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It is “crucial” that people isolate when identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, Downing Street has said.

A Number 10 spokeswoman said quarantining at home “remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus”.

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Why are so many asked to self isolate?

It comes after a minister suggested that isolating when pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app should be a matter for individuals and employers to decide.

Paul Scully, a business minister, told Times Radio: “It’s important to understand the rules. You have to legally isolate if you are on the… contacted by Test and Trace, or if you’re trying to claim isolation payments.

“The app is there to give… to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands to be able to make decisions on what’s best for them, whether they’re employer or an employee.”

But a Number 10 spokeswoman said: “Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with COVID it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS COVID app.

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“Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.”

This was reiterated by the prime minister’s spokesman, who told a regular Westminster briefing with journalists: “We want people, when contacted, either through NHS test and trace or through the app to isolate.

“It is an important tool that all of us can use, all of us can follow during this ongoing global pandemic.

“The minister did talk about the value that we’ve seen through the app in saving lives and breaking chains of transmission.”

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New self-isolation rules announced

Meanwhile, The Times has reported that another business minister, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, stressed in a letter to one large employer that the app was only an “advisory tool” and that people were not under any “legal duty”.

It is not a legal requirement to isolate if pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app, but official health service guidance has been that people should “self-isolate immediately” when told to.

There is a legal compulsion to isolate if contacted directly by Test and Trace, however, with the potential for fines for those who do not comply.

Latest figures show that a total of 520,194 alerts were sent to users of the NHS COVID-19 app in the week to 7 July, advising them to isolate, a record number.

There have been calls for the app’s sensitivity to be tweaked, amid warnings that isolation is wreaking havoc on certain industries by creating staff shortages.

But the government has ruled this out in recent days.

From 16 August, under 18s and people who are fully vaccinated will no longer be told to isolate if they come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.

Instead, they will be encouraged to take a test. Anyone who tests positive will still be legally required to isolate, regardless of their vaccine status.

The government has announced it will not be drawing up a list of fully vaccinated “critical workers” that will be exempt from isolating for work purposes.

Instead, employers will have to apply to government departments to exempt workers who are ‘pinged’.

Boris Johnson, who is himself isolating after being identified as a close contact of the COVID-positive Health Secretary Sajid Javid, told a news conference on Monday that isolation is “one of the only shots we have got left in our locker to stop the chain reaction of the spread of C”.

“I’m afraid that at this stage it’s simply a consequence of living with COVID and opening up when cases are high in the way that we are,” the prime minister said.

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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims ‘constituted fraud’ but whistleblower told there was no ‘duty’ to report it

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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims 'constituted fraud' but whistleblower told there was no 'duty' to report it

The Conservatives were warned ex-Tory MP Mark Menzies’s alleged misuse of party funds may have constituted fraud but the whistleblower was told there was no duty to report it

Mr Menzies, the MP for Fylde in Lancashire, gave up the Tory whip in the wake of reports in The Times that he misused party funds. He disputes the allegations.

The allegations came about after Mr Menzies former campaign manager, Katie Fieldhouse, spoke to the newspaper.

Mark Menzies pictured in Peru  in 2020
Pic: AP
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Mark Menzies pictured in Peru in 2020. Pic: AP

In a new interview with The Times this evening, Ms Fieldhouse, 78, claims she was told the Conservative Party was aware the allegations were potentially criminal.

She says the Conservative Party’s chief of staff “told me that when they first took over the investigation [from the Whips’ Office] they had consulted solicitors”.

She added: “He told me on the phone, ‘the solicitor said it is fraud but you are not duty-bound to report it because it’s not Conservative Party money’.”

The whistleblower said she was told the decision not to inform the police was made because it was donors’ money and not the party’s.

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A Conservative spokesperson said: “The party is conducting an investigation into the claims made and has been doing so for several months.

“We will of course share any information with the police if they believe it would be helpful to any investigation they decide to undertake.

“Suggestions the party has not been seriously examining this matter are demonstrably false.”

Lancashire Police said today it was “reviewing” information about Mr Menzies after Labour asked for an investigation to take place.

In a statement, the force said: “We can confirm that we have now received a letter detailing concerns around this matter and we are in the process of reviewing the available information in more detail.”

Read more: All the Tory MPs suspended since Sunak became PM

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Ruth Davidson on Mark Menzies allegations

The party’s chief whip, Simon Hart, is said to have been made aware of the claims in January, when the former campaign manager reported what had happened.

Sky News understands there has been an investigation ongoing by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) since the allegations were first raised, but further information came to light this week and Mr Hart acted immediately.

Speaking tonight, Labour’s chair Anneliese Dodds said: “The Conservative chairman and chief whip must urgently come out of hiding and explain what they knew and what advice they received.

“If, as reported, they or Conservative officials​ were warned about potentially fraudulent activity and chose not to go to the police, this would be indefensible.”

Mr Menzies, who has served as an MP since May 2010, is reported to have phoned his 78-year-old former campaign manager at 3.15am last December, saying he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper says.

Speaking to Sky News, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

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Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

Mr Menzies said on Thursday: “I strongly dispute the allegations put to me. I have fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further.”

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Mark Menzies: Tory activist who reported MP over alleged misuse of funds disappointed by party response

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Mark Menzies: Tory activist who reported MP over alleged misuse of funds disappointed by party response

A Tory activist who reported an MP over claims he misused party funds has told Sky News she is disappointed by the way her complaint has been handled.

Mark Menzies voluntarily quit the Conservative parliamentary party this week after a report in The Times claimed he called his ex-campaign manager Katie Fieldhouse, 78, early one day to say he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper said.

Politics live: Sunak accused of ‘full on assault on disabled people’ after welfare speech

But despite the incident taking place in December – and Ms Fieldhouse submitting her complaint in January – the Fylde MP had remained part of the parliamentary party and as a trade envoy for the government until the press reports surfaced.

He has now lost the Conservative whip and was suspended as one of Rishi Sunak’s envoys.

Mr Menzies strongly disputes the claims, which also include accusations he used campaign funds to pay his personal medical bills.

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Speaking to Sky News’ Frazer Maude, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

And asked if Mr Menzies should step down, she added: “It is for his conscience and the party to deal with. I have put my faith in the party, it is for them to deal with it.”

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Mr Sunak was also asked by reporters on Friday whether his former colleague should quit the Commons, and why it had taken until now for the party to act, but he said he would not comment while an investigation was being carried out.

Instead, the prime minister said: “It’s right that Mark Menzies has resigned the Conservative whip. He’s been suspended from his position as a trade envoy whilst the investigations into those allegations continue.

“For our part, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation while it’s happening and he’s no longer a Conservative MP.”

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has written to Lancashire Police to demand an investigation into allegations of fraud and misconduct in public office.

Leader Sir Keir Starmer told broadcasters that the Conservatives “seem to have sat on their hands” over the allegations.

He added: “If they thought they could sweep this under the carpet somehow they were obviously very mistaken and that is why I think there are very serious questions now that need to be answered – not just by the individual but also by the government on this.”

And the Liberal Democrats have called for the ministerial ethics adviser to investigate chief whip Simon Hart’s handling of the complaint.

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Labour blames ‘shoplifters’ charter’ for surge in retail crime

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Labour blames 'shoplifters' charter' for surge in retail crime

A “shoplifters’ charter” has seen thefts rise significantly – to about one offence every minute – but police are charging fewer people, according to Labour.

The party said data showed a record 402,482 shoplifting offences in England and Wales in the year to September 2023.

However, offences resulting in a police charge fell from 20% to 15% between 2018 and 2023, according to a Freedom of Information request.

Labour said offenders were getting off “scot-free” as the fall had not been matched by a rise in other penalties.

More than 54% of shoplifting offences are also dropped with no suspect identified, according to recent Home Office figures.

Labour partly blamed the situation on a 2014 move to introduce a “low value” shoplifting category for items worth under £200 in total.

Theresa May, then home secretary, brought it in to speed things up and allow police to deal with these offences by post.

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But Labour and others, such as the British Retail Consortium, said it meant officers have deprioritised shoplifting.

The rise in shoplifting and attacks on staff have caused some retailers to lock away – or put security tags on – everyday products such as meat, butter, chocolate and coffee.

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Shoplifter ransacks Co-op

Co-op’s food business lost £33m in just six months last year as shoplifting cases surged.

A recent British Retail Consortium survey said the number of annual customer thefts across the UK had doubled to 16 million – far higher than the Home Office data.

Read more:
No excuse for shoplifting as benefits very generous, minister says
Middle-class shoplifters partly to blame, says M&S chairman

Shadow home secretary Yvette Copper said Labour would change the law as criminals are “getting away with it and more local businesses are paying the price”.

“The Conservative government has decimated neighbourhood policing, leaving our town centres unprotected, and they are still refusing to get rid of the £200 rule, which is encouraging repeat offending and organised gangs of shoplifters,” said Ms Cooper.

“Labour will scrap the Tories’ shoplifters’ charter and bring in a community policing guarantee, with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs to crack down on shoplifting and keep the public safe.”

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Home Office minister Chris Philp said the “reality” was people in Labour-run areas were 20% more likely to be a victim of shoplifting, and 40% more likely to be a victim of crime, than those in Conservative areas.

“This month, Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives announced that serial or abusive shoplifters will face tougher punishments and we are making assault of a retail worker a standalone criminal offence,” Mr Philp added.

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