It has certainly been an eventful week for Boris Johnson personally, who returned to work earlier this week after contracting Covid-19. However, the second Prime Minister’s Questions for the new Labour leader Keir Starmer saw him face off against the First Secretary of State, as Dominic Raab deputised for the PM again. It had been unclear whether the Johnson would be up for the questions session today, but with the birth of his son this morning it became clear that he would not be appearing. It was left to Raab to defend the government’s position, in a week which has seen the UK pass the grim 20,000 milestone for coronavirus deaths. In a perhaps less concise and punchy outing than his first – this was a much longer session, in which we got a lot more by way of a preamble to each question – we saw the Labour leader put questions to Raab on reporting, deaths in care homes, the provision of personal protective equipment and an exit strategy.
Beginning by adding yesterday’s figures from the ONS and the Care Quality Commission to those of the daily recorded hospital deaths, the new Labour leader calculated a stark total of 27,241 deaths from Covid-19, warning that would probably be an underestimate because of the time lag in reporting. The UK is currently on track for “one of the worst death rates in Europe”, declared Starmer. And the rebuttal from Raab was an odd one, to say the least. “It is far too early to make international comparisons.” A particularly unconvincing argument, considering that every evening a minister is rolled out with a helpful graphic mapping the progress of the UK against other countries.
What happened to keeping below 20,000 deaths? The Labour leader asked. A benchmark that the chief scientific officer set out last month. The answer from Raab? This is an “unprecedented pandemic” and we should not criticise the attempt at a “forecast” – it would be nice to know exactly when this turned from a target to a prediction. And why are deaths going up in care homes? Starmer asked. Why did Raab say that care sector Covid-19 deaths were falling on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday? There is a challenge in the care sector, Raab admitted – one caused by the decentralised nature of care homes, he said, and the inability of the government to control the “ebb and flow” of people into the care settings. He refused to be drawn on his Sunday appearance, saying only that there were positive signs in care homes and that the figures are “within the margin of error”.
The Labour leader turned next to personal protective equipment, citing a survey from the Royal College of Physicians that revealed that one in four doctors reported not having adequate PPE. We are now ten weeks on from when the Health Secretary declared that there was serious and imminent threat to life. “You would hope that by now things would be getting better, not worse,” Starmer said. What is going on? He asked. A global shortage, Raab responded. And what about an exit strategy? Starmer pointed out that we are falling behind the many other countries that have published a strategy in some form, including France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and Wales. The government must tell the public what is happening, Starmer stated, in order to maintain their trust. But again the First Secretary refused to be drawn, saying that proposals will have to wait for SAGE to finish their analysis of the evidence, Raab said. While that sounds reasonable on face value, it obviously does not explain why our analysis seems to be behind those of other countries.
Returning to work earlier on Monday, Johnson had boldly said that “there will be many people looking now at our apparent success” in dealing with the crisis. Raab notably avoided making the same claim as his boss. This afternoon, we saw Starmer place the First Secretary in an awkward position as he reeled off a barrage of figures pointing at anything but success. Raab was forced to admit his “horror” at the numbers – and those numbers are only set to get worse. With the government today beginning to add deaths in care homes to the daily reporting for the first time, as Labour has called for, the coming weeks could reveal a death toll far worse than those of our European neighbours. No wonder Raab was so determined to keep away from any international comparison.