Was Dawn Butler right about Boris Johnson ‘lying’ to Parliament?

23 July 2021
What was claimed

In January 2020, the economy had grown by 73% under the Conservative government.

Our verdict

Incorrect. The economy grew 73% between 1990 and 2017, under both Labour and Conservative-led governments. In January 2020, the economy had grown by around 20% since the Conservatives took office in 2010.

What was claimed

The government has restored the nurses’ bursary.

Our verdict

The government has reintroduced a non-repayable grant for all student nurses. However, student nurses must continue to pay their own tuition fees, without the contribution they received when the old bursary applied.

What was claimed

No country had a functioning contact-tracing app in June 2020.

Our verdict

Several countries had operational contact-tracing apps that had been downloaded millions of times. In June 2020, it wasn’t clear how effective any of them were in reducing the spread of Covid-19.

What was claimed

The government invested an extra £34 billion in the NHS, which was a record increase.

Our verdict

This is the cash value of the announced increase between 2018/19 and 2023/24, but the real-terms value, which includes the effects of inflation, was £20.5 billion. There was an increase at least this large between 2004/5 and 2009/10.

What was claimed

Vaccines have severed the link between Covid-19 infections and serious disease or death.

Our verdict

Incorrect. Vaccinated people are much less likely to catch Covid-19, or get seriously ill or die from it, but the link between infections and deaths has not been removed completely.

In a speech to Parliament on 22 July, the Labour MP Dawn Butler said that Boris Johnson “has lied to this House and the country, over and over again”.

This broke the rules about “unparliamentary language”, which say that accusations of “deliberate falsehood” must only be made with prior permission of the Speaker. Ms Butler did not withdraw her comments and was asked to leave the House for the rest of the day as a result.

Ms Butler based most of her claims that the Prime Minister lied on a widely viewed video from the lawyer and campaigner Peter Stefanovic.

It is often impossible to say for sure whether somebody is “lying”, because you’d need to know that they intended to deceive people. At Full Fact, our focus is on whether the claim being made is true, not the intention behind it.

However, it is correct that the majority of Mr Johnson’s claims that Ms Butler mentioned were either false or misleading.

 

“The Prime Minister said the economy is growing by 73%. It’s just not true.”

On 29 January 2020, Boris Johnson said: “The economy, under this Conservative government, has grown by 73%.”

Ms Butler is correct that this claim is false.

As we wrote at the time, and as Mr Stefanovic says in his video, the 73% figure describes growth since 1990, not since 2010, which means it covers a much longer period that also includes 13 years of Labour government.

 

“[Boris Johnson says he] reinstated nurses’ bursary. Just not true.”

On 26 February 2020, Boris Johnson did say: “We have restored the nurses’ bursary.” He made similar claims on 4 March 2020 and 19 May 2021.

A bursary for student nurses was reintroduced in 2019, but it did not restore funding for tuition fees that existed before.

Under the bursary scheme which existed until 2017, new nursing students were entitled to a non-means tested grant of £1,000 a year, and a means tested bursary to help with living costs up to £3,191. Additional funding elements were available for certain students. Students who qualified for a bursary also had the costs of their tuition paid. 

In 2017, following plans announced by George Osborne in 2015, the Conservative government led by Theresa May replaced this bursary with access to the full loan system used by other students, and began requiring student nurses to pay their own tuition fees. Some extra grants remained available for students with children or experiencing hardship.

In December 2019, the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson announced the introduction of an additional £5,000 grant for all student nurses to help with living costs, with an additional £3,000 available for some eligible students. However, students would continue to pay their own tuition fees.

This is not the same system that existed before 2017, so in that sense it is not true that the old bursary has been “restored”.

Mr Johnson’s government has reintroduced a system in which all student nurses receive a non-repayable grant from the government, but it does not pay their tuition fees on their behalf, which was the system when the old bursary applied.

 

“[Boris Johnson said] there wasn’t an app working anywhere in the world. Just isn’t true.”

The Prime Minister said on 24 June 2020: “The [Covid-19 contact-tracing] app would be the icing on the cake, if we can get it to work. If we can get it to work, it would be a fine thing, but there isn’t one anywhere in the world so far.”

We checked a similar claim that he made the day before, when he said: “No country currently has a functioning track and trace app”.

The truth of this really depends on what you think it means for a contact-tracing app to “work” or “function”.

Many countries had launched apps that were operational when the Prime Minister was speaking. However, at the time it was not yet clear whether any of their technological approaches were effective, or whether they’d been downloaded widely enough to reduce the spread of Covid.

There is now some evidence that contact-tracing apps have been effective to some extent in several countries, including the UK.

Arguably, Mr Johnson oversimplified the situation by claiming that no app was working anywhere (when he couldn’t yet be sure, and apps were certainly available and being downloaded by millions of people), but Ms Butler also oversimplified things by claiming that he was definitely wrong (which we can’t be sure he was at the time, either).  

 

“[Boris Johnson said the] Tories invested £34bn in the NHS. Not true.”

Mr Johnson said on 15 July 2020 that “the government are engaged in record investments in the NHS of £34bn.”

And it was not the first time he had made this claim. Technically speaking, it is true in absolute cash terms, but this is a misleading way to measure it.  

As we explained in November 2019, the government did announce a £34 billion spending increase for the NHS between 2018/19 and 2023/24. However, this figure does not account for inflation, which tends to make the actual value of a sum of money diminish over time.

If you do account for inflation, which is the fairest way to compare sums of money across time, then the ‘real terms’ value of the spending increase was £20.5 billion.

Nor is this spending increase a “record”. The last time NHS spending rose by at least this much in real terms was between 2004/05 and 2009/10.

 

“The Prime Minister said we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death. Not only is this not true, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it’s dangerous.”

This comes from Prime Minister’s Questions on 7 July 2021, when Mr Johnson said: “Scientists are also absolutely clear that we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death.”

Ms Butler is correct that this is not true. Vaccination is highly effective against the worst effects of Covid-19, but it is not perfectly effective. Recent data from Public Health England shows that even fully vaccinated people do sometimes get seriously ill with the disease, and a few still die.

It is therefore not right to say that the link has been completely “severed” between infection and serious disease or death, although it has certainly been severely weakened.

We have not attempted to determine whether the Prime Minister was ‘lying’ in any of these instances. The Ministerial Code states: “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

The Prime Minister has corrected none of the errors mentioned in this piece, at the time of writing.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.