Theresa May has found herself at odds with cabinet members over the government’s approach to medicinal cannabis, amid the growing row over a 12-year-old epileptic boy’s use of the drug.
The prime minister poured cold water on the idea of a full scale review of laws, despite the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, having mooted one hours earlier.
She was also reported to have cut off discussion on the issue at the morning’s cabinet, after the home secretary, Sajid Javid, attempted to raise it several times despite it not being on the agenda.
Later in the day, ministers announced a new panel to consider the use of medicinal cannabis in individual cases, but it fell short of the full legal review being demanded by campaigners.
It came after the mother of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell, who had cannabis oil to treat his epilepsy confiscated from her at Heathrow, asked for urgent meetings with both Mr Hunt and Mr Javid on Monday.
Mr Javid had intervened over the weekend to grant a 20-day licence for Billy to be treated with cannabis oil, after he suffered seizures following the confiscation his of supplies, brought by his mother from Canada.
Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Javid had acted “extremely decisively”, adding: “What he has announced yesterday is that he is going to review the law around this as quickly as he can”.
The health secretary added: “I don’t think anyone who followed that story could sensibly say that we are getting the law on this kind of thing right.”
Challenged over whether the legal situation could remain unchanged for weeks or months in the face of cases like Billy’s, Mr Hunt replied: “I sincerely hope not.”
He added: “It does take time, because we’ve got to not only look at the law, we’ve got to look at the clinical evidence and make sure there are no unintended consequences.
“But I think we all know that we need to find a different way.”
Cracks then started to appear when the PM’s official spokesman was later asked whether a review of the law was under way, replying: “We have reviewed [the Billy Caldwell] case and a decision has been taken based on clinical advice.
“Beyond that, I don’t have anything specific for you, beyond saying that we will continue to look at clinical evidence and take decisions on that basis.”
The spokesman added: “In terms of the health secretary this morning, I think he said we have to look at the law and the clinical evidence. I think that’s something that we are alive to.
“But equally, going forward, any decisions will have to be made on the basis of clinical evidence and how to provide the best treatment.”
Mr Javid also raised the issue at the weekly cabinet meeting, but Ms May cut discussion short saying it was not the right time, with it not having been on the approved agenda.
While several different sources played down the idea that Ms May was being unreasonable, the incident leaves a question mark over how far the government will go to meet campaigners’ demands.
In the commons in the afternoon, home office ministers announced that an expert panel of doctors will be established to advise ministers on the use of medicinal cannabis on a case-by-case basis.
It was welcomed by academics and campaigners, but they also urged ministers to extend access to people with a range of conditions and review the law more broadly.
Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, said: “We’re looking forward to hearing more details and hope the government goes further than just reviewing individual cases.
“Evidence shows that cannabis for medicinal use could work for around 10,000 people with MS to relieve pain and muscle spasms.
“It’s simply wrong that people are being driven to break the law to relieve these relentless symptoms.”
Billy Caldwell was rushed to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Friday night in a critical condition having suffered multiple seizures, after his supply was taken off his mother on her return to the UK from Canada on 11 June.
Following Mr Javid’s intervention he received treatment and was discharged on Monday afternoon, leaving Ms Caldwell, 50, calling for an urgent review of the law.
She said: “The fact that Billy has been discharged is testimony to the effectiveness of the treatment and underlines how vital it is that every child and every single family affected in our country should have immediate access to the very same medication.
“I am now calling for an urgent meeting with the health secretary and the home secretary – I will share with them my experience, which no matter what anyone says, cannot possibly be imagined by anyone else.”
When asked about the prime minister’s apparent reluctance for a full legal review into the use of cannabis oil, Ms Caldwell replied: “I am aware that this incredibly important issue is being discussed at cabinet level and I’m encouraged that the home secretary is pushing for an urgent resolution.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies