PMQs: Sunak escapes Brexit grilling amid Hancock WhatsApp row
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has escaped a major Brexit grilling over the Windsor Framework amid a row over former health secretary Matt Hancock’s leaked Covid-19 WhatsApp messages.
The PM – whose latest EU trade agreement is widely hoped to end the power-sharing deadlock in Northern Ireland – dodged intense scrutiny over the deal in the Commons today.
It came amid furore over Hancock’s texts with key government figures during the pandemic, as revealed by the Telegraph, which appear to indicate he did not follow advice on testing.
Professor Chris Whitty reportedly advised Hancock in April 2020 that anyone going into care homes should test but Hancock – the paper claims – did not follow his medical guidance.
Hancock has strongly refuted the claims and suggested he is “considering all options” after the leak by journalist Isabel Oakeshott who worked with him on his book Pandemic Diaries.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Sunak to ensure the inquiry on UK Covid-19 preparedness and response is able to report its findings by the end of this year.
£85m in public money has been spent, he said, and no ministers have yet given evidence.
But “rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information”, Sunak stressed there was an ongoing legal process and the independent inquiry should be able to “get on and do the job”.
Leicester MP Liz Kendall asked health minister Helen Whately if the government’s claims it “threw a protective ring around England’s care homes” were “nothing further from the truth”.
Whately insisted “selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and at times misleading insight into the machinery of government” and said the inquiry would investigate.
Hancock has reportedly called off an appearance at Cambridge University this evening, while his spokesman hit back at the Telegraph story calling it “distorted” and “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
Meanwhile, despite escaping a Brexit grilling, Sunak’s government is awaiting the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland’s response to the Windsor Framework, announced earlier this week, with a rumoured ERG-led backbench Tory rebellion appearing to have been watered down.
DUP Commons Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson told TimesRadio this morning that the so-called ‘Stormont brake’ – a key lever allowing the NI Assembly to opt out of certain EU laws – was unlikely to be used by the UK government due to fear of retaliation by Brussels.
While parts of the official controls act create a customs border that “treats NI like a foreign country”, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, former DUP deputy leader, will tell peers today.
The party has said it will fully consider the deal before offering its verdict, but has been urged by other NI politicians to accept the new framework.