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COVID inquiry: Civil servants ‘wanted’ people to get coronavirus days before lockdown was announced | Politics News

Senior civil servants “wanted” people to get COVID like chickenpox to build herd immunity, according to messages read out during an inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Sir Christopher Wormald remains the most senior civil servant in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – as he was in early 2020.

Messages he exchanged with Mark Sedwill – then the head of the Civil Service – were shown to the inquiry.

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These were sent on 12 March 2020.

Lord Sedwill said: “I don’t think PM & Co have internalised yet the distinction between minimising mortality and not trying to stop most people getting it.

“Indeed presumably like chickenpox we want people to get it and develop herd immunity before the next wave.

“We just want them not to get it all at once and preferably when it’s warn (sic) and dry etc.”

Sir Christopher responded: “Exactly right. We make the point every meeting, they don’t quite get it.”

A lot of time during the inquiry has been taken up on when the government change from planning to mitigate people getting the virus, to preventing the spread of the virus and locking down.

Messages between Mark Sedwill and Sir Chris Wormald shown to the COVID inquiry
Image:
Messages between Mark Sedwill and Sir Chris Wormald shown to the COVID inquiry

Read more:
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Key WhatsApp messages from the COVID inquiry

On 14 March, the then-health secretary, Matt Hancock, wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy.

“Our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS through contain, delay, research and mitigate.”

On 23 March, Boris Johnson enacted lockdown.

Dominic Cummings, who was a political appointee by Mr Johnson, repeatedly criticised the Civil Service while he gave evidence to the inquiry.

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COVID: No 10 in ‘complete chaos’

On the same day as the civil servants were talking, Mr Cummings complained in a WhatsApp message that Lord Sedwill had been “babbling about chickenpox”, adding “god f****** help us”.

Speaking to the inquiry on Tuesday, Mr Cummings said Lord Sedwill told Mr Johnson: “PM, you should go on TV and should explain that this is like the old days with chickenpox and people are going to have chickenpox parties. And the sooner a lot of people get this and get it over with the better sort of thing.”

In a post on social media, Mr Cummings responded to the messages published today.

He said: “The reason the [Lord Sedwill] suggested to the PM on 12/3 to tell the country to hold chickenpox parties – and me/Ben Warner said ‘you must stop saying this’ – is [Sir Christopher], *in charge of ‘the plan’*, was telling him this was the f****** plan!!!

“Holy s*** this is truly atrocious and explains so much.”

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Sir Christopher, who was pushed by inquiry lawyers to explain the messages, said that it was a reference to herd immunity but argued it was “reflecting the state of the scientific advice at that point”.

He said he had been “very, very loose in my reply” and that he had at the time been following the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – Sage – advice.

Boris Johnson verdict is a hammer blow to Rishi Sunak’s hopes of maintaining a fragile peace in the Tory civil war | Politics News

In the end, it was excoriating, damning and unanimous: Boris Johnson was found not only to have deliberately misled the House of Commons over events in Number 10 during COVID lockdowns, but had attacked the fabric of our democracy itself by seeking to undermine the committee and investigation.

The conclusion of the 14-month privileges committee inquiry was brutal, as was the recommended sanction: a 90-day suspension from the Commons for “repeated contempt” and revoking his parliamentary pass.

It was tougher than even some of Mr Johnson’s harshest critics had anticipated, as the original charge sheet of misleading the House on multiple occasions was added to through the investigation – with further sanctions made for breaching confidence by disclosing the findings of the report and “being complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee”.

“The attack on a committee carrying out its remit from the democratically elected House itself amounts to an attack on our democratic institution,” said the report.

What does it change? For his enemies, it proves he is a wrong ‘un, a liar and unfit for high office. They will see this report as the final punctuation mark for his chequered political career.

Politics Hub: Johnson misled parliament on multiple occasions – latest developments

For his supporters, the level of sanction is proof of the “overreach” – to quote one ally – of a committee that set out to defenestrate a political powerhouse whom opponents wanted to destroy. They argue that the chair should have recused herself, and the process was a sham. For them, the die was cast way before this report was even out.

Is a comeback possible for Johnson?

The biggest question – the answer to which will take time to unfold – is whether the conclusions of this investigation are so damning that it effectively kills off any hope of a political comeback for the former prime minister. What is clear in the early aftermath is that his allies will seek to undermine this report in order to keep the possibility of political revival for Mr Johnson alive.

It is equally clear that this report’s publication in no way brings an end to the divisions it has once again exposed and exacerbated in a Tory party that ploughed through three prime ministers in seven weeks last autumn.

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Boris Johnson ‘is not defeated’

You only have to look at how Mr Johnson and his allies have reacted to both the investigation and the publication of the report today to see Rishi Sunak’s fragile peace deal on the benches becoming unstuck.

Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House, clearly alluded to these tensions in the chamber when she announced there would be a free vote on the report on Monday.

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She told colleagues that while it was a “painful and sad” process, they should read the report and make their own judgement. And in a not-so-subtle nod to the tensions, with Tory MPs reeling at the prospect of formally voting to sanction the leader who helped deliver them their seats back in the 2019 election, Ms Mordaunt said this: “All of us must do what we think right, all must leave us alone to do so.”

But MPs are not being left alone. There is pressure from Johnson-backing colleagues and likely also their own Conservative associations about whether the party should condemn Boris Johnson as this cross-party committee has done.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, holds a copy of the House of Commons Committee of Privileges report into whether former prime minister Boris Johnson misled Parliament
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Jacob Rees-Mogg holds a copy of the House of Commons Committee of Privileges report

The recently knighted former minister Sir Simon Clarke – a beneficiary of Johnson’s honours list – tweeting even as Ms Mordaunt was on her feet that he was “amazed at the harshness of today’s report by the privileges committee. I believed Boris before and I believe him today. This punishment is absolutely extraordinary to the point of sheer vindictiveness, and I will vote against his report on Monday”.

Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, another ally also knighted by his old friend Mr Johnson, told me the 90-day suspension was “extraordinary” and “shows that the report is deliberately trying to do damage to Boris Johnson. It is way beyond a judicial sanction”. He too will vote against the report on Monday, which also happens to be Mr Johnson’s 59th birthday.

An unedifying moment

It will be an unedifying moment for the party as the Conservative “Boris haters”, as Sir Jacob calls them, line up to support the privileges committee and another group of his supporters back the former PM. He will want to see a show of support – a key thing to watch on Monday is how Conservatives choose to vote.

What is clear from all of this, be it the Mr Johnson attacks on fellow Conservative Sir Bernard Jenkin, who sits on the privileges committee or the howls of rage from Mr Johnson supporters over his treatment, is that Mr Sunak simply doesn’t have a strong enough grip on the party to stop the infighting and perform the reset he needs.

Mr Johnson might be quitting parliament, but the current prime minister still has two by-elections to fight because of it before the summer recess and one later in the year as Nadine Dorries opts to delay her resignation to prolong the pain for Mr Sunak.

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Key findings from Boris Johnson report

What about his long-term political career? Mr Johnson’s old ally Sir Jacob certainly doesn’t think the former prime minister is done for, telling me that much depends on the judgement people come to and that there are plenty out there still in the Johnson camp. He thinks there is a route back for Mr Johnson – although he not this side of an election.

“I think many people will look at 90 days and will think that that is simply too harsh, too aggressive, and shows what the committee was really trying to do. I think this will generate sympathy for him. But he is still a popular national figure. He still has a connection with voters that most politicians would give their eyeteeth for,” says Sir Jacob.

Read more:
Who are the privileges committee investigating whether Boris Johnson misled parliament over partygate?
Boris Johnson: What the former PM told the privileges committee about partygate

Jumping before he was pushed, the fury that Mr Johnson unleashed on Friday night when he announced he was going to quit as an MP having seen a confidential copy of the report, is now so much clearer.

The account of his conduct levelled at him by the committee would have almost certainly resulted in Mr Johnson’s suspension from parliament and a possible by-election in his constituency. So, he quits “for now”, leaving the possibility that he might want to return.

For him, this report was “intended to be the final knife-thrust in a protracted political assassination”. Whether it succeeds in killing off his political career is another matter. He might have been rejected by parliament, but this is a populist who has built his brand on being able to connect with the public and the grassroots in the Conservative Party. We’ve had the privileges committee’s verdict of the former PM. We’ve yet to have theirs.

Ed Sheeran takes stand at New York civil trial accused of copying Marvin Gaye classic | Ents & Arts News

British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has taken the stand at the beginning of a civil trial in Manhattan alleging his hit “Thinking Out Loud” ripped off the classic Marvin Gaye tune “Let’s Get It On”.

Descendants of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer on the 1973 hit, claim Sheeran, his label Warner Music Group, and music publisher Sony Music Publishing owe them a share of the profits for allegedly copying the song.

The copyright infringement trial in Manhattan, New York, is the first of three Sheeran could face from lawsuits over similarities between the two hits.

Under questioning from Keisha Rice, a lawyer for Mr Townsend’s descendants, Sheeran was asked about a song of his, “Take It Back,” which contains the lyric “plagiarism is hidden”.

“Those are my lyrics, yep,” said Sheeran, wearing a black suit and light blue tie. “Can I give some context to them?”

Rice said if she needed more context, she would ask.

She then asked Sheeran, 32, about a video clip of a show in which he performed Gaye’s song live as a medley with “Thinking Out Loud”.

Ben Crump, another lawyer for the Townsend’s descendants, had earlier said the performance amounted to a confession by Sheeran.

“We have a smoking gun,” he said of the concert footage showing Sheeran flipping between the two songs.

Mr Crump said the case is about “giving credit where credit is due”.

Sheeran said he sometimes mashed up songs with similar chords at his gigs, but grew frustrated when Rice cut off his
response.

“I feel like you don’t want me to answer because you know that what I’m going to say is actually going to make quite a lot of sense,” he said.

Read more:
Ed Sheeran reveals struggles with drugs and depression
Sheeran reveals wife was diagnosed with tumour while pregnant

Kathryn Townsend Griffin, center, daughter of singer and songwriter Ed Townsend, speaks outside New York Federal Court before the start of the trial. Pic: AP
Image:
Kathryn Townsend Griffin, center, daughter of singer and songwriter Ed Townsend, speaks outside New York Federal Court before the start of the trial. Pic: AP

Sheeran’s lawyer, Ilene Farkas, earlier said the two songs are distinct and told jurors that the plaintiffs should not be allowed to “monopolise” a chord progression and melody that are used in countless songs.

“No one owns basic musical building blocks,” Farkas said.

“You could go from ‘Let it Be’ to ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and switch back,” Sheeran testified, referring to the Beatles and
Bob Marley classics.

“If I had done what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be a quite an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that.”

If the jury finds Sheeran liable for copyright infringement, the trial will enter a second phase to determine how much he and his labels owe in damages.

The first trial is expected to last about a week.

Townsend, who also wrote the 1958 R&B doo-wop hit For Your Love, was a singer, songwriter and lawyer.

He died in 2003.

His daughter, Kathryn Townsend Griffin, is the plaintiff leading the case.

33,000 more civil servants to join 100,000 already walking out next month | Politics News

A further 33,000 more civil servants have voted to strike next month – joining 100,000 already walking out.

The newly balloted members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union will join the other civil servants who are walking out on 15 March – the same day as the next budget announcement.

They are calling for a pay rise of at least 10%, protection to pensions, job security and no cuts to redundancy pay.

Sunak ‘over the moon’ with new Brexit deal – latest politics updates

The government has said the demands – which it says would cost £2.4bn – are unaffordable.

Ten groups of civil servants, previously balloted along with the others in November, failed to reach the 50% turnout threshold at the time but in a re-ballot, which ended yesterday, all of them reached the threshold and voted to strike.

The new groups who are joining the day of action include: the Care Commission, Companies House, HMRC, the Information Commissioner’s Office, the National Museum of Wales, Office of Rail & Road, UK Export Finance, UK SBS, the Valuation Office Agency and the Welsh Government.

They join the 124 groups, with 100,000 civil servants, who voted in November to strike.

Four other departments yesterday voted to take action short of a strike. They are the Rural Payments Agency, DEFRA, the Forestry Commission and the Marine Maritime Organisation.

Read more: Who is striking in 2023 and when?

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Today’s overwhelming result is an astonishing show of strength and intent from our members and sends a very strong message to the government that we will not stop this action until we get a fair pay rise.

“We have consistently demanded a pay rise to help our members through the cost-of-living crisis; ministers have consistently refused to put more money on the table.

“They might have hoped we’d go away if they buried their heads in the sand, but they’ve under-estimated the determination of our members, who were praised for keeping the country running during the pandemic but now taken for granted.

“As these results clearly demonstrate, our members have had enough. Unless ministers put more money on the table, our strikes will continue to escalate, beginning on 15 March.”

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UK faces fresh wave of winter strikes

PCS members at the Department for Work and Pensions, DVLA and Land Registry are already striking this week.

Next week, the union’s members at Ofsted and driving instructors are taking action.

Most PCS members who were balloted last year will vote again on 20 March as their six-month strike mandate expires in May.

Several ministers in Rishi Sunak’s government ‘have bullied civil servants’, says FDA union chair Dave Penman | Politics News

Several government ministers have “bullied staff”, the head of the civil servants union has told Sky News.

Dave Penman, chair of the FDA union, said concerns have been raised about the conduct of other ministers as Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, faces allegations of bullying by staff.

He said civil servants do not raise official complaints because they do not feel they will be taken seriously because of the way the complaints system works.

Asked by Sky News’ Kay Burley to confirm if civil servants have told the union that several ministers in Rishi Sunak’s government have behaved inappropriately towards them, Mr Penman said: “Yes.”

And asked if that behaviour was bullying, he said it was.

He added that it is a continual issue over successive governments, with civil servants quitting over ministers’ behaviour as they feel they cannot do anything about it.

Mr Penman used the example of the investigation into Priti Patel, the former home secretary.

She was found to have bullied staff but Boris Johnson, the prime minister at the time, did not respond for six months and then dismissed the findings.

“There are concerns raised about a number of ministers, that is essentially a constant in government,” Mr Penman added.

“It’s not just about this government. It’s every government. You know, there are dozens of ministers and stressful situations.

“And so at any point in time, you’re inevitably going to have a situation where there are concerns raised about the conduct of ministers. That’s why what you’re seeing isn’t just about Dominic Raab.”

Read more:
Officials held meetings with civil servants to raise concerns before Raab’s reappointment

Dominic Raab arriving in Downing Street, London after Rishi Sunak has been appointed as Prime Minister. Picture date: Tuesday October 25, 2022.
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Deputy PM and justice secretary Dominic Raab has been accused of bullying staff

Over the past week, Mr Raab has faced allegations of bullying civil servants, including losing his temper and throwing food around his department.

On Monday, Mr Sunak said he does not “recognise that characterisation” of Mr Raab and said there have been no formal complaints made against his deputy.

A spokesman for Mr Raab earlier said: “Dominic has high standards, works hard, and expects a lot from his team as well as himself.

“He has worked well with officials to drive the government’s agenda across Whitehall in multiple government departments and always acts with the utmost professionalism.”

Rishi Sunak says there is 'more to do' to tackle migrant crisis
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Rishi Sunak said he does not recognise the characterisation of Mr Raab

Labour’s Lisa Nandy told Sky News that when she was shadow foreign secretary, while Mr Raab was foreign secretary, she heard “a number of rumours this was a pattern of behaviour”, and also while he was justice secretary under Mr Johnson.

“It’s been something of an open secret in Westminster for the last few years there is a problem in the justice department, there was a problem in the Foreign Office – it was apparently particularly directed towards women,” she said.

“This is something that we hear coming out over and over again with this government, that there are accusations of bullying from the civil service.

“Lots of people who are not in positions of power, who feel that they can’t speak openly because of the huge repercussions and these rumours that swirl around Westminster.

“I think it’s really damning that Rishi Sunak has appointed Dominic Raab to this post knowing that this is potentially an issue.”

A spokesman for Mr Raab said they “categorically deny” Ms Nandy’s allegation, while his team said his office has generally been female-dominated and suggestions he has a woman problem is “nonsense”.

A source close to Mr Raab said: “This is baseless mudslinging with no grounding in reality, and undermines serious cases of bullying and inappropriate behaviour.”

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