Labour have accused the Conservatives of lying about an alleged assault on an adviser to health secretary Matt Hancock in a bid to distract attention from the case of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia left lying on an NHS hospital floor.
Shortly after Mr Hancock was dispatched to Leeds General Infirmary to discuss the case of Jack Williment-Barr, stories started emerging on social media about his aide supposedly being punched by a Labour activist among a group who had gathered outside to protest.
The story was shared on Twitter by senior TV correspondents, including the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, while blogger Guido Fawkes published what he said was an excerpt from a WhatsApp group showing that activists had been told they would be reimbursed for the cost of taking taxis to get to the hospital in time to heckle.
However, when footage later emerged of the incident, it appeared that the adviser walked into a protester’s hand from behind as he waved it. The adviser did not appear to be hurt and continued walking in the same direction without showing any signs of distress.
TV political editor Robert Peston apologised for having issued an account of the alleged incident, which he said had been briefed to him by “senior Tories”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “Johnson and the Tories lie and they cheat to manipulate the media. A sick child treated on the floor of a hospital and they try divert attention with a dead cat lie story. Never has our politics sunk so low in our country since Johnson took over.”
Reports of the supposed incident came after the prime minister came under fire for refusing to look at a picture of four-year-old Jack as he took part in a TV interview. Mr Johnson was branded a “disgrace of a man” by Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth after he grabbed a TV reporter’s phone and put it in his pocket rather than looking at the picture on its screen.
Footage of the incident shows Mr Hancock being escorted to a car following his meeting with the hospital’s chief executive.
A group of around half a dozen people heckled the health secretary, with one woman shouting “shame on you”.
There was no sign of violent behaviour or threats towards Mr Hancock, but a man in a hi-vis jacket pushing a bicycle approached his car to shout: “You are not welcome in this hospital. You are not welcome in this country.”
As the health secretary was driven away, the man with the bicycle turned to his adviser, who was standing next to him, and asked: “You look after these people? They have devastated our country. Absolutely devastated our country. There’s nothing left.”
The protestor then turned his back on the adviser, continuing to shout. He flung out his arm to point at Mr Hancock’s car, shouting “These people have devastated our country.” It was at this point that the adviser walked into his arm, apparently surprising the protestor, who told him: “I put my arm out. You walked into it.”
After reports starting circulating of an alleged punch, West Yorkshire Police issued a statement to say: “We are aware of information circulating on social media in relation to an alleged incident involving election campaigners at Leeds General Infirmary this afternoon.
“We are currently unaware of any reports of this nature but are seeking to verify.”
Confronted with Mr McDonnell’s allegation, a Conservative source did not dispute the suggestion that the party had spread inaccurate information about the incident, instead saying: “Disappointing that Labour are so determined to turn a four-year-old boy into a political football.”
The incident came after a day of controversy over young Jack’s experience in hospital, revealed on Sunday by the Yorkshire Evening Post, who interviewed his mother Sarah about how she was left to put coats on the floor for him to lie on.
Mr Johnson came under fire when he refused to look at a picture of the four-year-old during a TV interview, instead taking a smartphone with the image on its screen from a reporter’s hand and placing it in his pocket.
When ITV correspondent Joe Pike pointed out what he had done, the PM returned the phone, saying: “It’s a terrible, terrible photo and I apologise obviously to the family and those who have terrible experiences in the NHS.”
The PM later dodged questions about the photo of Jack at a media question and answer session, talking instead about his plans to invest in the NHS. It was after this that Mr Hancock was dispatched to Leeds.
Speaking after his visit to the hospital, the health secretary said: “To tell you the truth, I was horrified.
“I have three small children myself. I have spent many evenings in A&E. I know what it feels like. I want to make it better.”
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