Watch: Astonishing moment Tory MP launches attack on Matt Hancock
A Tory MP has launched a stinging attack on Matt Hancock, branding his warning thatpeople who lie over their travel history could be jailed for 10 years “a stupid thing to say”.
Sir Charles Walker, a former chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, said the health secretary’s warning as he announced new measures on people travelling to England was an "utterly ridiculous thing to say", adding that it demeaned Hancock’s office.
Sir Charles, who is MP for Broxbourne, made the comments as part of wider criticism over the reticence to ease lockdown restrictions.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “We have the vaccines. We were told they are the way out of this. So we vaccinate the population but you’re still in lockdown – people are going to start scratching their heads and start wondering what on earth is this all about.
“What the government is doing now is bordering on the very dangerous to be perfectly honest. It is robbing people of hope. It is robbing people of something to look forward to and it is very very stupid and very short sighted.”
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Sir Charles said he held Boris Johnson’s secretaries of state responsible, rather than the prime minister himself, but urged him to “rein them in very very quickly”.
His comments came after Hancock’s announcement this week announced that travellers arriving from coronavirus hotspots could face £10,000 fines and jail sentences of up to 10 years.
Under the measures aimed to prevent new COVID variants from entering the UK, people who travel to England from 33 high-risk countries will have to pay up to £1,750 to quarantine in government-designated hotels for 10 days.
People who lie about their travel history and try to hide recent visits to countries on the “red list” could face the harshest punishments, the health secretary warned.
Asked about comments from Lord Sumption saying that Hancock had “lost his grip on reality” over the issue of travel restrictions, Sir Charles branded the measures “ridiculous”.
“Are we really going to lock people up for 10 years for being dishonest about the fact that they’ve been to Portugal?,” he said.
“By all means give them a fine – give them a hefty fine, a few thousand pounds. Are you really seriously suggesting, secretary of state, that we’ve got enough prison capacity to start locking up 19-year-old silly kids for 10 years?
“What a stupid thing to say, I mean a really stupid thing to say, that demeans his office and his position around the cabinet table.”
His comments came as legal experts said the new penalties are disproportionate to the offence.
Sir Jonathan Jones, the former head of the Government Legal Department, suggested no court would ever sentence someone to 10 years for lying on passenger locator forms while former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption argued the penalties are more severe than those for some violent or sexual offences.
Sir Jonathan, who resigned as the permanent secretary of the Government Legal Department in September, tweeted: “If anyone is EVER sentenced to 10 years for lying on the form, I will eat a face mask. (A clean one, I’m not mad.)”
Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve said 10-year jail terms were a “mistake” which would never be used by the courts.
“The reality is that nobody would get such a sentence anyway, the courts are simply not going to impose it,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Johnson is facing growing pressure to ease lockdown as the UK’s mass vaccination programme continues at pace.
Sir Charles is a member of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) made up of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs who have voiced concerns that the government is shifting the goalposts on reopening society.
Mark Harper, chairman of the group, has previously said ministers should “get rid of restrictions completely” by the end of May when all those over aged 50 are likely to have received at least one vaccine jab.
But scientists have warned that lockdown measures should be lifted with “caution” and led by data.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told a Downing Street press briefing this week: “There will be a significant number of people in high-risk groups who haven’t yet been vaccinated.
“Those people remain at risk, and so it’s important we go cautiously in opening up in order to be able to measure the effects.
“One of the things that is really crucial in this is to get enough information to know the trajectory we are on and to not jump ahead of it. Because we are at very high levels and that can take off very quickly.
“The virus isn’t going to be particularly interested in dates.”
The PM has named 22 February as the date the government will publish its “road map” for the easing of lockdown restrictions in England.
The government has previously said that the earliest schools in England will reopen is 8 March – though Scotland has announced a phased return from February 22, with Wales announcing the same date for the return of some of its pupils.
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