Ministerial aide sacked after leaking of letter warning MPs not to leak to media

What would Owls do without “chatty” rats and moles, and are canary traps legal?

Archie Bland 

A ministerial aide was sacked on Thursday night after the Conservative chief whip sent out a letter with varied wording in a “canary trap” designed to catch whoever leaked it.

Andrew Lewer, a Home Office parliamentary private secretary, was fired from his junior government role when a letter urging the recipients not to leak information to the press found its way into the hands of the Guido Fawkes website.

But it is understood that the letter, from the chief whip, Mark Spencer, was worded slightly differently for each recipient so officials would be able to tell which version had reached the media.

Lewer, PPS to the policing minister Kit Malthouse, denied he had leaked the letter when confronted by Conservative whips, but suggested it could have come from a member of his staff.

He told the Politico website: “In nearly 20 years of elected office I have never leaked to the press.” The Guardian has approached Lewer for comment.

The letter, sent to all PPSs and vice-chairs of the Conservative party, told recipients – or, at least, told Lewer – that “there seems to be a lack of clarity in what is expected of you in your position as Private Parliamentary Secretary or Vice Chair … I would like to take this opportunity to remind you of the severe consequences that you will face, should you choose to breach the [Ministerial] Code.”

It went on to say that the prime minister’s foreword to the code “strictly prohibits ‘leaking’ or any other breaches of trust”.

The letter was swiftly leaked to Guido Fawkes and published under the headline: “LEAKED: CHIEF WHIP WRITES TO PPS’S WARNING THEM NOT TO LEAK.”

It is not clear which parts of the letter were varied in order to catch the leaker, but the entire text was published as part of the Guido Fawkes story.

Ministers could not claim not to have been warned of the possibility of such a method being used to identify possible leakers. Last month, No 10 briefed that it could use a “canary trap” strategy in an attempt to identify the source of leaks. That ploy was viewed by some Westminster observers as unlikely to succeed given it had been announced to the press.

Despite attempts by the former No 10 aide Dominic Cummings to crack down on leaking, with threats of the sack for any adviser who was found to have given information to the press, the government has so far been unable to clamp down on leaks since it won reelection.

A Cabinet Office inquiry is under way to find the “chatty rat” who passed plans for the second lockdown to the press before they had been finalised.

Do we hear from Johnson the voice of authority he admires in Churchill? We do not

The prime minister has at least been impressively consistent with his incoherent, indecisive hopelessness.

“But at least Covid has brought some cheer at last. Because Priti Patel announced she won’t be visiting her parents this Christmas. They must be bloody delighted.”

Mark Steel 

It’s quite charming now, how this government changes the rules back and forth every few days, like some eccentric old professor that’s lost his short-term memory.

So they shout: “Why are the schools shut? We can’t have schools shut, it’s where children go.”  

“You shut them, prime minister, to stop the virus spreading.”

“Nonsense. Open them up.”  

Then a week later they go: “Who opened the schools? That’s how the virus spreads, what idiot did this?”

“You did, prime minister.”  

“Balderdash. Oh my God, why are the pubs shut? You can’t shut pubs, the Battle of Waterloo was fought so we could go to the pub.”

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“But that’s where the virus spreads, prime minister.”

“Don’t be such a nincompoop, who are you?”

“I’m the global scientific advisor for the transmission of viruses in pubs”  

“You know nothing. I order all scientists to do your duty to go to the pub and get ratarsed.”

Then a week later: “WHO OPENED THE PUBS?”

A week ago they were saying: “It’s Christmas, you are commanded to be British, by giving your grandparents a naked massage with your own spit, it’s what Christmas is all about.”  

But this week they screamed: “Why are you idiots going round each other’s houses at Christmas? Christmas must be on Zoom, or held on an app we contracted to a company owned by an MP’s sister-in-law who has no experience of apps, but she has trained beagles. DON’T GO ANYWHERE, YOU MURDERERS.”

So now no one knows the rules, as once an hour there’s an announcement: “Matt Hancock has said you CAN cross one edge of tier 2a to get to tier 3b+ as long as you travel through space but NOT on a comet unless you’re with less than three people from at least four different planets.”  

Half the country is looking at government guidelines on websites, trying to make sense of instructions such as: “If you yawn on Boxing Day, you must sit on a bus shelter for 10 minutes. Before you open presents, all your cats must point south.”  

None of the rules seem to make sense. Theatres are shut, presumably because that’s where no one can be trusted, because the minute the curtain goes up, everyone starts gobbing on the violinist, and everyone in the circle wees into the stalls.

But pubs were allowed to stay open because in a pub, no one behaves in a way that might spread a virus. Everyone sits quietly, reading old legal documents, or admiring the craftwork of the beer pumps.

Maybe one of these people who talk about parenting, on daytime television, should tell the government: “The problem you have, my darlings, is you’re sending out mixed messages.” Because they are like someone telling a six-year-old: “We’re going to the seaside, so to be safe, before we set off, make sure you go to the toilet, which is shut and bolted. Because it’s dangerous to go to the toilet, so we’re trusting you to decide whether you should go or not, though you shouldn’t, unless you go outside, and I know Uncle Dominic did a huge turd on the kitchen floor but that was because he was testing his hearing.”

One of the instructions this week was: “Try and avoid crowds in the Boxing Day sales.” That makes sense, in the same way as if you said: “You are allowed to go swimming, but while you’re doing it, try not to get wet.”

Perhaps the reason for this is to pass the responsibility onto us. Matt Hancock said: “It’s up to each of us to collectively do our bit.”  

This is fine, but it’s harder to do your bit when you’ve no idea what you’re supposed to do, as the instructions are so hopeless. This is why, if you go to bomb disposal school, I don’t suppose the instructor says: “The thing with a bomb is there are wires poking all over the place. Some of them are fine and some blow the street up, so be careful. You just prod about with whichever one you fancy, I’ve no idea which ones to leave alone and which ones to snip, so it’s up to you to do your bit with each bomb, and if you can, try and avoid taking it into a crowded Boxing Day sale.”

Boris Johnson’s other instruction has been to make Christmas “shorter and smaller”. So does Christmas Day end at half past six? Do the crackers have to be half an inch long? Will the Queen just say: “Hello. What a shitty year” for her speech?  

He might as well have said: “This year, make Christmas more triangular than normal, and less prosaic, with a hint of irony.”

This is the decisive voice of authority he admires so much in Winston Churchill. It’s as if he’s copying his hero’s famous speech: “We face a brutal enemy, so I demand of all of you, make things a bit shorter and smaller, Hitler won’t like that.”

But at least he’s been impressively consistent with his incoherent, indecisive hopelessness. The instruction about masks was to wear one if you fancy but not if you can’t be bothered. The instruction for whether to shake hands with people who are infected was: “You might as well, I don’t have a clue.”

When he was ill with it himself, maybe the medical staff were like that, and said: “You can wear a respirator if you want, some people think you need air to live but it’s up to you, really.”

But at least Covid has brought some cheer at last. Because Priti Patel announced she won’t be visiting her parents this Christmas. They must be bloody delighted.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah’s fight for the truth will save many lives from pollution

After delivering his ruling on the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the coroner turned to her mother sitting in the court and thanked her. Philip Barlow said: “We all have many reasons to thank you for the determination you have shown in getting us here.”

Ben Webster, Environment Editor 

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah fought to secure a fresh inquest into her daughter’s death not only to find out why she died but to ensure other parents never had to endure the same agony.

The Commons environmental audit committee warned in 2010, when Ella made the first of about 30 visits to hospital after severe asthma attacks, that air pollution caused 35,000 premature deaths in the UK. Subsequent reports produced similar statistics but, despite promises, successive governments and local authorities did little.

The death of a nine-year-old girl, who the inquest was told would have been repeatedly terrified by the sensation of drowning because of mucus blocking her airways, has brought a human face to statistics.

Seven years after her death in 2013, some parts of the country, especially in London, still have illegal levels of air pollution. Nearly half of the 56 million people in England were exposed last year to levels of fine particles, the most dangerous form of air pollution, that exceeded the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended limit.

Many politicians have shied away from acting on air pollution because the solutions involve potentially unpopular restrictions such as charging drivers of polluting vehicles to enter urban areas and banning or restricting domestic fires.

The government has pledged under the Environment Bill to set a new legally binding target for fine particles but it has not said what that will be or when it should be achieved. The ruling on Ella’s death and renewed calls by her mother and others for a new Clean Air Act may embolden ministers to set an ambitious target based on WHO recommendations and give local authorities new powers and resources to deliver it.

The finding that Ms Kissi-Debrah was not given information about the health risks of air pollution by doctors or via government alerts on poor air quality will also help to ensure other parents are properly informed.

The inquest was told that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which had expert knowledge about air pollution levels and risks, and the Department of Health failed to work together to tackle the problem.

The court was told that none of the clinicians who had treated Ella at six different hospitals from 2010 to 2013 had considered the possible impact of air pollution. Her mother said that she would have moved home to a less polluted area if she had been informed of the risks and the coroner ruled that this would have made a difference.

The government and local authorities are now under greater pressure to improve text, internet and roadside warnings of poor air quality, which are still not reaching many vulnerable people.

Next month Mr Barlow will issue what is known as a “prevention of further death report”, which is expected to give details of the risks identified during the inquest that still need to be addressed. This will put further pressure on the government to act.

The new Clean Air Act, which Ms Kissi-Debrah is seeking, could be known as “Ella’s Law”. It might carry the name of one little girl who lost her life to air pollution but could save thousands of others from the same fate.

Reaction as East Devon & Exeter remain under Tier 2 Covid restrictions

East Devon and Exeter will remain under Tier 2 coronavirus restriction for Christmas, the Government has confirmed today.

Interesting to compare what the local MPs and Council Leaders say – guess who says very little? Below this article Owl posts the latest Covid-19 symptom tracker data for East Devon.

Daniel Clark 

Case numbers and pressure on the NHS have been cited as reasons why all of Devon will stay subject to the second-strictest set of rules.

Whitehall will carry out its next review at the end of the year.

Tier 2 restrictions in East Devon & Exeter mean:

  • No household mixing indoors;
  • Rule of six applies outdoors;
  • Pubs and restaurants to shut at 11pm;
  • Alcohol only served as part of a substantial meal;
  • Spectators allowed at sports events and live performances, in limited numbers;
  • Personal care, including hairdressing, allowed.

Conservative East Devon MP Simon Jupp said: “Following the latest review, Devon will sadly stay in Tier 2.

“Cases are rising and the RD&E is under severe strain due to staff sickness.

“The Nightingale is helping to relieve pressure and we can all do our bit by remembering #HandsFaceSpace. We will get through this, together.”

Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said: “Many people will be disappointed by this, given our Covid rates and Covid hospitalisations have been low and falling.

“But the shortage of NHS beds and staff after ten years of Conservative Government cuts and fears about the impact of the Christmas relaxation probably made this decision inevitable, sadly.”

East Devon District Council leader Paul Arnott said: “The ongoing lack of bed capacity in our county’s NHS – as warned about for many years – remains the key reason why we cannot escape Tier 2, and I feel very sorry for all the businesses and employees affected by this.

“It is now absolutely clear that the return of Devon’s student populations in October after a successful summer suppressing the pandemic was the key factor bringing the virus into our area.

“The students themselves are blameless, but the Government and university decisions to press on with the autumn term have come at the cost of local health and employment.

“I am relieved that the universities seem much better prepared for the spring term of 2021.

“Finally, I would urge everyone to take the greatest care with the basics of personal and collective hygiene, and that all who are offered vaccination take it without delay.”

Devon County Council leader John Hart, who also chairs the county’s multi-agency Local Outbreak Engagement Board, said: “I’m afraid this is the right decision because of the number of positive cases in Devon right now – especially among our older residents – and the huge pressure on our NHS services.

“But if we are to accept these restrictions continuing into the New Year, the Government must act swiftly with more support for local businesses.

“When we went into Tier 2, I called for action and I am renewing that call today.

“Every day I am hearing from businesses which are being severely affected and many of our local hospitality companies are on their knees. The Government must do more to help them survive otherwise many of these companies – which are the lifeblood of Devon’s economy – won’t be here in the New Year.”

Devon’s Director of Public Health Steve Brown, added: “We had been seeing our case numbers falling due to the recent national lockdown, but that fall has slowed and has now levelled off since we adopted Tier 2 restrictions.

“I do not believe that we are ready yet to relax our restrictions to the lower tier, especially as we head into Christmas, and the likelihood – although I would advise people think really hard about doing so – of families and friends meeting up in Christmas bubble arrangements.”

Data from the covid-19 symptom tracker app.

As Owl has explained before, these data are well worth keeping an eye on. In Owl’s opinion they provide a daily record from a very large sample of a proxy measure of infection. In the first phase of the study these measures of self- reported symptoms were statistically compared, and adjusted, against those eventually testing Covid positive. Their significance is that they have been shown to track the trajectory of the pandemic, indeed, have given the earliest indication of turning points.

For the moment the local picture is looking encouraging as can be seen in the graph below which plots the number of active cases estimated from the app per million (generally elsewhere reports have standardised on cases per 100,000). It is really only the app. that has a sufficient daily sample to provide such a picture at local level. Before Owl started a daily record, the East Devon case rate was double that shown. What this indicates is that the infection appears to be still slowly falling in East Devon, despite the relaxation from Lockdown 2 to the revised Tier* system. Lockdown 2 started on 5 November and ended on 2 December.

Priti Patel accuses senior Tory MP of breaking Covid rules

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has accused a senior Tory MP of breaching Covid-19 rules after he attended a Christmas dinner for 27 people at a private members’ club.

[Hopefully, this “Blue on Blue” spat will turn really nasty. But remember the rules only apply to the little people – Owl]

Simon Murphy

Tobias Ellwood, a former Foreign Office minister who chairs the influential Commons defence select committee, attended an event at the Cavalry and Guards Club in London on Tuesday evening hours before the capital moved into tier 3. Only a day earlier in parliament he called on the government to review its plans to relax restrictions for Christmas to avoid a third wave in the new year.

The dinner, in Piccadilly, was held by the Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBC) and was initially described as a “Christmas party” on its website before the reference was removed.

Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East, defended his actions, telling the Daily Mail, which first reported the story, that it was a “business meeting” allowed under tier 2 restrictions that applied at the time. “I would not be attending a Christmas party, it was a business meeting,” he told the newspaper. “I went there to meet business people and that is what it was. The club went to extreme lengths so that as a business function it was absolutely Covid compliant.”

However, asked if Ellwood’s actions were an “egregious” breach of the rules, Patel told ITV News on Thursday: “Well, it is. Of course it is, exactly that.” Asked to again confirm she believed it was a breach, Patel added: “Having dinner … outside of the rules with a large number of people is a breach of the regulations.”

Asked what penalty Ellwood should face, Patel replied: “There are fixed penalty notices. I don’t know the details as to where this happened or the location, but I’m sure … as it is a breach, that will be followed up.” But she declined to say whether it was a Conservative party disciplinary matter, adding: “That is something I’m not getting into because I simply don’t know the full details.”

Boris Johnson’s spokesman backed Patel’s criticism of Ellwood’s behaviour. “The prime minister has been clear throughout the pandemic that it’s vital for everybody to abide by the rules in order to suppress the virus, and therefore protect the NHS and save lives,” he said.

After Patel’s interview, Ellwood tweeted a statement in which he explained he had been invited to give an address at the dinner in his role as chair of the defence select committee. “We still have troops based in Iraq and the security situation is deteriorating. I work hard to leverage every opportunity to further my understanding of international foreign policy and security matters. I gleaned extremely useful intelligence from this gathering about what is happening on the ground and wider issues affecting the Middle East,” he said.

“I appreciate, given the current challenges, some will question the wisdom of my attendance. I am sorry that coverage of my well-intentioned attendance may have muddied the government’s clear message as we head towards Christmas. Whilst the event was fully Covid compliant – perceptions count. Something I will be more conscious of in conducting my portfolio duties during the difficult months ahead.”

The government’s guidance for tier 2 says: “Gatherings for work purposes are only allowed where they are reasonably necessary. If meetings take place in the workplace, workplaces should be set up to meet the Covid-19-secure guidelines. Meals to socialise with work colleagues are not permitted.”

Separately, the guidance says: “Business events are permitted, but capacity should be restricted to whichever is lower: 50% capacity of 2,000 people outdoors or 1,000 people indoors.”

Meanwhile, Patel has urged people to consider cancelling Christmas plans that involve travelling to visit family or friends, in another ratcheting up of government warnings about the relaxation of coronavirus rules.

The home secretary said that while, under law, people could mix in up to three households for five days over Christmas, people who had made plans to travel long distances should now not do this. “I would urge people to change,” Patel told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I won’t be seeing my parents this Christmas. My parents live in a different part of the country and I will not travel to see them.

“I want to protect them, I don’t want to be spreading the virus. I feel I will take that responsibility and others will make that judgment too.”

While Patel insisted the government was right to keep the Christmas rules unchanged, she appealed for people to be cautious.

“We would urge everyone to be conscientious and to make the appropriate plans and the appropriate changes to their plans as well, hence the point about having a smaller and shorter Christmas,” she said.

“We’re urging people not to travel. Why would you travel? If you’re in a low-tier area, why would you travel into a high-tier area? So people will exercise their judgment.”