Pressure is growing on the government to explain a decision to drop the chief nurse from a coronavirus press conferences after she refused to publicly back Dominic Cummings’s lockdown breaking.
Ministers were accused of “trying to gag” experts after The Independent reported that Ruth May was dropped after declining to toe the government line in practice questions.
The Liberal Democrats on Sunday wrote to health secretary Matt Hancock demanding answers, and accused the government of potentially “threatening the confidence the public has in the government’s approach to lifting lockdown”.
“As the government continues to relax lockdown, it is vital that both the government and the public listen to these experts and follow public health advice,” the letter, from the party’s health spokesperson Munira Wilson, says.
“If these reports are true, by silencing them, the government is not only denying the public the opportunity to hear from them, but also threatening the confidence the public has in the government’s approach to lifting lockdown, and more broadly in how and when government is using and sharing expert advice.”
The revelation comes as the chancellor Rishi Sunak admitted that the government could overrule its experts like Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty on relaxing social distancing rules – despite the government repeatedly insisting it is “following the science”.
As Boris Johnson’s chief aide was engulfed in scandal over his trips to Durham and Barnard Castle during lockdown, Ruth May had been due to appear alongside Mr Hancock in the press conference.
But, in practice questions hours before the briefing, she was asked about Mr Cummings and, after failing to support his actions, she was immediately dropped from the press conference, according to senior NHS sources.
Instead the health secretary had to present the slides on Covid-19 himself for the first time, alongside Professor John Newton from Public Health England. The incident, on 1 June, came two days after England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam sparked headlines by saying that lockdown rules “apply to all” when asked about Mr Cummings. He has not appeared at the press conferences since 30 May.
“The reports over the weekend regarding the silencing of England’s Chief Nursing Officer, Ruth May, were incredibly concerning, particularly as there have already been accusations that the government is trying to gag the experts who appear at the daily press conferences over the Dominic Cummings controversy,” Ms Wilson told The Independent.
“The secretary of state must come forward and confirm whether there is any truth in these reports. With public health already at risk thanks to ministers’ defence of Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock must answer to whether the government’s continued attempts to defend Cummings know no bounds.
“It also raises questions about how and when expert advice is being used and shared with the public. The Liberal Democrats are clear we want to see the scientific and medical experts put back to being front and centre of the daily coronavirus press conferences.”
At the daily press briefing in Downing Street on Friday, transport secretary Grant Shapps was asked whether Ruth May was barred from attending because she may criticise Mr Cummings. “I don’t think it is true,” he said, and referred to Downing Street’s Twitter account where a tweet from Ruth May about Black Lives Matter has been “pinned” to the top of the feed. Mr Shapps said he was sure Ruth May would be back at the briefings in future.
Asked to comment, No 10 said it strongly denied the claims that Ms May had been dropped over her views on Mr Cummings, and added that health and scientific advisers would continue to take questions in the briefings. NHS England was also approached for comment.