Keir Starmer has backed the new coronavirus measures unveiled by the government as “necessary” but criticised the Prime Minister for ignoring warnings and described the restrictions as “not inevitable”.
Responding to a parliamentary statement by Boris Johnson this afternoon, the Labour leader said both his party and experts had warned the government that the testing regime would need to be prepared for increased autumn demand.
Starmer told the Commons: “Given the rise in restrictions we’re seeing, these measures are necessary. But they were not inevitable. We warned the Prime Minister months ago that testing needed to be fixed by the autumn.
“The Academy of Medical Sciences told him the same in July. They said: ‘Testing and tracing capacity will need to be significantly expanded to cope with the increased demand over the winter’. But the government didn’t listen.”
The Labour leader argued that there is still time to prevent a second national lockdown being introduced, but said that stopping one would need a “national effort”. He committed his party to supporting that effort.
Starmer added: “Labour will do whatever is reasonable and necessary to support that, to save lives and protect the NHS, but the government must lead. And it must do so fast.”
The measures outlined by the Prime Minister this afternoon include a 10pm curfew for hospitality venues and an extension of the ‘rule of six’ to encompass indoor sports teams, alongside an encouragement for people to work from home.
Johnson also told the public today that, if the ‘R-rate’ does not fall back below one, then “significant” additional restrictions could be introduced and people should expect the current ones to remain in place for the next six months.
Starmer highlighted the absence of any announcement of financial support for people or businesses alongside the new restrictions. He reiterated his call for the government to work with Labour to save jobs in the pandemic.
The Labour leader said: “These restrictions will put further pressures on the hospitality sector, on high streets and town centres, on people’s jobs and businesses.
“So, what emergency financial support will be made available to those that need it? There was nothing in the Prime Minister’s statement about that – there’s a big gap here.”
He repeated Labour’s call for the government to end its ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to withdrawing furlough support at the end of October, asking the Prime Minister to now accept that to do so would be a “disaster” and at odds his the measures.
The full list of measures announced by Johnson this afternoon include:
- Office workers should work from home again where possible;
- From Thursday, all pubs, bars and restaurants must be table service only and close at 10pm – but delivery services can remain open;
- The requirement to wear a face covering has been extended to staff in retail, people in taxis and everyone using hospitality services;
- Fines for not wearing a face covering will now double to £200 for a first offence;
- Only 15 people can now attend weddings but 30 can go to a funeral;
- The rule of six has been extended to indoor sports teams; and
- Phased reopening of stadiums for sports clubs has been cancelled.
Commenting on the new restrictions this afternoon, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “With infections rising, the government must get a grip on test and trace and safety at work.
“Workers are still telling us that employers are not enforcing social distancing or providing personal protective equipment to keep them safe.
“Ministers must make it a legal requirement for companies to publish their risk assessments. If we don’t deal with the public health crisis, we won’t be able to deal with the economic one.”
O’Grady argued that it is clear the pandemic will not be over by Christmas, and added that “neither should state support for jobs”. She declared: “The Prime Minister says he will put his arms around the workforce. Let’s see him prove it.
“Warm words will not pay the bills or save livelihoods. The government must come forward with a new jobs protection and training deal that support short-time working to stop the disaster of mass unemployment.”
Labour on Monday attributed the recent increase in the number of cases to government “incompetence and failure” after a televised Covid briefing suggested that the country is on course for up to 50,000 new daily cases by mid-October.