LONDON — It took Boris Johnson 10 months to pluck up the courage to face the House of Commons’ liaison committee. He may not return any time soon.
The committee, made up of the chairpeople of the cross-party select committees, (which scrutinize government) is effectively a supergroup for MPs — “a sort of parliamentary Traveling Wilburys,” as the Times newspaper’s sketch writer Patrick Kidd put it.
Prime ministers typically appear before it three times a year, but Johnson, in office since July 2019, made his first appearance Wednesday.
Often a drab affair, this session — conducted in the midst of immense pressure on Johnson over alleged breaches of coronavirus lockdown rules by his chief adviser Dominic Cummings — yielded plenty of memorable moments.
Johnson was immoveable on Cummings, and had a good news story to tell on the government’s new testing and tracing regime, but otherwise seemed off-color and short on detail. The team in Downing Street will likely be pleased things other than Cummings will make headlines, though with Tory MPs still coming out against his adviser, the prime minister has by no means put that episode to bed.
Here are five takeaways from Johnson’s committee showing:
Cummings not going
To no one’s surprise, the first thing MPs wanted to talk about was Cummings.
Johnson didn’t budge from his support for his top aide — he called the affair “a political ding-dong about what one adviser may or may not have done” — but couldn’t satisfy MPs’ questions on what that means for parents with symptoms of COVID-19 concerned about securing child care locally.
Can they travel for family support like Cummings did, Labour’s Yvette Cooper asked. “If you have exceptional problems with child care then that may cause you to vary your arrangements, that’s clear,” Johnson said, not very clearly.
He added that he understands “public indignation” but insisted it is “time to move on” and indicated there will be no inquiry as this would not be “a very good use of official time.” No. 10 are still very much determined to tough this one out.
Johnson also came prepared with a big announcement — the launch of England’s “NHS Test and Trace” system of contact tracers, which will go live on Thursday morning.
The prime minister called it “the tool that other nations have used to unlock the prison.” It will be combined with close monitoring of the spread of the virus at a local level and the potential for localized lockdowns, a process Johnson compared to a game of “whack-a-mole.”
He also came with a big admission — or was it more of an accusation?
Johnson told health committee Chair Jeremy Hunt the U.K. should have learned more from Asian nations that have dealt with coronavirus epidemics in the recent past and ramped up its disease testing capacity long ago.
“To be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume, nor did we have enough experienced trackers ready to mount the kind of operation they did in some other East Asian countries, for instance,” he told Hunt. “And I think the brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of SARS or MERS and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed.”
Indeed, Britain began the coronavirus pandemic with a test and trace program but was quickly forced to abandon it because it could not process enough tests each day. The new regime will be rolled out on Thursday after the nation spent months building its testing capacity up to more than 100,000 each day.
But the admission felt particularly pointed, because it was made to Hunt — Johnson’s former leadership rival — who, until 2018, served for six years as health secretary, at a time when, Johnson seemed to imply, the country could have done some groundwork.
A big to-do
The prime minister came away from the session with a sizeable to-do list.
On the economy, he promised to put forward a recovery package for the post-coronavirus period and talk to Chancellor Rishi Sunak about self-employed people registered as limited companies who are unable to access sufficient support.
He also suggested the government could overhaul the “no recourse to public funds” rule — a visa stipulation many non-EEA citizens face as a condition of their “temporary right to remain” immigration status, which prevents them claiming benefits.
Johnson had to have the issue explained to him by work and pensions committee Chair Stephen Timms. This was a surprise all round after opposition MPs — including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — have raised it regularly with ministers over the past months.
The PM promised to act. “Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here, should have support of some kind or another,” Johnson said, pledging to look into the issue.
But he was careful to avoid too much homework. Asked by Hunt when the government would set a target of producing coronavirus test results within 24 hours, he said: “I’ve been forbidden from announcing any more targets and deadlines.”
Mind the gap
Johnson gave other hints about how the nation will squeeze its way out of the coronavirus prison, noting that the rule that people must remain 2 meters apart will be reviewed by scientific advisers. “My own hope is that, as we make progress in getting the virus down, in reducing the incidence, we will be able to reduce that distance,” he explained.
Reducing the distance will be particularly useful for the transport and hospitality sectors, he said — meaning getting more people on trains and buses and allowing them back into restaurants, cafés and pubs.
Asked more specifically about hospitality, Johnson suggested the light at the end of the tunnel might be approaching at pace. Currently, the government says some cafés and restaurants might be able to open at the start of July as long as they adhere to social-distancing rules, but the classic Johnsonian optimism came out to play.
“It is very difficult to bring forward hospitality measures in a way that involves social distancing, but I am much more optimistic about that than I was and I think we may be able to do things faster than I previously thought,” he said.
Is an announcement looming that British pubs might be open again soon? That would knock even Dominic Cummings out of the headlines for a day or two.