Coronavirus: Boris Johnson claims alert level allowed him to ease lockdown despite it stating 'current restrictions' must remain

'The alert level does allow it,” prime minister insists - despite threat level stating transmission is 'high or rising exponentially'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 03 June 2020 13:35 BST
Boris Johnson claims alert level allowed him to ease lockdown despite it stating 'current restrictions' must remain

Boris Johnson has claimed his “alert level” system for coronavirus allowed him to lift restrictions – despite it stating they should have remained in place.

Under pressure in the Commons – after it was revealed he overruled the chief medical officer, who said it was too early to cut the level from 4 to 3 – the prime minister denied breaking his own rules.

“He knows perfectly well that the alert level does allow it,” he told Keir Starmer.

However, health chiefs said the level should remain at 4, meaning transmission of the virus is “high or rising exponentially” – and carrying the instruction: “Current social distancing measures and restrictions.”

The controversy was reignited as the Labour leader and the prime minister clashed fiercely over his handling of the pandemic, in a bad-tempered session.

Sir Keir accused Mr Johnson of ignoring his offer of co-operation on school reopening – while the prime minister claimed his opponent had “thoroughly endorsed our approach” in a private phone call.

Last week, Mr Johnson was expected to lower the alert level from 4 to 3 when he gave the go-ahead for groups of 6 to mix in gardens and parks and reopened schools in England.

It then emerged that the move had been rejected by the government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) and Chris Whitty, the medical officer – who was then overruled.

The JBC, a new body supposed to monitor Covid-19 infections, is already on its second leader and has now been subsumed into the Department of Health and Social Care, it has emerged.

In the Commons, Sir Keir pointed out that the rules set out by the prime minister on 10 March required the UK to “wait” if it was too early to cut the alert level to 3.

“What is alert level now and the R [reproduction] rate now?” he demanded to know.

But Mr Johnson insisted the alert level did allow restriction-loosening, insisting the issues had “been addressed” and his five original tests met.

He also failed to produce any figures to back up his claim that “thousands” are using the troubled test-and-trace programme, also claiming 40,000 staff were now working on it.

And he pledged that all virus tests would be returned within 24 hours – despite saying, last week, that he was banning himself from setting any further targets.

Speedy results are critical to the test-and-trace system, which relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive case and requiring them to self-isolate.

After the UK's coronavirus death toll passed 50,000 – two-and-a-half times what was once described as “a good result” – Mr Johnson defended his handling of the crisis.

“I take full responsibility for everything this government has been doing in tackling coronavirus and I'm very proud of our record,” he told MPs

But Sir Keir attacked a “loss of trust” after the Dominic Cummings affair, revealing the prime minister had refused an offer to work together on building a consensus on the reopening of England's schools.

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