Boris Johnson refuses to comment on Prince Harry and Meghan's racism claims

Cat Neilan
·52-min read
Boris Johnson, Meghan and Prince Harry in happier times - AFP
Boris Johnson, Meghan and Prince Harry in happier times - AFP

Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to comment on the Duchess of Sussex's claims of racism within the Royal Family - despite one of his own ministers having spoken out against racism in any form.

In an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan claimed an unnamed member of the family asked about how dark their firstborn's skin would be, suggesting that Archie was not made a prince because of it. The presenter later clarified that the individual was not the Queen or Prince Philip.

Downing Street has been tight-lipped over the matter, with the Prime Minister's official spokesman claiming they had not discussed it.

Challenged about his silence during this afternoon's Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said he had "always had the highest admiration for the Queen", but "all other matters to do with the Royal Family" he will not comment on.

When asked about possible the damage done to Britain's reputation by the racism claims, the Prime Minister told the journalist: "I congratulate you on your very determined attempt to involve me in this story".

He added: "I really think that when it comes to matters to do with the royal family, the right thing for prime ministers to say is nothing and nothing is the thing that I propose to say today about that particular matter."

​​Follow the latest updates below.

04:56 PM

And that's it for another day...

Boris Johnson has sought to avoid answering difficult questions in his press conference today, despite them obsessing the rest of the nation.

On the matter of his refurbishment of Downing Street, the Prime Minister insisted all would be revealed in the fullness of time.

But when it came to the explosive claims made by Prince Harry and Meghan, he was even more reticent.

But there were plenty of other uncomfortable questions, including the one per cent pay rise for nurses, which continues to dominate days after it emerged.

His press conference took place as MPs - on all sides - called for the Government to be more generous when it comes to nurses' pay rise.

More than 1,500 people have voted in today's poll and a whopping 81 per cent said the country can't afford to do more right now.

For more on all these stories, and plenty others, keep scrolling below.

04:40 PM

Brexit trade problems 'can all be ironed out', insists Boris Johnson

The next question is about whether children who don't take tests should be removed from classrooms.

Dr Jenny Harries says all children have a right to education, and that it is "quite an unusual ask" for parents, saying it "will take time" to get used to it. But "over time" families will adopt it, she says, because it is for the family's benefit, particularly if they have elderly relatives. But children will "never" be forced to take a test.

Boris Johnson is also asked about the Northern Irish protocol and whether trade barriers caused by "your Brexit deal" are more than just teething problems.

The Prime Minister says it is "a great deal", highlighting successes such as the vaccine programme, free ports and trade deals as examples.

"Insofar as there have been teething problems, there is no question there have been, we are fixing those with temporary technical things we ware doing to smooth flow," he adds. "I am sure it can all be ironed out... with good will and imagination."

He suggests the journalist will be "pleasantly surprised as common sense prevails", and then wraps up the press conference.

04:34 PM

Nurses want more colleagues on wards, not pay rises, says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson is then asked about the one per cent pay rise for nurses.

He stresses "the gratitude that everyone feels for nurses", but says what they want is more nurses on the wards.

There are 10,000 more than there were last year, he says.

"The whole sector has been under massive pressure, which is why we are investing colossally," he adds. But he notes that it is the "recruitment drive" that will boost morale.

Asked abut the schools recovery plan, he says it is a "huge moment" getting children back into the classroom but Sir Kevan Collins is looking at options including tutoring for both those who have fallen behind "or who need their potential unleashed".

He says "a lot of work" will be done to find the best solution to "our biggest national challenge".

04:30 PM

Boris Johnson dodges second question on Royal Family claims

Boris Johnson is then asked about the damage done to Britain's reputation by the Royal Family racism claims, as journalists continue to probe him on the Sussexes' revelations.

The Prime Minister says: "I congratulate you on your very determined attempt to involve me in this story".

But the "right thing for a Prime Minister to say is nothing".

04:28 PM

Boris Johnson: Big budget of risk in reopening schools

Boris Johnson is asked again about the speed of the roadmap, as well what the Government can do to help boost self-isolation numbers, amid concerns that those on low incomes are going to work.

The Prime Minister says more cash is being given to local councils to support the £500 payment.

On the roadmap, he adds there are "encouraging signs", but notes that last summer the virus was down to levels much lower than today, but there was a spike.

"I think it's fantastic the vaccine rollout is so successful, but don't forget there is a big budget of risk in reopening schools... [but] we think it's manageable.

"The biggest risk is not opening schools now."

Dr Jenny Harries stresses that despite the success of the vaccine rollout, there are still a huge number of people who have not had it. She also highlights the need for a four-to-five week assessment period.

04:24 PM

Boris Johnson dodges question about Downing Street refurb costs

The next question is about the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, and whether any of the bills have been "settled" by donors or the Tory party.

Boris Johnson is also asked if he would consider speeding up the process.

On the first point, he says "all such inquiries will be answered in the normal way".

On the latter, Mr Johnson says he understands the "urgency" that people feel, but he insists he must be driven by the data.

"Alas in other countries, the curve is going up again," he says, noting that in the past we have seen a similar uptick in this country.

He stresses the "cautious but irreversible" nature of the roadmap, saying people would "trade" speed for certainty.

04:21 PM

Schools testing programme to benefit wider community, says deputy CMO

Dr Jenny Harries says "schools will be inherently safer places" than the wider community.

There might be a temporary rise in cases from reopening schools initially, the deputy CMO adds.

But she says the wider testing programme means that families will benefit and there should be greater protection.

04:19 PM

Boris Johnson refuses to comment on Royal racism claims

Turning to questions from the media, Boris Johnson is asked if he accepts that the R-rate will go up after schools reopen.

He is also asked about the Duchess of Sussex's claims about racism within the Royal Family.

The Prime Minister says he has "always had the highest admiration for the Queen", but "all other matters to do with the Royal Family" he will not comment on.

He adds it is "inevitable" that the R-rate will go up but he thinks it is "prudent" to start reopening because of the vaccines.

04:17 PM

Boris Johnson fudges question about vaccine passports for under-16s

The next question from the public is about vaccine passports for younger people, especially the under-16s, who are unlikely to have had the jabs.

Boris Johnson says the concept raises "all sorts of issues". The Government will report back to the public as soon as possible, he says, noting that Michael Gove is working on the issue with a taskforce.

It is a "novel" issue domestically, but not when it comes to international travel.

04:15 PM

Boris Johnson: I understand how tough it has been for young people

Boris Johnson is asked about support for young people in a question from the public.

He says reopening schools will help those who are still in education, but for those who are thinking about their future, he points to the Kickstart fund for 16-24 year olds and other support.

It will b e a tough time for the country, "but I am confident we will get through it", he adds.

"I do understand how tough it has been... the faster we can get through it and the more we can observe the guidance, we will be able to continue on the cautious but irreversible roadmap."

04:12 PM

Case rates still at point where 'new wave could easily take off', warns deputy chief medical officer

Dr Jenny Harries then goes through the slides, noting that while the case rates have fallen it is not dropping "uniformly" across the country.

Rates are now where they were in September, which is a level from which a "new wave could easily take off from".

Case rates
Case rates
Hospital rates - Hospital rates
Hospital rates - Hospital rates

The daily death toll is coming down more quickly, thanks to the vaccination programme, she adds.

Deaths
Deaths
Vaccinations
Vaccinations

The vaccination rate is nearing half the population, she notes.

04:09 PM

Taking first step on roadmap 'with confidence', says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson says the "huge national effort" of keeping kids at home has helped to reduce the spread of the virus.

That means we are able to take the first "cautious step" of the roadmap out of lockdown, he says. People will now be able to socialise outdoors one-to-one.

We can take this step "with confidence" because of the vaccine programme, he adds.

"We will continue on this roadmap, but we must remember that today's return to schools will of course have an impact on the spread of the virus," he says, stressing that future steps "will be driven by the data".

it is more vital than ever that people follow the rules.

04:06 PM

Boris Johnson praises working mums for home-schooling

Boris Johnson starts by saying it has been "a big day - and an emotional day" for parents and children as they return to school.

While some will feel anxious, he notes that many will be excited and "the greater risk will be keeping them out of schools for a day longer".

He thanks parents who have been teaching at home "from fronted adverbials to quadratic equations", noting the burden has fallen "disproportionately on women".

The Government must now build on the work they have done, he says.

03:57 PM

Labour attacks no-show Health Secretary and Chancellor

Labour's Jon Ashworth has attacked Matt Hancock for not having come to the Commons "to defend a Budget that puts up tax up for hard working families and cuts pay for hard working nurses."

Speaking to health minister Helen Whately, he asked: "Where is the Secretary of State?... who has stood at that despatch box week after praising nurses. Waxing lyrical. Describing them as ‘heroes” saying ‘they are the very best of us.'"

Mr Hancock had many times called for nurses to get a real-terms pay rise which had not materialised, adding: "The Chancellor promised to fund the Covid costs of the NHS. And where is the Chancellor?

"Where is his video? Where is the glossy production of him levelling with nurses and telling he cutting their pay? Did I miss that tweet from his account? This is a pay cut he couldn’t even mention in the budget speech and he tried to sneak out in the small print."

He added: "If this government doesn’t deliver one, it shows once again you simply can’t trust the Tories with the NHS."

03:49 PM

Boris Johnson likely to get grilling at Downing Street press conference

Boris Johnson is due to give the latest Downing Street press conference this afternoon, at the earlier time of 4pm.

The Prime Minister is likely to use his time at the podium to highlight the first step out of lockdown, with children returning to schools en masse and care home visits restarting. He is also likely to mark International Women's Day, following his social media post earlier today (see below).

But it will be the Q&A that is likely to be more uncomfortable for him, with questions likely to range from how the refurbishment of his flat is being paid for, the one per cent pay rise being earmarked for nurses, the fact that there are fewer women in his Cabinet now than when he took the reins and, of course, what he makes of the revelations made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex overnight.

03:40 PM

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe still being used as 'leverage', her husband claims

The husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has said she is still being used as "leverage" by the Iranians, after her five-year sentence came to an end this weekend.

Richard Ratcliffe, who was leading a vigil outside the Iranian embassy in Knightsbridge, central London, said: "My reading of it at the moment is it's a warning shot to the British authorities. She is still being there as leverage."

"It is still the Iranian authorities that are holding Nazanin. They are now holding her even after the end of her sentence. That remains outrageous."

He said he would be speaking to the UK Government about the next steps, claiming the court proceedings were "entirely politically driven". He added: "The tensions remain, she remains held by a bunch of bad guys who are using her for leverage. So we're not out of it."

The UK is thought to owe Iran as much as £400 million over the non-delivery of tanks in 1979, with the shipment stopped because of the Islamic revolution.

The UK continues to "explore options" to resolve that legal dispute but the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The UK does not and never will accept dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage."

03:26 PM

Ofcom fines China's state broadcaster for 'serious breaches'

China's state-owned broadcaster has been fined £225,000 by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

The fine comes after the UK regulator stripped China Global Television Network (CGTN) of its UK broadcasting licence.

BBC World News was later banned by China after the country threatened to retaliate.

An Ofcom spokeswoman said: "We've today fined Star China Media Limited a total of £225,000 for serious breaches of our fairness, privacy and due impartiality rules on its CGTN service."

The move is likely to prompt another response from Beijing, as tensions between the two sides rise over human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

03:22 PM

Flagging young person's jobs scheme given kickstart with overhaul, says minister

The Government's flagship Kickstart scheme - aimed at getting younger people on Universal Credit into work - has had 150,000 roles approved, the Work and Pensions Secretary has confirmed.

Therese Coffey told the Commons that after removing the threshold last month and allowing direct applications for any number of roles, "we saw an increase of 3,000 employer applications throughout February, which is a jump of 75 per cent".

She added: "There will continue to be an important role for gateways as we progress to our ambition of 250,000 Kickstart jobs, which we are well on the way to achieving with almost 150,000 roles approved, over 4,000 young people having started their roles and another 30,000 vacancies live right now."

Asked if the scheme could be extended to include disabled people, Ms Coffey said: "Young people with disabilities can move on to Universal Credit and so there may be an incentive to do that.

"This is an issue which is under consideration, the Minister for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson) has discussed this with both me and for the Minister for Employment (Mims Davies), and we are considering it further."

03:08 PM

Footage emerges of Wales First Minister calling Boris Johnson 'really, really awful'

Mark Drakeford has been told to "respect the office" of the Prime Minister after footage surfaced of him saying Boris Johnson "really, really is awful".

The Wales First Minister made the comments following a Cobra meeting over Zoom back in December with Mr Johnson, who is heard saying he wanted to "urgently" discuss the implications of a lorry travel ban into France.

The footage shows the First Minister saying: "Dear me, he really, really is awful. Imagine that some deadly new variant of the virus had been discovered in France and they were trying to persuade us that there was no need to take any action to stop French lorry drivers from driving across the continent."

Today Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies said: "This type of rhetoric might play well with the nationalists ahead of Senedd coalition talks but I'm not sure this is a good look for Labour's First Minister.

"It's a fact that shouldn't escape the First Minister but over half a million Welsh people voted for the Prime Minister in the 2019 general election, which by my maths is half a million more than has ever voted for him.

"While the First Minister might not like the rosette on the Prime Minister's lapel, he should respect the office."

02:54 PM

Daily Covid vaccines drop below 150,000

Fewer than 150,000 vaccines were given out in England yesterday, according to provisional NHS England data.

A total of 19,812,818 vaccinations have now been deployed between December 8 and March 7, including first and second doses, which is a rise of 149,241 on the previous day's figures.

Of this number, 19,015,497 were the first dose of a vaccine, a rise of 140,108 on the previous day, while 797,321 were a second dose, an increase of 9,133.

02:46 PM

Have your say: Should nurses get more than a one per cent pay rise?

The planned one per cent pay rise for nurses is continuing to ripple through Westminster today, after it sparked outrage when the details emerged on Friday.

Ministers have defended the decision - although Boris Johnson has suggested there is room for manoeuvre if the independent pay review body recommends they receive a bigger boost.

MPs on both sides of the political spectrum argue that frontline workers should be rewarded following a gruelling year fighting the pandemic. However, with the public finances in the worst state since the Second World War, and the private sector baring the brunt of job losses and pay cuts, there is reluctance to be more generous.

So should the one per cent pay rise stand? Or should a special case be made for those who put their lives on the line?

Have your say in the poll below.

02:41 PM

UK unlikely to return to pre-pandemic employment rates of women 'for a long while', warns MP

The UK is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels of working women "for a long while", a former minister has warned.

In 2019, female employment reached a record high of 72.4 per cent. But at the start of this year 40,000 more women than men were on furlough – bringing the total of women reliant on the state for their wages to 1.92 million.

"I don’t see female employment going back to the record levels we saw just before the pandemic for a long while," Caroline Nokes, MP and chair of the women and equalities committee, told the Telegraph. "The sectors which they’re most likely to work in have been so badly pummeled."

Despite a £5bn funding for the construction industry and infrastructure projects, the childcare sector – a key employer of women, who occupy 90 per cent of roles – got nothing.

“Childcare wasn’t even mentioned – despite the fact that time and time again it has been shown that having good childcare in place is key to getting women participating in the workforce,” Nokes says.

Read the article in full here.

02:27 PM

Further 101 Covid deaths registered across England

A further 101 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died, bringing the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 84,467.

Patients were aged between 38 and 96 years old. All except five, aged 54 to 95, had known underlying health conditions. The date of death ranges from 5 January to 7 March, with the majority being on or after 3 March.

London was the worst-affected region, with 26 deaths registered, followed by the Midlands with 21 and South West with 18.

There were 13 deaths registered in the North East & Yorkshire, nine in both the East of England and South East and five in the North West.

02:24 PM

Mark Drakeford gets the Covid jab

The First Minister of Wales has had his Covid vaccine - the first leader of one of the nations to do so.

Mark Drakeford, who is 66, urged others to take up their offers, saying: "I know some people are worried about having the vaccine but it’s an easy and painless process and will help protect you and others too.

"It’s not too late to change your mind either."

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02:10 PM

Lobby latest: Downing Street refurb details to be published 'in next few months'

Downing Street has refused to explain whether donations have been used to refurbish the 10 Downing Street building and state rooms, amid reports it cost around £200,000.

The Prime Minister's press secretary Allegra Stratton told a lobby briefing: "You are going to get the details very soon. All the works and all the refurbishments and renovations will be set out in the Cabinet Office's annual report which is in the next few months."

Asked if that would include a list of donations, she said: "It will have the relevant level of information to make it clear what refurbishment and what renovations took place in the last year on Downing Street."

She suggested that report would also cover work on the private flats above 10 and 11 Downing Street.

Ms Stratton confirmed that donations would be declared at that time but would not confirm that donations were being actively solicited.

"I'm saying that all donations, gifts and benefits will be declared in transparency returns that you - we - will all get and be able to pore over in the fullness of time."

02:05 PM

Lobby latest: Tory party funds not being used for Downing Street refurb, says No 10

Tory party funds are not being used for the refurbishment of Downing Street, Boris Johnson's press secretary said, but any "gifts or benefits" from individual donors would be properly declared.

The Daily Mail reported that Conservative Party funds met a large part of the bill, which is said to be in the region of £200,000.

The Prime Minister's press secretary Allegra Stratton told reporters: "Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for any refurbishment of the Downing Street estate."

Asked whether the party had encouraged donors to pay for the refurbishment, Ms Stratton said "all of those donations" would be declared through the Electoral Commission, the House of Commons register of members' interests or in ministerial transparency declarations.

"At every twist and turn of this there will be records and reports," she said.

Details of the Downing Street works will be included in the Cabinet Office annual report, she promised.

01:55 PM

Shadow minister attacks 'bungling team' over schools testing confusion

Shadow schools minister Wes Streeting criticised the Government for confused messaging about Covid testing in schools.

Quoting a tweet by the Telegraph's Political Editor Ben Riley-Smith, reporting the error from children's minister Vicky Ford about the correct protocol, he wrote: "What hope is there for schools, parents and pupils when ministers in the DFE can't get their basic facts right.

"Is there a single day or a single announcement or a single initiative that Gavin Williamson's bungling team have managed to get through unscathed? Worse than useless."

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01:43 PM

Lobby latest: No 10 does not rule out NHS bonus amid outcry over nurses' pay

Downing Street has not ruled out giving a one-off bonus to NHS workers amid continued anger that staff in England will only get a one per cent pay rise.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We have been clear that we think the 1% pay rise is what is affordable.

"I'm not going to comment on speculation. We've set out what we think is affordable, it's now for the pay review body to look at that and look at the other evidence and come forward with their recommendation."

01:42 PM

Lobby latest: Boris Johnson will use reshuffle to increase numbers of women in Cabinet

Boris Johnson will use a Cabinet reshuffle to boost the number of women in his top team, aides indicated.

But he is unlikely to take paternity leave following the birth of his son Wilf last year because he is too busy.

The Prime Minister's press secretary Allegra Stratton told reporters: "We know that there is improvement to come in the years ahead when he - who knows when this comes - when we have promotions to Cabinet.

"He does accept that he would like to improve how representative his Cabinet is of the population at large."

She said Mr Johnson describes himself as a feminist, but indicated he was unlikely to keep his previous promise of taking paternity leave.

"He is the Prime Minister and he works a very long day, he has a huge workload and I don't think he will be taking paternity leave," she said.

01:40 PM

Lobby latest: No 10 hits back at Yemen criticism

Downing Street has hit back at suggestions the Government is trying to "balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen".

The head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs and former permanent secretary at the Department for International Development Mark Lowcock made the explosive comments in today's Guardian.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We would reject that characterisation. We continue to play a leading role in fighting famine and hunger around the world."

Asked if MPs would get a vote on this controversial measure, he added: "We are looking at this carefully and the Foreign Secretary will inform the House on how we intend to proceed in due course."

Pressed if No 10 is for or against a Commons vote, he said: "The Government is acting compatibly with the International Development Act which explicitly envisages there may be a circumstances where the 0.7 per cent target is not met."

Last week James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister, told MPs there was provision within the existing legislation for aid to be reduced in exceptional circumstances.

01:30 PM

Lobby latest: No 10 declines to comment on Meghan's racism claims

Downing Street has repeatedly refused to comment on the Duchess of Sussex's suggestions of racism.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said Boris Johnson had not watched the Oprah Winfrey interview, or received a transcript of the recording, or any prior briefing.

He also said he had not spoken with the man who he is the spokesman for.

Asked whether Mr Johnson agreed with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer that the allegations needed to be taken seriously, the spokesman said: "It is a matter for the Palace but the Prime Minister hasn't seen those interviews."

01:28 PM

Lobby latest: No 10 contradicts minister on school tests

Downing Street has contradicted a minister over advice for students who receive a positive result from the less accurate lateral flow devices.

No 10 said that pupils who subsequently test negative with a more accurate PCR test would be allowed to return to class, going against what Vicky Ford, the children's minister, said this morning.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Children who take a lateral flow test at a school environment or a controlled environment, if they receive a positive lateral flow test, they won't need a PCR test.

"But children who receive a positive lateral flow from a test taken at home, they will require a PCR test.

"If a PCR test is negative following a positive lateral flow, if the PCR is negative, children can go back to school."

He said that the aim would be to get PCR tests out "as quickly as possible" after the positive lateral flow test and explained that PCR tests are not needed after school tests because they are done "under supervision in a controlled environment".

01:15 PM

Meghan's allegations must be taken 'very, very seriously', says Sir Keir Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the allegations made by the Duchess of Sussex in her television interview must be taken seriously.

Speaking during a visit to a school in Dagenham, east London, Sir Keir said: "It is really sad to see the family in turmoil like this. The issues that Meghan has raised of racism and mental health are really serious issues.

"It is a reminder that too many people experience racism in 21st-century Britain. We have to take that very, very seriously.

"Nobody, but nobody, should be prejudiced (against) because of the colour of their skin or because of their mental health issues.

"This is bigger than the royal family. For too many years we have been too dismissive and too willing to put these issues to one side."

01:07 PM

EU to receive 100m Covid vaccine doses a month from April

The European Union is expected to receive 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccines every month from April, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said.

Given higher delivery volumes promised by manufacturers, and "because more vaccines are about to be approved," von der Leyen said the bloc should see a big ramp up in arrivals of the jabs.

The EU will receive "in the second quarter an average of around 100 million doses a month, in total 300 million by end June," she said.

The 27-nation bloc with a population of 446 million people has received 51.5 million doses of vaccines as of February 26, according to official data posted on the EU's website.

The EU has already approved three vaccines - BioNTech/Pfizer, AstraZeneca/Oxford and Moderna - but its inoculation campaign has been hit by delays because of production bottlenecks.

12:58 PM

Scots Tories leader calls on opposition parties to back Sturgeon no confidence motion

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has called on other opposition parties at Holyrood to "show that they have the stomach stand up to this SNP Government" and back motions of no confidence in both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy.

Mr Ross insisted bringing forward the votes, against both Ms Sturgeon and the Deputy First Minister John Swinney, was the "the right thing to do".

The motions have been brought forward in the wake of the Scottish Government's botched handling of sexual harassment allegations made against former first minister Alex Salmond.

The Scottish Conservatives hope to hold a vote of no confidence in Mr Swinney on either Tuesday or Wednesday - with Mr Ross saying his party had "no choice but to continue with our plans for a confidence vote" after the Deputy First Minister's delayed release of legal advice.

The Scottish Tory leader accused the Deputy First Minister of having "suppressed information to help Nicola Sturgeon" adding that he "still withholds information".

12:48 PM

Liberal Democrats call for 'Spring Forward' programme for school-leavers

The Liberal Democrats have called for a "Spring Forward" year of an optional fully-funded year of education for 17 to 18-year-olds who have missed out during the pandemic.

Daisy Cooper MP, the party's spokesperson for education, has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson calling for a particular focus to be paid on school leavers.

"Unlike younger students, they do not have years ahead of them in school to gradually make up for the months of in-person teaching time they have lost during the last two academic years," the letter states.

"So it is particularly urgent that you set out proposals to ensure they are not put at a disadvantage as they take their next steps in education, training or into the world of work.

"As students return to school from 8 March, we are asking you to make a firm offer of a “Spring Forward Year” to these students: that every 17 and 18 year old, leaving school or college this year will be entitled to an optional fully-funded year of post-16 education, if they choose it. This could be delivered in schools, colleges or universities."

12:31 PM

John Kerry meets Boris Johnson in climate envoy's first engagement outside US

Joe Biden's climate envoy John Kerry has met with Boris Johnson and some of his senior ministers, in his first engagement outside the US since taking the role.

The one-time presidential candidate and former secretary of state held meetings with the Prime Minister, COP26 president Alok Sharma, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary.

The meetings took place at the FCDO and No 11 Downing Street.

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12:23 PM

Meghan's claims of racism should be investigated, says Labour frontbencher

A Labour frontbencher has called for allegations of racism to be investigated by Buckingham Palace, after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex claimed a royal had raised concerns about how dark their son's skin tone might be before he was born.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said claims by the American duchess, the first mixed-race person to marry a British senior royal in modern history, were "really distressing, shocking".

"And if there are allegations of racism, I would expect them to be treated by the palace with the utmost seriousness and fully investigated," she told Sky News.

"I'm sure that the palace will be thinking very carefully about that and I certainly think people will be wondering what is going to be said.

"There is never any excuse in any circumstances for racism and I think it is important that action is taken to investigate what are really shocking allegations."

12:17 PM

Boris Johnson to hold press conference today, No 10 says

Boris Johnson will hold a Downing Street press conference later on Monday, No 10 has said.

It is not known who will join him.

To mark International Women’s Day, the Prime Minister has also hosted a virtual roundtable with female business representatives to discuss the experiences of women in the workplace.

12:00 PM

Tories pressing ahead with local elections to lower turnout, Andy Burham suggests

The mayor of Greater Manchester has implied that May's local elections are going ahead to suppress voter turnout.

Andy Burnham, a Labour politician, said he had been wondering why they were taking place while restrictions are still in force, adding: "Maybe they think it will mean a lower turnout which will work in their political favour?"

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11:50 AM

Let children, parents and teachers have a summer holiday, says former minister

Children, parents and teachers should be allowed to enjoy their summer holidays without the pressure of catching up on lost learning, a former children's minister has said.

Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, told Sky News that a total of 840 millions days of face-to-face classroom time had been missed, adding: "That is one hell of a challenge, the next year is going to be crucial."

But he warned against shortening the summer holidays, saying this would "not good for teachers - or parents, who want to spend sometime with children that isn't home-schooling".

Instead he called for "additional aid in classroom - TAs and others", as well as a focus on sports, socialising and other things as well" as part of the catch-up programme.

"Let children have a summer holiday with their parents... let's not overdo it with teachers," he added.

11:37 AM

Friendly EU- UK relationship 'should be obvious', says German ambassador

It "should be obvious" that there is friendly relationship between the UK and the EU, the German ambassador to the United Kingdom has said, following David Frost's intervention this weekend.

Writing in the Telegraph yesterday, the Prime Minister's Europe adviser called on Brussels to "shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship, between sovereign equals".

Responding, Andreas Michaelis said: "David Frost asks the question whether we Europeans are ready to build a friendly relationship with the UK. Should there be any real doubts?

"We already enjoy a very friendly relationship. We work on further deepening and adjusting it in the post Brexit context. Should be obvious."

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11:32 AM

Tim Stanley: The era of Covid totalitarianism is far from over

For the past year, Britain has fought a total war against Covid. Now victory is in sight, writes Tim Stanley, we need to decide what kind of peace we want.

The basic question is: do we go back to life as it was before or build on what we’ve created? Never mind that the statistical likelihood of dropping dead is incredibly low: popular reaction to Covid has been a lesson in the power of animal instinct and how swiftly it is transmitted to the top of the state, directing policy the way that nerve endings send messages to the brain. The Government was slow to impose the first lockdown because it worried about “behavioural fatigue” leading to non-compliance. Not only was it wrong but I suspect that in the future it’ll be slow to lift anti-Covid measures because it senses that many of us rather like them.

Read Tim's column in full here.

11:20 AM

IWD 2021 shows the need for 'the ongoing fight for equality', says Sir Keir Starmer

Boris Johnson has chosen to mark International Women's Day by paying tribute to the work of those involved in the fight against Covid (see below).

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has instead focused on championing the women in his shadow team of ministers as he notes the day is an opportunity to "recommit ourselves to the ongoing fight for equality".

It would be churlish to point out that this just serves to highlight the lack of female Labour leaders....

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11:12 AM

Labour MP questions whether there will be investigation into Meghan's claims of racism

A Labour MP has questioned whether there will be an investigation into the Duchess of Sussex's claims that an unnamed individual raised concerns about the possible skin-tone of her then-unborn child Archie.

Nadia Whittome, the youngest MP in the Commons, tweeted: "When Meghan Markle was accused of bullying, Buckingham Palace immediately announced an investigation.

"Now that Meghan has revealed comments about her child's skin colour, will they investigate racism in the Palace?

"I won't be holding my breath."

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10:56 AM

Have your say: Should nurses get more than a one per cent pay rise?

The planned one per cent pay rise for nurses is continuing to ripple through Westminster today, after it sparked outrage when the details emerged on Friday.

Ministers have defended the decision - although Boris Johnson has suggested there is room for manoeuvre if the independent pay review body recommends they receive a bigger boost.

MPs on both sides of the political spectrum argue that frontline workers should be rewarded following a gruelling year fighting the pandemic. However, with the public finances in the worst state since the Second World War, and the private sector baring the brunt of job losses and pay cuts, there is reluctance to be more generous.

So should the one per cent pay rise stand? Or should a special case be made for those who put their lives on the line?

Have your say in the poll below.

10:37 AM

Senior Tory calls for rethink on nurses' pay

A senior Conservative MP has joined calls for the Government to be more generous to nurses, after it emerged they were in line for a pay rise of just one per cent.

Mark Harper, head of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs and a former chief whip, told Westminster Hour the planned NHS pay rise should be concentrated towards "lower-paid members of staff and some of those at the frontline", following intense backlash over the planned one per cent rise over the weekend.

"I don’t think senior managers and diversity and inclusion co-ordinators need to get big pay rises, actually I’d focus the money on the frontline and those people who are lower paid and give them a bigger rise and perhaps others don’t actually get a rise at all," the Forest of Dean MP said.

However this morning Vicky Ford, minister for children, told the BBC: "We do need to look really carefully at the state of the finances of the country.... I know we will continue to do everything we can to pay our public sector workers [but] we need to look at that against the backdrop of how we protect everybody."

10:13 AM

Vaccine hesitancy highest among black adults, study finds

More than four in 10 black adults in Great Britain are likely to be hesitant about receiving the Covid-19 vaccine - the highest level among all ethnic groups, new figures suggest.

Some 44 per cent of black adults reported vaccine hesitancy, compared with 17 per cent of mixed adults, 16 per cent of Asian adults, eight per cent of white adults, and 18 per cent of Chinese adults or adults from other ethnic groups, according to a survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Adults aged 16 to 29 years were the most hesitant (17 per cent), compared with one per cent of adults aged 80 years and over, the ONS said. The figure for adults aged 30 to 49 is 13 per cent.

The findings cover the period January 13 to February 7.

10:00 AM

How safe are you and your children as schools reopen?

For millions of parents like me, March 8 is the moment we have been waiting for: the return of schools. Finally, we will be able to get a little of our own lives back.

Selfishness aside, it has been impossible not to see the negative effects: on their academic progress, but also their social development. My two boys, eight and six, missed not just friends but authority figures other than their parents too – the happy blend of relationships that is the fruit of life, not confinement.

For others, school is more important still. An estimated 2.3 million children in England live in homes that are not safe because of domestic violence or drug or alcohol abuse.

For many parents, though, relief at seeing youngsters walking back through the school gates will be mixed with now familiar feelings of worry.

So what will the reopening of schools mean for the battle against Covid? Find out here.

09:51 AM

School reopening must be time to rethink learning, says former education secretary

The Government must use the return to school to bring forward a "longer term strategy for levelling up" within education, a former minister has said, stressing it must be a broader approach that just academic.

Justine Greening, who was education secretary from 2016 to 2018, said ministers must "work out what they are trying to accomplish with education", suggesting school holidays should be shortened to avoid those from disadvantaged backgrounds falling further behind.

She also stressed that this strategy must involve early years provision right up to school leavers.

"What comes out of this [lockdown] very strongly for me is that it is not just learning, it's that wider emotional and social development," she told Sky News. The strategy must "go wider than just the academic lens we have traditionally looked at education through."

09:43 AM

Patrick O'Flynn: Nigel Farage showed the power of a political insurgent. Who will take up his mantle?

His many detractors in the media smart set and on the metropolitan Left mock him as the Alan Partridge of politics – a man who failed in seven successive attempts to become an MP.

But, writes Patrick O'Flynn, it is a petty revenge because the truth is that Nigel Farage, who has announced that he is quitting politics, beat them all.

He adds:

In an era when the Conservative Party has turned holding onto office into a high art form, insurgency is the name of the game for anyone uncomfortable with the status quo. Anyone interested in political change who doesn’t seek to learn from the Farage arc of achievement is a fool.

Read Patrick's column in full here.

09:27 AM

Schools will not shut if R-rate goes above one, minister confirms

Schools will not close if England's R-rate rises above one, a minister has said.

The R-rate, which shows the average number of new people infected by each person, is currently around 0.7 to 0.9. Sage has warned that schools reopening could push it up by around 0.2.

However as the vaccination programme has progressed the Government has shifted its focus from the R-rate to other measures, such as hospitalisations and deaths as well as the emergence of any new "variants of concern".

Vicky Ford, the children's minister, confirmed that an R-rate above one would not force schools to be shut.

“We’ve taken advice from the scientists throughout this, and you’ll have heard the deputy head of Public Health England yesterday saying that even if the R rate does go up a bit, she doesn’t think we should close schools and have another national lockdown of schools.”

09:18 AM

Boris Johnson pays tribute to women leading fight against Covid

Boris Johnson has paid tribute to some of the leading female figures in the UK’s fight against Covid, as he marks International Women's Day.

Professor Sarah Gilbert, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, former vaccines taskforce head Kate Bingham, medical regulator boss Dr June Raine, and NHS England's Dr Emily Lawson and Dr Nikki Kanani were among those highlighted in a video the Prime Minister has posted online.

Watch below.

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09:16 AM

Parents urged not to 'relax' to ensure roadmap stays on track

A leading children's doctor has warned that schools can only open safely if everything else "stays locked down" for at least three weeks.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told Times Radio: "Sage has concluded that reopening schools adds probably about 0.2 or thereabouts to the R number."

It was "plausible" that the R-rate would remain below one with schools open, he added.

"The key thing is that children themselves, and parents, don't think 'The schools are open, we can relax, we can mix outside of school' - in a sense, come out of lockdown around the school opening.

"The modelling - and I think the Government has been clear on this - is about we can reopen schools safely if everything else stays locked down over the next three weeks."

Timeline of restrictions - what opens and when
Timeline of restrictions - what opens and when

09:09 AM

Happy International Women's Day: Minister hits back at Piers Morgan after volley of criticism

A minister has hit back at Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan, over a barrage of criticism over the Government's planned one per cent pay rise for nurses.

Vicky Ford was deluged with claims of "hypocrisy" and "disgraceful" behaviour over the pay rise, with the journalist saying: "Why are you slapping nurses in the face?... Why do we treat our nurses so badly?"

In a pointed reply, the minister said: "Piers - happy International Women's Day. And let me just answer the question. We have huge respect for nurses, there will be a pay review that will be looking at this. Obviously many nurses will be on pay progression and will get extra money.

"But we also need to remember that we have got a massive economic hit, a 10 per cent drop in our economy, the biggest recession since the Second World War."

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08:59 AM

No need for testing at schools to be mandatory, says minister

A minister has defended the decision to make testing at schools advisory rather than mandatory, saying most children "understand" the need for it to take place.

Vicky Ford told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "The vast majority of children and young people will be taking these tests... they really understand this is a measure not just to keep them safe but also keep their friends, their family, their school staff..."

Challenged over how it would work without mandatory testing in light of asymptomatic transmission, the children's' minister stressed that testing had been taking place at schools among children of key workers and those who are vulnerable.

It was "just one of the measures we are putting in place to have that extra layer of safety," she added.

08:46 AM

Children should still isolate if they test negative after a positive result, says minister

Children who are shown to be Covid negative with a highly accurate PCR test following a positive result with a less accurate lateral flow test will still have to self-isolate, a minister has said.

Vicky Ford, the children's minister, said children should not return to school after the subsequent result to be on the safe side.

"They should not take the risk, we all want to make sure we can keep Covid out of the classrooms here," she said.

08:32 AM

No need to isolate if classmate tests positive on first day, says minister

Students might not have to be sent home if one of their classmates tests positive with their first test, a minister has said, stressing that "schools will know" how much mixing has taken place.

"On your first day back, you won't have been in contact with other children," Vicky Ford told Radio 4's Today programme.

Asked what will happen if the child tests positive on a second or third time, she said: "That is why it is the schools making decisions."

The children's minister added; "The testing advice is that testing of children is only for secondary school and not primary school children."

However, she went onto say that if a child tests positive with a lateral flow test, they will have to isolate even if a more accurate PCR test finds them negative afterwards.

08:28 AM

Minister defends decision not to mandate face masks in classroom

A minister has defended the Government's decision to only advice that children wear face masks in the classroom instead of mandating it.

Vicky Ford, minister for children, told the Today programme: "Some are exempt from wearing masks, some might be very anxious about wearing masks. We strongly advise them, but the medical advice we have had is to strongly encourage them."

She added: "They get this, they want to keep themselves safe, families safe, school staff safe."

Ms Ford said: "It is a hugely exciting day... for the whole country as we take this first and important step in lifting the lockdown."

08:25 AM

Education committee chairman: It's a good day for children

The chairman of the education select committee has hailed the reopening of schools today, saying it is "a good day for children".

Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, thanked school staff, teachers and parents for making it possible.

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08:21 AM

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's ordeal 'not over until she is back in the UK'

Iran has entered the "endgame" over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but it is "not over" until she is back home, a former civil servant has said.

Former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord McDonald told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We're in the endgame, the Iranian system is behaving in a typical way, Nazanin has completed her sentence, something good yesterday happened with the removal of the ankle tag but the final moves have still to take place - this case has not yet ended."

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said: "I've spoken to other former hostages and they say yes at the end it gets quite bumpy and this to them feels like the endgame. So fingers crossed it is but also we might have many more months to go."

Lord McDonald added: "I hope she is (coming home soon) and yesterday was a very good day but as Richard has explained this is not over until Nazanin is back in the UK."

The charity worker had been under house arrest in Tehran since being moved from jail last March. She has always denied the charges against her. - Reuters
The charity worker had been under house arrest in Tehran since being moved from jail last March. She has always denied the charges against her. - Reuters

08:13 AM

David Frost 'playing games around Brexit', claims former civil servant

David Frost’s move to unilaterally extend grace periods relating to the Northern Ireland protocol is "deeply worrying and frankly, deeply depressing" and is 'burning' trust between the UK and EU, a former senior civil servant has said.

Philip Rycroft, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU between 2017 to 2019, told Westminster Hour there were "undoubtedly issues about the protocol", which he blamed in part on ministers telling exporters "they wouldn’t have to do anything, despite knowing full well that all of these checks would have to come in".

But he reserved particular criticism for Lord Frost, saying: "The way that David Frost has gone about this... suggests that they’re still playing games around Brexit. It’s all about the politically attractive ploy of playing hard ball with the EU, rather than accepting their responsibilities for the deal that he and the Prime Minister negotiated.

Resolving problems would "require a huge amount of goodwill and trust on both sides, I’m afraid that trust is being burnt at the moment.”

David Frost's actions means "trust is being burnt at the moment," said Rycroft - Reuters
David Frost's actions means "trust is being burnt at the moment," said Rycroft - Reuters

08:06 AM

School stuff must be on-guard about transmission risks in common rooms, says Sage scientist

Teachers should be on their guard about mixing in staff rooms, a Government scientist has said, as schools reopen to all students for the first time in months.

Professor Calum Semple, from the University of Liverpool and a member of Sage, said schools were "absolutely" safe for children and it was safe for schools to go back. But he noted the "subtle question" was less about transmission from children but between adults.

"Primary school children are half as likely to have had it and probably half as likely to transmit it," he told BBC Breakfast. "Secondary school children are... half to a quarter as likely to have had it and transmit it. So the main driver is not the pupil-teacher relationship."

"When we talk about schools, it is the fact that the school brings adults together, whether that's teaching staff, the domestic staff, the catering staff, and it's an opportunity for mixing."

He noted that outbreaks in hospitals had often been caused by doctors and nurses removing their PPE in communal staff rooms.

08:02 AM

Children should not be excluded for refusing to wear masks, says minister

Children should not be excluded from school if they refuse to wear a face mask, a minister has said, as schools begin the process of welcoming students back after many months.

Face masks are recommended but not mandatory for secondary school students in the classroom or anywhere it is impossible for secondary students to keep two metres apart.

Vicky Ford, the children's minister, told Sky News: "No one should be denied an education because they refuse to wear them but will be strongly recommended." She reiterated the plan would be reviewed at Easter, and stressed they provided an extra layer of protection, which "most" teenagers were on board with.

Secondary school students will now be expected to wear face masks in classrooms - but it is not mandatory - Bloomberg
Secondary school students will now be expected to wear face masks in classrooms - but it is not mandatory - Bloomberg

07:57 AM

'No place for racism' says minister over Meghan's claims

Vicky Ford has said there is "no place for racism", after the Duchess of Sussex claimed that a member of the Royal family raised "concerns" about how dark Archie's skin would be before his birth.

The Duchess, who is African American, said there were "several conversations" with Harry about Archie's skin tone and "what that would mean or look like". She also suggested Archie's race may have informed the decision not to make him a prince.

Stressing she had not seen the documentary yet, the schools minister said it was "absolutely" unacceptable, adding: "There is absolutely no place for racism in our society and we all need to work to make sure that doesn't happen."

If you haven't read the revelations that have emerged from Meghan and Harry's interview with Oprah - and there are many - this is a good place to start.

An unnamed member of the Royal family raised "concerns" about how dark Archie's skin would be before his birth.  - AP
An unnamed member of the Royal family raised "concerns" about how dark Archie's skin would be before his birth. - AP

07:40 AM

Unions threaten school closures if too many pupils fail to wear masks

Unions have warned parents that schools could close if not enough pupils wear face masks, raising the spectre that the long awaited return to classrooms could be short lived.

Schools across England reopen today, in the first step in easing lockdown, but there are escalating tensions over the rules on pupils wearing face masks.

Government guidance now stipulates that masks should be worn in the classroom and anywhere indoors where it is impossible for secondary students to keep two metres apart, whereas previously when schools were open masks were only required in corridors.

This has caused an outcry among parents, MPs and health experts who fear that masks impede education and are uncomfortable for children, with insufficient evidence that they help to reduce transmission of the virus.