Boris Johnson sought to play down reports of a rift with the EU over Northern Ireland at the end of the G7 summit, although he insisted it was the job of the government “to protect the territorial integrity” of the UK.
Speaking at an end-of-summit press conference, the prime minister was careful not to escalate a row that had intensified following a report that France’s Emmanuel Macron had suggested that Northern Ireland was not part of the UK.
“What I’m saying is that we will do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK,” Johnson said, but he declined to repeat remarks made by the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who said Macron’s reported comments were “offensive”.
The row had threatened to overshadow the G7 summit in Cornwall, which was finishing on Sunday afternoon, the first gathering of world leaders in person since the start of the pandemic.
“But actually what happened at this summit was that there was a colossal amount of work on subjects that had absolutely nothing to do with Brexit,” Johnson added.
The prime minister also discussed the origins of the pandemic. Although he said “the advice we’ve had” was that it did not look as if Covid-19 had come from a lab, he said western leaders had agreed “to strengthen the World Health Organization”, in a decision likely to irritate China, accused of not being fully transparent about the origins of the pandemic.
They wanted the WHO to have powers like international weapons inspectors, Johnson said, who could “go on the scene and try to determine as independently as possible exactly what is going on” so people could have confidence about the origins of such diseases.
But the prime minister offered little public comment as to whether the complete unlocking from coronavirus restrictions in England, scheduled for 21 June, would be delayed by at least month to the start of the school summer holidays, as widely expected.
“No final decision has been taken,” the prime minister said at the early afternoon event, and he promised to put out “the whole package of information” on Monday as scheduled.
On Saturday night, the Daily Telegraph reported that Johnson had tried to explain his frustration with the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol by asking the French president what he would do if sausages from Toulouse could not be moved to Paris.
Macron was said to have replied by arguing that the comparison did not work because Paris and Toulouse were both part of the same country, incorrectly suggesting Northern Ireland was not within the UK.
The current dispute centres on the EU’s decision to bar chilled meats from crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, which has led to it being nicknamed the “sausage war”.
The tensions, however, have potentially more far-reaching consequences. Johnson threatened on Saturday to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, which was supposed to ease trade over the UK’s only land border with the EU.
French diplomatic sources rejected the idea that Macron had misconstrued the status of Northern Ireland, suggesting he had simply been pointing to the fact that it is divided from Great Britain by the sea. “I’m certain the president knows that Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain,” the source said.
Earlier on Sunday, Raab had gone on the attack when asked what he thought about the view that Northern Ireland had a separate status from the rest of the UK.
“I think it is offensive. We wouldn’t dream of talking of the northern region of Italy, the German länder or other provinces, especially ones where there are nationalist pressures, we wouldn’t dream of talking about those areas in those terms,” the foreign secretary said.
The press conference clashed with the start of England’s match against Croatia, where some fans booed players who took the knee at the start of the game. Johnson did not directly condemn the booing, but said instead: “Everybody should cheer for England.”