PMQs: Starmer walks a tightrope on Covid restrictions

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Boris Johnson came prepared to Prime Minister’s Questions session this afternoon. As Keir Starmer predictably kicked off with the Tory Excel blunder, which saw nearly 16,000 cases not passed on to contact tracers, Johnson had his answer ready and rehearsed. It was a technical error, a “computer glitch”. The Labour leader explained that if this were an “isolated example” (pun intended?), the public might be able to understand. “But there is a pattern here – on care homes, protective equipment, exams, testing,” Starmer said. “The Prime Minister ignores the warning signs, hurtles towards a car crash, looks in the rear mirror and says ‘what’s all that about?’ It is quite literally government in hindsight.”

Starmer told MPs that today marks 100 days since the introduction of the first local Covid restrictions, and highlighted that in 19 of the 20 areas with those measures infections had risen. “It’s obvious that something has gone wrong here,” he argued. “So what’s the Prime Minister going to do about it?” Johnson’s response was predictable. He accused Starmer of flip-flopping on the measures – a familiar line for the PM. He slammed the Labour leader for saying he supported the ‘rule of six’ previously, and pointed out that Labour abstained on a vote on the measure yesterday. “Let me take this slowly for him,” the Labour leader replied, looking not a bit exasperated. Labour supports measures and wants track and trace to work, he told him, “but the government is messing it up and it’s our job to point it out”.

But this afternoon highlighted the tricky position in which the Labour leader finds himself. One question is “screaming out”, he explained: “Is there a scientific basis for the 10pm rule?” If there is, he told the PM, publish it. If not, review the curfew. Johnson replied that the “basis” for the rule was enough for Labour to back it two weeks ago. The party has so far repeatedly backed Covid restrictions, arguing that the government has access to the scientific evidence and the opposition does not. And the Labour leader is keen to be ‘constructive’ in the crisis. Criticising the rules now – no matter how legitimate, after seeing their application – means Starmer falls into the Tory trap: seen to back the rules, only to later disagree with them. The nuance of the party’s position is buried under ‘Captain Hindsight’ accusations. Labour could change tack and only back measures for which the government can provide evidence – though Labour would risk being painted as undermining the ‘national effort’. Tricky all round.

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