Johnson “smirked and laughed”. Will the PM apologise for the pain caused by the parties, and for lying about it.
Ellis says Johnson understands the pain caused by this. He urges Khan to wait until Sue Gray reports.
Wendy Chamberlain (Lib Dem) says police officers were assaulted while enforcing Covid regulations. She says the PM should apologise to those officers.
Ellis says Boris Johnson has always been a strong supporter of the police. They know that.
Ian Lavery (Lab) asks what advice he would give to a hypothetical PM who has lied to this country, who has lied to MPs, and who has laughed when people have died.
Ellis says the advice he would offer would be to be fair to all sides, and to listen to the evidence. That is what we expect in this country.
Johnson 'retains confidence of people of this country', says minister
Ben Bradshaw (Lab) asks if the PM will resign if he is shown to have broken the law.
Ellis says that is a hypothetical question. The PM is going nowhere, he says. He says he “retains the confidence of the people of this country”.
Pete Wishart (SNP) says the PM should resign. “For goodness sake, man, go.”
Ellis says an inquiry is under way. Wishart should wait for its conclusions, he says.
Catherine McKinnell (Lab) says support groups for alcoholics were not allowed to meet during lockdown. If No 10 was holding a party at the same time, that would be obscene, she says.
Sir Christopher Chope (Con) says the civil service must have known about the party on 20 May. Why did they not refer it to the inquiry earlier?
Ellis says the fact that a number of dates are being looked at will delay the investigation.
Ellis says Boris Johnson will be in Commons for PMQs as usual tomorrow.
Suzanne Webb (Con) says the time of the Commons would be better spent talking how the government will level up.
Ellis says Webb is right to say levelling up is important, but this matter is of concern too. It should be investigated.
Angela Eagle (Lab) says it might be quicker for Sue Gray to investigate a day when there were no parties at No 10. She says 268 people died in hospital on the day the No 10 party was held. What is there to wait for? The PM should come here and “fess up”, she says.
Ellis says Eagle has a reputation for fairness, so she should see the case for allowing the investigation to conclude.
Peter Bone (Con) says he has “great confidence” in the PM. He says he was worried by Ellis’s comment that the inquiry might be paused if there is a Met inquiry.
Ellis says the PM wants the Gray inquiry to conclude quickly. But it is a matter for her.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, asks what should happen if an MP is found to have broken lockdown rules.
Ellis says it is not for him to say.
Maria Miller (Con) says MPs should debate these matters once the evidence has been collected.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, intervenes. He says he hopes Miller is not saying he was wrong to grant this UQ.
But Ellis says Miller’s point is a good one.
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, says Johnson should resign. If he won’t, Tory MPs should force him from office.
Ellis says the rules apply to everyone. That is why there is an investigation. The result of the Gray inquiry will be in the public inquiry in due course, he says.
Sir Desmond Swayne (Con) says this affair should show ministers the perils telling everyone else how to order their lives. Swayne is one of the Tories most critical of lockdown measures.
All this should be a powerful corrective to the urge to order the rest of our lives, shouldn’t it?
Ellis is responding to Rayner.
There is a need for an investigation, he says. He says Sue Gray is a “paragon of independence and integrity”.
Johnson himself was affected by Covid, he says. He says Johnson “takes this matter very seriously”.
And, responding to Rayner’s question about whether he still views Johnson as a man of integrity and honour, he says he does.
Rayner is responding to Ellis.
She says Boris Johnson’s absence speaks volumes. She says people have seen Johnson’s smirks on TV, and drawn their own conclusions.
She quotes an email from a person whose partner died in May last year - after she had been unable to get a GP appointment.
She says there is no need for an investigation. Johnson could answer the question today about whether he attended the party.
And she asks if Rishi Sunak knew about the party, pointing out he lives in Downing Street too.
Michael Ellis apologises for 'upset' caused by No 10 party 'allegations' as he responds to Labour UQ
Michael Ellis, paymaster general and a minister in the Cabinet Office, is now responding to the Labour urgent question about the Downing Street party revelations.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, asks the question. She says she wants the prime minister to make a statement on events in the Downing Street garden.
Ellis says the PM and he both spoke to MPs in December about the Sue Gray investigation.
He “apologises again unreservedly” for the upset these allegations have caused.
(If they are only allegations, why is there is a need for an apology?)
Ellis says the government has set out the terms of reference of the inquiry.
The allegations relating to 20 May will be included.
If wrongdoing is found to have taken place, disciplinary action will be taken, he says.
And he says if there is evidence of criminal behaviour, it will be referred to the police.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has criticised Boris Johnson for not responding in person to the UQ on the No 10 party that is about to start. She said:
Despite having no official engagements listed today, the prime minister has again failed to turn up to parliament and face the music. His absence speaks volumes. Boris Johnson holds the British public in contempt.
At the No 10 lobby briefing the PM’s spokesman said it was “not uncommon” for another minister to be asked to reply to a question like this.
No 10 says it won't respond to party revelations until Sue Gray's inquiry over - and PM's PPS still in post
The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished and, on partygate at least, it was a masterclass in stonewalling. The PM’s spokesman took numerous questions about the party revelations, whether the PM stood by his many previous claims about no rules having been broken, about whether he has lied, and about the future of Martin Reynolds, Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary (PPS) who sent out the email party invitation.
We did learn that Reynolds has not already been sacked. He is still at work, the spokesman said, and Johnson still has confidence in him. But otherwise the spokesman would not engage with these questions at all. He just insisted that these were matters for the inquiry by Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating the various partygate allegations.
Sir Peter Fahy, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, has told Times Radio that the Metropolitan police should give a public explanation for their decision not to investigate, at least until now, parties at No 10 that may have broken lockdown rules. He said that, while the Met’s reluctance to investigate historic breaches of lockdown rules was understandable, this had now become a competence issue, affecting public confidence in the police. He said:
Normally, if an organisation is thought to have breached the law, you don’t leave it for that organisation to go away and investigate it themselves and wait for the result. And some people have said there’s quite a lot of police officers on duty around No 10, why did they not realise that there was something going on and report it, or at least give advice that this shouldn’t be going on?
So unfortunately it’s becoming, as well as an issue of political confidence, one of competence in the police and almost the investigation system.
Fahy said a statement from the Met was necessary “so the public do understand the reasoning as to why they’re going to investigate or not investigate”.
Ruth Davidson says No 10 party 'makes mockery of idea we were doing national endeavour to keep each other safe'
Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, has said that some people affected by Covid will never forgive the government after what they have learnt about partygate.
She told the BBC:
If No 10 doesn’t understand the anger that is out there, then they’re going to find out that anger pretty soon in the next couple of days because everybody has some form of sacrifice, or somebody important in their life that gave a huge sacrifice, that will never forgive whatever went on, because it just makes a mockery of this idea that we were doing a national endeavour to try and keep each other safe.
The UK’s main statistical body has reported more than 175,000 deaths involving Covid since the start of the pandemic, my colleagues Niamh McIntyre and Pamela Duncan report.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, has said he does not expect junior Downing Street staff to be named in Sue Gray’s report into the partygate affair. Speaking on his Moggcast podcast, Rees-Mogg said “you wouldn’t expect the name of extremely junior people to be put into public highlights”. He went on:
I don’t know what’s happened, I have no idea what will be concluded. But if there is somebody on work experience, who happened to be there for a week, it would seem unfair that that person should be named publicly.
If, on the other hand, the Pope had popped in briefly, somebody of that seniority, you would expect that His Holiness would be named.
The Conservative MP Michael Fabricant has been defending Boris Johnson in an interview with BBC News. Fabricant expanded on the argument he posted on Twitter earlier, saying that this was a work gathering for people who had been working exceptionally hard. (See 10.04am.) He said that if Johnson had a fault, it was his loyalty to staff. He explained:
You know what, I‘d rather have a prime minister who felt for his staff and all those hard-working people than some cold fish who really couldn’t care a toss about them.
Michael Ellis, the paymaster general, will be reponding to the Labour UQ, the Sun’s Harry Cole reports.
The last time Ellis answered a UQ on partygate stories he repeatedly told MPs that Boris Johnson was a man “of honour and integrity”.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has challenged Boris Johnson to turn up in person to respond to the UQ she has tabled. (See 11.12am.)
This is from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group.
And Lobby Akinnola, a campaigner from the organisation who lost his father, Femi, in April 2020, said that if Boris Johnson did attend the party on 20 May last year, his position was untenable. He said:
It’s blindingly obvious that Martin Reynolds has to go. If the prime minister was at this party then his position would be untenable. He’d have lost all moral authority to lead the country, after breaking his own rules that the rest of us followed, often at great sacrifice.
It’s beyond belief that the government seems to be suggesting a report is needed to determine whether Boris Johnson was at the event at all. He knows. The dozens of people there know. Why does the prime minister need someone to tell him whether or not he was at a party?
When this party took place, people couldn’t see their loved ones in their final moments. People couldn’t see friends and family. Last year Boris Johnson met with bereaved families in the Rose Garden, in the very site this booze-up took place, and looked us in the eyes and told us he had “done all he could” to save our loved ones. Now he needs to come clean to the country in a way that he didn’t with us.
Gavin Barwell, who was chief of staff to Theresa May when she was prime minister, is another Tory peer (see 9.59am) who thinks the government cannot just carry on delaying any substantive response to the No 10 party story until the Sue Gray report comes out.
Weekly Covid deaths in care homes in England at highest level since March 2021, figures show
Omicron is starting to take a greater toll in England’s care homes, with deaths from Covid almost doubling in the first week of the new year to 122 from 65 in the last week of 2021. It represents the highest Covid death toll among care home residents since March 2021, according to weekly statistics on the deaths in care homes notified to the Care Quality Commission regulator.
Meanwhile care homes are continuing to struggle with staff shortages. Live figures this morning from internal health system capacity data seen by the Guardian showed 122 operators have declared a red alert on staffing, with 13,500 care workers off with Covid in England.
The impact of Omicron on staffing levels has seen hundreds of care homes shut their doors to hospital admissions, which is a big concern for NHS managers trying to free up beds. It also compounds an existing shortage of staff for the typically low-paid social care roles with around 60,000 fewer people in the workforce in October compared to May, according to analysis by the Health Foundation.
Speaker grants Commons urgent question on No 10 party revelations
There will be an urgent question in the Commons today on the latest No 10 party revelations, Labour has said.
We don’t yet know who will be responding. Just because the question is tabled for the PM that does not mean Boris Johnson will reply, and almost certainly he won’t. Rayner shadows Dominic Raab in his capacity as deputy PM, and so she would be entitled to expect him to turn up. But more often the government gets Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, to respond on topics like this. No 10 could even put up a more junior minister, like the paymaster general, Michael Ellis, who has form for wholeheartedy defending Johnson’s integrity in the chamber on days like this in circumstances that would defeat his less-loyalist colleagues.
Geidt tells MPs he expects review of standards adviser role to give him 'considerably greater authority'
The Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee has this morning published a letter (pdf) it received from Christopher Geidt, the PM’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, responding to questions from the committee about the Downing Street flat refurbishment inquiry.
In the letter, Lord Geidt repeats the point he made in letters published last week about how concerned he was by the PM’s failure to disclose WhatsApp messages undermined. Geidt says:
The episode shook my confidence precisely because potential and real failures of process occurred in more than one part of the apparatus of government. These failures were not, in my view, due to a lack of investigatory powers, but rather they showed insufficient care for the role of independent adviser.
Geidt also restates his belief that, because the PM has agreed to review his powers, he will emerge from this affair with his status enhanced. He says:
I would expect by the time of my next annual report in April to be able to describe the role of independent adviser in terms of considerably greater authority, independence and effect, consistent with the ambitions for the office that the prime minister has set out.
Downing Street has not yet published details of how Geidt’s role may be beefed up.
West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street says it was 'incredible' to learn of No 10 party last May
The Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, whose mother died of Covid last year, has said news of a party at Downing Street during the first lockdown is “pretty incredible” and that he is “very hungry” to find out what happened.
Speaking to BBC Radio West Midlands, Street said he was shocked when he read the news. He said:
When I saw this I thought, I can’t really believe this, if I’m honest. It was May 2020, a time when we were all restricted. My idea of going out was to walk along the canal with one friend, frankly, and I’m sure there’s lots of people in the West Midlands who have their own recollections of what they were doing in May 2020. So yes, it is very difficult to believe.
He said he hoped an inquiry into Downing Street parties would determine who attended.
What we don’t know is whether the prime minister was there. I obviously can’t possibly comment on that, but that’s why the inquiry has got to come.
And I’m sure that when the inquiry finds out the facts, then the conclusions and the consequences will be acted upon.
One of the many reasons why the partygate story is so damaging is that that there are countless examples of ministers saying that gatherings like the 20 May one in Downing Street last year should not have been taking place. Here are some examples.
From the FT’s Jim Pickard
From the Mirror’s Rachel Wearmouth
From the i’s Paul Waugh
Chris Curtis from Opinium posted a useful thread on Twitter last night looking at the polling on the partygate controversy, and how the scandal has affected support for the government and for Boris Johnson. It starts here.
Newspapers lash PM over latest Downing Street party claim
My colleague Martin Farrer has had a look at how the papers have been covering last night’s latest partygate allegations. Even normally-supportive papers are critical.
Nicola Sturgeon has signalled Scotland’s stricter Covid regulations could be relaxed soon as she acknowledged a possible shift in strategy towards learning to live with the virus longer-term.
The first minister, who is due to update MSPs later today on Scotland’s Covid policies, said it was possible face masks could become normalised as society adapted to milder forms of Covid-19 becoming endemic.
That echoes similar signals recently from some health experts and UK government ministers, including Michael Gove, the levelling up minister, on Monday. In an interview with STV, Sturgeon said for her, that still involved some longer-term adjustments to normal life. She said:
Sometimes when you hear people talk about learning to live with Covid, what seems to be suggested is that one morning we’ll wake up and not have to worry about it anymore, and not have to do anything to try to contain and control it.
That’s not what I mean when I say ‘learning to live with it’. Instead, what we will have to ask ourselves is what adaptations to pre-pandemic life – face coverings, for example – might be required in the longer-term to enable us to live with it with far fewer protective measures.
Sturgeon said the virus remained deadly for some; NHS services may need to be re-configured with more patients treated outside hospital. “One of the things that we’ve been looking at recently is different patient pathways for people with Covid, to enable people to be treated at home,” she said.
Sturgeon is expected to propose changing the strict crowd limits at public events from 17 January, as Scottish football returns from its Christmas break and the Six Nations rugby tournament due to involve Scotland facing England at Murrayfield in early February.
With evidence growing the Omicron wave has been less severe than first feared, and may peak in Scotland this week, Sturgeon acknowledged the pre-Christmas anxieties about the severity of this surge had not been borne out. She said that was partly due to the strict controls her government introduced.
Some of our projections pre-Christmas have not quite come to pass because we’ve managed to mitigate to some extent what the Omicron wave would otherwise have presented for us.
Standards watchdog says ministers are showing 'carelessness' about standards, or worse
Lord Evans, the former MI5 boss who is now chairman of the committee on standards in public life, has just started giving evidence to the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee. The hearing is meant to be focusing mainly on the Greensill affair, and changes to governance rules but William Wragg (Con), the chair, asked Evans in the opening minutes about “more topical matters” and what impact they might have had on confidence in standards.
In reply, Evans said that a serious of issues recently, like the Owen Paterson affair, the controversy over the Downing Street flat refurbishment, had showed “at least a carelessness amongst people in government over standards issues, and possibly more than that”. He said polling suggests people are concerned about this. He said people want politicians to live up to the standards they profess to maintain.
Wragg said he thought Evans’ point was “quite correct”.
UPDATE: Evans said:
I think we have seen a whole series of issues over the last few months: the Owen Paterson affair, the attempt to change the rules over standards investigations in the middle of the investigation into Mr Paterson’s actions.
The questions around the redecoration of Downing Street, in particular the very bad processes that were clearly in place for keeping Lord Geidt properly informed.
The Greensill affair and now partygate.
All of those, I think, have demonstrated that there is - at least - a carelessness amongst people in government over standards issues, and possibly more than that.
Perhaps No 10 should have asked the Conservative backbencher Michael Fabricant to make the case for the government on the airwaves this morning. Fabricant seems to think that there was nothing wrong with the party in the no 10 garden in May last year (unlike Edward Argar, who was clearly uncomfortable having to put the government’s case). Fabricant has posted these on Twitter.
Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Conservative leader, and now a member of the House of Lords, is not impressed by the government line that it has to wait until the Sue Gray report is out until it responds to the latest revelations about a No 10 lockdown-busting party.
Party revelations show PM has done ‘incalculable damage’ to trust in health measures, Labour says
Good morning. Partygate has now got a lot, lot worse for Boris Johnson. It would be surprising if the number of Conservative MPs coming to the conclusion that they will have a better chance of reelection at the next election under a different leader has not increased overnight, or if those Tories already inclined to that view are not feeling a bit more certain this morning.
It was not as if partygate was not highly damaging, and even potentially career-threatening, in the first place. But the latest revelations – starting with Dominic Cummings publishing a blog on Friday saying that there had been a lockdown-busting party in Downing Street on 20 May last year (“I and at least one other Spad [in writing so Sue Gray can dig up the original email and the warning] said that this seemed to be against the rules and should not happen”), followed by the Sunday Times suggesting that Boris Johnson was there, and culminating in ITV’s Paul Brand publishing the email invitation sent by Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds – have taken this to a new level. Here is our overnight story summarising the situation.
Why is this so much worse? There are at least three reasons.
1) No 10 has been able to half-defend previous partygate allegations by claiming that they were essentially work meetings involving some drink late in the day. For some events, like the 18 December Christmas party, this defence was highly improbable. But it does not function at all in the light of the email invitation from Reynolds sent to staff ahead of the 20 May do. Reynolds wrote:
Hi all, After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!
Even Lord Geidt would have to conclude that this was an invitation to a party, not a work invitation.
2) Boris Johnson was almost certainly there himself. Witnesses have told journalists he attended, and he and No 10 have declined multiple invitations to deny this. That means that another key defence deployed until now in response to partygate – that Johnson did not know what staff might have been up to in what is a relatively large office complex – is no longer tenable.
3) The Metropolitan police, who have done their best to avoid being dragged into previous allegations, seem more likely to investigate this one.
Edward Argar, the health minister, has been doing the morning interview round on behalf of No 10. He refused to explain what happened, sticking to the No 10 line from Monday that these were all matters for the partygate investigation being conducted by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant. But he said that “appropriate disciplinary action” should be taken if Gray found the rules had been broken, and that he could understand why people were “upset and angry” about the reports.
But Labour said that Johnson had to explain himself now instead of just waiting for the Gray investigation to conclude. Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said:
Boris Johnson’s deflections and distractions are no longer tenable.
Sue Gray is a highly respected civil servant who will be carrying out an investigation to the highest standard.
But the truth is out now. Not only did Boris Johnson know about the parties, he attended them and he lied.
It’s time for the prime minister to stop hiding behind Whitehall inquiries and finally come clean.
Rayner is referring to the many times Johnson told MPs in the Commons that no rules were broken (although generally Johnson was talking in response to questions about Christmas parties, rather than partying at any time).
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change minister, made a similar argument on the Today programme. He said:
It’s all very well that we are having Sue Gray’s inquiry, but the prime minister cannot run and he cannot hide. He’s got to answer. If I went to a party, I know I went to the party. He’s got to explain - was he at the party?
How can he possibly justify all of the things he said in the House of Commons - that no rules were broken, that he did nothing wrong? He is going to have to answer.
It speaks to a rotten culture at the heart of this government and the rotten culture begins with the person in charge.
And this is from Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: Boris Johnson chairs cabinet.
10am: Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, gives evidence to the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee on governance standards in the light of the Greensill affair.
11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.
12pm: The Department for Education publishes pupil attendance figures.
12pm: Eluned Morgan, the Welsh government’s health minister, holds a Covid briefing.
After 12.45pm: MPs begin debating a Labour motion calling for VAT on fuel to be cut, and setting aside parliamentary time for a bill implementing this to be debated.
2.20pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, gives a statement to the Scottish parliament on Covid.
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