This week’s edition covers the current scandal surrounding the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, this week’s PMQs and the success of The Windsor Framework
The Lockdown Files
On 28 February 2023, Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist for the Telegraph, released ‘The Lockdown Files’: more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages sent between Matt Hancock and officials in regard to the COVID-19 Pandemic that shut down most of the country in 2020 and 2021.
A common theme among the released messages was the negligence of Matt Hancock’s actions during his stint as Health Secretary; according to the recorded messages, Hancock prioritised the “self-imposed target of 100,000 Covid tests per day” over expanding testing in care homes. Hancock appeared to backtrack on earlier messages where he stated that: “Chris Whitty has done an evidence review and now recommends testing of all going into care homes […] we must put into the doc”, changing the testing requirements from all (including staff) going into care homes to just patients being tested on admission. It took a further four months, from when these messages were initially sent in April 2020, for it to be required to test new care home admissions. There were also concerns brought up in October 2020 about the dangers of isolating care homes: Helen Whately, Social Care Minister, warned that the elderly were at risk of “just giving up” as a result of acute loneliness. Hancock’s official explanation for the isolation was to put up a “protective ring” based on scientific advice. In his book, “Pandemic Diaries”, he stated that the “tragic but honest truth” at the start of April was that there simply wasn’t enough testing capacity, despite no mention of this problem in his recorded messages.
This is just one part of the unfolding story that is gathering steam as more and more specifics around the leaked messages are revealed.
It has been an eventful week in British politics, which fed through into this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions session, as discussions heated up over Conservative negligence around the pandemic.
The session began with Labour MP Justin Madders questioning claiming that “[Sunak] hasn’t got a hope of dealing with the NHS crisis”, adding that “[Labour] has a plan to double medical school places” and that the NHS and Chancellor of the Exchequer support this plan. Sunak responded that currently there are “record numbers” of doctors and GPs in the UK.
After this, Keir Starmer took the floor. His first question to the PM was on the topic of standards of living: Starmer stated that, by 2030, the average British family will be poorer than the average Polish family, calling this statistic “shocking” and the direct result of “13 years of Conservative mismanagement”. Sunak replied by pointing out that the current poor quality of life was due to the “illegal war in the Ukraine” and that the British government’s energy scheme is one of the most “generous support schemes globally”, before spinning the issue back towards Starmer by critiquing his “inflationary, unfunded spending commitments”. Throughout Starmer’s questions, he mentioned “vested interests” multiple times, accusing the Conservatives of placing the taxation load on “hard-working families” rather than “oil and gas giants who were celebrating record profits”. Sunak accused the unions of being the “vested interests” that Starmer was complaining of. This was followed by a significant back and forth over windfall taxes on gas giants and oiling rights in the North Sea.
Next it was the new Leader of the SNP in Westminster, Stephen Flynn’s turn to question the PM. He queried why Sunak was “denying” access to the “exciting and attractive” Single Market from the “rest of us”, as Northern Ireland now has access to the market due to the new Windsor Framework. Sunak responded that he was “disappointed” at Flynn’s attempts to “play politics with the situation in Northern Ireland” and that the Conservatives were merely trying to maintain the “balance inherent in the Good Friday Agreement”. Flynn then pivoted away from Northern Ireland, focusing more on Brexit as he accused the PM of supporting Brexit less than Labour did. To this, Sunak said that he was prioritising the ease of access for businesses on the border that were reliant on cross-border “complex supply chains”, and that this took priority over any qualms about Brexit.
There were further questions around Britain’s nuclear revival, migration, and the NHS; Joanna Cherry, SNP, asked why Scotland couldn’t have the same Single Market access as Northern Ireland. To this, Sunak replied that “there is a special status for the nation of Scotland, within our own United Kingdom”.
The Windsor Framework
The ‘Windsor Framework’, a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU has finally been announced. Its stated aim is to solve the issues around the “movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”, as well as problems around certain businesses that were reliant on cross-border activities with the Republic of Ireland: something that would be much more difficult if a hard border was imposed between the two nations.
The deal has made movement of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland easier, with the introduction of a “new UK internal trade scheme”, as well as this: “the agreement significantly expands the number of businesses able to be classed as internal UK traders and move goods as ‘not at risk’ of entering the EU”. Through the Windsor Agreement, trade should flow far more easily into Northern Ireland, both from Great Britain and the EU (mainly the Republic of Ireland). The agreement aims to simplify much of the confusing levels of bureaucracy that was involved in Northern Irish trade, again enabling easier access to Northern Irish markets from both Great Britain and Europe.
The agreement also factors in the potential democratic deficit that may come with such a large change to trading rules without a major role for the Northern Irish Assembly. This is covered in the ‘Stormont Brake’ which stipulates that the Assembly may temporarily stop any changes to the entry of EU goods should they have a “lasting impact” on the daily lives of Irish people.
This agreement is undoubtedly a positive step after the two-year deadlock that preceded the affair.