Boris Johnson has dismissed claims he approved the airlift of animals out of Afghanistan, saying they are “total rhubarb”, as Sky News obtained more emails which call into question the government’s account.
Leaked messages appear to show that the prime minister‘s top parliamentary aide, Trudy Harrison, told Virgin Atlantic her efforts to secure a plane to evacuate animals from Kabul were backed by the government and that permissions would be “fast-tracked”.
But speaking during a visit to Wales on Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “I can tell you that the military always prioritised human beings and that was quite right.”
Fresh questions about the government’s account began to be raised on Wednesday after the emergence of new whistleblower emails which were released by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the government’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis, disclosed communications which suggest the PM did personally authorise rescue efforts for pets and animals.
On 25 August 2021, an official working for Foreign Office minister Lord Goldsmith sent an email to the Foreign Office “special cases” team regarding the possible evacuation of an unnamed animal charity.
In it, the official writes: “Equivalent charity Nowzad, run by an ex-Royal Marine, has received a lot of publicity and the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated, [animal charity – name redacted] are hoping to be treated in the same capacity.”
This appears to support claims made last year in written evidence by whistleblower Raphael Marshall, a desk officer at the Foreign Office, that the department “received an instruction from the prime minister” to use “considerable capacity” to help animals leave the country that were being cared for by Nowzad, run by Paul “Pen” Farthing.
New emails raise further questions
Correspondence obtained by Sky News between managers at the airline states Ms Harrison said that the transport secretary would “provide whatever assistance is needed” to get the animals out and that her efforts had the backing of the government.
There is no further suggestion that the transport secretary had given Ms Harrison any such assurances.
She was requesting help from Virgin to find a plane to make the trip, a plan which eventually fell through.
In a separate email the process of fast-tracking permission for the flight to leave Afghanistan was also discussed after Ms Harrison reportedly said she could guarantee it.
The emails cast doubt on Ms Harrison’s claim that she had been acting “as a constituency MP at all times”.
On Wednesday, Sky News reported that Ms Harrison also contacted a private charter company to arrange a flight saying that her “boss was keen”.
Downing Street has said the prime minister had “no role” in authorising the evacuation.
In a series of emails between staff and senior managers at Virgin Atlantic, Ms Harrison’s promises to remove obstacles with the help of various government ministers are outlined in detail.
In one email, sent on 23 August between a senior manager at the company who had been approached directly by Ms Harrison and a second Virgin Atlantic boss the senior manager states: “My local MP, Trudy Harrison, is PPS to the PM and has sought my advice this evening on the mechanics of transportation of a Mr Farthing and his Afghanistan based rescue dogs and cats plus other evacuees from Kabul imminently.
“She has said relevant permissions would be fast-tracked in government.”
In a second email, the same senior manager then emails the chief executive of Virgin the day after, stating that Ms Harrison has full government backing for her intervention.
The exchange reads: “My local MP Trudy Harrison (who is Boris Johnson’s PPS and works at No 10) has enquired of me yesterday evening whether we can provide transportation for Mr Pen Farthing and his rescue animals and others from Kabul… She has said the transportation secretary will provide whatever assistance is required.
“This being a government-backed situation and clearly incredibly sensitive I trust it’s in order to bring it to your attention in case you wish to deal with it personally yourself.”
Ms Harrison told Sky News she was acting as a constituency MP. None of her constituents were directly involved in the evacuation.
The aide to the prime minister also emailed the Virgin CEO Shai Weiss directly on the 24 August, a day before she approached the charter company for help to find an alternative plane.
Ms Harrison says “we are keen to engage in early preparedness as this is a more complex and particularly high profile operation”.
She also states that specific flight codes would be needed from UK defence and that “we very much hope [they] will be forthcoming, subject to an effective process prioritising those in most urgent need”.
Sky News understands the funding for the charter flight Ms Harrison tried to arrange on the 25 August was being provided by a US philanthropist and campaigner.
Animals that were being cared for in Afghanistan by the Nowzad charity, run by Paul “Pen” Farthing, were eventually airlifted on a plane provided by a separate Polish charter company and staff escaped by a land-route.
Ms Harrison told Sky News: “I was assisting Pen Farthing and Nowzad as a constituency MP in response to many Copeland constituents’ requests to assist.
“I was contacted directly by over 40 constituents last summer asking for my support for the charity’s staff and animals.
“As part of my efforts to help them, I reached out to a pilot in my constituency for some advice.”
Asked about claims Mr Johnson approved the airlift of animals out of Afghanistan, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle told Sky News: “I’m an animal lover but I also love people as well, there’s a story to come out but its not for me to judge.”