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PMQs: Boris Johnson accused of ‘ignoring Sage advice’ as report warns Omicron could spark ‘large wave’

·13-min read
PMQs: Boris Johnson accused of ‘ignoring Sage advice’ as report warns Omicron could spark ‘large wave’

Boris Johnson was accused of “ignoring Sage advice” at Prime Minister’s Questions after a leaked report called on ministers to toughen up travel restrictions to combat the Omicron variant.

The report warned the Omicron variant could spark a “very large wave” of infections and urged the prime minister to impose “very stringent rules” to curb its spread.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said that Mr Johnson had refused to follow the recommendations of his own advisers by refusing to introduce pre-departure tests for those arriving in the UK.

Official notes from the Sage meeting on November 29, seen by the BBC, claim a wave of cases would “in turn lead to a potentially high number of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected.”

Mr Johnson responded: “This country was the first to respond to the variant with travel bans. As for the countries that are seeding the Omicron variant, we’ve put them on the red list.”

Ministers have insisted that there is no need to cancel Christmas plans despite the spread of the variant, with health secretary Sajid Javid instead urging Britons to take a test before attending parties.

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SNP accuse PM of ignoring scientific advisers over tighter travel restrictions

Johnson denies 40 hospital pledge in danger as Labour raises ‘red flag’ warnings

Johnson insists no rules broken amid claims of ‘boozy’ Downing Street party

17:06 , Lily Waddell

This brings us to the end of our coverage for today.

French minister calls for EU-wide measures against UK over fishing row

15:27 , Daniel Keane

France’s minister for Europe has called on the EU to take retaliatory measures against Britain if there is no resolution to the post-Brexit row over fishing licences by December 10.

He told French radio network RTL: “It was the European Commission that told the British – so all of Europe together – that if you don’t make big gestures with a lot of licences on December 10, we are no longer in a European dialogue.”

On the potential ban by the French, Mr Beaune added: “It’s one of the possible options but it’s better, to be honest, to have European measures.

“All options are on the table, because it’s better to have a dialogue, but… if it doesn’t bear fruit we can take European measures.”

France says Britain has not handed out enough licences to its fishermen, while British ministers insist the overwhelming majority of applications for licences have been granted.

School children ‘should be taught a natural history GCSE’ to help environment,

14:59 , Daniel Keane

School children need to be taught a natural history GCSE to bridge the “gulf” between their concerns for the environment and their lack of knowledge about nature, ministers have heard.

Conservative MP for Eastbourne Caroline Ansell told MPs: “Our young people today are caught up in an unhappy paradox whilst their concern for the natural world is greater than ever before, their access to nature to discover its magic and marvel at its wonder is much reduced.”

She cited a study by Bath University which found that three-quarters of young people in the UK are worried about the future of the planet.

Ms Ansell added: “It is this gulf then between the knowledge and experience of the natural world required to protect it on one hand and the growing concern about ecological decline on the other which a new natural history qualification could help to close.”

Watch: Johnson insists ‘no rules were broken’ amid claims of boozy No10 party

14:41 , Daniel Keane

Zero-hours contracts in care sector ‘must be addressed'

14:25 , Daniel Keane

Responding to Mr Hunt’s questions, health minister Gillian Keegan has said that zero-hours contracts in the care sector must be addressed.

She told the Commons: “It is the largest workforce in the country with 1.54 billion people working in it but with 40 per cent churn and very high amounts of zero-hours contracts, very high amounts of retraining.

“I have never seen something that has that, and this has been the case for decades and nobody has done anything to address it.

“We do need to address it and that is what we are here to do.”

Hunt describes social white paper as ‘three steps forward, two steps back'

14:08 , Daniel Keane

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has described the Government’s social care white paper as “three steps forward, two steps back”.

He told the Commons this afternoon: “The step forward which we should acknowledge is the introduction of a cap. Whatever the arguments about what counts towards the cap, having a cap will make a big difference to many people and that is welcome.”

But he added there were problems in “two crucial areas”.

These were that councils, which administer social care, were “barely” given enough to deal with “demographic change and the national living wage increases”, and that it was “hard to see an end to the workforce crisis which leaves 40 per cent turnover in many companies”.

Jacob Rees-Mogg accused of failing to declare £2.9 million loan

13:45 , Laura Sharman

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote to the independent adviser on ministers’ interests Lord Geidt over the loans.

In her letter, she said that failing to declare director’s loans worth £2.94 million a year “allowed Mr Rees-Mogg to borrow a large sum of money at a very low interest rate” and argued that it “should have been declared”.

Meanwhile, Douglas Ross revealed last month that he had referred himself to the commissioner after failing to declare thousands of pounds in outside earnings.

The Conservative MP failed to declare more than £28,000 in outside earnings from his second job as an MSP and third job as a football referee, reports The Herald.

Angela Rayner (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Angela Rayner (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Jacob Rees-Mogg among latest MPs to face standards probe

13:28 , Laura Sharman

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross have become the latest MPs to face a standards probe.

Both were added to the list of MPs that are under investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone on Wednesday.

The decision to investigate Mr Rees-Mogg comes after Labour demanded an investigation into a £6 million loan that the party said he did not declare properly.

Last month, the opposition party called for Ms Stone to follow-up on claims in the Mail On Sunday that the Cabinet minister failed to declare director’s loans from his company Saliston Limited between 2018 and 2020.

Mr Rees-Mogg’s opposite number, shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire, said there appeared to have been “yet another egregious breach of the rules” after the emergence of the report.

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is under investigation by the standards watchdog (James Manning/PA)
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is under investigation by the standards watchdog (James Manning/PA)

Blackford calls on PM to chair COBRA meeting between four nations

12:54 , Daniel Keane

The prime minister is ignoring the advice of the nations of the UK and Sage, and is continuing to “imperil” public health, Mr Blackford said.

He asked Mr Johnson to “finally convene a four-nation Cobra meeting to tighten travel restrictions or will he continue to ignore the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and his own scientific advisers in Sage advisers, and imperil the health of the public of these islands?”

The PM said “of course we want to work closely with him and there will be abundant opportunities today and the weeks ahead to concert our activity”.

Blackford says Mirror have ‘legal advice on “potential illegality”’ on Downing Street party

12:42 , Daniel Keane

The Mirror newspaper have legal advice on “potential illegality” in relation to allegations that a party was held in Number 10 while Covid restrictions were in force last year, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said.

He said his thoughts are with those recovering from storm Arwen, before saying it is “deeply regrettable” to again be talking about “the Prime Minister’s misconduct”, adding: “Last Christmas the Prime Minister hosted a packed party in Downing Street. An event that broke lockdown rules.

“The Prime Minister might be denying it but I’ve spoken to the Mirror newspaper this morning and they are confirming what happened, and they have legal advice on potential illegality.

“At a time when public health messaging is so vital, how are people possibly expected to trust a Prime Minister when he thinks it’s one rule for him and one rule for everybody else?”

The PM said: “He’s talking total nonsense. I think he would have been better off, frankly, saying something about the victims of Storm Arwen in Scotland.”

Masks back in the Commons

12:32 , Daniel Keane

The use of face coverings has greatly increased in the Commons - with nearly every MP on the front benches now fully masked up.

It comes just a day after masks were reintroduced on public transport and in shops and supermarkets.

MPs have previously been accused of setting bad example for the British public by refusing to don a face covering in the House - which is a packed space.

 (PA)
(PA)

Blackford: PM ‘ignoring SAGE advice’ over variant

12:23 , Daniel Keane

Westminster’s leader for the SNP Ian Blackford is the first MP to bring up the leak of SAGE documents warning of a “very large” wave of infections sparked by the Omicron variant.

Mr Blackford accuses the PM of “ignoring advice from SAGE” - particularly refusing to introduce pre-departure tests.

Mr Johnson responds: “This country was the first to respond to the variant with travel bans.

“As for the countries that are seeding the Omicron variant, we’ve put them on the red list.

“These are balanced and proportionate measures to protect the British people.”

Johnson takes a dig at Starmer over rift with Rayner

12:15 , Daniel Keane

Unsurprisingly, the PM has taken a dig at Sir Keir over his reshuffle of the shadow cabinet earlier this week. It is claimed that the Labour leader did not brief his deputy Angela Rayner before changing the frontbench.

Mr Johnson claims that Ms Rayner branded the lack of warning from Sir Keir “idiotic” and “pathetic”.

He adds: “They’re getting on with factional infighting… we’re getting on with the people’s priorities.”

Moving swiftly onto a different attack line, he adds: “If we listened to Captain Hindsight we’d all still be in lockdown.”

PM grilled over hospitals promise

12:12 , Daniel Keane

Sir Keir grills the prime minister over his promise to build 40 new hospitals, which has been “red flagged” by a watchdog for being unachievable.

“If he is so confident in his answer, why doesn’t he publish the Progress report and let us see it?” he says.

Mr Johnson responds: “He plays politics and asks frivolous questions - we’re getting on with the job.

“We are helping to build another 40 new hospitals with an injection of 36 billion pounds of investment – which his party voted against.”

Sir Keir adds: “It’s the same old story with this prime minister. Downing Street throws parties during lockdown - he says no problem... Promises from this prime minister aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”

Starmer: PM is ‘taking the country for fools’ over Downing Street Christmas party

12:07 , Daniel Keane

PMQs is underway, with Sir Keir Starmer beginning by marking World Aids Day and hailing advancements in treatment.

He goes on to ask the prime minister whether a party was held in Downing Street in December last year, as reported by the Daily Mirror last night.

The PM responds: “All guidance was followed at the time.”

He also claims that Sir Keir did not invite deputy leader Angela Rayner to a planned Labour Christmas party.

But Sir Keir says: “The guidance was clear - you should not have work lunches or parties. And yet while the country was locked down, it was fine for him and his friends for him and his friends to throw a boozy party in Downing Street?”

“He does not deny it. He says no rules were broken - that can’t be the case. He is taking the British public for fools.”

Javid denies PM broke Covid rules last year with ‘parties at Number 10'

11:52 , Daniel Keane

Another story that is causing waves in Westminster is the Daily Mirror’s revelation that the prime minister allegedly held two parties in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas - in a clear breach of Covid rules.

The newspaper said the Prime Minister gave a speech at a packed leaving do for a senior aide last November when the country was in the midst of the second lockdown.

Their report claimed members of his No 10 team then held their own festive party days before Christmas, while London was under Tier 3 restrictions.

In each case, the paper reported, there were 40 or 50 people crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium sized room.

Health secretary Sajid Javid insisted Covid regulations would have been adhered to in Downing Street, adding: ““Obviously I can’t tell you what’s going on on a daily basis in any building, but what I can tell you is if it’s Government, especially No 10, all the rules would have been followed at all times.”

The report is likely to give ammunition to Sir Keir Starmer this afternoon as he takes to the dispatch box.

Leaked report warns of ‘very large wave’ of Covid infections

11:46 , Daniel Keane

The Omicron variant could spark a “very large wave” of Covid infections in the UK, a leaked report has warned.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) believes it is “highly likely” that the new variant can evade immunity from existing vaccines “to some extent”.

Official notes from the Sage meeting, seen by the BBC, warned: “Any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections.

“This would in turn lead to a potentially high number of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected.”

The scientists go on to warn that “very stringent response measures” could be needed to ease the pressure on the NHS. They called on ministers to tighten existing travel rules to include pre-departure testing.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, responded to the minutes by saying: “It is totally unacceptable that ministers are failing to take action at the border when even their own advisors are telling them to introduce pre-departure tests.”

PMQs to begin shortly

11:37 , Daniel Keane

Good morning and welcome to the Standard’s coverage of Prime Minister’s Questions.

Boris Johnson is likely to face questions over the Omicron variant as his Government this week announced a suite of measures to stem transmission.

On Tuesday, he urged people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays during a press conference where he promised to “throw everything” at the booster vaccination campaign to tackle the variant’s spread.

But his remarks came after UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief Dr Jenny Harries said decreasing social contacts would also help.

Mr Johnson insisted he had already put in place a package of “balanced and proportionate measures” in response to the threat posed by the new variant as cases of Omicron reached 22 in the UK.

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