PMQs: Boris Johnson puts big business first, public health second

Parliament will close early for recess this evening due to Covid-19, which made this Prime Minister’s Question’s the last chance that Jeremy Corbyn and other MPs will have to scrutinise Boris Johnson for at least a month. The Labour leader naturally chose to focus on the unprecedented coronavirus crisis for his final PMQs at the despatch box.

Corbyn asked, what action has been taken to ensure testing has been prioritised? He referenced a leaked email showing that the PM wrote to UK researching institutes to ask for help with health equipment only three days ago. Why wasn’t this done weeks ago, if not months ago? The PM did not offer a proper response.

Next, Corbyn asked: “When will NHS staff, care workers and other frontline health professionals get the personal protective equipment that they need?” The stocks are there, Johnson replied, and being distributed across the country by the army. Small comfort as the number of cases surge over 8,000 and frontline workers need them now. There have been reports of doctors threatening to quit the NHS if the shortages of personal protective equipment continue. And this comes as experts say that we’re approaching the most dangerous point in the spread of the virus, when the NHS may well be overwhelmed.

On the legislation progressing through the upper chamber today, and the government’s abandoned pledge to private renters, Corbyn told the chamber: “The Prime Minister stood at this despatch box and said, and I quote, ‘we will protect private renters from eviction’. Yet some renters will be getting eviction notices as early as next week.” Johnson countered to say that he is making no-fault evictions illegal – but this is not the reality on the ground, the Labour leader replied.

Corbyn asked the PM to “absolutely” ban evictions for six months, as he had promised, but Johnson didn’t budge. The emergency bill will therefore only offer renters a three-month notice period instead of the current two, while landlords have been given mortgage holidays. This, when the police have been told to prepare to enforce lockdown measures for six months, could see many in dire difficulties soon. It’s clear where the government’s priorities lie, and it’s not with us renters.

It is not with the self-employed either. The Labour leader questioned the PM on self-employed construction workers still heading into sites. He talked about one worker who knew he had the virus and went to work anyway, because “he had no other source of income”. Corbyn asked Johnson to give “unequivocal guidance that construction work on non-emergency work should stop now”. The PM replied that he is “overwhelmingly” telling people to not leave the house except to “take exercise, for medical reasons or to buy essential supplies”. This is categorically not what he said on Sunday night, when he announced the lockdown and told people that they could still travel to work if “necessary” – whatever that means. Johnson stuck by his refusal to close down non-essential construction sites, saying: “What we are not doing is closing down the whole UK economy.”

This speaks volumes about the government’s approach towards tackling the pandemic. Throughout, the PM has looked to preserve economic outcomes first, and public health second. He has sought to implement the government’s measures through employers and at the discretion of business – whether that’s with income compensation or on how to decide who goes to work. All underlined with a large amount of confusion in the communication: ‘don’t visit your mum on Mother’s Day, but I hope to see mine’. The result? People unable to comply with public health advice intended to protect us all.

There is no need for this approach and, as Corbyn pointed out, it puts us all at greater risk. The government needs to step up. It must put the needs of the lowest paid and those in the most insecure work on par with those of the wealthiest, or public health measures will continue to be hampered. And the Labour leader got to the crux of the matter when he finished with this: “No-one is an island. No-one is self made. The wellbeing of the wealthiest corporate chief executive officer depends on the outsourced worker cleaning their office.”

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