At the Downing Street lobby briefing the prime minister’s spokesman refused to endorse the suggestion from George Freeman, the science minister, that firms should avoid holding big Christmas parties (see 9.40am), the i’s Paul Waugh reports.
Voters are going to the polls in the Old Bexley and Sidcup byelection today. It is a safe Conservative seat – the late James Brokenshire had a majority of 18,952 at the last election – and, as my colleague Aubrey Allegretti discovered when he was there yesterday – there is very little evidence that that is about to change.
After his own trip to the constituency, Andrew Gimson from ConservativeHome concluded: “Boris Johnson came in for heavy criticism from Conservative voters for his recent performances, but few could yet name an alternative leader they would rather see in Downing Street.”
In their FT story (paywall) about the byelection, George Parker, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Sebastian Payne say the Lib Dems have run a minimal campaign in Old Bexley and Sidcup, making it easier for Labour to scoop up the anti-Tory vote, and Labour is doing the same in North Shropshire, where the Lib Dems are seen as having a better chance against the Tories than Labour in the byelection on 16 December. It says this is evidence of an informal pact between the two parties.
The by-elections are a warning sign for Johnson that Labour and the Lib Dems are starting to ruthlessly allocate resources, giving each other a clear run against the Conservatives according to their respective local strengths.
There is no formal pact — Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has dismissed calls for a “progressive alliance” of parties including Labour, Lib Dems and Greens — but evidence of what one Labour figure called “organic” non-aggression pacts on the ground is mounting …
Tory strategists are carefully watching the impact of what one described as “below the radar” collaboration between the Lib Dems and Labour in both by-elections.
“If the left actually got their act together, it could make things much more difficult in 2024,” one said. “We were lucky that the centre-right vote was entirely united at the last election and they weren’t. It could be a game changer.”
Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the Commons standards committee, will be making a statement in the Commons soon on his committee’s report (pdf) proposing changes to the code of conduct for MPs. One of its proposals is for a change to the behaviour code for MPs saying MPs should “demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”.
During business questions in the Commons Sir Desmond Swayne (Con) signalled that he was strongly opposed to this. He said:
Some of the aspects of the report, such as the potential extension of the jurisdiction of an official into what happens in the lobbies and in select committees, touches on the principles of the Bill of Rights that no proceeding in parliament be questioned in any place or any court other than parliament itself.
Indeed, the principle of democracy is undermined by the requirement that we may be required to subscribe to behaviours to promote certain attitudes.
I hope that my constituents never elect a racist or a misogynist, but they have a right to do so.
Jeremy Corbyn posted a tweet this morning promoting a virtual Stop the War fundraiser this Christmas, not an in-person one. So my earlier post (now removed) about this being an example of a party going ahead that might not meet with George Freeman’s approval was completely wrong. I apologise for the mistake.
The Cabinet Office has been fined £500,000 for accidentally disclosing the postal addresses of the 2020 New Year honours list recipients online, in breach of data protection laws.
In a statement about the decision, the Information Commissioner’s Office said:
On 27 December 2019 the Cabinet Office published a file on GOV.UK containing the names and unredacted addresses of more than 1,000 people announced in the New Year honours list. People from a wide range of professions across the UK were affected, including individuals with a high public profile.
After becoming aware of the data breach, the Cabinet Office removed the weblink to the file. However, the file was still cached and accessible online to people who had the exact webpage address.
The personal data was available online for a period of two hours and 21 minutes and it was accessed 3,872 times.
Steve Eckersley, the ICO director of investigations, said:
When data breaches happen, they have real life consequences. In this case, more than 1,000 people were affected. At a time when they should have been celebrating and enjoying the announcement of their honour, they were faced with the distress of their personal details being exposed.
The Cabinet Office’s complacency and failure to mitigate the risk of a data breach meant that hundreds of people were potentially exposed to the risk of identity fraud and threats to their personal safety.
“The fine issued today sends a message to other organisations that looking after people’s information safely, as well as regularly checking that appropriate measures are in place, must be at the top of their agenda.
In his interview on Sky News this morning George Freeman, the science minister, implied that people in their 20s could contact their GPs about getting a booster jab. Kay Burley, the presenter, told him he was wrong. The NHS has said younger people should wait to be called for their booster, so that the older, more vulnerable people can be jabbed first.
In his interview with Sky News this morning George Freeman, the science minister, said that Boris Johnon was not a clown, and that it was “unhelpful” of President Macron to call him one. He suggested the jibe was linked to electioneering.
Asked about Macron’s comments, Freeman said:
I think we are into pantomime season, aren’t we? And there is a French election coming.
It is a pretty unhelpful word. Of course, the prime minister isn’t a clown, he is the elected prime minister of this country with a very big mandate, leading this country through the pandemic.
The truth is we are looking to work very closely with France on the border issue, on tackling the problem of European migration at source – which is why we are investing in trying to stabilise countries so people aren’t coming here – and, with France, we need to make sure that people in France aren’t being supplied with boats and being pushed out into the Channel.
I’m confident, actually, that Anglo-French relations are rather better than that quote suggests.
Firms are already starting to cancel Christmas parties, a leading business figure told the Today programme. Sir Martin Sorrell, who runs the S4Capital advertising agency, told the programme:
It’s not so much what we’re doing as what we see our clients doing and other people.
The answer is they are doing that, they are cancelling, [there has] been quite a sharp series of cancellations since this happened just, what, three, four, five days ago.
So, the uncertainty is extreme and government policy – understandably, I mean to be a little bit sympathetic to the government – it is an extremely difficult situation.
Sorrell also said that he thought the government was not giving enough guidance as to what people should or should not be doing.
Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, has said that people may need annual Covid vaccines. In an interview with the BBC, in which he said Pfizer was already working on a vaccine against the Omicron variant, he said:
Based on everything I have seen so far, I would say that annual vaccinations … are likely to be needed to maintain a very robust and very high level of protection.
In the US the Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer vaccine for use with children aged five to 11 and Bourla said he favoured this happening in the Europe. He explained:
Covid in schools is thriving. This is disturbing, significantly, the educational system, and there are kids that will have severe symptoms. So there is no doubt in my mind that the benefits, completely, are in favour of doing it.
The tenth case of the Omicron variant identified in Scotland has no direct link to the previous nine cases which were connected to one event, PA Media reports. PA says:
Authorities have said the nine cases across Lanarkshire area and Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) identified earlier in the week were connected to an event on 20 November.
Public Health Scotland recorded an additional confirmed case of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 on Wednesday in the NHSGGC area.
A Scottish government spokesman said: “The individual affected is in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area and while there is no direct link with the event on the 20 November which connected the previous nine cases, investigations are ongoing.
“As First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told parliament on Tuesday, it was already suspected that some degree of community transmission of this variant was taking place in Scotland. However, there is no indication as yet that transmission of the new variant is either sustained or widespread.”
The UK drugs watchdog has approved a new Covid treatment after trials found it cut the likelihood of hospital admission and death by 79% in high-risk adults, my colleague Andrew Gregory reports.
Here are some more lines from the George Freeman interviews this morning on Covid.
- Freeman, the science minister, said that he did not know if a Christmas party was held in Downing Street – but that all the guidance was followed. Asked by Justin Webb on the Today programme if there was a party, Freeman replied: “I’ve no idea. I wasn’t there.” But he went on: “But I’m told by those who were that all the guidance was observed.” When it was put to him that, if the guidance was followed, then there can’t have been a party, be because they weren’t allowed, he replied: “I can’t say, I wasn’t there.” When Webb tried again, Freeman just gave the same answer. But he did say that he had “checked” and that he had been told by people who were there that “all the guidance was followed”. As the Telegraph’s Cat Neilan points out, there was an obvious hole in Freeman’s argument.
- He said that “a ton of work” was being done in government to understand the possible impact of the Omicron variant. Asked on LBC whether experts were close to working out how “potent” Omicron was, Freeman, the science minister, said:
Yes, the chief scientist Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty and the team are literally monitoring the data on that. A ton of work is being done right now.
- He said ministers were taking advice on whether vaccines should be extended to children aged five to 11. He said:
The data at the moment suggests that young children are much less vulnerable but, as and when that data changes, we are guided by the science and we stand ready, which is partly why we have procured the vaccines – to make sure we can deliver what our citizens and patients need.
Good morning. It is the time of year when many of us are planning, looking forward to (or dreading) Christmas parties. But should you go ahead with them? If you are looking to the government for clear guidance, it is even foggier this morning than it has been.
On Tuesday Boris Johnson – once dubbed a Merrie England Tory, and obviously at the hedonistic end of the government spectrum – said that parties should go ahead. “We don’t want people to cancel such events,” he said at his press conference on Tuesday.
Last night Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, offered a nuanced alternative. Christmas should go ahead, she told ITV’s Peston programme, but she said it was best to avoid “snogging under the mistletoe”. Asked for clarification on the snogging point, she said: “Well, not with people you don’t already know!”
But this morning George Freeman offered an alternative take. Freeman is minister for science at the business department, and so perhaps he is more at the evidence-based end of the government spectrum (or killjoy end, as they would put it in the Covid Recovery Group). He told the Today programme that, while small firms might want to go ahead with a Christmas bash, bigger companies may prefer to rethink. He said:
Individual businesses, in the end, have to make judgments on what is appropriate internally. It slightly depends on the nature of the business. For many small businesses, four or five staff, who are working together every day anyway, gathering to have a drink isn’t a big step up in risk.
But some companies might normally bring hundreds of people in from around the world to a big party, and they may decide, this year, is that sensible given the pandemic and given where we are? In the end, I think business people know how to make those decisions.
But Freeman also said that his own parliamentary team – which is not a hundreds-strong outfit – would be having its do over Zoom. He told LBC:
I can tell you that my parliamentary team and I normally have a Christmas party. We’ve decided this year that it is probably sensible to do it by Zoom and wait for the spring. It won’t be the best party in the world.
We’ll be getting a lobby briefing later, and it will be interesting to see see whether Freeman gets the Jenny Harries treatment over what he’s said.
If you are confused, you should probably just make your own decision, which seems to be what the government thinks people should do anyway. Alternatively, you could try the approach that No 10 seems have adopted – which is to hold a party, but pretend you haven’t.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: The ONS publishes a report on long Covid.
10am: George Eustice, the environment secretary, gives a speech to the Country Land & Business Association conference. At 11.15am he holds a press conference.
After 10.30am: Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, answers questions in the Commons about next week’s business.
11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.
After 11.30am: Chris Bryant, chair of the Commons standards committee, makes a statement in the Commons about his committee’s new report proposing changes to the code of conduct for MPs.
2pm: The UK Health Security Agency publishes its weekly Covid surveillance report.
And at some point today Boris Johnson will get his booster vaccine. And Keir Starmer is visiting an offshore platform in the North Sea.
I will be covering UK Covid developments here, as well as non-Covid politics, but for global Covid developments, do read our global live blog.
I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.
If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.
Alternatively, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org