A Cabinet minister sent out by Conservatives to defend Boris Johnson’s response to the case of a four-year-old boy left to lie on the floor of an NHS hospital has insisted the prime minister had given an “unforced and natural” apology.
Millions of people yesterday viewed footage of the prime minister refusing to look at a picture of Jack Williment-Barr during a TV interview, before snatching the phone with the image on its screen from the reporter’s hand and stuffing it in his pocket.
It was only when ITV reporter Joe Pike stated what had happened that a shame-faced PM retrieved the phone from his pocket, looked at the image and gave an apology.
Tory sources later falsely briefed reporters that Mr Hancock’s adviser had been punched by a protester after he visited Leeds General Infirmary to discuss Jack’s case, in what was widely seen as an attempt to distract attention from claims that Mr Johnson’s behaviour had shown a lack of care and empathy.
Video of the incident showed that in fact the adviser bumped into a man’s pointing arm as he walked past him from behind.
Challenged over Mr Johnson’s refusal to look at the image of Jack during an interview on BBC1’s Breakfast, Mr Buckland said: “His apology, his reaction to the photograph were what we should expect,” said the Justice Secretary.
“Elections are really difficult things. Things will happen in elections, unpredictable events.
“I don’t think he was forced into it, I think when he looked at it, the reaction was clear and unforced and natural and the apology was forthcoming and fulsome.
“That response and the response that we have shown in the hours since and the action that the health secretary took shows that we were taking this matter incredibly seriously.”
Mr Buckland said that the young boy should not be treated as a “political football” and that the election should be fought on “the high ground and the big issues”.
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We aren’t using his case as a political football and my heart to goes out to Jack and his family.”
He added: “I, like any parent – because I’ve got two young children -would be furious, livid, angry, fighting like a lion for my child, who had been let down after years of cutbacks in our health service.”
And Mr Ashworth said: “Unfortunately, across the country these are not one-off events; we’ve seen in this election campaign other images of elderly people literally wasting away on trolleys in corridors for hours upon hours because they simply can’t get a bed.”
Mr Buckland also appeared to attempt to suggest that the heckling of Mr Hancock amounted to “disorderly conduct”.
Footage of the incident shows Mr Hancock being heckled by a small group of people as he was escorted to a car.
There was no sign of violent behaviour or threats towards Mr Hancock, but a man in a hi-vis jacket pushing a bicycle approached his car to shout: “You are not welcome in this hospital. You are not welcome in this country.”
As the health secretary was driven away, the man with the bicycle turned to his adviser, left standing on the pavement, and asked “You look after these people? They have devastated our country. Absolutely devastated our country. There’s nothing left.”
The protestor then turned his back on the adviser, continuing to shout. As he pointed his finger at Mr Hancock’s car, the adviser walked into his arm from behind, but continued walking, apparently unhurt. Police later confirmed that no complaints had been received about the incident.
Asked why the Conservative party had falsely claimed that the adviser was punched, the Justice Secretary said: “I don’t know who briefed what to whom. I have seen the footage… what I saw was a very confusing scene of public disorder.
“People who had clearly organised themselves to come along, create trouble and mischief, the sort of disorderly conduct I’m afraid from the left that we’ve seen in this campaign. It’s not a way to conduct civilised politics, people were shouting and gesticulating towards Matt Hancock and his team.”