Ambulance workers on the picket line outside Soundwell Ambulance Station in Bristol today.
Ambulance workers on the picket line outside Soundwell Ambulance Station in Bristol today. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Tory peer says government being 'disingenuous' in arguing anti-strike law just brings UK into line with other countries

Ministers are defended their anti-strike law on the grounds that minimum service levels are not unusual in other European countries. At PMQs Rishi Sunak even turned this into a joke at Keir Starmer’s expense. He said:

The International Labour Organisation supports minimum service levels. They are present in France, in Italy, in Spain. Normally he is in favour of more European alignment – why not now?

But Lord Balfe, a Conservative peer, told the BBC’s programme that ministers were being “disingenuous” in making this argument. He explained:

The European Trade Union Institute, which is the European trade union body, has done a survey of 30-odd countries in Europe, and the way in which they handle strikes, and … It is quite clear from the evidence that we are well up on the authoritarian end of that.

Even where there are minimum service levels, they are often not used or enforced.

The government is being disingenuous in what it is saying here.

Balfe, who is president of British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), a union affiliated to the TUC, also said that No 10 consulted him before it published the legislation. He said he thought his feedback might have made a difference because the legislation is “not quite the legislation a week ago”. He went on: “Now we need to move a little further.”

The government had originally been planning to raise the voting thresholds that unions must reach before a strike ballot is valid, but this proposal was dropped.


Around 100,000 civil servants to stage one-day strike on 1 February

Around 100,000 civil servants are to stage a 24-hour strike next month in an escalation of a bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions, PA Media reports. PA says:

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union announced that its members in 124 government departments and other bodies will walk out on 1 February.

The union said it will be the largest civil service strike for years and signals a “significant escalation” of industrial action after a month of strikes by its members, including Border Force staff.

The stoppage will coincide with the TUC’s “protect the right to strike” day, which was announced in reaction to the Government’s controversial legislation on minimum service levels during industrial action.

Rishi Sunak and Japan's prime minister, Fumio Kishida, viewing a display of Samurai armour in the Tower of London where they were signing a defence agreement.
Rishi Sunak and Japan's prime minister, Fumio Kishida, viewing a display of Samurai armour in the Tower of London where they were signing a defence agreement. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Streeting claims Tory MPs will suffer at next election because ministers 'think GP [system] is working'

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, told Tory MPs that ministers were leaving them “hanging out to dry at the next election” because they were refusing to accept that GP services were not working properly.

Opening the debate on a Labour motion criticising the government’s record on the NHS, he said:

Do you know what I have found most remarkable today in advance of this debate? I received a letter from the minister no less, who is unfortunately not in his place, to tell me that the current system of general practice is working.

Referring to Tory MPs, he said:

Bad news for you guys opposite who are facing the patients and the voters at the next general election – your ministers think general practice is working, your ministers therefore aren’t looking at plans to fix it, your ministers are leaving you hanging out to dry at the next election.

Because patients can see that only Labour are looking at how to fix the front door in the NHS and rebuild general practice.

Streeting also defended the plans he floated in an interview in the Times at the weekend to overhaul the way GP services are delivered. (See 3.25pm.)

He claimed there were three options for the future of GP medicine: let it “wither”; accept it is “in decline and have something better to follow as it phase out over time” as he claimed Labour did; or “accept that GP partnership is valuable in which case rebuild it”. He went on:

I am open minded about whether or not we phase out GP partnerships or whether we rebuild general practice, but what we can’t do is what the Conservatives are doing which is allow general practice to wither on the vine.

Wes Streeting.
Wes Streeting. Photograph: UK Parliament/Andy Bailey/PA

Cleverly says Sinn Féin's leader not invited to protocol talks because he wanted to hear from Northern Ireland politicians

James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, has defended his decision not to invite the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, to his meeting with Northern Ireland parties in Belfast today. Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland, was invited, but she would not attend without McDonald, who is based in Dublin where she sits in the Irish parliament.

With Sinn Féin not taking part, the SDLP stayed away too.

Speaking to the media afterwards, Cleverly said:

Sinn Féin were very welcome. My meeting here this morning was to meet with the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. I will of course be going to Ireland in the near future and I’ll be meeting Irish politicians, but I very much wanted to hear from representatives of Northern Ireland.

Cleverly said that, nevertheless, he had a “very useful” meeting, which focused on the Northern Ireland protocol. He said:

It has reinforced a number of things which I have already raised with the [European] Commission and highlighted some real practical examples: the inability to get roses from England to sell here in Northern Ireland, a real-life practical example of something affecting a family-owned small business that we want to see thrive.

James Cleverly (centre) at a meeting with the DUP, the UUP and the Alliance party at government buildings in Belfast.
James Cleverly (centre) at a meeting with the DUP, the UUP and the Alliance party at government buildings in Belfast. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA


Sunak signs defence agreement with Japanese PM

Relations between the UK and Japan were “stronger than ever”, Rishi Sunak said, as the two countries signed a defence agreement to allow them to deploy forces in one another’s countries. PA Media says:

The deal, signed during a visit to London by Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, will make the UK the first European country to have a reciprocal access agreement with Japan.

The pact is part of the UK’s defence and foreign policy “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific region, following an integrated review in 2021 that recognised the growing impact of China in the area.

The access agreement has been years in the making, with former prime minister Boris Johnson agreeing a deal in principle in May during Kishida’s first official visit to Britain.

No 10 called it the most important defence treaty between London and Tokyo since 1902.

The formal signing ceremony took place at the centuries-old Thames-side castle, where Kishida was greeted by a guard of honour of Yeomen Warders, also known as Beefeaters.

During the visit to the castle, Sunak and Mr Kishida were shown Japanese armour presented to King James VI in 1613 by the then-Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada of Japan to mark the first trade agreement between England and Japan.

The Downing Street news release about the agreement is here.

Rishi Sunak and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, arriving at the Tower of London.
Rishi Sunak and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, arriving at the Tower of London. Photograph: Reuters


Physiotherapists to become latest group of NHS staff to go on strike

Around 4,200 physios who work at 30 NHS trusts in England will stage a stoppage on 26 January and there will be a second walkout - this time at 60 trusts – on 9 February, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has announced.

Its decision means that physios will join nurses and ambulance staff in taking industrial action in protest at a £1,400 pay rise for 2022-23 for NHS personnel. The CSP blamed ministers for the decision and said that “the lack of a concrete offer means there is currently no option but to announce strike action”.

Junior doctors in England began voting this week on whether to strike over their demand for a 26% pay rise to take their salaries back to where they were a decade ago.

Claire Sullivan, the CSP’s director of employer relations and union services, said:

Not one physiotherapist or support worker wants to strike, especially at such a precarious time. But they have been left with no choice and their reasons for doing so are intrinsically linked to the current NHS crisis.

Every day, patients struggle to get the care they need because of the chronic workforce shortages caused by a decade of under-investment.

If the government doesn’t address pay then we risk losing even more valuable health workers making the consequences of those workforce shortages even worse for patients.

The 26 January strike will affect services at acute hospitals, mental health care providers and also some specialist hospitals, including Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool and the Royal Papworth heart and lung hospital in Cambridge.


The Labour opposition day motion calling for the creation of a select committee to consider the case for removing tax exemptions from private schools was defeated by 303 votes to 197 – a majority of 106.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, is now opening the debate on the second opposition day motion, condemning the government for failing to recognise the crisis in the NHS.

Labour rejects claim Starmer has abandoned promise to abolish universal credit

In a speech this week Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said Labour would reform universal credit, but not abolish it.

This led to accusations of a U-turn, because when Keir Starmer was running for Labour leader, one of his famous 10 pledges was that he would “abolish universal credit”.

At the post-PMQs briefing, Starmer’s spokesperson insisted that this was not a broken promise because the party was committed to fundamentally reforming the system. This could involving giving the benefit a different name, the spokesperson suggested.

This is true in the sense that welfare experts always understood the Starmer promise to mean Labour would reform the existing system, rather than abandon UC altogether and return to the status quo ante (having six separate benefits), or creating a new benefits system from scratch.

But Starmer did explicitly say he would “abolish” UC, not that he would reform it. He was echoing the language used in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, which was also unequivocal. It said:

Labour will scrap UC. We will immediately stop moving people on to it and design an alternative system that treats people with dignity and respect.


Labour rejects Sunak's claim Streeting proposing 'disruptive, top-down, unfunded reorganisation' of GPs

At the Labour party’s post-PMQs briefing Keir Starmer’s spokesperson defended the plans set out by Wes Streeting, the shadow health spokesperson, for an overhaul of the way GPs operate.

In an interview with the Times, published on Saturday, Streeting said that he was considering ending the current partnership model for GPs, where they are not employees of the NHS but instead work as self-employed independent contractors. Streeting said:

The truth is that the way that GP practices operate financially is a murky, opaque business. I’m not sure that people can honestly say exactly how the money is spent or where it goes. And from my point of view, as someone who wants to be a custodian of the public finances as health secretary, that would not be a tolerable situation.

I’m minded to phase out the whole system of GP partners altogether and to look at salaried GPs working in modern practices alongside a range of other professionals.

Streeting also said that GPs should no longer be the only gatekeepers to the NHS. He said that he would like to see pharmacies play a bigger role, and that in some cases people should be able to refer themselves directly to a specialist, without having to go through a GP.

Referring to this at PMQs, Rishi Sunak, whose father was a GP, said

We have a very clear plan to bring the waiting lists down and it is one that the NHS supports.

I tell you what the NHS doesn’t need, what they don’t need is Labour’s only idea, which is for another completely disruptive, top-down, unfunded reorganisation buying out every single GP contract.

After PMQs Starmer’s spokesperson rejected Sunak’s criticism, saying that under the Labour proposal no GP would be compelled to become a direct employee of the NHS. Instead, after consultation, the plan might be phased in over a generation, as new doctors are hired, the spokesperson said.

Sunak and Macron to hold first UK-France summit since 2018 in Paris in March

Rishi Sunak will head to France for a major summit with Emmanuel Macron on Friday 10 March, PA Media reports.

The two leaders will meet in Paris for talks covering issues including security, the economy and measures to tackle the small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel.

It will be the first UK-France summit since 2018 and marks the two leaders’ efforts to repair relations which have been strained by Brexit and disputes over the Channel issues.

Relations between Sunak and Macron appear to be much more cordial than those between the French president and his predecessor Liz Truss.

During her campaign to be Tory leader and prime minister she said “the jury’s out” when asked whether Macron was “friend or foe”.

Rishi Sunak (right) meeting Emmanuel Macron at the Cop27 summit in Egypt in November.
Rishi Sunak (right) meeting Emmanuel Macron at the Cop27 summit in Egypt in November. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Members of the EIS, the Scottish teaching union, demonstrating outside Bute House in Edinburgh today as teachers from secondary schools in Scotland are on strike.
Members of the EIS, the Scottish teaching union, demonstrating outside Bute House in Edinburgh today as teachers from secondary schools in Scotland are on strike. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, said that when he met James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, in Belfast he stressed that any deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol would have to be acceptable to unionists.

Speaking after the talks, Donaldson said:

This was an invaluable opportunity for us to put forward our concerns about the ongoing negotiations.

They talked about getting a deal that works for everyone and works for Northern Ireland, and I think that is fundamentally important, they recognise a deal with the EU which doesn’t work for unionists just isn’t going to fly.

Donaldson said he thought it would have been better if Sinn Féin had attended the meeting. Asked about Sinn Féin’s decision to stay away, because its Dublin-based leader, Mary Lou McDonald, was not invited (see 11.51am), Donaldson said:

There was an issue around the protocol of Mary Lou McDonald meeting the foreign secretary ahead of the foreign secretary meeting his counterpart in Dublin.

That is not a matter for me. I am not going to get drawn into this.

It is better when all parties are at the table. I want to see all parties in Northern Ireland putting their views across, particularly to the foreign secretary.

Jeffrey Donaldson arrives at government buildings in Belfast city centre for a meeting with James Cleverly.
Jeffrey Donaldson arriving at government buildings in Belfast city centre for a meeting with James Cleverly. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA


Labour says Tories should have withdrawn whip from Andrew Bridgen earlier

Labour has criticised the Conservative party for only withdrawing the whip from Andrew Bridgen today, when he has been circulating misinformation about the safety of Covid vaccines on social media for several weeks. In a statement Anneliese Dodds, the Labour chair, said:

For the Conservative party to delay action until now demonstrates, yet again, Rishi Sunak’s weakness among his own MPs.

Andrew Bridgen has been spreading dangerous misinformation on Covid vaccines for some time now. He could have been disciplined weeks ago.

To invoke the Holocaust, as he did today, is utterly shameful, but it should never have reached this point.


Ambulance workers on strike today outside the London ambulance service station in Waterloo.
Ambulance workers on strike today outside the London ambulance service station in Waterloo. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian


Health unions say they will refuse to submit evidence to NHS pay review body for 2023-24

Health unions will not submit joint evidence to the NHS pay review body about the rise staff should get in 2023-24, in a move that threatens the system by which most health service pay is decided, my colleague Denis Campbell reports.

The decision to suspend the Conservative whip from Andrew Bridgen means there are now 15 independent MPs in the Commons, one more than the number of Liberal Democrats, PA Media reports.

My colleague Peter Walker wrote a good article about this eclectic group, most of whom are MPs accused of personal misconduct, a few days ago.


No 10 refuses to say if Sunak uses NHS GP he's registered with, or if he might use private healthcare in future

At the post-PMQs lobby briefing Rishi Sunak’s press secretary responded to questions from reporters about his private healthcare cover with this statement:

The PM has set out his details in the house. [See 12.04pm.] In principle he believes that the personal health details of individuals should remain private.

But given the level of interest, and in the interests of transparency, he has set out that he is registered with an NHS GP, and has always been. He has used private health care in the past.

She confirmed that Sunak is no longer registered with a private GP, but refused to tell us when this happened, or whether it had been since he became prime minister in October. “As far as I’m aware, he is only registered with an NHS GP,” she said.

However, there were quite a few follow-up questions she refused to answer. She didn’t say whether he had actually used his NHS GP. And she wouldn’t say whether he would be using private healthcare in the future.

Nor would she say why he stopped using his private GP, prompting questions about whether it was because the Guardian had revealed the situation.


PMQS - snap verdict

Given that Rishi Sunak is leader of a party where, after 13 years in power, a majority of people believe that “nothing in Britain works any more” (according to polling by GB News, not by any strecth a leftie outfit) and hundreds of people could be dying unnecessarily every week because the NHS is not functioning properly, that PMQs went reasonably well for him. The Tories who were cheering him on did not seem 100% convinced, but he landed some blows and did not get slaughtered, which in the circumstances counts as a result.

In news terms, the main point was Sunak’s admission that he has used private healthcare in the past. This will come as no surprise to anyone, but it is the first time he has admitted this and – more significantly – this blows away the line that he used during his interview with Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday that his healthcare arrangements are a private matter. His health conditions are a private matter. But whether or not he uses NHS doctors to deal with those conditions is a legitimate question, and Sunak has now opened the door to a further set of questions. If he is registered with an NHS GP, does he actually use that GP? Or is he still going private?

In strategy terms, the exchanges also underlined just how determined Sunak and the Tories are to use the anti-strike bill published yesterday as an electioneering weapon. In his first response to Starmer, he said:

[Starmer] simply doesn’t have a policy when it comes to this question. He talks about wanting to end the strikes. The question for him is simple then: why does he not support our minimum safety legislation?

We all know why … it’s because he’s on the side of his union paymasters, not patients.

Sunak kept this line going, using an attack line also splashed on the Daily Mail front page.

Wednesday's Mail: Labour Opposes Life-Saving Law To Curb Strikes #TomorrowsPapersToday #DailyMail #Mail

— Tomorrows Papers Today (@TmorrowsPapers) January 10, 2023

Does this work? Not really. All the polling suggests that people do not believe that Labour is to blame for the strikes, and anyone who watched Chris Loder put this theory to the rail unions at the transport committee this morning (see 10.08am) will have seen why it’s unconvincing.

But some of the other Sunak messaging was more robust. He was right to have a go at Labour for letting Wes Streeting unveil what sounded like a massive NHS reorganisation strategy while thinking aloud in an interview with the Times. (Streeting’s plan may have some merit, but it would be costly too, and there is a reason why Labour politicians are normally cautious about making comments that allow CCHQ to expands its tally of opposition “unfunded spending commitments”).

Sunak was entitled to say minimum service level legislation is commonplace in the rest of Europe. Those laws are not the same as Grant Shapps’, and they are in countries where unions have more rights than they do in the UK anyway, but Labour has done a lousy job of trying to explain this in public.

And the claims about Starmer being “inconsistent” and “unprincipled” do seem to resonate with voters (at least, according to focus groups). In truth, Starmer is probably no more inconsistent than most people at the top of politics – Sunak himself has abandoned much of what he was saying in the summer leadership contest – but if this mud sticks, then you can see why Sunak is slinging it.

That said, Starmer still had the best of it, quite easily. The NHS is always strong territory for Labour, and with the A&E in the appalling state it is, it would have been hard for him to fail, but Starmer made his case effectively. He neatly mocked Sunak’s announcement about his healthcare.

I heard the prime minister saying he’s now registered with an NHS doctor, so he’ll soon enjoy the experience of waiting on hold every morning at 8am to get a GP appointment.

He exposed the hollowness of Sunak’s promise to reduce waiting list, challenging him to say whether he would reduce them to pre-Covid levels, or the much lower levels they were when Labour were in power, and he repeatedly stressed how much better waiting times were under Labour.

PMQs can look easy, because it just seems to involve saying that the other side is rubbish. But to summarise political arguments in language that is precise and pithy and convincing is hard – much harder than it looks – and Starmer’s PMQs scripts are first class. Like when he said this:

When I clapped nurses I meant it.

Or this:

The simple truth is you can’t legislate your way out of 13 years of failure.

Or this:

He’s not promising that cancer patients will get urgent treatment as they did under Labour. He’s not even promising an NHS that puts patients first like they did under Labour. No, he’s promising the one day, although he can’t say when, the record high waiting lists will stop growing. That’s it.

After 13 years in government, what does it say that the best they can offer is that at some point they might stop making things worse?

Sunak is clever, hard-working and fluent (although perhaps a bit too eager-beaver to be really authoritative at PMQs), but he has that “13 years of failure” round his ankle like a ball and chain, and there is little he can do about it.

Rishi Sunak at PMQs.
Rishi Sunak at PMQs. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK PARLIAMENT/AFP/Getty Images


Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, asks Sunak if he agrees that the comments from Andrew Bridgen this morning (whom he does not name) have no place in the Commons.

Sunak condemns Bridgen’s comments “in the strongest possible terms” and says he is determined to tackle antisemitism.


Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Con) asks if Sunak will intervene to help the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is being prosecuted by the Chinese. Lai has British citizenship.

Sunak says he is engaged in this issue.


Marsha de Cordova (Lab) asks if Sunak will back her bill to give people easier access to eye specialists.

Sunak says the government is keen to improve access. He says De Cordova has a meeting with a minister on this.


Douglas Ross (Con) asks Sunak to confirm his support for Scotland’s energy industry.

Sunak says the UK will need hydrocarbons for decades to come. Using Scottish gas and oil is better than importing it, he says.

Simon Lightwood (Lab) asks about a constituent who cannot get an NHS dentist for his daughter. Many five-year-olds in Wakefield already have tooth decay, he says.

Sunak says he will look into this. But the NHS dentistry contract has been reformed, and that should make a difference.

Carolyn Harris (Lab) asks Sunak if he agrees there should be an investigation into problems with the delivery company Evri.

Sunak says ministers have looked into this.

Sunak says a Defra investigation has concluded that “natural causes” were the main cause of the deaths of crabs and other sealife off Teesside. But it has ordered a further investigation.

Sunak says the government is committed to delivering “dozens” more hospitals by 2030.

He does not use the figure 40, which was the number Boris Johnson said he would open.

Alex Davies-Jones asks about the impact of the misogynist Andrew Tate on boys at school.

Sunak says the online safety bill will improve protections for teachers.

David Duguid (Con) asks Sunak to confirm that the government is still committed to carbon capture and storage in Scotland.

Sunak says the govenrment will spend up to £1bn on carbon capture and storage in four locations, including Scotland.

Liz Saville Roberts, the Plaid Cymru leader at Westminster, says the impact of strikes is “as nothing” compared to the impact of 13 years of Tory cuts. She says the Westminter funding system perpetuates poverty.

Sunak says the NHS is under pressure in Wales, as in Scotland and England, in large part because of Covid.

Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader at Westminster, says the Tories have brought a long recession, Brexit, inflation and high interest rates. If people do the maths, won’t they conclude the union does not add up?

Sunak accuses the Scottish government of not supporting the energy industry.

Flynn says Scotland is energy rich, but fuel poor. He says Boris Johnson has made more than £1m from speeches, while the Tories are trying to stop people striking for fair pay.

Sunak says “I don’t think we need to talk about our predecessors”, but he says one of Flynn’s predecessors worked for Russia Today.

Starmer says that people cannot even get an ambulance on non-strike days. He says Sunak’s NHS promises just amount to saying “at some point they might stop making things worse”.

Sunak says the choice people face is between “the Conservatives on the side of patients, Labour on the side of their union paymasters”. And he accuses Starmer of being inconsistent.

Starmer says, if Sunak is registered with an NHS GP, he will find out what it’s like to wait on hold at 8am as you call for an appointment. When will cancer patients get the certainty of quick care they got under Labour?

Sunak says cancer referrals went down by two-thirds under Covid. And if we had listened to Starmer, we would still be in lockdown, he says. He says what is terrifying is people not know if they call 999 they will get an ambulance. In America and Canada and Australia ambulance staff are banned from striking. The UK is not doing that, but why won’t Labour back the bill?


Starmer says, when you scratch the surface with Sunak, there is nothing there. When will the government get back to the stage when people can get a GP appointment in two days, as under Labour.

Sunak says the government is tackling hospital waiting lists. He says Starmer said he was opposed to NHS outsourcing, but now he is in favour. He is inconsistent, unprincipled and in hock to the unions.


Starmer says they have gone from clapping the nurses to sacking them. He asks Sunak if his promise to cut waiting lists is to get it to the pre-Covid levels, 4.6 million, or where they were under Labour, half that.

Sunak says Covid has pushed up waiting lists everywhere. What the NHS does not need is another disruptive, top-down, reorganisation, buying out GP contracts. He says the Nuffield Trust said this would “cost a fortune”.


Starmer says, when he clapped nurses, he meant it. He says NHS waiting lists double by 2019, before anyone had heard of Covid. You cannot legislate your way out of 13 years of failure, he says.

Sunak refers again to the “minimum safety legislation” (even though the word safety is not mentioned in the bill). This should not be controversial, he says. European countries have laws like this, he says. Normally Labour is in favour of more European alignment.

Keir Starmer says if the government negotiated with healthcare workers, they would not be on strike. Why is the government prolonging these strikes?

Sunak says the government has accepted the pay review recommendations. Labour does not have a policy, he says. Why has it not backed the minimum safety legislation? It is because it on the side of unions.

Sunak confirms he has used private healthcare, but says he is registered with NHS GP

Rishi Sunak starts with the usual spiel about usual meetings etc.

Cat Smith (Lab) asks Sunak how long he had to wait for his last NHS dentist appointment.

Sunak says he is registered with an NHS GP. He has used independent healthcare in the past. And he is grateful to his local hospital. But he says he is proud to come from an NHS family.

In the past Sunak has refused to confirm that he has used private healthcare. As the Guardian recently reported, he has been registered with a private GP.

UPDATE: Sunak said:

Let me answer the honourable lady directly – I am registered with an NHS GP, I have used independent healthcare in the past … and I’m also grateful to the Friarage hospital for the fantastic care they’ve given my family over the years.

The truth is I am proud to come from an NHS family and that’s why I’m passionately committed to protecting it with more funding, more doctors and nurses, and a clear plan to cut the waiting lists.


Rishi Sunak leaving No 10 ahead of PMQs.
Rishi Sunak leaving No 10 before PMQs. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images



The first PMQs of the year is about to start.

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

PMQs Photograph: HoC

Sinn Féin and SDLP to boycott Cleverly's talks on Northern Ireland protocol after SF's Dublin-based leader excluded

James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, is in Belfast for roundtable talks with the political parties about the Northern Ireland protocol.

But he won’t be meeting Sinn Féin, the party that won the largest number of seats in last year’s assembly election and whose leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, is the first minister designate. O’Neill says she will not attend the meeting because Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s leader, is not allowed join her.

Sinn Féin is an all-island party, and McDonald is a member of the Irish parliament, and contender to be next taoiseach.

In a post on Twitter O’Neill accused the government of “bad faith”.

This is a time for inclusion, dialogue and engagement. There is serious and urgent work to be done. This is a time for mature and civil politics. There’s no room for bad faith and petulance from the British government.

— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) January 11, 2023

The nationalist SDLP has also said it will not meet Cleverly unless he agrees to meet McDonald.

The SDLP has always stood by the principle of maximum inclusion in talks. We will not take part in a process today that excludes the Leader of Sinn Féin.

We have proposals to get the Assembly back that we want to put to other parties in inclusive talks. That needs to happen.

— The SDLP (@SDLPlive) January 11, 2023

In a statement the UK government said:

This meeting is for Northern Ireland politicians to talk through issues around the Northern Ireland protocol with SOSNI [the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Haris] and the UK foreign secretary.

The leader of Sinn Féin in the assembly was invited and remains invited. Her attendance is a matter for Sinn Fein but she was not excluded.

Andrew Bridgen has Tory whip removed after comparing Covid vaccine programme to Holocaust

Turning away from the transport committee hearing for a moment, Andrew Bridgen has had the Tory whip withdrawn for spreading misinformation about the safety of Covid vaccines on social media. Simon Hart, the chief whip, has issued a statement saying:

Andrew Bridgen has crossed a line, causing great offence in the process. As a nation we should be very proud of what has been achieved through the vaccine programme.

The vaccine is the best defence against Covid that we have. Misinformation about the vaccine causes harm and costs lives. I am therefore removing the Whip from Andrew Bridgen with immediate effect, pending a formal investigation.

Bridgen has been tweeting conspiracy theory nonsense about Covid for some time now, and it is surprising that the party did not take action against him earlier. But this morning Bridgen made his suspension inevitable by comparing the vaccine programme to the Holocaust. “As one consultant cardiologist said to me this is the biggest crime against humanity since the holocaust,” Bridgen’s tweet said.

It is almost as if he wanted to get suspended.

Unless the whip is restored before the next election (which this morning seems unlikely), Bridgen will not be able to stand as a Conservative candidate at the next election.

On Monday MPs voted to suspend him from the Commons for five days for breaking rules on paid lobbying and declaring interests.


Montgomery says the Rail Delivery Group has another meeting with the unions tomorrow. But he says he cannot say what might be proposed in advance, because that would be disrespectful to the unions.

We have updated the post at 10.08am to include video of Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, laughing at the suggestion that he is taking orders from the Labour party as to how to handle the rail dispute. You may have to update the page to get it to appear.

Rail Delivery Group and Network Rail less negative about prospects of resolving dispute than unions

At the transport committee the session with the three union leaders is over. The committee is now taking evidence from the employers’ side. The two witnesses are Steve Montgomery, chair of the Rail Delivery Group (which represents the train operating companies), and Tim Shoveller, chief negotiator for Network Rail.

Iain Stewart, the committee chair, starts with the same question he put to the union leaders: how close are they to a deal? (See 9.36am.)

Montgomery says, with the RMT and the TSSA, the RDG has got a chance to move forward and so there is a “reasonable” chance of being close to a deal.

But he says, with Aslef, they are further away from a deal.

Shoveller says that, with Network Rail, 36% of RMT members wanted to take the last deal that was on offer. He says just 2,000 members need to change their mind for that to become a majority.

Montgomery and Shoveller are both more optimistic about the prospects of a resolution than the union leaders were.

UPDATE: Shoveller said:

For RMT, 36% of their members that are Network Rail employees voted yes for the deal. So, we’re a bit short of the 50% that we need.

It’s couple of thousand people that need to change their vote.

We met again with the RMT leadership yesterday for discussions and we’re planning to meet again next week.

I would place that at seven [out of 10 – the chances of a deal].

I think there’s every chance by some very carefully targeted discussions at achieving (the 50%).


Asked if the RMT is losing public support, Lynch says he does not accept that. He says, after he was on Good Morning Britain recently, they had a poll showing 75% support for the union. He says:

I’m a more popular person than many of the politicians in this room, unfortunately for the public.


Lynch rejects claim strikes deterring people from using trains, saying service is 'absolutely useless' on non-strike days anyway

At the transport committee Greg Smith (Con) asks if he accepts that the continuing rail strikes are driving passengers away from rail, which is undermining the industry in the long term.

This is the official Downing Street argument.

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, dismisses the argument, saying the rail service is “absolutely useless” on non-strike days because of how the government has treated it.

UPDATE: My colleague Pippa Crerar has the quote.

Tory MP Greg Smith asks RMT's Mick Lynch whether strikes are driving people away from railway. 🚆

Lynch: "When we're on strike or when we're not on strike? What about the days when we're not on strike, when it's absolutely useless as well? It's your government's fault".

— Pippa Crerar (@PippaCrerar) January 11, 2023


Rail union bosses insist they can sustain their strike action long-term if they need to

Q: How long can you sustain this dispute?

Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, says he is in it “for the long haul”.

But he would like to resolve this tomorrow, he says. He would like to get back to his day job, rebuilding the industry.

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, says his union can sustain this “for an awfully long time”.

Frank Ward, the TSSA general secretary, says it would be better to ask how long the government can sustain this.

But he says it is having an effect on members. Some of them have been out for nine days, he says.


Lynch accuses government of 'deliberate policy to transfer wealth from working people'

Asked what he thinks the motivation is for the approach being adopted by the government, Lynch says he thinks the government is engaged in “a deliberate policy to transfer wealth, I believe, from working people to people who have got money already”.

UPDATE: Lynch said:

There’s an attempt to defund a lot of services, I believe, and that’s what is at the heart of all of the public-sector disputes at the moment.

They’re not funded properly and people aren’t paid properly, people are getting poorer every week.

That is a deliberate policy to transfer wealth, I believe, from working people to people who have got money already.

It’s all part of a game that’s being played in front of us and this is how it plays out in detail. That’s their motivation.


Frank Ward, the TSSA general secretary, tells the transport committee that he thinks the government has been looking for disputes it could use to justify the anti-strike law it has been planning.

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, says the government is “stuck”. It thought the public would hate the unions for the strikes. But that did not happen, he says.

Lynch says, under the anti-strikes bill published yesterday, unions or management will have to name workers who are going to work on strike days. He says he does not see how that can be democratic.

Lynch claims there is a “Stalinist obsession” within the DfT with controlling rail management.

He says British Rail would never have allowed the sort of interference with management that is coming from central government now.

Lynch says in areas where the Department for Transport has not had the final say, the RMT has beeen able to negotiate acceptable pay deals.

He claims the DfT is following an obstructive strategy that was put in place when Grant Shapps was transport secretary.

Lynch accuses Department for Transport of 'torpedoing' deal to end rail strikes

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, told the Commons transport committee that the government deliberately sabotaged hopes of a deal before Christmas by insisting that it included an agreement to extend driver-only operation. (See 9.52am.)

He said:

Why would you, if you’re seeking a solution to a serious industrial dispute that’s high profile, would you wait until a Sunday afternoon at four o’clock to put nine clauses into the document which weren’t in the previous version?

It’s daft. To me, it’s sabotage. They wanted these strikes to go ahead …

They brought forward stage-managed releases in the last week about minimum service levels, about disruption and all the rest of it about me and various other people in the industry.

All primed through certain press outlets.

The whole thing has been completely stage-managed, leading up to Monday’s sessions with the trade unions, as far as I can see.

It’s deliberate torpedoing of the talks which could have developed.

That’s why DOO is in there. Not because it would have helped resolve the dispute.


Aslef leader laughs off suggestion from Tory MP that he is taking instructions from Labour on how to handle rail strike

At the transport committee Chris Loder (Con) asks Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, to confirm that he sits on Labour’s national executive committee. Whelan confirms that he does. And is it right that he chairs Labour’s Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO). Whelan says that he is proud to be its chair.

Loder then asks if Whelan has ever received any instructions from the Labour party as to how it should handle the dispute.

That provokes loud (and what sounds like genuine) laughter from Whelan, and the other union witnesses. Whelan says he has briefed the Labour party on his union’s position, but he insists that he has never been told what to do. He says he is on record as criticising Keir Starmer for trying to stop shadow ministers joining picket lines.


Lynch says extension of driver-only operation will never be accepted 'while I'm general secretary, while RMT exists'

Back at the transport committee, Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, says his union will never accept the extension of driver-only operation (DOO) “in any company without a fight”. He goes on:

It will never happen while I’m general secretary. It will never happen while the RMT exists.

And he says it has been the Department for Transport, not the rail companies, that has been trying to make any new pay offer conditional on the extension of DOO.

Mick Whelan, who as Aslef general secretary represents train drivers, says drivers do not feel that driver-only operation is safe. He says there has ben a 180% increase in sexual assaults on trains.

And he says driver-only operation was never intended to be used on trains with 12 or 13 carriages, and more than 1,000 passengers.

UPDATE: Whelan said:

The train drivers who do it, hate it. They feel it’s unsafe.

We believe it’s inherently unsafe …

I think the real problem with the nature of modern society – and the dangers to the travelling public and to the staff on the railway – preclude anybody from working alone.


Back to Boris Johnson, for the record here is the statement in full a spokesperson put out on his behalf in response to the latest revelations from ITV. (See 8.59am and 9.29am.) The spokesperson said:

During the Covid-19 pandemic Boris Johnson led our country through its most dangerous peacetime crisis in living memory.

As prime minister during a 24/7 national emergency he worked constantly to ensure the government did everything possible in its power to save lives and protect livelihoods.

Mr Johnson pays heartfelt tribute to the heroic frontline workers who battled the pandemic, many of whom lost their lives. Their service to our country will always be remembered.

He is also incredibly grateful for the efforts of hardworking staff who were working in central government – the vast majority of them civil servants – who helped co-ordinate the UK’s national response from 10 Downing Street, across Whitehall and throughout the wider UK government.

Their work was crucial as they helped marshal the UK government’s response during a national emergency.

Rail unions 'further away than when we started' from resolution to train strikes, MPs told

Q: How close are you to an agreement, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, says:

I think you can include zero. We’re further away than when we started.

Frank Ward, the TSSA general secretary, says he would not disagree with that.

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, says he would not be able to say.

We haven’t got an agreement. Until we get an agreement we’re not close to it.

But he says if there is no agreement, they cannot be close to one, and there is no agreement, he says.

Iain Stewart, the committee chair, says that is not as optimistic as he was hoping for.


Rail union leaders give evidence to MPs

The Commons transport hearing is just starting. Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, Frank Ward, the TSSA general secretary, and Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, are giving evidence.

Iain Stewart (Con) is the chair of the committee.

He starts by saying the committee is trying get greater clarity on where we are with the dispute, and what the prospects are for resolution.

No 10 staff were 'gobsmacked' when Johnson told MPs Covid rules were followed in Downing Street at all times, ITV claims

Here is a summary of some of the other revelations in the new ITV News podcast on Partygate.

  • No 10 staff were “gobsmacked” when Boris Johnson told MPs that the Covid rules were followed at all times in Downing Street, ITV reports. It says:

Several sources reveal the incredulity inside No 10 at his initial absolute denials to parliament on 8 December 2021, the day after the mock press conference was aired, when he said: “I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

One source recalls: “We all watched it live and we were just gobsmacked. We all looked at each other and thought, ‘Why the hell is he saying this?’ We all know it had happened, he knew it happened – he was there.

“We were all just shocked that he would even deny it. He was there. We were there. We were all there together. And suddenly he’s denying it.”

  • Only 50% of the No 10 parties were ever investigated by Sue Gray or the Metropolitan police, ITV claims.

  • Some key documents were destroyed before Gray and the Met started their investigations, one source told ITV. ITV says:

The source reveals: “There was a sense, and an implication, that we should start deleting evidence before there is an investigation. And a lot of people started shredding things. Any proof of the events started disappearing.

“[Awards from a Christmas party were] basically taken down, kept away, shredded, evidence destroyed. So there was an aspect of getting rid of evidence – just keeping yourself in the clear before an investigation would happen.”

  • No 10 staff corroborated their stories when they filled in the questionnaires about what happened at the parties sent to them by the police, ITV claims.

  • One No 10 party was even more scandalous than has been reported, ITV says. It reports:

The notorious party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh funeral service in April 2021 was even more debaucherous than previously documented, with at least two couples “getting it on with each other” and “touching each other up” and two other members of staff “all over each other” in a kitchen area.

As Emilio Casalicchio asks in Politico’s London Playbook briefing, “At what point does a work drinks event become an orgy?”


Health secretary Steve Barclay urges people to 'use common sense' as ambulance staff on strike

Steve Barclay, the health secretary, has been doing a media round this morning, as ambulance staff go on strike in England and Wales. He is urging people to “use their common sense”. He told Times Radio:

We’re just saying to people, use their common sense.

I think people can see that today is going to be a very challenging day for the ambulance service, their focus will be in particular on those life-threatening incidents and ensuring that those are addressed, but there will be strain on the rest of the system.

So we’re just saying to people use their common sense. Of course, if it is genuinely life-threatening, then they should phone 999.

This is a toned-down version of the advice that Will Quince, a junior health minister, gave when ambulance staff were on strike before Christmas. He said that people should avoid activities such as contact sports, unnecessary car journeys, or jogging on icy roads. He was mocked for this at the time, but arguably his advice was more helpful than just telling people to use their common sense.


Boris Johnson joked he was at ‘most unsocially distanced party in UK’ at No 10 Partygate event for which escaped fine, ITV says

Good morning. Many people have been wondering (and posting about this BTL) what is happening with the privileges committee inquiry into whether Boris Johnson lied to MPs about Partygate. We may hear more today because at 9.30am the committee is holding a meeting in private. And, perhaps to coincide with that, ITV’s Paul Brand is launching a new podcast about the scandal. Brand broke some of the most shocking Partygate stories and, according to the ITV preview, in the podcast the scoops are still coming.

The podcast reveals that, at a leaving do for Lee Cain, his outgoing communications director, in November 2020, Boris Johnson joked about this being “the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now”.

The Met did fine some No 10 staff for attending that event, but not Johnson himself. The force has never explained why, although it has been suggested that investigators made a distinction between what happened early in the evening at No 10 “parties”, and what happened later on, when deciding who broke Covid rules.

In its story, ITV says:

Recalling the event on the podcast, the source says: “I was working late – some music came on, the mumbling sort of rose, and there were loads of people stood around, but this time I came out because I heard the prime minister speaking and that’s when I heard the quote: ‘This is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now,’ and everyone was laughing about it.” ITV News later exclusively revealed the photographs of Mr Johnson raising his glass in front of staff at the leaving do on November 13 2020.

Our source says their experience in the room that Friday undermines the former PM’s repeated claim that he was unaware of partying. “The PM making that comment really sticks out in my mind, that was pretty bad, because the picture showed one side of this going on. But what it didn’t capture is the 20-odd people sat on top of each other on the opposite side – they’re literally shoulder to shoulder, clamped in like a tube carriage,” the source said.

“And he was there seeing people sat on other people’s laps (in) close proximity, crowded, scrunched up in front of him. He saw that, he saw people with drinks. You saw the picture. It had booze all over that desk. He’s not blind, he’s not stupid. He saw that and didn’t shut it down.”

Boris Johnson has not denied using the phrase, but a spokesperson for him said: “As prime minister during a 24/7 national emergency he worked constantly to ensure the government did everything possible in its power to save lives and protect livelihoods.”

There are plenty more revelations in the podcast. The ITV summary is well worth reading in full.

"I heard the PM speaking and that's when I heard the quote 'this is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now' and everyone was laughing about it."

For the first time, hear our (actor-voiced) source describe the moment in their own words...

— ITV News (@itvnews) January 11, 2023

Sources also reveal on Partygate: The Inside Story staff in Number 10 destroyed evidence and "started shredding things" before being investigated over Downing Street's lockdown-breaching parties.

— ITV News (@itvnews) January 11, 2023

Partygate was a scandal that helped to bring down Boris Johnson, but no one died from the drinking. Ambulance staff are on strike today in England and Wales, but claims that unions are putting lives at risk are undermined by the evidence that people are already dying in their hundreds every week because of the dire state of A&E services.

Wednesday's Times: 1,000 excess deaths each week as the NHS buckles #TomorrowsPapersToday #TheTimes #Times

— Tomorrows Papers Today (@TmorrowsPapers) January 10, 2023

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, Frank Ward, the TSSA general secretary, and Mick Whelan, the Aslef general secretary, give evidence to the Commons transport committee about the rail strikes.

12pm: Rishi Sunak faces Keir Starmer at PMQs.

After 12.45pm: MPs begin a debate on a Labour motion calling for the creation of a select committee to consider the case for removing tax exemptions from private schools, to raise more funds for state education.

Afternoon: Sunak meets Fumio Kishida, the Japanese prime minister, to sign a new defence agreement.

Afternoon: James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, meets political leaders in Northern Ireland to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol.

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

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

Alternatively, you can email me at



Andrew Sparrow

The GuardianTramp

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