It comes after The Independent revealed last month Ruth May had been due to appear alongside Matt Hancock, the health secretary, but was ditched after failing to offer support to Boris Johnson’s senior Downing Street adviser.
In her first public comments on the incident, the chief nursing officer confirmed the report and said it was “regular occurrence” that expert colleagues advising the government had also been stood down from daily briefings during the pandemic.
Seizing on Ms May’s comments, Labour said it was “scandalous” that England’s most senior nurse, who appeared at various briefings before being dropped, was silenced because “she wasn’t prepared to parrot Downing Street spin” in relation to Mr Cummings.
The decision to drop Ms May came two days after England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam sparked headlines by saying that lockdown rules “apply to all” when asked about Mr Cummings during the televised Covid-19 press conference.
In the weeks before the planned press conference on 1 June, Mr Cummings had faced intense pressure to resign from his role after it emerged he had travelled 260 miles to Durham and Barnard Castle during the height of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
“It is indeed true that I was dropped from a briefing but that happens to many of my colleagues as well,” Ms May told the Commons Public Accounts Committee on Monday. “That is a regular occurrence”.
“What I have to say is I was also asked to attend another briefing later in June but I got stuck in traffic for that one,” she added.
Ms May said she did not know why she was dropped from the briefing, telling MPs: “I don’t know why I was dropped. I do know though that I was prepared to go into No 10 at a later date.”
On whether she was asked to defend the prime minister’s senior adviser, she replied: “As with all press briefings we talk about lots of these preparation questions, and yes, of course I was asked about lockdown and rules to lockdown.”
Pressed by the committee chair, Meg Hillier, for her view on Mr Cummings’s behaviour, she went on: “I do believe that, in my opinion, the rules are clear and they are there for everyone’s safety and they applied to us all.”
The comments on Monday from England’s chief nursing officer contradict remarks from transport secretary Grant Shapps, who was asked about Ms May being dropped from the Downing Street briefing. “I don’t think that’s true,” he said in June. “She has attended them many times before. I notice that at the top of the No 10 Twitter feed I see one of her tweets pinned.”
The Independent report in June revealed that hours before the briefing on 1 June, Ms May was immediately dropped from the press conference after failing to give support to one of the prime minister’s most senior advisers.
“A No 10 spad [special adviser] asked her directly how she would answer the Dominic Cummings question and she refused to play along and told them she would answer the same way as Jonathan Van-Tam [JVT],” a senior NHS source said at the time. “She was immediately dropped from the briefing.”
A second source added: “JVT was the first to publicly push back on TV. Everyone is being asked to support the government’s positions prior to the press conference. If they don’t they get dropped. First it was Dominic Cummings, then easing lockdown and now the R-rate and the two-metre rule.”
Reacting to Ms May’s comments on Monday, Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “It is scandalous that the nation’s most senior nurse was silenced at the height of the pandemic because she wasn’t prepared to parrot Downing Street spin about Dominic Cummings’s blatant rule-breaking.
“As the chief nursing officer indicates, it’s unacceptable that there was one rule for Johnson’s elite friends and another for the rest of us.”
Ed Davey, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, added: “Boris Johnson is happy to hide behind experts when it suits him, but we now know that as soon as they don’t stick to his script he gags them. This is why we need to see the timetable for the independent inquiry he agreed to last week, so we can get the truth out in the open.”
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