Skills Minister Gillian Keegan suffered a series of car crash interviews this morning as she was unable to answer key questions over new coronavirus rules in the North East of England.
Ms Keegan was asked whether restrictions banning households in the region from meeting indoors from tomorrow applied to pubs and restaurant gardens.
She said ‘I don’t know the answer to that question’ as she admitted she did not fully understand the rules less than a day before they are due to come into force.
Labour pounced on the misstep and said ministers ‘don’t know what’s going on’ amid a mounting backlash over the Government’s latest coronavirus crackdown.
Ms Keegan also risked a backlash after she said it is ‘hard to see how night clubs will open until we have some kind of long term way to deal with coronavirus’ and seemingly admitted the hospitality sector is being ‘punished’ despite statistics suggesting only a small number of infections originate in pubs are restaurants.
Meanwhile, Tory disquiet over new rules, regulations and fines increased after it emerged the authorities will have the power to use ‘reasonable force’ to make people self-isolate.
New laws published by the Government state that ‘reasonable force’ can be used if someone refuses to comply with an instruction to stay at home after testing positive for coronavirus or if they have been in contact with someone else who has the disease.
The power will be available to all ‘authorised persons’ amid reports that could include so-called ‘Covid marshalls’ as well as the police and council staff.
Households across the North East will be banned from mixing indoors from tomorrow. Newcastle city centre is pictured on September 17
Ms Keegan’s car crash interviews came as:
- Boris Johnson is desperately trying to quell Tory mutinies over coronavirus lockdowns, the university shambles and 10pm pubs curfew amid claims angry MPs are mounting a ‘Trojan Horse’ plot to get rid of him.
- Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was due to finally publicly address the chaotic situation in universities after he was labelled ‘the invisible man’.
- The Institute for Fiscal Studies said taxes could soar by £60 billion in the coming years to avoid a new wave of austerity.
- The think tank said an income tax rise of 6p or 7p for every £1 earned could be needed to cover extra public spending over the next five or six years.
- The Children’s Commissioner for England today called for the Rule of Six to be changed to exempt all children under the age of 12 and for restrictions on households mixing to allow children from different families to play together.
- Real-time data from the NHS contact tracing app could allow local lockdowns to be imposed 24 hours after an outbreak.
- One of the country’s top civil servants has predicted that working from home will become a ‘permanent feature’ for some staff working in Government departments.
- Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster announced an 11pm curfew for the hospitality sector.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday announced a tightening of measures for Northumberland, Newcastle, North and South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham.
Aimed at stopping a resurgence of coronavirus, the Department of Health said laws would ban inter-household mixing indoors, including in pubs and restaurants.
But some questioned whether the measures, to be enforced with fines, would include meeting people from other homes outside in hospitality settings.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, Ms Keegan said: ‘I’m sorry I can’t clarify that.
‘I don’t know the answer to that question but I’m sure they can find out the answer to that question.’
Pressed on how people are meant to keep up to date with the latest restrictions when even ministers cannot, she said: ‘I’m sorry I can’t answer that question. I’m sure there are many people who could. I don’t represent the North East.’
Labour quickly seized on the failure to clarify the confusion over the laws, set to be imposed after midnight on Wednesday.
Shadow health minister Alex Norris said: ‘It speaks volumes that even the Government’s own ministers don’t know what’s going on.
‘This will do little to inspire public confidence in the North East and across the country.
‘The Conservatives’ incompetence is hampering our response to this pandemic.’
Ms Keegan was grilled during an interview on Sky News on which local lockdowns have actually worked but she was unable to give a firm answer.
‘I think, I am not an expert on this, but I think in Leicester there were some signs of some improvement in terms of the rate,’ she said.
The Skills Minister was also asked what the science is to back up the Government’s decision to impose a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants in England.
She said: ‘The 10pm curfew is about reducing the amount of socialising. What the science shows us is the virus is largely being passed on by people socialising.’
Sky News presenter Kay Burley told Ms Keegan that the curfew is not supported by any statistics, promoting the Tory MP to reply: ‘What it does is it takes an hour off the socialising time, reducing socialising, the same as the Rule of Six.’
When it was pointed out to Ms Keegan that 3.2 per cent of cases last week were found to have originated in a hospitality setting, she said: ‘Yes. Yes and actually we know that the hospitality sector has done a brilliant job of making their places Covid-secure.’
Ms Burley asked Ms Keegan why the Government is seemingly ‘punishing’ pubs and restaurants and the minister appeared to admit that was the case as she said: ‘Because we are trying to reduce the amount of socialising.’
Ms Keegan also said it is ‘hard to see how night clubs will open until we have some kind of long term way to deal with coronavirus’ as she defended a new ban on singing and dancing in pubs.
Told the ban was ‘ridiculous’, Ms Keegan hit back and said: ‘No, I think it is common sense. It is common sense.
‘If you put a lot of people together and say all of you can move but all of you have to keep two metres apart, I think it is common sense.’
The decision to impose new restrictions on the north east of England prompted anger among council leaders who said they were not consulted before the action was taken.
The leader of Gateshead Council has said he was not warned that new restrictions were coming.
Martin Gannon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the measures were ‘unfortunately’ necessary to deal with the cases having ‘skyrocketed’ in the North East, but said a ‘proper’ test and trace system could have managed the pandemic.
‘It was announced in the House of Commons and we were not told beforehand that announcement was going to be made,’ he said.
‘However, we had had discussions last week that led us to believe that this was going to happen. We just weren’t pre-warned that it was actually going to happen. It didn’t help.
‘I got inundated with telephone calls and emails last night from people asking, ‘Can we do this, can we do that?’ and actually I didn’t have the precise wording of the regulations in front of us.
‘So it is a bit chaotic the way these things happen, Nick (Forbes, Newcastle City Council leader) was quite right to be annoyed about that.’
Mr Forbes said yesterday that the way the ban on households mixing in private or public was revealed had damaged ‘public confidence’.
‘While we have been in discussions with the Government on potential further restrictions the Secretary of State has once again stood up and announced changes without telling us he was about to do so,’ he said.
‘We want to work constructively with the Government, but the way these measures are being communicated in headlines and without detail does nothing for public confidence.
‘We have demanded clarity on the new restrictions, testing and support for those businesses most affected.’
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Hancock had said: ‘I must announce further measures for the parts of the North East where we introduced local action a fortnight ago.
‘Unfortunately the number of cases continues to rise sharply. The incident rate across the area is now over 100 cases per 100,000. We know that a large number of these infections are taking place in indoor settings outside the home.
‘And so at the request of the local councils, with whom we have been working closely, we will introduce legal restrictions on indoor mixing between households in any setting.
‘We do not take these steps lightly but we must take them and take them now because we know that swift action is more likely to bring the virus under control and the quicker we can get this virus under control the quicker we can restore the freedoms we all enjoy in the North East and across the country.’
With 16 million Britons now under draconian restrictions, Tory MPs have warned of ‘national lockdown by default’.
Conservative backbenchers are increasingly angry at the Government for rolling out restrictions on freedoms without first putting measures to a vote in Parliament.
They said their constituents are ‘incredibly irritated’ at the latest crackdown and warned that while ‘they will grudgingly abide by it in the short term… they want to know where the end is’.
Mark Harper, the Tory former chief whip, summed up the Conservative discontent in the Commons yesterday as he lashed out at Mr Hancock over the new rules and regulations.
‘The laws that came in at midnight, for example, were 12 pages of laws, with lots of detail, criminal offences and duties not mentioned when they were set out in a statement last week,’ he said.
‘That includes duties on employers, directors and officers, with serious criminal penalties.
‘We need to scrutinise the detail of the legislation before it comes into force and give our assent, and not, I am afraid, just allow the Secretary of State to put it into force by decree.’
Tory MPs are hoping to force a vote tomorrow on forcing the Government to put all future measures to a vote in Parliament before they are rolled out.
A group of up to 80 Tories are poised to support a rebel amendment when the Government asks the Commons to formally renew the Coronavirus Act for another six months.
There are questions over whether Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will select the amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
But senior Tory Sir Desmond Swayne today warned that if the amendment is not selected some Conservative MPs could opt for the ‘nuclear option’ of voting against the renewal of the Act.
Accusing ministers of governing by ‘fiat’, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘If there isn’t a vote on the amendment and there isn’t a satisfactory response from the Government to the demands of the amendment, many people will vote against a renewal of an act.
‘Well when I say many, there will be a number, but certainly the Government isn’t going to be defeated.’