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From the file

Chequers | In March 2020 Boris Johnson pre-recorded a broadcast in which he told the country to stay at home. Tortoise believes he then ignored his own advice by moving back and forth between London and Chequers

Sensemaker: Johnson’s second home

Sensemaker: Johnson’s second home

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Australia revoked Novak Djokovic’s visa, again.
  • The US Supreme Court blocked Biden’s bid to mandate Covid tests or vaccinations for 84 million Americans.
  • Beijing rejected as a “smear” MI5’s claim that the UK-based solicitor Christine Lee was a Chinese agent.
  • A senior civil servant investigating lockdown parties in Downing Street looked likely to clear Boris Johnson of criminality.

Johnson’s second home

Downing Street has admitted that Boris Johnson commuted between London and Chequers after he told the country to end non-essential travel on 16 March 2020. 

For more than a year, we have been asking Number Ten to respond to information we have been given that Mr Johnson and Carrie Symonds, now Mrs Johnson, was at Chequers in the ten days after Mr Johnson had asked people to stop non-essential travel.

Downing Street previously denied it and, more recently, refused to answer questions we put to them directly. Following publication of today’s Tortoise Sensemaker, which set out the questions and the evasive answers we’d had from then until now, they issued this statement: 

“At that time, Mrs Johnson was heavily pregnant and had been placed in a vulnerable category and advised to minimise social contact.” 

“In line with clinical guidance and to minimise the risk to her they were based at Chequers during this period, with the Prime Minister commuting to Downing Street to work.”

What we’d been told:

  • Sources told us the Johnsons used Chequers during this period, and that the Prime Minister travelled between London and his grace and favour home in Buckinghamshire.
  • They also said members of the Chequers staff contracted Covid at this time.

What Boris Johnson said at the time: 

  • On 16 March 2020 Johnson told the UK in a Downing Street press conference that “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and travel”.
  • On 22 March 2020 the guidance reminded people to “remain in their primary residence” and stated for the avoidance of doubt that “essential travel does not include visit to second homes… whether for isolation purposes or holidays”.
  • On 23 March 2020 he announced the start of the first lockdown: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
  • From 26 March 2020 people were legally prohibited from visiting their second homes.

What we’d asked:

  • In June 2020 we asked Lee Cain, then Downing Street Director of Communications, whether Johnson made use of Chequers between March 23 and 27 that year. It was denied.
  • More recently, we asked whether the Johnsons visited Chequers between his 16 March statement and 27 March. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister chose to answer a different question: “This claim that the PM did not comply with lockdown regulations is entirely inaccurate.” He complied with Government guidance, Downing Street said, from when it became legally enforced at 1pm on 26 March. (At that time, Downing Street did not answer the question of whether he had been in Chequers between 16 and 26 March and offered no comment on the whereabouts of Mrs Johnson.) 
  • A spokesperson for Mrs Johnson did not confirm or deny she was at Chequers, but said she complied with regulations “as a heavily pregnant woman”.
  • When we made enquiries to the Chequers Trust, which administers the country estate, and Thames Valley Police, which handles security there, we were referred to Downing Street. 

After we published today’s Sensemaker, Downing Street got in touch to offer greater clarity, confirming that Mrs Johnson had been at Chequers and that Mr Johnson had commuted back and forth. 

The public may have some sympathy for Mrs Johnson, who was pregnant with her first child at the time. But there was a pattern to Downing Street’s handling of this: evasiveness about the Johnsons’ movements, without a persuasive security argument for keeping them secret; and an attempt to reframe the accusation against the Johnsons as breaking the law, rather than ‘do as I say, not what I do’ hypocrisy.   

It chimes with today’s reporting of Downing Street’s apparent tactic to raise the bar for the Gray inquiry to the level of criminality. This is a higher bar than was set for other high profile resignations, such as Professor Neil Ferguson and Matthew Hancock.  

Further questions:

  • Who placed Mrs Johnson in a vulnerable medical category? 
  • Did Mrs Johnson travel between London and Chequers with the Prime Minister during this period and Mr Johnson’s illness?
  • What was the basis for deciding that Chequers was a more suitable place for minimising social contact than Downing Street?

Sue Gray is already busy and being second-guessed. As the senior civil servant tasked with investigating parties in Downing Street during lockdown she has another two to consider, reported overnight in the Telegraph, while the Times has been briefed that she will eventually clear Boris Johnson of outright criminality.

MPs hope Gray will address a larger question: to what extent was the Prime Minister issuing one set of guidance for the public while observing another for himself, his staff, and his family? As part of this she should add to her in-tray the use of Chequers.  

covid by numbers

500 million  potentially wasted Covid-19 doses in the G7 and EU by March, according to analysis published yesterday by Airfinity 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Kazakh crypto
Russian troops are leaving Kazakhstan after a fortnight of unrest, but aftershocks linger in the bitcoin business. When China banned crypto-mining overnight last June, Kazakhstan’s low temperatures, cheap electricity and empty warehouses seemed a perfect alternative. It quickly became the second-largest hub globally for Bitcoin mining. Then the protests led to an internet shutdown, halting all mining. The global hashrate – the rate per second Bitcoin calculations are made – dropped 12 per cent and it’s estimated the outage cost Kazakh miners around $20 million, or $4.8 million for every 24 hours with no internet. The miners had already been struggling with government-mandated power rationing and are probably stuck for now as other hubs in the US and Russia have little capacity for new business. That said, the squeeze had little impact on Bitcoin as a whole. The system is designed to handle dropouts, but Kazakhstan is unlikely to keep it’s crypto-crown. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Oath Keepers
The US charged the leader of a far-right militia group with seditious conspiracy in connection with last year’s attack on the Capitol. Stewart Rhodes, who leads the Oath Keepers, a loose association of people who believe the US government has been corrupted by elites, is a 56-year-old former paratrooper and Yale-educated lawyer. He stands accused of conspiring with others to “oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power”. Sedition charges are extremely rare in modern American history. Rhodes’s case was the first time that the crime was applied over the deadly riot. A true “America First” moment. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Nigerian Twitter
Nigeria’s government lifted a ban on Twitter after the company agreed with authorities to open a local office, appoint a country head, and pay domestic taxes. The government said it had banned Twitter because of the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”. In reality the ban was in response to Twitter’s decision to remove a post by President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator, that threatened a violent crackdown on secessionists in the country’s south-east. The company’s then chief executive, Jack Dorsey, had also tweeted his support for anti-police brutality protests. Western diplomats called the ban a threat to freedom of expression, but Nigerians, including members of the government, were getting round it anyway by using virtual private networks, or VPNs.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Shrinking Britain
By 2025 more people could be dying in the UK than being born, according to the Office for National Statistics. The headline population figure will still grow thanks to net migration of 2.2 million, but by 2058 migration won’t be enough to stop an overall decline. The trend is a double-edged sword. The older the population, the more people of working-age will have to pay for care and pensions. At the same time, a likely increase in the tax burden along with ever-more expensive childcare will mean fewer young people having children. The UK isn’t alone with this conundrum. China is working to reverse the impact of its one-child policy with government incentives to increase fertility rates. But pro-natalism can lead into difficult territory. Efforts in Hungary and Poland to increase the number of babies have led to policies that roll back reproductive rights. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Oily Alberta
Oil production in Alberta, home to roughly 170 billion barrels of thick, tar-like bitumen, is set to continue for another two decades despite being the very opposite of what the planet needs. Alternative energy sources, though growing fast, are nowhere near meeting present demand, and extraction from the Canadian province’s oil sands remains profitable. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, an Exxon affiliate, extracted more crude from those fields in last year’s third quarter than in the same period a year earlier. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has at least said revenues from the country’s oil industry will fund its green energy transition.

Thanks for reading. Do share this around, and let us know what we’ve missed.

Lara Spirit

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Paul Caruana Galizia and Phoebe Davis.

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis

Photographs Andrew Parsons/ Number 10, Getty Images

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In March 2020 Boris Johnson pre-recorded a broadcast in which he told the country to stay at home. But Tortoise now believes that he then ignored his own advice by moving back and forth between London and Chequers

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