Today is back-to-work day for many across the country. Keir Starmer used his time in this Prime Minister’s Questions to present Boris Johnson with one of the key problems facing many workers: what to do about childcare? He also asked the government to publish the advice from SAGE used to make its decisions. But the pivotal moments came as he returned to quiz the PM on points he has now raised in successive sessions: the situation in care homes, the reporting of deaths, and comparisons of the UK’s coronavirus experience with that of other countries.
Starmer asked: was the government’s advice on coronavirus in care homes in place until March 12th wrong? He quoted from it: “It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected.” This opening salvo from the Labour leader saw Johnson contradict his own government’s advice, declaring that “it wasn’t true the advice said that”. People can see the guidance for themselves on the government’s own website.
The Labour leader then explained that the ONS had reported 18,000 additional deaths in care homes in April, yet only 8,000 are recorded by the government as Covid-19 deaths. “That leaves 10,000 additional and unexplained care home deaths.” How does the government explain these? Refusing to do so, the PM said that the “ONS is responsible for producing the data that they have”, but that the government has also produced data that shows an “appreciable and substantial reduction” in the number of deaths. This led Starmer to ask how can the PM fix the problem in care homes, which his government has repeatedly pledged to do, if “the numbers are not understood”.
Starmer turned to the comparison with other countries. Why did yesterday’s coronavirus press conference not feature the usual slide showing the UK’s progress against that of other countries? Could it be because we have now taken the “unenviable” position of having the most deaths in Europe? This led the Prime Minister to paradoxically suggest that it is “premature” for the leader of the opposition to draw international comparisons. “I’m baffled,” Starmer answered. “It’s not me seeking to draw the comparisons – these are the government’s slides that have been used for seven weeks to reassure the public.”
The question and answer session between the two party leaders showed the clearly diverging narrative being constructed by the government, as compared with those outside of it. The ease and frankness with which Johnson contradicted what his own government’s advice had said reveals much about his approach as Prime Minister. His flat refusal to engage with the question of 10,000 unexplained deaths, or the disappearance of the slides showing the international comparison, says more. The picture painted is far from a government ‘led by the science’, but instead represents one determined to bury its head in the sand and label this episode a success – whatever the data, whatever the evidence.