U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tackled questions about his honesty, pandemic record and stance on China during a two-hour grilling by a parliamentary committee. Earlier, Labour leader Keir Starmer pressed him on the impact of his plan to lift most Covid restrictions on July 19.
The scrutiny comes as millions of fans prepare to tune in to see England play Denmark in the semifinal of Euro 2020, bidding to reach its first major soccer championship final in 55 years.
- Hint of travel relaxation for fully vaccinated people
- National security advisor will examine takeover of the country’s biggest semiconductor plant
- U.K. could face 100,000 virus cases a day in summer
- Johnson says heat pumps too expensive for average Brit
Brexit Sausage Wars ‘Very Far from Fixed’ (5:30 p.m.)
The European Union and the U.K. need to resolve their row over the Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland, Johnson said. While the two sides agreed a truce in the so-called sausage wars, a dispute over rules on moving chilled meats from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, that’s just a “stay of execution,” he told the committee.
The dispute is “very far from fixed” and the EU needs to change the way it’s enforcing border checks on goods entering the U.K. region of Northern Ireland, Johnson added. The premier repeated his warning that he couldn’t rule out taking unilateral action to suspend parts of the Brexit deal if the argument is not resolved.
Johnson Squirms Over ‘Gender-Neutral’ Issues (4.50 p.m.)
Johnson struggled to answer questions from Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the women and equalities committee. “You can’t point to a single policy or initiative that is going to help you build back in a more feminine or gender-neutral way,” she told him.
She was referring to Johnson’s own words at the G7 summit in Cornwall last month when he said the economic recovery should be a “gender neutral” or “more feminine” one.
Clearly annoyed, Johnson said Nokes would find fault whatever he was doing.
Johnson Hints at Imminent Quarantine Relaxation (4:30 p.m)
The prime minister hinted at an imminent announcement on relaxing quarantine rules for vaccinated people who travel to “amber-list” countries.
Asked by Tory former Business Secretary Greg Clark why double-vaccinated Britons shouldn’t be able to go on holiday to Spain, Johnson said: “I think that double-vaccination is a great liberator.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps “may be saying more about that over the course of the next few days, perhaps even tomorrow,” Johnson replied. “I would not want to steal his thunder.”
Just a handful of popular travel destinations are currently on the government’s “green list,” meaning arrivals do not have to isolate. The bulk of U.K. holiday destinations remain amber-or red-listed, meaning travel brings with it requirements for costly Covid-19 tests and quarantine.
National Security Advisor To Examine Newport Acquisition (4:20 p.m.)
Questioned about the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab, a Welsh-based semiconductor manufacturer, by a Chinese-owned company, Johnson replied that he has asked his national security advisor to look into the deal.
Johnson added that he doesn’t want “anti-China spirit” to lead us to try to “pitchfork away” every Chinese investment into the U.K. after members of Parliament raised concern about China’s involvement in the deal.
Heat Pumps Too Pricey for Homeowners (4 p.m.)
Johnson was asked about the government’s plans to phase out emissions from households by shifting the way homes are heated and also about heat pumps, the main currently-available replacement for gas-fired boilers. He was clear that “at the moment the prices are too high” for those heat pumps.
“Let’s be frank, these things cost about 10 grand a pop,” Johnson said. “This is a lot of money for ordinary people. We’ve got to make sure that when we embark on this program that we’ve got a solution that is affordable and that works for people. We won’t be imposing it until we have.”
The government has set a target for 600,000 heat pumps to be installed each year by 2028, up from 30,000 currently. Its adviser, the Climate Change Committee, says that to spur that sort of level, the U.K. will need to ban the sale of all new gas boilers from 2033. Ministers are currently working on a heat and buildings strategy, due to be published in coming weeks.
Johnson Pressed on Telling the Truth (3:55 p.m.)
As the session of the House of Commons Liaison Committee began, Labour MP Chris Bryant asked Johnson why he doesn’t often correct the record after making misleading statements.
The prime minister suggested he did not think the question was fair, and told Bryant to be more specific.
Bryant asked Johnson if he had fired Matt Hancock as health secretary for breaking pandemic rules, or whether the minister had resigned, as was announced at the time. Johnson didn’t give a straight answer, saying only that Hancock had left his job “quite fast” after the story broke.
U.K. to Phase Out Universal Credit Uplift (1:30 p.m.)
The government will phase out from September a 20-pound ($28) a week uplift in welfare payments under its Universal Credit program, U.K. Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.
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While the increase in weekly payments to the low-paid and unemployed had always been badged by the Treasury as a temporary pandemic measure, winding it down has proved tough for Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak because of opposition from political opponents as well as backbenchers within his own Conservative Party. That pressure led him earlier this year to extend the uplift until the end of September.
“Ahead of October we will start communicating with the current claimants who receive the 20 pounds to make them aware that that will be being phased out and they will start to see an adjustment in their payments,” Coffey told the Work and Pensions Committee. “It is being phased out in line with all the other temporary measures that are also being removed.”
Johnson ‘Deeply Sorry’ For Pandemic Deaths (12.40pm)
Labour MP Tan Dhesi spoke of the personal sacrifices made by his own family in adhering to strict funeral restrictions during the pandemic — and said government ministers had been “sycophantic” and “hypocritical” to support Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings, who broke Covid rules last year.
Johnson said the government had tried “throughout this pandemic to minimize human suffering and loss of life.”
“I apologize for the suffering that the people of this country have endured,” he said. “Nothing I can say or do can take back the lost lives, the lost time spent with loved ones that he describes. I’m deeply, deeply sorry for that.”
PM Slaps Down Tory Aid Rebels (12:30 p.m.)
Johnson’s former Cabinet colleague David Davis demanded to know when MPs will get a binding vote on the government’s decision to cut the U.K.’s overseas aid budget. It’s an issue that’s sparked a major revolt within the government’s ranks.
The premier did little to calm the situation, telling Davis that lawmakers had already been given a chance to vote on the policy but “mysteriously” decided not to. That’s unlikely to win Johnson any friends on his own side.
U.K. Won’t Boycott Beijing Olympics (12:30 p.m.)
Johnson dismissed a question from a member of his own party asking the prime minister to support a diplomatic boycott against the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing by saying that he “does not support boycotts.”
A diplomatic boycott means that U.K. ministers and officials would remain in the U.K. while British athletes still get to compete, in order to increase pressure on China to allow the U.N. to investigate genocide claims in Xinjiang.
Johnson Quizzed Over Self-Isolation (12.15 p.m.)
Questioning Johnson in the House of Commons, Starmer warned the prime minister that his plan to lift restrictions will lead to the “next big problem” — self-isolation for potentially millions of people this summer if Covid-19 infections rise to 100,000 a day.
“It won’t feel like ‘Freedom Day’ to those who have to isolate,” Starmer said at Prime Minister’s Questions. Johnson is planning to end virtually all remaining curbs in England on July 19, but the requirement to self-isolate if a person comes into contact with a Covid case will stay in place until August 16.
People could start deleting the NHS Covid-19 app on their phones to prevent being “pinged” and told to stay home, Starmer said, warning that that would risk undermining the whole test and trace system. Johnson said the U.K. was moving to a “system of testing rather than self-isolation” and from “legal diktat” to “personal responsibility”.
— With assistance by Kitty Donaldson