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Reducing the sensitivity of the NHS COVID app to bring down the number of people being told to self-isolate is “like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”, Sir Keir Starmer has said.

On Thursday, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, Dr Jenny Harries, confirmed that ministers plan to “tune” the app so fewer individuals are pinged amid concerns that lifting the remaining restrictions later this month will lead to many being forced into staying at home.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says altering the app is like ‘taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm’

But the Labour leader said such a move would “weaken the defences” the country has built up against the virus.

“It’s like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm: it is so obviously to weaken the defences that we have,” Sir Keir said of the government’s plans.

“And if the consequence of the prime minister’s decision is that people are deleting the NHS app, or the app is being weakened, then that’s a pretty good indicator that the decision of the prime minister is wrong.”

At PMQs earlier in the week, the Labour leader warned that people were removing the app from their phones ahead of the final stage of unlocking because of fears about being repeatedly told to isolate.

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Downing Street confirmed the government “actively have a piece of work ongoing” with regards to tracing scheme, adding that it is “entirely possible to tune the app to ensure it is appropriate to the risk”.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said the PM is still using the app as it is an “important tool” in reducing the spread of the virus – and that he encourages others to do the same.

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PM ‘gets’ NHS app frustration

“It is important that people continue to isolate if they are asked to do so,” the PM’s spokesman said.

“We continue to ask people to isolate if they are asked to through the app.”

But the PM’s official spokesman also confirmed that the government is “looking at” whether further self-isolation exemptions could be granted to NHS workers ahead of step four of the roadmap out of lockdown, when there are fears cases of coronavirus could dramatically increase.

“Exemptions are already in place for people where they’re wearing appropriate medical grade PPE,” they said.

“But again, as I say, we obviously keep everything on the review and we will continue to look at these things ahead of step four.”

New Health Secretary Sajid Javid reads a statement in the House of Commons
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Health Secretary Sajid Javid is apparently ‘looking at’ the tracing system

Rules governing travel for people in England are due to be eased on 19 July, but measures on self-isolation for the fully vaccinated will remain in place until 16 August.

Latest Test and Trace figures show a total of 356,036 alerts were sent to users of the NHS COVID-19 app in England in the week to 30 June, telling them they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive.

This is up from 219,391 the previous week – a jump of 62%, and the highest weekly figure since data was first published back in January.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News on Friday that the government “want(s) the app to be a useful tool in our armoury”.

It came after Rishi Sunak told Sky News on Thursday that the health secretary, Sajid Javid, was considering an “appropriate, balanced and proportionate” approach for self-isolation when people are ‘pinged’ by the NHS app.

The chancellor said he had spoken to Mr Javid about “the frustration” that people have with the test and trace system and that the health secretary was “aware” of concerns and was “looking at” possible solutions.

Speaking later that morning, the PM said he knows “how frustrated people are” that changes to self-isolation rules for those who have had two vaccine doses and those under 18 are coming into force on 16 August and not in July.

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PM ‘reckless’ to remove all restrictions – Starmer

The latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest around one in 160 people in England are estimated to have had COVID-19 in the week to 3 July.

The figure was around one in 100 in Scotland, one in 340 in Wales and one in 300 in Northern Ireland.

And data from Public Health England suggests cases of the Delta variant rose by a third in the past week alone.

And according to new REACT study data, based on home swab tests taken by over 47,000 people between 24 June and 5 July, around 1 in 170 people had the virus during this period, or 0.59% of the population.

This is four times higher than the study’s previous report when 0.15% of people (1 in 670) were infected, as of 7 June.

Almost all COVID rules – including limits on the number of people who can meet together, legal requirements on wearing face masks, and social distancing in pubs and bars – will be ditched as part of the final step of the roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions in England.

The move is due to take place on 19 July, but a final decision on whether it goes ahead will be made next week.

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Electoral Dysfunction: The Tory leadership hopeful building their support almost entirely hidden from view

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Electoral Dysfunction: The Tory leadership hopeful building their support almost entirely hidden from view

For weeks – months even – we’ve been watching a beauty parade on the Conservative benches preparing for life after Rishi Sunak as various MPs hook up with various groupings of Conservative backbenchers hoping to garner support for the moment when the ball comes out of the scrum.

On the right, we have seen the ‘five families‘ of right-wing groupings, led by leadership hopefuls Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, trying to garner grassroots support by bouncing the prime minister (while Godfather fans will no doubt enjoy the reference to the five leading mafia dynasties of New York City, in the end there was little bloodletting and the prime minister won the day).

Then we have the Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt on manoeuvres – with briefings from ‘friends’ of the former distancing the cabinet minister from the prime minister’s Rwanda approach, while the latter is hitting the grassroots circuit hard while wooing those new candidates that might end up in the Conservative class of 2024.

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On Electoral Dysfunction this week, Ruth, Jess and I also had a chat about another contender flying below the radar but definitely positioning – Priti Patel. A former darling of the right, she was overtaken amid the demise of Boris Johnson by Ms Braverman, Ms Badenoch and Liz Truss. But now, the former home secretary and key Johnson ally is back, building her base almost entirely hidden from view.

One MP is on manoeuvres to take over the party if they lose the next election. Pic: PA
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One MP is on manoeuvres to take over the Tory party if they lose the next election. Pic: PA

My ears were first pricked in December when I was talking to a senior figure in the ‘One Nation’ wing of the party – that is home to Tory MPs who are more socially liberal and politically positioned on the centre-right.

As this figure was bemoaning the horrors, as they saw it, of a Braverman leadership bid after the election, they told me that Priti Patel was at least someone on that wing of the party they could do business with. The former cabinet minister acknowledged that the right is likely to take the leadership crown after the election, given the leanings of the Conservative party members who get to choose, and that Patel looks, for now, the pick of an unpalatable bunch for Tory centrists.

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Priti Patel walks on the day of the Britain's Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester
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Priti Patel is said to be on manoeuvres. Pic: Reuters

And then earlier this month, up Priti Patel popped at the launch of a new grouping – the Popular Conservatives – spearheaded (I know, the irony isn’t missed on me) by Liz Truss.

She is a politician building alliances over all sorts of groupings and even cross-party: when I raised Priti Patel as my dark horse in the likely up-and-coming leadership race, it certainly chimed with Ruth and Jess, with the latter telling us how surprised she’d been when former home secretary Amber Rudd, very much a One Nation Conservative, told her over dinner how she worked well with Priti: “I remember being like, how is this?”

Jess also told me how Patel was with her after MP Sir David Amess was murdered in his constituency: “Those of us who are the highest security risk, of which I am one of ten, they really ramped up our security on these occasions, as they always do in these moments.

“And Priti Patel [who at the time was home secretary] was really good friends with David.

“I mean she was his [constituency] neighbour. And every Sunday night, for four weeks, at about 9pm at night, she would ring me and ask if I was all right. You don’t forget that sort of thing.”

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It’s particularly pertinent this week as concerns over MPs’ safety come to the fore over the divisive vote around a ceasefire in Gaza. In the week parliament finally backed an immediate ceasefire – a position which has taken Labour months to move to – this significant moment was drowned out by the spectacle of wrangling and rows over parliamentary procedure and partisan point-scoring from which no one emerged well.

The Speaker has had a particularly torrid 24 hours as dozens of MPs called for him to go after Sir Lindsay Hoyle broke decades of parliamentary precedent to allow all three main parties to put their position on a ceasefire to a vote.

The effect was to let Labour off the hook by avoiding a massive rebellion because it meant Starmer’s MPs could vote for the Labour ceasefire amendment instead of having to defy the whip and support the SNP ceasefire motion. But the Speaker was clear his motive was all about MPs’ safety.

There are those in parliament – like Rishi Sunak – who believe strongly concerns over MPs’ safety shouldn’t ever influence business in the Commons, not least because it could set a dangerous precedent of MPs being intimidated in order to change what they debate and how they vote.

But there is also a lot of chatter on some of the female MPs’ WhatsApp groups about their experiences and concerns over threats, with some – particularly Labour women – having to deal with physical confrontations with protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

One Conservative MP told me this week she was “riddled with anxiety” ahead of this week’s vote over what to do. “I’m angry that we’re being put in this position,” she told me.

“We get cast as either child murderers or antisemitic and I’m neither. I believe a nation has a right to defend itself against terrorists but I’m also a pacifist.

“There is no nuance in [this] vote, which is totally irrelevant anyway, just a binary perception of whether you’re for or against a ceasefire.”

Read more:
PM speaks out on Commons chaos
Starmer denies threatening Speaker

So for all of those MPs angry at Sir Lindsay, there are others who are quietly thankful that he takes their safety so seriously and tried to cushion the fallout of this divisive SNP opposition day.

For now, it looks like he’s staying in post. What I can also confidently say will be a mainstay of this year is MPs’ safety, as we head into what is almost certainly going to be a very nasty election campaign. Something for me, Jess, Ruth to chew over in coming episodes.

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From bodyguards to death threats – the real impact of chaos in the Commons

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From bodyguards to death threats - the real impact of chaos in the Commons

The first real crisis of Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s time as Speaker was on full display as he was forced to apologise for how a debate on Gaza descended into chaos.

While he expressed regret for how his decision to allow a Labour amendment on the SNP’s ceasefire motion had angered MPs, he made clear it was motivated by a regard for their safety – an issue that’s become more pressing since the Israel-Hamas war broke out.

Politics latest: Starmer denies threatening Speaker

Sky News has spent the day talking to MPs and their staff about their experiences – ranging from thousands of aggressive emails landing in their inboxes, to protests outside constituency offices that have left some so afraid that they have to work from home.

The constituency office of Labour MP Jo Stevens in Albany Road, Cardiff, which was sprayed with red paint and posters were put up accusing her of having "blood on her hands"
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Labour MP Jo Stevens previously had her office defaced with posters accusing her of having ‘blood on her hands’. Pic: PA

Ever since tensions over Brexit, MPs have been entitled to panic alarms in their constituency offices to notify the local police force if they are in danger.

And as part of Operation Bridger – activated following the murder of Tory backbencher Sir David Amess – police email staff every Monday to get an itinerary from each MP so they know their whereabouts and of any public-facing events.

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‘It’s starting to get him down’

One Labour staffer told us how they now felt like they acted as a “bodyguard” for their MP.

“I’ve started to walk him home, so I’m there to protect him,” they said.

“I walk five steps in front, and you do act as a bit of a bodyguard. I see it as part of the job now.”

The same staffer said the MP they worked for had now started to report tweets that labelled him a “fascist” with “blood on his hands”.

“I think it’s starting to get him down,” they said.

“Before the vote he warned us all on WhatsApp that social media and the parliamentary inbox would be ridiculous for the next 48 hours.”

The office of  Mike Freer MP  
Pic:Mike Freer
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Conservative MP Mike Freer had his office targeted by arsonists on Christmas Eve. Pic: Mike Freer

Death threats have ‘become normal’

Before the chaos in parliament unfolded yesterday, one MP told Sky News they had already received a death threat.

“We are all getting this – it’s become normal for most controversial votes now,” they said.

Last November, when Sir Keir Starmer suffered the resignation of eight shadow ministers who voted for an SNP motion calling for an immediate ceasefire, a protest was held outside the constituency office of one MP and the effigy of a body, along with body bags, was left outside.

At another constituency office, protesters have taken pictures and filmed staff entering and leaving the premises while directing verbal abuse at them.

The situation has become so serious that Labour staff members have been encouraged to apply for a safe gadget, also known as a lone worker gadget, which allows the user to notify police when they feel threatened.

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SNP calls on Speaker to quit

‘The fears of MPs are real’

Former minister and Tory MP Paul Scully said the “security fears of MPs were real” on Wednesday night, and as things grew more “febrile” in the Commons, there was “genuine anger” about what the consequences could be.

“I was pretty anxious when I left parliament last night,” he told Sky News.

“Last time there was a vote on a ceasefire, one of my colleagues in the Lords got really triggered by antisemitic abuse and three cameras being shoved in his face on a tube platform.

“The protests and abuse has just escalated.

“When things like last night happen in the Commons, it is just a tinderbox.”

‘Security has had to be increased’

Senior Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge told Sky News that Muslim MPs in her party were having a “terrible, terrible time” in particular, as rows over whether to back a ceasefire raged on – and voters wanted them to take a stand.

“Security has had to be increased and people have been more guarded,” she added.

But Dame Margaret backed Sir Lindsay’s attempts to widen the debate and his drive to make MPs’ safety a “priority”.

The Jewish MP said he “talked about it a lot in the early days” when he was deputy speaker, and he was “always the person to go to” when she faced antisemitic abuse during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure leading the Labour Party.

“If you are going to have debate, shouldn’t you put it in context and let democracy prevail?” she added.

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Labour MP: ‘I got a death threat today’

‘He has given the impression of giving in to the mob’

However, former defence minister and Tory MP, Sir Alec Shelbrooke, said the Speaker’s actions should not be dictated by external forces.

“In my opinion, he has given in – or has given the impression that he has given in – to the rule of the mob,” he told Sky News.

“I believe he has made the lives of MPs less safe, which I categorically know was not his intention.”

Read more:
What happened in the Commons – and can the Speaker be sacked?
Consensus on ceasefire takes second place to political point-scoring

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, whose mother is Palestinian, said she was subject to some racist comments after last night’s parliamentary display.

But she showed some sympathy for Sir Lindsay, telling Sky News he was “put in an impossible position by a purposefully divisive motion from the SNP”.

The MP said the “core issue” was “the lack of any co-ordination between opposition parties before the debate”, adding: “We tried to coordinate with the SNP, but they didn’t listen to us.

“We didn’t have any idea what Labour were going to do.

“And meanwhile we managed to make something so serious that affects not just Palestinians and Israelis but our streets as well into something about us.”

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James Cleverly says ‘only thing MPs should fear is ballot box’ as he warns against Commons rule changes over ‘intimidation’

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James Cleverly says 'only thing MPs should fear is ballot box' as he warns against Commons rule changes over 'intimidation'

The home secretary has warned the Speaker against changing Commons conventions due to intimidation from outside parliament, telling Sky News: “The only thing MPs should fear is the ballot box.”

James Cleverly offered his support to Sir Lindsay Hoyle to stay in post – despite 67 MPs having now signed a no-confidence petition against him after Wednesday’s chaotic scenes in the Commons – calling him “a breath of fresh air”.

But he added: “We should not be changing our procedures in response to threats or intimidation. That would indicate that the threats and the intimidation is working – that is the opposite of the message that we want to send.

“If people think that they can target members of parliament, they are wrong. The full force of the law will be brought down.”

Politics live: Speaker comes out fighting

A huge row erupted on Wednesday as parliament held an opposition day debate over the Israel-Hamas conflict, with the SNP calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Pressure had been mounting on the Labour Party to move away from the government’s position of calling for a pause in fighting to echo the SNP’s stance – and they announced they would put forward their own amendment, calling for a ceasefire, albeit with a number of caveats.

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Commons conventions say that opposition motions cannot be amended by opposition parties, but Sir Lindsay took the decision to let Labour’s position be debated and voted on, claiming it gave MPs the widest range of positions to discuss and back, and citing the safety of members who were facing threats and intimidation over their position on a ceasefire.

But his decision was met with rage from the Conservatives, who pulled their own amendment and “played no further part” in the proceedings, and ended with the SNP not even getting to vote on their own motion.

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‘I have a duty of care to protect’

Despite the Speaker making two apologies in the Commons on both Wednesday and Thursday for how his decision had played out, calls for him to resign grew – led by the Westminster leader of the SNP, Stephen Flynn, who said his position was now “intolerable”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also criticised Sir Lindsay’s actions, calling them “very concerning”, while former home secretary Suella Braverman wrote an angry piece in the Daily Telegraph, saying it had “undermined the integrity of Parliament” and that “the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now”.

Asked about his position on Sir Lindsay as the row entered its third day, Mr Cleverly said: “I think the Speaker’s done a fantastic job. I think he’s been a breath of fresh air compared with his predecessor.

“He made a mistake. He apologised for the mistake. My view is that I’m supportive of him.”

But the current home secretary said it would be down to MPs to decide his fate, adding: “The selection of the Speaker is House business and for the House of Parliament rather than for government.

“And I know that sounds like we’re dancing on the head of a pin, but in our constitution, it’s a very important division. So this is House business for members of parliament, rather than for the government.”

There is no formal way for the Speaker to be removed, but he could choose to resign if calls for him to go continue to grow – as one of his predecessors, Michael Martin, did in 2009.

However, with support from the Labour benches and senior Conservatives, Sir Lindsay could instead decide to fight on to stay on post.

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Speaker ‘cannot continue’ in role

The Tories have sought to blame Labour for the shambolic scenes in parliament this week, amplifying reports that party leader Sir Keir Starmer threatened to withdraw support from the Speaker if he did not select their ceasefire amendment.

A Conservative source told Sky News on Friday: “Starmer’s undermined parliament, bullied the Speaker into doing something he admitted was ‘wrong’, and it sadly won’t be long before more antisemitic views emerge from Labour.”

And Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho told reporters: “I think the Speaker is a decent man. He’s a really well-respected parliamentarian. I didn’t agree with the ruling that he made, but I think the real culprit here is Keir Starmer.

“I think he’s put the Speaker in an intolerable position by saying that we should bow to intimidation and external influences. No intimidation should change the way that we vote in parliament or what we vote on.”

But Sir Keir “categorically” denied making any such threat, telling reporters that when he met Sir Lindsay, he “simply urged” him to have “the broadest possible debate” by putting a number of options in front of MPs.

The Labour leader added: “The tragedy is the SNP walked off the pitch because they wanted to divide the Labour Party and they couldn’t, and the government walked off the pitch because it thought it was going to lose a vote.”

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Starmer denies threatening Speaker

Speaking to Sky News on Friday morning, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper insisted Sir Lindsay was “right” to select Labour’s amendment to the ceasefire vote – which ended up passing – “making sure the widest possible range of views can be debated, sit on and can be voted on, that is something that is good for democracy”.

But she agreed decisions on parliamentary procedure should not be made because of intimidation from outside.

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