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No10 slaps down Rees-Mogg after minister brands Covid laws 'unkind and inhuman'

4 April 2022, 09:19 | Updated: 4 April 2022, 14:07

Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to apologise for describing the Partygate scandal as "fluff"
Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to apologise for describing the Partygate scandal as "fluff". Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Megan Hinton

Downing Street slapped down Jacob Rees-Mogg after he claimed government's Covid rules were "unkind and inhumane".

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When asked to apologise for his notorious comment likening Partygate to "trivial fluff" the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities refused, instead suggesting the "unkind and inhuman" Covid rules implemented at the time should be the cause of anger.

But the Prime Minister's spokesman said the Government acted "in the best interests" of the British public during the pandemic.

A Number 10 spokesperson said: "I think at all times the Government took action to save both lives and livelihoods and that was always a balanced judgment that sought to be informed by the latest evidence we had.

"We have established an inquiry to take a proper view and learn lessons about what happened and there will be more to say then. But certainly at all times the Government sought to act in the best interests of the United Kingdom."

It comes after Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to apologise for describing the Whitehall Partygate scandal as "fluff" instead suggesting the "unkind and inhuman" government rules implemented at the time should be the cause of anger.

Answering a question from a member of the public on LBC's Call the Cabinet, the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities said Partygate is "not the most important issue in the world" amid the Ukraine invasion.

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The MP suggested the Government inquiry into Partygate should not investigate whether the parties broke the rules but whether "it was ever right to say that you weren't allowed to be with people as they were dying".

The Minister said that the strict "level of rule enforcement" over the last two years was "unkind and inhuman" adding it was "not something that should ever have happened".

Caller Chris in Richmond asked the Minister: "Given the immense sacrifices made by millions during Covid, will you apologise, Jacob, for describing the Partygate scandal as 'fluff'?"

To which Mr Rees-Mogg replied: "No, I am not going to do that.

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"What I am going to do is try and contextualise. We have a war going on in Ukraine, we have atrocities being carried out, we have pictures coming through that show the enormous brutality of Putin's army.

"And what I was saying was in the context of what is going on, not just with Ukraine but also with the cost of living crisis, this is not the most important issue in the world.

"Having said that people should obviously obey the law."

Read more: Govt's former ethics chief 'fined over Partygate' as first FPNs issued

The Cabinet minster previously has dismissed concerns over parties in Downing Street during lockdown as "fluff" and "fundamentally trivial".

Speaking at the Conservative spring conference, he said war in Ukraine "was a reminder that the world is serious".

"All of that is shown up [by the war] for the disproportionate fluff of politics that it was, rather than something of fundamental seriousness about the safety of the world and the established global order," he said.

"When we look back in 36 years at Partygate, people will think, 'What were they on about?' They were passing from Covid and dealing with that to Russia and Ukraine... yet they were distracted by whether or not the prime minister spent five minutes in his own garden, or 25 minutes, whatever it is."

"You see, one quickly can​'t remember the precise amounts of time because it's fundamentally trivial."

Caller Chris, went on to grill Rees-Mogg about the Prime Minister "misleading" the public by saying the rules were followed at all times in Whitehall, despite 20 fixed penalty notices having now been issued to people who attended lockdown breaching parties.

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The Brexit Minister said: "the fact the the Prime Minister was given wrong information does not mean he mislead people.

"The Prime Minister said he was told, that the rules were followed, but that turns out not be be correct and we know that fines have now been issued.

"But the Prime Minister can only work on the information he is given."

Chris said Rees-Mogg was "insulting the intelligence of the British Public" with his remarks.

But the Minister insisted: "I think those words in the context of what's going on in Ukraine are completely reasonable.

"I don't think the issue of what may or may not have happened in Downing Street and what we are now finding out is fundamental.

"What I think is fundamental is that we look in the (Covid-19) inquiry at how the rules were devised and the effect that they had, because I think some of those rules were inhuman."

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He acknowledged that people were "undeniably cross" but insisted that Boris Johnson had not misled Parliament, suggesting the Prime Minister had been given "wrong information".

"The Prime Minister said that he was told the rules were followed, but that turns out not to be correct and we know that fines have now been issued, but the Prime Minister can only work on the information he is given."

His comments come after it was reported that the Government's former ethics chief was fined over the Partygate scandal.

Helen MacNamara, who used to be the deputy cabinet secretary, is said to be among the first group of people to receive a fixed-penalty notice (FPN) from Scotland Yard as part of its investigation into alleged lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street and Whitehall.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Ms MacNamara received a £50 fine on Friday in connection with a leaving do held in the Cabinet Office on June 18 2020 to mark the departure of a private secretary.

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Ms MacNamara was the director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2018 to 2020 and left Government to work for the Premier League.

The purpose of the role was to ensure the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within Government.

It has also been reported that Boris Johnson will not be interviewed by the Metropolitan Police as part of their investigation into alleged lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street and Whitehall.

This is because the force is not interviewing those who have received questionnaires as part of the inquiries, and could potentially be fined, according to ITV News.

The Met is investigating 12 events, including as many as six Mr Johnson is said to have attended, and has sent out more than 100 questionnaires.

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The PM received his in February.

The only officials being interviewed are "witnesses", whose role is to help the police interpret questionnaires submitted by other people, according to ITV.

An initial round of 20 fixed-penalty notices (FPNs) were issued as part of Scotland Yard's investigation, confirming police believe coronavirus laws were broken at the heart of Government.

The FPNs include those relating to a party held the night before the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral, according to The Guardian.

The event sparked outrage because it took place just hours before the Queen mourned Prince Philip alone.

The Met declined to comment on the latest reports.