Boris Johnson endured a long and sometimes difficult first appearance before the liaison committee of senior MPs. Here’s some of the things we learned:
He doesn’t want an investigation into Dominic Cummings
The first long section of the appearance was dominated by questions about the apparent breach of lockdown regulations by Johnson’s chief adviser, and the PM could hardly have been less keen to engage, saying several times that people should “move on”. Johnson also declined to order an investigation into the matter by the cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, or to share evidence about what Cummings may or may not have done. Johnson said he did not want to “shuffle this into the hands of officials”.
He did say several times that “a lot” of the media coverage of the affair had been false, but when invited to set out what had been wrong, Johnson said he did not wish to discuss this.
The two-metre distancing rule could be relaxed
Asked about this by the Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the science and technology committee, the prime minister said he hoped it could be reduced, which would aid public transport, and pubs and restaurants.
“My own hope is that as we make progress in getting the virus down, in reducing the incidence, we will be able to reduce that distance, which I think will be particularly valuable in transport and clearly the hospitality sector,” he said.
When Clark asked if he could instruct the government’s Sage scientific advisory committee to look into the issue, Johnson said: “I cannot only make that commitment, I can tell you I’ve already done just that.”
He seems uncertain about the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule
No recourse to public funds, or NRPF, is a condition placed on some people who enter the UK from other countries and have a temporary immigration status, which means you can’t claim most benefits. It has faced new scrutiny amid the Covid-19 outbreak, with many people out of work.
Stephen Timms, the Labour MP who chairs the work and pensions committee, told Johnson about a family with two children in his East Ham constituency who faced “destitution” after the father lost his job, with the mother’s income being less than their rent. “They have leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds, so they can’t get any help at all,” Timms said.
Apparently unclear about how NRPF operates, Johnson asked why they were not eligible for benefits like universal credit, with Timms having to explain their situation again, and what NRPF involves.
Johnson said he would look at how the scheme works: “You’ve raised a very, very important point if a condition of their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds. I will find out how many there are in that position, and we will see what we can do to help.”
Test, track and trace did not happen at first due to lack of testing
This has been strongly hinted at before by government scientific advisers, but answering questions from Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary who now chairs the health committee, Johnson was very open.
“We did have a test, track and trace operation but unfortunately we did not have the capacity in Public Health England,” he said.
“To be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume, nor did we have enough experienced trackers ready to mount the kind of operation they did in some other East Asian countries, for instance,” he said.
He would like more women at the daily Covid-19 press conferences
Quizzed by Caroline Nokes, the Tory MP who chairs the women and equalities committee, Johnson said: “It’s certainly true that I would have liked to have had more female representation at the press conferences so far.”
Asked by Nokes how many women would be “enough” representation, Johnson appeared to laugh, and was reprimanded by Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative who chairs the liaison committee, who reminded him this was a serious matter.
While some of the scientists at the press conferences have been women, among the ministers, only the home secretary, Priti Patel, has appeared on occasions.