“… the Health Secretary, ‘in trademark pantomime dame-style, cracked a gag about how he’d stand everybody a drink but as PHE was keeping a count, he’d never have to pay up. It did get quite a laugh’.”
By Brendan Carlin Glen Owen for The Mail on Sunday www.dailymail.co.uk
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was last night accused of breaking his own Covid curfew by drinking in a Commons bar beyond 10pm – where he made a crass joke about the Government’s test and trace failings.
Mr Hancock arrived at the bar just before a 9.40pm vote, ordered a glass of white wine and announced: ‘The drinks are on me – but Public Health England are in charge of the payment methodology so I will not be paying anything.’
His ill-conceived joke came after he had tried to explain to the Commons why the quango had lost nearly 16,000 positive coronavirus tests – a fiasco which Labour claimed had put ‘lives at risk’.
A senior Tory MP told The Mail on Sunday that Mr Hancock remained in the Smoking Room bar until at least 10.25pm, despite Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle insisting that Commons venues must abide by the same 10pm drink-up-and-leave curfew as all English pubs.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was last night accused of breaking his own Covid curfew by drinking in a Commons bar beyond 10pm – where he made a crass joke about the Government’s test and trace failings
In a carefully worded statement last night, a spokesman for the Health Secretary said: ‘No rules have been broken.
‘The Secretary of State was in the Smoking Room prior to the vote that evening.
‘The Secretary of State left the Smoking Room to vote. The vote took place at 9:42pm. ‘The Secretary of State then departed the Parliamentary estate to go home.’
Asked whether Mr Hancock had returned to the bar after voting and before he went home, the spokesman failed to respond.
The Health Secretary is seen as the leading pro-lockdown ‘dove’ in the Cabinet, enthusiastically backing the curfew measures.
Mr Hancock arrived at the bar just before a 9.40pm vote and ordered a glass of white wine
This is increasingly angering ‘hawks’ such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who fear the lasting economic damage being caused by stringent Covid rules.
Other Tory MPs present in the Smoking Room on Monday have privately admitted still being in the room with drinks on their table after 10pm.
Last night, Charles Walker, the Tory MP overseeing Commons bars, promised an investigation into claims that the curfew was not being observed.
Mr Walker, chairman of the Commons’ Administration Committee, told The Mail on Sunday that he would now be ‘talking to senior management within the catering department’.
He insisted it was up to fellow MPs to obey the rules, not rely on staff to tell them.
But he added that if alcoholic drinks ‘are being consumed in our bars after 10pm, then those instances need to stop’.
Last night the Health Secretary was under pressure to apologise over his ‘tasteless’ joke about Public Health England (PHE).
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ Health spokesman, said: ‘If these tasteless remarks are accurate, he must apologise. Matt Hancock has no shame.
‘Thanks to his incompetence, we have a failing test-and-trace system which has left thousands mourning loved ones and millions worrying about their livelihoods as they face yet further lockdown measures.
‘Instead of taking responsibility, he’s making jokes at their expense and blaming everyone for his incompetence. The British public will not forget.’
Mr Hancock’s spokesman declined to comment on the remark, which came just a few hours after the Minister faced a barrage of questions in the Commons over PHE’s failure to report 15,841 positive coronavirus tests in England, and fears that it meant 50,000 potentially infectious people had failed to be reached by contract tracers.
Mr Hancock admitted the blunder ‘should never have happened.’
The extraordinary allegations that he broke the curfew come as Boris Johnson faces a mounting Tory rebellion over the rules, which critics claim are ineffective and killing jobs and businesses without stopping the spread of the virus.
Sources say Mr Hancock joined about 20 other MPs in the Smoking Room on Monday evening, where he ordered a glass of French sauvignon blanc and made his joke.
One person present described how the Health Secretary, ‘in trademark pantomime dame-style, cracked a gag about how he’d stand everybody a drink but as PHE was keeping a count, he’d never have to pay up. It did get quite a laugh.’
Mr Hancock left the room for a 9.42pm vote, but one person present claimed that Mr Hancock had later returned and stayed beyond 10pm.
Another, more junior, Minister ordered a bottle of wine at 9.59pm and stayed drinking it with colleagues, the source said.
Mr Hancock is also said to have ordered a large glass of white wine not long before the bar shut at 10pm and then stayed on to drink it.
‘He wasn’t the only one – some people were still ordering bottles of wine right up to the deadline,’ said one MP.
‘However, it was extraordinary that at 10.25pm our Health Secretary – the man who maybe more than Boris himself has lectured the nation about respecting the Covid rules – was knocking back a glass of vino when out in the real world, drinkers and diners had been kicked out of pubs and restaurants across England.
‘Everyone is panicking and trying to cover for Matt, but I know what I saw and I can tell the time.’