Early evening summary
- Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has announced that the government has ordered a further 60m doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine in an effort to ensure that booster jabs can be given from this autumn. He made the announcement at a No 10 press conference where Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, also gave a relatively upbeat assessment of progress being made in the fight against coronavirus. Van-Tam said that the expected third wave of coronavirus cases could be reduced to a “third upsurge” if the vaccination programme continued at pace (see 5.50pm) and he said new variants in the UK were not “rushing away” to the extent to which they could soon present a major problem. (See 5.44pm.) But Hancock faced criticism after the briefing was over for his decision to completely ignore questions about the “sleaze” issues facing the government.
- A formal investigation into how Boris Johnson funded refurbishments to his Downing Street flat has been launched by the Electoral Commission, which said there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect multiple offences may have been committed.
- A furious Johnson tried to fight off allegations he broke donation reporting rules, as Sir Keir Starmer branded him “Major Sleaze” in the “cash for curtains” row increasingly engulfing the prime minister.
- Johnson will retain power to quash investigations and exonerate himself and ministers despite the appointment of a new standards adviser, it has been revealed, sparking high-level criticism from former top civil servants.
- Arlene Foster has announced she is stepping down as leader of the Democratic Unionist party and Northern Ireland’s first minister after a sudden internal party revolt.
- The European parliament has given its overwhelming backing to the Brexit trade and security deal, prompting senior figures on both sides to speak of hope for a “new chapter” of friendly relations after four years of division.
- MPs have for the fifth time rejected an attempt to protect hundreds of thousands of leaseholders from crippling fire safety bills of up to £100,000 each.
That’s all from me for tonight. But our coronavirus coverage continues on our global live blog. It’s here.
Updated at 7.22pm BST
The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has supported the BBC’s decision to exclude Alex Salmond and his new nationalist party Alba from a Scottish leaders’ election debate and its general election coverage, partly because Alba is very new and has very little support.
Ofcom’s elections committee said in a ruling (pdf) the BBC had correctly used its editorial judgement: Alba was only launched four days before the leaders’ debate on 30 March, and the broadcaster had covered its launch, its policies and Salmond’s speeches in full in other programmes.
Salmond has routinely used legal threats and regulatory complaints against the BBC during his career; as Scottish National party leader he accused it of bias repeatedly for excluding the SNP from UK general election debates. He did so in court before the 2010 general election, but then abandoned his action.
Ofcom added, however, that if Alba’s support greatly increased, the BBC may need to consider including Salmond in future debates: “given the level of current support for political parties is, by its nature, dynamic, the BBC would need to assess the issues afresh to determine what level of coverage, if any, should be provided to the Alba party in its planned second debate, or in any programmes linked to it.”
The press conference is now over. This is from my colleague Aubrey Allegretti.
Hancock says he thinks it is important for different parts of England to move out of lockdown restrictions at the same time.
Q: Did you ever hear the PM say he would rather let coronavirus rip, or see bodies pile up, than have another lockdown?
No, says Hancock, he didn’t.
Q: We have various inquiries into lobbying and leaks etc, but no inquiry into the pandemic. Is it time for one now?
Hancock says there will be time for an inquiry. It should cover everything.
Van-Tam says he thinks an inquiry will be important, “but please not now”. He says the scientists are far too busy trying to avoid problems for this winter.
He says he hopes the inquiry will focus on the success of the vaccination programme.
He says doctors should be able to look back at 2021 and say, ‘This is what I did in 2021.’
Q: [From the Mirror’s Ben Glaze] As culture secretary you championed the right of the press to ask difficult questions. But what is the point of a press conference if you won’t engage with difficult questions, as you have been refusing to do tonight?
Hancock says this press conference is about coronvirus. He says Van-Tam and Kanani have given very good answers. There were lots of questions about the other matters in the Commons earlier. He says it is also important to concentrate “on the big things that really matter”.
- Hancock defends his refusal to answer questions on sleaze claims, saying he should focus on “the big things that really matter’.
Van-Tam says third wave of Covid could be reduced to ‘third upsurge’ if vaccine programme continues at pace
Hancock says the order for 60m booster jabs is a forward order. That does not mean they are in the freezer already, he says.
Van-Tam says he is hopeful that if the vaccine programme continues at pace, “the third wave might just be a third upsurge” because of the breaking of the link between cases and hospitalisation/deaths.
Chris Smyth from the Times asks three questions, the third of which is about whether the Conservative party is still planning to abolish the Electoral Commission if it does not do what the government wants, as Amanda Milling, the party’s co-chair, suggested last year.
Hancock says he will answer one question, Van-Tam a second, and the third (the Electoral Commission one) they will ignore.
Van-Tam says it is still unclear how effective vaccines will be against new variants
Q: Some people say you are sticking to dates, rather than data, because you are refusing to ease the restrictions for funerals. Will you look at those again?
Hancock says this is an incredibly important topic. He says the data suggests the UK is where it expected to be. The dates set out in the roadmap were “not before” dates.
He says we are almost exactly where the modellers said we would be.
Q: Do you have data about how vaccines are working against variants?
Van-Tam says most of the data is from after Christmas, and generated against the Kent B117 variant. He says they are extremely confident the vaccines are working against this.
But there are other variants. He says their cases numbers have grown. He would not call them trivial. But he does not see them rushing away either.
I couldn’t call the numbers trivial but at the same token I don’t see them rushing away now or in the next few weeks in terms of giving us a new kind of problem.
The way you test these vaccines against these variants is either you have that variant circulating widely in your population, and you then kind of learn the hard way whether vaccines are working or not – you gain real-life epidemiological data.
We can’t do that if they are not circulating – we are trying not to let them circulate so we are not going to create that situation so instead what we do are a series of laboratory studies called neutralisation studies.
If the antibodies work against the virus, that is good; it shows the vaccines will work.
But if they don’t, that does not necessarily mean the vaccines won’t work – because vaccines also stimulate T-cell immunity.
He says the current studies show the level of neutralisation fall. But he says that does not mean the vaccines won’t work in the real world.
He says the first thing to go would be protection against infection. He says he would expect protection against severe disease to be be more lasting.
- Van-Tam says it is still unclear how effective vaccines will be against new variants.
Hancock says policy around international travel is around uncertainty. Policy is dominated by the need to protect the progress made so far.
Q: How close are we to herd immunity? What threshold is needed to reach that?
Van-Tam says there are “some twists and turns” ahead. He says he does not want us to run into any “wet patches” in the next few weeks.
There will be good pressures and bad pressures on R.
The easements will have a propensity to increase R.
But the vaccine rollout should put downward pressure on it.
There are competing pressures in play, he says.
He says the vaccine programme has reached 42-year-olds, but it needs to go further.
Updated at 6.11pm BST
Q: Are you considering changing vaccine policy to help India?
Hancock says the UK does not have any surplus vaccine at the moment. But AstraZeneca is working with the Serum Institute of India, which is producing more vaccine than any other institution in the world. So it is benefiting from British science, he says.
Q: [From the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg] If a serving government minster is found to have broken the rules on party funding, should they resign?
Hancock says the PM answered lots of questions about this in the Commons earlier.
(Actually, he didn’t; he dodged most of them.)
Hancock says, because this is a coronavirus press conference, he will not say any more.
Q: What can be done to ensure the UK remains a global leader in life sciences?
Hancock says he will be giving a speech on this tomorrow.
He says the AstraZeneca decision to make a vaccine available around the world at cost has been the UK’s greatest global contribution during the pandemic.
And discovering the use of dexamethasone as a Covid treatment may have saved up to a million lives around the world.
He says the UK will never block the export of medical products around the world. He says this should make it an attractive base for pharmaceutical companies.
Kanani urges people to carry on collaborating with research.
And Van-Tam thanks NHS clinicians who have managed to run massive studies alongside their main work.
He says the UK is trying to generate data on mix and match schedules for vaccines, and the UK is already “deep in study” on booster vaccines.
Other countries around the world want to share this data, he says.
Van-Tam says they need data to see if the vaccines work as well on the elderly, and if they work as well on people with underlying conditions. He says it will take a little longer to get this information.
Q: When will people be allowed to take care home relatives out without them having to self-isolate when they return?
Hancock says this is an incredibly important question, and he is working on it now. He had a meeting on this yesterday. They want to find a way of letting people out of care homes with the risk they will bring coronavirus back to the home when they return. He says he hopes to be able to announce “good news” soon.
It is important to have protective rules, he says. But he says he knows that not allowing visits has consequences.
Van-Tam now presents a chart summarising the findings of the PHE research published this morning. (See 9.15am.)
He says these figures are probably conservative estimates. And he says once people have had a second dose, the impact should be stronger.
Van-Tam presents a slide on Covid deaths.
And here is the chart for vaccinations.
Covid cases ‘at or close to bottom’, says Van-Tam
Van-Tam is now presenting slides.
The first is about the number cases. He says the UK is now “at or close to the bottom”.
And hospital numbers are close to the bottom, he says.
Hancock says UK now has secured 60m vaccine booster shots for use later this year
Hancock says the UK has now secured 60m doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be used for booster shots later this year.
To keep us safe and free here, while we get this disease under control across the whole world, we have been working on a programme of booster shots for over a year now. And we’ve backed some of the only clinical trials in the world looking specifically at booster shots.
I’m delighted to be able to tell you that we’ve secured a further 60m doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that will be used alongside others as part of our booster shot programme later this year.
Updated at 6.23pm BST
Hancock is now summarising the ONS figures released earlier today about the extent to which people test positive for antibodies against coronavirus. Testing positive means people have either had the illness or have been vaccinated.
In England seven out of 10 adults have antibodies.
Hancock says he got a text from the NHS yesterday inviting him to get a vaccination. He is getting his tomorrow, he says.
Anyone over 42 is now eligible, and Hancock is 42.
Hancock is now summarising the research published this morning about the impact of vaccination on transmission. (See 9.15am.)
Three ‘oxygen factory’ units being sent to India
Hancock starts with India. He says it pains everyone to watch, not least because the bonds between the UK and India are so strong. He says he has been in constant contact with his Indian counterpart and he has put together supplies of ventilators and oxygen concentrators which are going to be sent to India.
Working with the Northern Ireland executive, he says he has also arranged for large-scale oxygen production equipment to be sent to India.
There are more details of this here. The Department of Health describes them as “oxygen factories”, and it says three are being sent to India.
Matt Hancock’s press conference
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is about to hold a press conference at No 10.
He will be joined by Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, and Dr Nikki Kanani, medical director of primary care at NHS England.
From Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister
New DUP leader must accept ‘political landscape has changed’, says Sinn Fein
Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein deputy first minister, has put out a statement following Arlene Foster’s resignation. She pays tribute to Foster, but most of the statement is a warning to the DUP that it should not try to turn the clock back in Northern Ireland. O’Neill says:
The incoming DUP leader should recognise that the political landscape across our island has changed.
The broad community are impatient for social reform and political change which reflects a modern and progressive society where everyone can feel that they belong on an equal basis.
As joint head of government my focus, and the focus of our executive, must remain on the task of leading us safely and sustainably out of the pandemic, building a fairer economy recovery, providing first-class public services and delivering the New Decade, New Approach deal to the benefit of every section of our society.
This requires a genuine commitment from all political leaders to power-sharing and to work to deliver equality for women, for the LGBT community, for Irish language and identity and all sections of our community.
Within the executive and assembly, Sinn Féin will work with all parties to progress social reform, political change and economic prosperity – but we will robustly oppose damaging policies or regressive throwback politics of the past.
The public and electorate want the parties to enter into a new era and make politics work in their interests. This is certainly my top priority now and in the time ahead.
In a column, my colleague Martin Kettle says Arlene Foster was a casualty of Brexit. He explains:
It is Brexit that has put the DUP on the rack. And it is Brexit that she and her party got horribly wrong from the start. Pure UK sovereignty was always going to be incompatible with the Northern Ireland peace process, into which power-sharing was hardwired. The DUP should therefore have thought the issue through and opposed Brexit, as a majority of Northern Ireland voters unsurprisingly did in 2016. When the UK nevertheless voted for it, the DUP should have backed Theresa May’s clunky but, in this context, principled Northern Ireland backstop.
Instead, the DUP foolishly threw in its lot with Boris Johnson and the European Research Group. Three years ago, Johnson went to the DUP conference and promised “no British government could or should” sign up to a border in the Irish Sea, a pledge he repeated when he became prime minister in 2019. The following year, Johnson signed up to precisely that, making idiots of the DUP.
Johnson has no interest in Northern Ireland. A colleague from his Daily Telegraph days recently recalled him announcing he was writing a piece about Northern Ireland. “Remind me,” he asked, “which ones are the orange johnnies?” Foster is neither the first nor the last person to make the error of believing Johnson’s lies. But she is learning her lesson now. She is also being made the scapegoat for wider DUP and unionist failings that will continue to confront her successor.
Martin’s full article is here.
Updated at 4.49pm BST
This is from Julian Smith, the Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary, on Arlene Foster’s resignation.
Here is reaction to Arlene Foster’s resignation from two of the people seen as candidates to replace her.
From Gavin Robinson, DUP MP for Belfast East
From Edwin Poots, agriculture minister in the Northern Ireland executive
This is from the Belfast Telegraph’s Allison Morris on Arlene Foster’s resignation speech.
The latest edition of the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast is out. In a week that has seen No 10 fighting off fires left, right, and centre, Jessica Elgot is joined by Zoe Williams and Sonia Sodha to discuss a less than stellar week for the PM. Plus, Peter Walker, Jon Henley and Helena Smith look at the various pressures facing European leaders when it comes to allowing tourism to restart this summer.
Updated at 4.40pm BST
Key points from Arlene Foster’s resignation statement
Here are the key points from Arlene Foster’s lengthy resignation statement. Despite its length, the statement does not include any explanation as to why Foster is going now (she has lost the confidence of her MPs), or even an acknowledgement that she is being forced out against her will.
Here are the most interesting points.
- Foster says the DUP should retain its commitment to power sharing. She says:
I have sought to lead the party and Northern Ireland away from division and towards a better path.
There are people in Northern Ireland with a British identity, others are Irish, others are Northern Irish, others are a mixture of all three and some are new and emerging. We must all learn to be generous to each other, live together and share this wonderful country.
The future of unionism and Northern Ireland will not be found in division, it will only be found in sharing this place we all are privileged to call home.
- She says the Northern Ireland protocol (the part of the Brexit agreement affecting trade in Northern Ireland) has destabilised the region. But she does not acknowledge that the DUP may have played its part in the protocol being agreed, because it refused to back Theresa May’s alternative plan for Brexit and then supported Boris Johnson when he said he would not allow a customs border down the Irish Sea – only to see him promptly abandon that promise when he became prime minister. She says:
The protocol being foisted upon Northern Ireland against the will of unionists has served to destabilise Northern Ireland in more recent times.
- She says the suspension of power sharing in Northern Ireland caused “untold harm” to public services and she urges her party not to let it happen again. She says:
My firm view that Northern Ireland has been better served having local ministers at this time. It is unthinkable that we could have faced into the coronavirus pandemic without our own devolved ministers in place and no ministerial direction for departments.
As I prepare to depart the political stage it is my view that if Northern Ireland is to prosper then it will only do so built on the foundations of successful and durable devolution. That will require continued hard work and real determination and courage on all sides.
- She cites the confidence and supply agreement signed with the Conservatives after Theresa May lost her majority in the 2017 election as a high point for the DUP. She says:
The confidence and supply agreement was able to bring one billion pounds of extra spending for everyone in Northern Ireland. Our priorities were not narrow but based on more investment in mental health and hospitals, bringing broadband to rural communities, improving our roads and ensuring funding to encourage more shared housing and education.
- She says she wants to see more women follow her into politics. She says:
My election as leader of the Democratic Unionist party broke a glass ceiling and I am glad inspired other women to enter politics and spurred them on to take up elected office.
I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it’s the same for all women in public life.
I want to encourage you to keep going and don’t let the online lynch-mobs get you down.
Updated at 7.24pm BST
The full text of Arlene Foster’s resignation statement is on the DUP’s website here.
Arlene Foster to stand down as DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister at end of June
Arlene Foster, the Northern Ireland first minister, has announced she will resign as DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister at the end of June. She has recorded a statement that Sky News is broadcasting now.
Here is the opening of her statement.
A short time ago I called the party chairman to inform him that I intend to step down as leader of the Democratic Unionist party on 28 May and as first minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June.
It is important to give space over the next few weeks for the party officers to make arrangements for the election of a new leader. When elected I will work with the new leader on transition arrangements.
Her resignation follows the revelation yesterday that DUP MLAs and MPs were preparing a vote of no confidence in her. My colleague Rory Carroll explains why here.
Updated at 4.09pm BST
Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative party deputy chairman who now runs a well-funded polling operation, has published a 26-page report on opinion in Scotland, based on polling and focus groups. In a summary of its findings on his website, Ashcroft says it shows that support for independence is on a knife-edge.
The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.
Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers …
But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.
Holyrood magazine also has a good summary here.
Updated at 3.37pm BST
No 10 says Johnson will retain final say over internal inquiry into whether he broke ministerial code
The Downing Street lobby briefing is over. Here are the key points.
- Boris Johnson will have the final say over deciding whether or not he broke the ministerial code in relation to the funding of his flat – despite the announcement of an inquiry by the new independent adviser on ministerial interests appointed this morning. (See 11.33am.) The prime minister has always been the ultimate judge of whether or not a minister has broken the code. But, given that his own conduct is now being investigated, the prime minister’s spokesman was asked if Johnson would recuse himself from this investigation. The spokesman said Johnson would remain the “ultimate arbiter” of the code. This is how the Mirror sums this up.
- The spokesman said that the role of the independent adviser on ministerial interests has been strengthened – but not as much as recommended by the committee on standards in public life. In a recent letter to the PM (pdf) Lord Evans, chair of the committee, said the independent adviser should be able to initiate investigations (instead of just waiting until asked to carry out one by the PM) and that s/he should be able to able to publish a summary of their findings. Now the adviser will also be able to suggest an inquiry to the PM, and, after an inquiry, s/he will also be able to require the publication of their findings. The details are set out in the terms of reference (pdf).
- Downing Street said the Electoral Commission inquiry was a matter for the Conservative party, and that Johnson himself has not yet been asked to give evidence.
- The PM’s press secretary refused to accept that Johnson misled MPs at PMQs when he said that Labour opposed the Brexit deal that has just been approved by MEPs. In fact, Labour voted for the deal in parliament. But the press secretary said Johnson was referring to Starmer’s general support for a second referendum, which could have led to Brexit being stopped. She refused to commit the PM to correcting the record.
Leading scientists urge UK to share Covid vaccines with poorer nations
Leading scientists are urging the UK to share the Covid vaccines it has bought with India and other nations, to tackle the soaring death toll and reduce the spread of the virus and new variants around the world, my colleague Sarah Boseley reports.
Updated at 2.10pm BST
Downing Street flat refurbishment row has ‘brought politics in general into disrepute’, says Welsh first minister
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, has welcomed the decision of the Electoral Commission to investigate the funding of the PM’s flat refurbishment. Drakeford said:
I’m very glad the Electoral Commission has decided to do that because it will mean that the full facts will now be available to the public.
I think you can see that over recent days the prime minister and the people who speak on his behalf have been very careful in choosing the words that they use. Choosing them, I think, to conceal the full story from people.
Drakeford told PA Media that the controversy had “brought politics in general into disrepute” and he said he “cannot think of another prime minister who would have acted in the way that is alleged the current prime minister has acted”.
The number of patients in hospital in England with Covid-19 has dropped to its lowest level for seven months, PA Media reports. PA says:
A total of 1,310 patients were in hospital at 8am on 27 April, according to figures from NHS England.
This is the lowest since 1,299 on 21 September, and is down 96% from a record 34,336 on 18 January.
Here is my colleague Aubrey Allegretti’s story about PMQs.
At his post-PMQs briefing Sir Keir Starmer’s spokesman defended the Labour leader’s decision to use his questions today to ask about the funding of the PM’s flat refurbishment. The spokesman said:
The real question here is about whether or not the prime minister has complied with the rules governing the ministerial code, the rules governing MPs making a declaration to the register of interests and – as we have seen today – whether or not the Conservative party and the prime minister followed electoral law.
That’s the big issue of today and if the prime minister wanted to end this saga he would come clean about precisely what’s happened.
The only reason we are talking about wallpaper and furnishings is because the prime minister hasn’t come clean on what is becoming a daily story of more Tory sleaze.
The spokesman also said that “unlike the prime minister he doesn’t turn his nose up to John Lewis thinking it’s too downmarket”. That was a reference to the report that Carrie Symonds, the PM’s fiancee, wanted to refurbish the Downing Street flat because she wanted to get rid of the the “John Lewis nightmare” left by Theresa May.
PMQs – Verdict from Twitter commentariat
And this is what journalists and political commentators are saying about PMQs.
From the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg
From the FT’s Jim Pickard
From the Times’ Iain Martin
From the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher
From the i’s Nigel Morris
From the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis
From the Sun’s Kate Ferguson
From Tom Newton Dunn from Times Radio
From my colleague Peter Walker
From the FT’s Robert Shrimsley
From Good Morning Britain’s Anne Alexander
From my colleague Owen Jones
From the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire
From Business Insider’s Thomas Colson
Updated at 1.42pm BST
This is from Sky’s Sam Coates.
Sir Keir Starmer’s spokesman has described Boris Johnson’s PMQs rant as a “Kevin Keegan moment”, the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar reports.
PMQs – Snap verdict
There is general agreement that Boris Johnson has never appeared as enraged at PMQs as he was today, as Sir Keir Starmer challenged him repeatedly with questions about his Downing Street flat refurbishment that he was unwilling to answer. Sometimes anger and indignation can look quite impressive at the dispatch box. People expect prime ministers to be able to display an element of menace and David Cameron, for example, was someone who could switch from genial to furious without demeaning his authority.
But Johnson, despite being someone who is capable of showing his anger in private, has built his entire political persona on being fun, positive and jolly – which is why is biographer, Andrew Gimson, calls him a “Merrie England Conservative”. There was nothing very merry about him today, and frankly it was unappealing. Voters may be inclined to sympathise with a politician who starts losing it in the face of what might be seen as unfair accusations, but Starmer’s questions about the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment were perfectly fair and almost everyone watching will have concluded that the reason why Johnson refused to answer was because he did indeed get the Conservative party to pay the bill in the first instance. Starmer may not have extracted an admission on this, but Johnson’s answers were as good as. And if the entire strategy was just to wind Johnson up until he snapped, it worked.
Johnson’s best line of defence was to argue that Labour were only attacking him over the flat, and sleaze, because they had nothing to say on anything else. He put this best in his response to the Labour MP Janet Daby, when in response to a question about why “these stories about sleaze, corruption and dishonesty keep happening to him and his Conservative government”, he told her:
I tell you what, I think because people are absolutely determined to find anything they can hang on to to talk about except the vaccine rollout, except our plans to unite and level up across the country, except our plans to fight crime and give people the opportunity to buy their own homes, because they don’t want to discuss those issues because they can’t win on those issues because they have got absolutely nothing to say.
Tory MPs seemed to love it. (The cheering was louder than usual, even in the socially distanced chamber.) Of course, this is the sort of argument that you would make if you were determined to avoid questions about using party funds for personal advantage, but that does not mean that it is entirely wrong. Johnson may have had a miserable outing at the dispatch box this afternoon, but that does not mean that the sleaze row will prove inevitably prove terminal.
Updated at 1.25pm BST
Labour says Boris Johnson lied at the end of PMQs when said the party did not support the Brexit deal. This is from Rachel Reeeves, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office.
Johnson was wrong when he said in his reply to Sir Keir Starmer’s final question that Labour opposed the Brexit deal passed today by the European parliament, but it was probably one of his less serious falsehoods because he seemed to be talking more about Brexit in general (which Labour originally did oppose) than the deal agreed last December.
Andrea Jenkyns (Con) asks if the PM agrees that Labour has taken its northern heartlands for granted. Only the Conservatives will help these areas.
Johnson says Jenkyns is absolutely right.
And that’s it. PMQs is over.
Rachel Hopkins (Lab) asks when the PM and his chief of staff were first made aware of the plan for a European super league.
Johnson says he first became aware of this on Sunday night. And he acted decisively, threatening to use legislative freedoms available under Brexit. And the same is true of his chief of staff, he says.
Lilian Greenwood (Lab) says the truth behind the sleaze stories are the the prime minister thinks “rules, laws and decency” are for other people, like people who shop at John Lewis.
Johnson says the truth his Labour has not got anything to say on the issues that matter.
Chris Matheson (Lab) says Johnson promised to publish last week his text messages with James Dyson. But he hasn’t. When will he?
Johnson says he published an account of those exchanges. He says Labour won’t learn their lessons. They attack him on this, but then support the ventilator effort.
Updated at 12.36pm BST
Nicholas Fletcher (Con) asks the PM to support the Conservative Doncaster mayor candidate.
Johnson says he hopes people will support the Tory candidate.
Janet Daby (Lab) says it is shocking that the Electoral Commission is investigating the PM. Why do these sleaze stories keep happening to Johnson?
Johnson says it is because the opposition want to talk about anything other than the success of the vaccine rollout.
Stephen Crabb (Con) asks if the PM agrees the voters should reject the negativity and divisiveness of nationalists.
Johnson agrees. He says he wants the UK to work together.
Sarah Olney (Lib Dem) asks why the PM is still committed to a third runway at Heathrow.
Johnson says that is a private company’s project. He says he does not see any sign of the capital being available for it to go ahead.
Laura Farris (Con) asks how the PM will improve women’s participation in the nuclear industry.
Johnson says there are huge opportunities for women in this area.
Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) asks why Welsh lives meant so little to the PM.
Johnson says Wales has contributed a huge amount to the fight against coronavirus.
Duncan Baker (Con) says he is probably the only former sub-postmaster in parliament. He says only a judge-led inquiry will be able to hold people to account for what happened.
Johnson says what happened was appalling. They are looking at the issues involved, and an inquiry is under way.
Updated at 12.37pm BST
Liz Saville Roberts, the Plaid Cymru leader at Westminster, also reads out the seven Nolan principles of public life. What happens when a PM goes rogue, given that that the PM is the judge of the ministerial code?
Johnson says people have a choice. The Labour government in Wales is failing, he says.
Gary Sambrook (Con) says people want to see regeneration. Does the PM support Andy Street for re-election as mayor of the West Midlands.
Johnson says he is lost in admiration for Andy Street.
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, says more than 127,000 people have died from Covid. That is why so many people find the PM’s remark “utterly sickening”. The BBC and ITV have multiple sources to back this up. He says parliamentary rules stop him from saying he has repeatedly lied to the public. But he wants to ask the question: “Are you a liar, prime minister?”
Johnson asks if those were in order.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, says the comments were in order, but not savoury.
Johnson says he did not say those words. He asks: if someone is willing to go on oath, where are they? But a lockdown is a miserable thing, he says.
Blackford says the PM is up to his neck in sleaze. These questions will not go away. When was money paid by the Tories? When was it paid back? Was it an interest-free loan?
Johnson says he looks forward to hearing what the Electoral Commission has to say. He says Blackford is talking “complete nonsense”. He says the SNP should stop obsessing about breaking up the government.
Updated at 12.23pm BST
Joy Morrissey (Con) thanks the PM for the vaccine rollout.
Johnson thanks everyone involved.
Starmer reads out the Nolan principles. He says instead we have dodgy contracts and jobs for mates. He says the government is mired in sleaze and scandal.
Johnson says last week Starmer attacked him over ventilators. Now they are sending ventilators to India. He says Labour attacked Kate Bingham. He claims Labour opposed tougher sentences. And last night MEPs voted for the Brexit deal. He claims Brexit helped deal with the threat posed by the European super league. It allows free ports. And it has allowed the UK to have the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, he says. He says he hopes people will vote Conservative on 6 May.
Boris Johnson says no offence occurred in paying for Downing Street flat refurb
Starmer says the PM never answers the question.
He says the PM has to decare any donation, and record it in the register of members’ interests.
The Electoral Commission thinks an offence may have occurred. This is “incredibly serious”. Does the PM think any offence has occurred?
No, says Johnson.
He says Starmer is not asking about issues like the pandemic. He goes on instead about wallpaper, which Johnson says he paid for.
Updated at 12.23pm BST
Starmer says Johnson says he is focusing on the pandemic, but he found time to chose wallpaper at at £840 a roll. And he called editors to criticise Dominic Cummings.
Did Lord Brownlow make a payment for the flat?
Johnson says he has covered the costs. He says Tony Blair racked up a bill of £350,000 for this. He says people are focused on council tax.
Starmer says people normally say no comment when they don’t want to incriminate themselves.
He says either the Conservative party, or the taxpayer, or a donor or the PM paid the initial invoice. Who paid?
Johnson says he has has paid for the work.
People will find it bizarre that Starmer is asking about this, he says.
He says the last Labour government spend £500,000 on the flat.
He says he is focusing on the people’s priorities. Most people would find Starmer’s questions irrelevant.
Starmer says someone is not telling the truth. He says ministers are expected to resign if they knowingly mislead parliament. He says he will leave it there for now.
He asks who initially paid for the PM’s flat refurbishment.
Johnson says, on the subject of misleading parliament, Starmer denied wanting to stay in the European Medicines Agency.
He says he has paid for his flat personally.
He says, on housing costs, Labour charges council tax-payers more.
Updated at 12.07pm BST
Sir Keir Starmer says he hopes the government will say more about what it is doing to help India. And he endorses what Johnson said about the sub-postmasters.
He says it has been widely reported this week that the PM said he would rather have “bodies pile high” than implement a third lockdown. Did the PM make those remarks or remarks to that effect?
“No, Mr Speaker,” says Johnson. He says if Starmer is repeating those comments, he should substantiate them, and give a source.
He says the October decisions were very difficult, very bitter decisions. But thanks to those efforts we have got through. He says 25% of adults have had two doses of vaccines. Lockdowns are “miserable”. But he had no choice, he says.
Boris Johnson starts by saying the UK is supporting India with vital medical equipment.
And he says he welcomes the court of appeal decision to overturn the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters, “an appalling injustice”.
PMQs will be starting soon.
Here is the list of MPs down to ask a question.
This is from the Labour MP Margaret Hodge on the Electoral Commission announcement.
In a blog for the New Statesman, Stephen Bush says No 10 should start worrying about a possible investigation by the parliamentary commissioner for standards – because in theory an investigation by the commissioner could led to Boris Johnson being suspended from the Commons, which could led to him being subject to a recall petition. But, as Bush stresses, that’s a long way off at the moment …
Tom Newton Dunn from Times Radio says that, if the Electoral Commission finds the Conservative party has broken the law governing donations, the two party co-chairs, Amanda Milling MP and Ben Elliot, could be forced to resign.
But it is hard to believe that Milling and Elliot would not have agreed to use Conservative party funds to pay for the work initially without being urged to by Boris Johnson. We still do not know the full details of what happened, but the Daily Mail published a leaked email last week saying that the party originally paid £58,000 to cover the cost of the work, before a donor, Lord Brownlow, agreed to reimburse it. This arrangement allowed No 10 to say party funds were no longer being used to pay for the redecoration.
Since then Boris Johnson has said he is meeting these costs himself.
No 10’s new independent adviser on ministerial standards, Lord Geidt, to launch inquiry into flat refurbishment
The new independent adviser on ministerial interests at No 10, Lord Geidt, will start his job by conducting an inquiry into the Downing Street flat refurbishment, government sources have said.
Lord Geidt, who used to be the Queen’s private secretary, will be the new independent adviser on ministerial interests, my colleague Jessica Elgot reports.
Geidt will replace Sir Alex Allan, who resigned last year after Boris Johnson effectively refused to back his findings about Priti Patel.
Before working for the Queen, Geidt was a soldier and a diplomat. Mark Coles profiled him for Radio 4’s Profile six years ago, and you can listen to the programme here.
There were reports over the weekend saying the person lined up to replace Allan (at that point his identity was not known) was having second thoughts, perhaps because of concerns about Johnson’s enthusiasm for a robust standards regime.
Updated at 11.42am BST
The Labour peer Stewart Wood argues the Electoral Commission announcement could paradoxically help Boris Johnson at PMQs in one respect.
From Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall
This Electoral Commission briefing paper (pdf) explains what powers the commission has to investigate breaches of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which regulates the funding of political parties, and what penalties can be imposed (normally fines).
‘Reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have occurred’ – Statement from Electoral Commission in full
Here is the Electoral Commission statement in full.
We have been in contact with the Conservative party since late March and have conducted an assessment of the information they have provided to us.
We are now satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred. We will therefore continue this work as a formal investigation to establish whether this is the case.
The investigation will determine whether any transactions relating to the works at 11 Downing Street fall within the regime regulated by the commission and whether such funding was reported as required.
We will provide an update once the investigation is complete. We will not be commenting further until that point.
Electoral Commission launches inquiry into funding of PM’s flat refurbishment saying offence may have been committed
The Electoral Commission has launched a formal investigation into the funding of the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat because it thinks an offence may have occurred. As its formal statement suggests, non-declaration of a payment may have constituted an offence. This is from Sky’s Mollie Malone.
PM ‘can’t be expected to live in skip’, says Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine
Sarah Vine, the Daily Mail columnist who is married to Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, defended Boris Johnson’s right to have his Downing Street flat refurbished on the Today programme this morning, saying the PM “can’t be expected to live in a skip”. She said:
The thing about the whole No 10 refurbishment thing is that the prime minister can’t be expected to live in a skip.
He has to live to a certain standard and the problem with all of these political things like this is that no-one is ever prepared to bite the bullet.
No-one is ever prepared to say ‘look, this building does need to be maintained, there do need to be decent furnishings, we do need to have a fund that pays for it, let’s just do it’ …
If [Johnson] wants to have a pink sofa instead of a green sofa, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for him to want.
Vine also said she was in favour of a trust being set up to prevent the costs for this sort of work having to be met by the taxpayer.
More evidence has emerged today about the impact of the government’s decision to cut aid spending. As my colleague Patrick Wintour tweets, the Devex website is reporting that UK funding for polio eradication will be cut by 95%.
And James Landale, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, reports that funding for water and sanitation projects will be cut by 80%.
Shapps says data ‘look good’ for resumption of foreign travel to be allowed from 17 May
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, was doing the morning interview round for the government. He was meant to be talking about plans to allow self-driving cars on the road later this year, but mostly he was asked about coronavirus and the PM’s flat. Here are the main points he made.
- Shapps said people would be able to use the NHS app to prove their coronavirus status when travelling abroad. He told Sky News:
In terms of vaccine certification, I can confirm we are working on an NHS application; actually it will be the NHS app that is used for people when they book appointments with the NHS and so on, to be able to show you’ve had a vaccine or you’ve had testing.
I’m working internationally with partners across the world to make sure that system can be internationally recognised, as that’s the way forward.
Actually, I’m chairing a meeting of the G7 secretaries of state for transport, my equivalents from America and Canada and all the G7 countries, next week on exactly this subject.
My colleague Kevin Rawlinson has the full story here.
- He said that he still expected that overseas travel would be able to resume from 17 May. Asked about the prospects for the resumption of foreign holidays last month, he said
I have to say that so far the data does continue to look good from a UK perspective, notwithstanding those concerns about where people might be travelling to and making sure we’re protected from the disease being reimported.
Shapps also said that he will set out which countries fall into the “green”, “amber” and “red” categories under the new risk-based traffic light system “towards the beginning of May”.
- He said he could not say yet what category Spain would be in. He said:
Spain specifically, I’m afraid I just don’t have the answer to that because the Joint Biosecurity Centre will need to come up with their assessment and we can’t do that until a bit nearer the time. So we will need to wait and see.
- He said it would be up to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, to say whether Boris Johnson was originally given a loan to pay for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. Asked if the PM did receive a loan, Shapps said:
I’ll give you a completely straight answer, the cabinet secretary is actually conducting a review to look at the advice and the order in which everything happened with the maintenance of Downing Street. I just don’t have the answer but the cabinet secretary will and it will be transparently produced in the annual report and the accounts of the Cabinet Office.
Updated at 10.32am BST
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would face large budget deficits if they left UK, says thinktank
The devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would face very sizeable fiscal deficits if they broke away from the UK, leaving them facing difficult spending and taxation choices, the Institute for Government reports.
The IfG, a thinktank, said in 2018/19 the level of spending on public services in Scotland was £2,543 per head higher than the amount of taxes raised; £4,412 higher per head in Wales and in Northern Ireland, the subsidy amounted to £5,188 per person.
Those fiscal deficits equalled 7% of Scotland economic output, 18% of Welsh GDP and 19% of Northern Ireland’s. By contrast, England’s deficit that year was 0.3% of GDP. Other regions of England also benefit from significant fiscal transfers from London and the south east, the UK’s richest regional economies.
The IfG said these deficits were worsened considerably by the costs of the Covid pandemic, through lost productivity and massively increased UK government borrowing.
Gemma Tetlow, its chief economist, said:
Any advocates for breaking away from the UK must address the reality of the nations’ current fiscal imbalances and the difficult policy choices these would necessitate. The larger the deficit they have, the harder the case for breaking away from the union becomes.
The IfG said confronting its deficit would be “an early, burning question” for an independent Scotland. The tax rises needed for an independent Wales to maintain current levels of spending “would leave this higher relative to its GDP than any other advanced nation”.
Support for Scottish independence surged during 2020, peaking at 58% (excluding don’t knows), after voters responded to Nicola Sturgeon’s assured handling of the pandemic, but has since fallen to below 50%.
Support for Welsh independence has leapt too during the Covid crisis, to a record high of 40% (excluding don’t knows). Ironically for Wales’s Labour first minister, Mark Drakeford, his competent leadership during the crisis and dislike of Boris Johnson’s in London has boosted confidence in Welsh autonomy.
Polls in Northern Ireland have revealed a surge in support for Irish reunification, propelled by the Brexit border crisis. One poll in February put reunification backing at 49%, compared with 51% who wanted to remain in the UK (excluding don’t knows).
Nicola Sturgeon said funding the Covid crisis showed an independent Scotland could opt for significant borrowing in its first years.
“Pretty much every country in the developed world has a massive deficit right now, [so] Scotland, if we were independent, would not be in a materially different position to countries the world over,” she told reporters on Monday.
Updated at 10.35am BST
In a comment issued to the Science Media Centre, Dr Peter English, a former chair of the BMA’s public health medicine committee and a vaccine specialist, said the PHE research published this morning (see 9.15am) about the impact of vaccines on transmission was “extremely encouraging”. He explained:
These findings are really important. They add to our reasons to hope that the vaccines will truly add to herd immunity. The evidence was already mounting that vaccination will prevent people from becoming infected (and if they aren’t infected, they can’t transmit the infection). This study shows that even if people who are vaccinated do become infected, they are considerably less likely to be infectious, and to pass the infection on to others.
The PHE research says the vaccines reduce the risk of transmission by up to 49%. The risk of transmission is not the same as the risk getting infected with the virus, or the risk of serious illness or death, and separate figures show that the vaccines have a much higher effectiveness rate in relation to infection and serious illness/death. There are no single, agreed figures for what those rates are, but this chart, from a recent Sage report (pdf), summarises the figures used by different institutions.
Women not inherently at higher risk of very rare blood clots linked to AstraZeneca vaccine than men, MPs told
At the science committee Prof Sir Munir Pirmohamed, chair of the Commission on Human Medicines, and Prof John Aston, professor of statistics in public life at Cambridge University, have both said they do not think women are at higher risk of the extremely rare blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca jab than men. Although more women have been affected, they said that this was explained by the fact that health and social care workers were vaccinated early, that they are more at risk of exposure and and that these workers were mostly female. Adjusting for these factors, the risk for women does not seem to be higher than the risk for men, they said.
UPDATE: Here is the quote from Pirmohamed.
There are two things to consider – the first is the way the vaccine was deployed, particularly in healthcare workers and social care workers. The majority of the workforce there is female and so they had higher exposure rates.
But when you then start relating to the exposure rate in different populations, what you find is that the case incidence rate between male and female is actually very similar.
So, from our data that we’ve got in the UK, it doesn’t look as if the females are at a higher risk of this adverse event compared to males …
The only risk factor that we are finding is age in that there is a slightly higher risk in the younger age group compared to the older age group.
Updated at 10.24am BST
Prof Sir Munir Pirmohamed, chair of the Commission on Human Medicines, has just started giving evidence to the Commons science committee. He said that there have now been 168 instances of rare blood clots linked to people having the AstraZeneca vaccine. He said the evidence of a causal link was “firming up”, but that the true causes of these clots had not yet been firmly established.
Johnson welcomes European parliament’s vote to ratify Brexit treaty
This morning the European parliament voted to back the UK/EU Brexit deal, the trade and cooperation agreement. It was passed by 578 votes to 51.
In response Boris Johnson issued a statement saying:
This week is the final step in a long journey, providing stability to our new relationship with the EU as vital trading partners, close allies and sovereign equals.
Now is the time to look forward to the future and to building a more global Britain.
The rest of the EU’s process for ratifying the treaty is expected to be concluded in the next few days.
Updated at 9.41am BST
Vaccines do better than expected at cutting transmission, study shows
Good morning. Boris Johnson faces a difficult PMQs later – as Aubrey Allegretti and Jessica Elgot report in their overnight story, pressure is growing for him to offer a proper account of the funding of his Downing Street flat – but there is also a fair amount of coronavirus news around today. The science committee is taking evidence this morning, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is giving a press conference this afternoon, and overnight Public Health England has published new research on the impact of vaccines on household transmission.
Here is an extract from the PHE news release.
This new research shows that those who do become infected 3 weeks after receiving one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccine were between 38 and 49% less likely to pass the virus on to their household contacts than those who were unvaccinated.
Protection was seen from around 14 days after vaccination, with similar levels of protection regardless of age of cases or contacts.
This protection is on top of the reduced risk of a vaccinated person developing symptomatic infection in the first place, which is around 60 to 65% – 4 weeks after one dose of either vaccine.
A reduction of up to 50% might not sound impressive because vaccines are estimated to have a much higher impact on your chances of dying from Covid, or getting seriously ill from the virus.
But it is important to remember that, although the scientists were confident that the vaccines would have a big impact on the likelihood of people getting ill from coronavirus, they were much less sure about whether would also stop the virus being passed on. This is what Prof Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London, told the Today programme:
It’s very, very reassuring, and it is certainly better than many of us expected just a few months ago. Many of us thought that vaccines were going to be very good at preventing the more serious complications of infection, because they induce antibody, but we weren’t at all sure that it was going to actually stop the virus from transmitting by getting into the moist surfaces in your nose and your throat. And it does seem that these vaccines are remarkably effective, even after a first dose.
And Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said:
This is terrific news – we already know vaccines save lives and this study is the most comprehensive real-world data showing they also cut transmission of this deadly virus.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: Prof Sir Munir Pirmohamed, chair of the Commission on Human Medicines, gives evidence to the Commons science committee. At 10.15am Prof Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, give evidence.
11am: Gavin Williamson the education secretary, gives a speech to the Confederation of School Trusts’ annual conference. At 12pm his Labour shadow, Kate Green, will give a speech.
12pm: Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs. It is the last PMQs of this session of parliament because tomorrow parliament will prorogue ahead of the Queen’s speech on 11 May.
2.30pm: Lord Macpherson, the former Treasury permanent secretary, and Lord Myners, a former Treasury minister, give evidence to the Commons Treasury committee about Greensill Capital.
3pm: Prof Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, speaks at an event to mark the launch of the UCL Health of the Public research school.
4.30pm: João Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador to the UK, speaks at an Institute for Government event.
5pm: Matt Hancock, the health secretary, holds a Downing Street press conference.
Covid is the issue dominating UK politics this year and often Politics Live has been largely or wholly devoted to coronavirus. But I will also be covering non-Covid politics, including latest developments in the Tory “sleaze” controversy which is likely to be the dominant story for some of the day. For global coronavirus news, do read our global live blog.
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Updated at 9.43am BST
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