In Depth

Ten things that happened in Westminster while the UK was talking about coronavirus

All eyes are on the outbreak but the world of politics has not stopped


Coronavirus has dominated the front pages since the outbreak reached British shores at the end of January.

Hours after the UK’s third death linked to Covid-19 was confirmed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson today chaired another emergency Cobra meeting to decide how best to tackle the crisis.

With countries including Italy on lockdown and shares plunging in global stock markets, the epidemic looks set to remain a priority for governments worldwide for the foreseeable future.

But what else has been happening in Westminster over the past seven days?

Johnson heckled over floods…

The PM was greeted with a mixed reception when he visited the flood-hit town of Bewdley in Worcestershire yesterday. Following criticism from the opposition for not visiting affected areas earlier, Johnson was heckled with cries of “traitor” and “do your f***ing job”, as well as requests for selfies, as he walked along the River Severn. He announced an extra £2.6bn to be spent on flood defences and a new £200m fund to pilot new flood resilience projects.

…and faces an inquiry over Caribbean break

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is launching an official investigation into Johnson’s £15,000 post-election Caribbean holiday, The Observer reported on Sunday. The commissioner, Kathryn Stone, wants to identify the donor who lent Johnson a property on the island of Mustique over the new year. “It is the first time a serving prime minister has been investigated by the commissioner,” says the newspaper. If a breach of rules is uncovered, the report will be forwarded to the Committee on Standards, which can recommend a penalty if appropriate. Downing Street has not commented.

DWP loses record disability discrimination cases

A BBC Panorama investigation revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has lost more disability discrimination cases than any other UK employer, resulting in almost £1m in payouts, since 2016. The department, which is responsible for supporting people with disabilities into employment, lost 17 of 134 claims of disability discrimination against its own workers – of which 11,000 out of a total of 80,000 identify as disabled.

Police shot man in Whitehall

A man allegedly carrying two knives was shot dead by police in Whitehall on Sunday evening. The Metropolitan Police said officers came across a man who was acting suspiciously, and when challenged “produced two knives”, the Evening Standard reports. He was first fired upon with a taser, and was then shot by a firearms officer. He later died from the gunshot wounds. The Met tweeted: “A man has been shot dead by officers following an incident in #Westminster at 23.27hrs on Sunday 8 March. This is NOT being treated as a terrorist incident.”

Binge-drinking MPs

The British Medical Journal published a report which found that binge-drinking was more common among MPs than the general public. The BMJ released the long-awaited findings of a survey of MPs, taken in 2016, that found members were more likely to “drink riskily”. Tory MP Dan Poulter, a GP, teetotaller and one of those behind the survey, said: “It is extraordinary that there are so many bars in parliament where alcohol is available at almost every hour of the day.” A House of Commons spokesperson said efforts were being made to encourage responsible drinking, reports The Observer.

Special envoy for girls’ education appointed

Baroness Liz Sugg was given the new role of special envoy for girls’ education, with the aim of getting more girls in the world’s poorest countries into schools. The appointment was announced ahead of International Women’s Day at a reception for female figures in business, science, sports and other sectors, as well as a group of schoolgirls, at Downing Street.

PM sticks up for Patel

Boris Johnson came under pressure at Prime Minister’s Questions last week to reveal when he first learned of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel. The prime minister avoided answering, and also swerved Jeremy Corbyn’s questions on why public money had been used to pay off civil servants who made bullying allegations against Patel. “The home secretary is doing an outstanding job… and I’m sticking by her,” said Johnson.

Huawei or the highway

Ministers’ promises that Chinese tech giant Huawei will eventually be phased out of future UK phone networks has failed to quash Tory backbencher concerns over the issue. Matt Warman, a junior minister, told MPs the government wanted to reach a point “where we do have not to use a high-risk vendor in the network at all” but said he couldn’t provide a timetable, The Guardian reports. Conservative rebels have echoed US concerns that Huawei’s 5G technology represents a potential surveillance risk, owing to the firm’s links to the Chinese state and its intelligence services.

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The Labour leadership contest frontrunner Keir Starmer has refused to rule out campaigning to rejoin the EU. The shadow Brexit secretary said he did not think it was a “priority for now and the immediate future”, but said it was for future generations to decide whether the UK would rejoin the bloc in years to come, says the Mirror. Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy – Starmer’s opponents in the race – both ruled out campaigning to rejoin.

Alex Salmond trial

Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, goes on trial today accused of sexually assaulting ten women while serving as Scotland’s first minister. The trial is taking place at Edinburgh’s High Court and is expected to last for four weeks. Salmond, 65, faces a total of 14 charges of alleged offences against ten women – all of which he denies. The charges comprise one of attempted rape, one of sexual assault with intent to rape, ten of sexual assault and two of indecent assault, says Glasgow-based newspaper The Herald.


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