99 minutes of answers – but it was what the PM didn't say that was most interesting

May 27, 2020

Boris Johnson turned up to meet senior MPs today with one clever argument about Dominic Cummings. 

If the furore over the prime minister's top adviser was such a distraction, Mr Johnson suggested, why then keep returning to it and ask questions.

The facts in the media had been false, he asserted.

He had seen the evidence confirming Mr Cummings's version of events but refused to share them or sanction an official inquiry.

It has been a "frustrating episode", he said, but not one he wanted to discuss if at all possible.

"My choice is the choice of the British people to lay aside party political point-scoring and put national interest first," he told home affairs select committee chair Yvette Cooper.

No doubt to the quiet satisfaction of Downing Street, it was the other topics in the 99-minute session that provoke more curiosity, often because of what the prime minister did not say as much as what he did.

The test and trace scheme isn't fully up and running.

Mr Johnson is launching the system on Thursday, but admitted it is not fully operational.

He said it would be "useful" from its launch tomorrow "but it will be getting steadily better".

Scientific advisers from SAGE told Sky News last week it needed to be fully functioning before any further easing took place, including schools reopening.

The government doesn't yet know how it will enforce quarantine for those contacted by tracers.

Initially, people who have come into contact with coronavirus sufferers will be "asked" to stay at home.

Mr Johnson does not seem to know what will happen next, even though the scheme is meant to be up and running tomorrow.

He told the committee: "We will consider what sanctions - financial or whatever appropriate. If people don't, we will consider bringing in financial sanctions."

He said he does not know if this will be done by the police or anyone else.

There is no date by which coronavirus test results must be returned in 24 hours.

Mr Johnson said that he has asked Dido Harding, who is running the track and trace system, to speed up the time it takes to analyse and return test results.

However, he added: "I'm not going to give you a deadline because I've been forbidden from announcing more targets."

Mr Johnson is prepared to admit some mistakes, but Public Health England seems to be the culprit.

He admitted that mass testing was abandoned in April because "we didn't have enzymes, test volume or experienced trackers in Asian countries" - Public Health England's responsibilities.

"The brutal reality is that this country didn't learn lessons of SARS or MERS and didn't have a test operation to go," he told Jeremy Hunt, who for many years was health secretary.

The PM is unaware that some migrants cannot access public funds.

Some 100,000 children are in families with migrant parents whose visas stipulate they have no recourse to public money and are stuck.

Mr Johnson appeared not to know about this category of individual, and said he would write to the committee about it.

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There's confusion over whether taxes will rise.

Mr Johnson said that he wants to keep taxes low while funding public services. He has also previously said he does not want austerity.

He also said today: "We will deliver of all of the manifesto commitments".

The 2019 manifesto says: "We promise not to raise the rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT."

It is unclear how the government will balance the books.

The PM does not read scientific papers.

He said he reads the summaries by SAGE, the scientific advisory group, rather than scientific advice. This may or may not be sensible.

However, Mr Johnson admitted that he opposed some of the advice provided, such as the need to maintain two-metre distance at all times, when other countries and the World Health Organisation (WHO) say this could be smaller.

He could not explain to the committees their reasoning for different guidance in other countries.

:: Next week from Monday to Thursday, Dermot Murnaghan will be hosting After the Pandemic: Our New World -- a series of special live programmes about what our world will be like once the pandemic is over.

We'll be joined by some of the biggest names from the worlds of culture, politics, economics, science and technology. And you can take part too. If you'd like to be in our virtual audience - from your own home - and put questions to the experts, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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