British minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has been condemned by survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire after suggesting that victims of the 2017 tragedy lacked “common sense” when they obeyed instructions from fire crews to stay inside the burning building.
Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP and the Leader of the House of Commons, apologized Tuesday after telling the radio station LBC: “The more one’s read over the weekend about the report and about the chances of people surviving – if you just ignore what you’re told and leave, you are so much safer.”
He added: “I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do. And it is such a tragedy that that didn’t happen.”
The London tower block fire in June 2017, which spread throughout the building due to flammable cladding on its exterior, claimed the lives of 72 people.
Residents were told by emergency services to stay inside their flats for almost two hours before that advice was reversed.
Rees-Mogg’s comments “absolutely infuriated us,” survivor Natasha Elcock later told the same station. “It just shows complete disregard… no-one that wasn’t in that building that night can actually imagine what we were going through,” she said.
Grenfell United, the group representing Grenfell residents and their families, added the remarks were “beyond disrespectful” and “extremely painful and insulting to bereaved families.”
Rees-Mogg said he “profoundly” apologized for the suggestion later on Tuesday.
“What I meant to say is that I would have also listened to the fire brigade’s advice to stay and wait at the time. However, with what we know now and with hindsight I wouldn’t and I don’t think anyone else would,” he told Britain’s PA news agency.
“I would hate to upset the people of Grenfell if I was unclear in my comments.”
But his comments were condemned by rival politicians, creating an unwelcome controversy for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party at the start of the 2019 election campaign.
“What possesses someone to react to an entirely avoidable tragedy like Grenfell by saying the victims lacked common sense?” asked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter.
“People were terrified, many died trying to escape,” Corbyn said, calling the remarks “crass and insensitive.”
“Your arrogance and condescension is monstrous,” Labour MP David Lammy added on Twitter. “The victims of this crime of gross negligence followed the instructions they were given by the fire authorities. Do not blame them.”
London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan also condemned the comments, calling them “deeply offensive, insensitive and totally ill-informed.”
Matt Wrack, the chief executive of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “Residents were thrown into a terrifying, impossible situation at Grenfell – for Jacob Rees-Mogg to suggest it would be ‘common sense’ to ignore the advice that they were given was crass and insensitive.”
“It was also callously irresponsible for a senior government figure to suggest that the public should ignore firefighters when they are in a fire,” Wrack added.
The report into the 2017 disaster, published last week, identified a delay in revoking the “stay put” advice initially given to residents of the tower block and recommended scrapping the policy for high-rise buildings.
Tenants in tower blocks in Britain are typically advised to stay in their apartments when there is a blaze elsewhere in the building, as firefighters try to contain the flames.