PM’s handling of Covid has “eroded public confidence”, says Starmer

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer has argued that the “serial failure” of the Prime Minister to meet the Covid commitments he has made, combined with repeated leaks to the media, has “fatally eroded public confidence just when we need it most”.

Responding to a Commons statement delivered by Boris Johnson this afternoon, the Labour leader told MPs that he is “deeply sceptical that the government actually has a plan to get control of this virus”.

Starmer said Labour would “look at the small print”, discuss with local leaders the new three-tier lockdown plan outlined by Johnson and scrutinise the financial support measures being offered by the government.

Yet the opposition leader also declared to the Commons this afternoon: “We have tried to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, but it increasingly feels like the Prime Minister is behind the curve.”

Reminding those watching that it has only been three weeks since the Prime Minister came to parliament to outline the current Covid restrictions in place, Starmer said: “Those measures have not worked.

“We wouldn’t be here today if they had. And there’s a pattern here. On the 1st July, the Prime Minister told us of his whack-a-mole strategy to control local outbreaks.

“20 areas have now been in local lockdowns for over two months. 19 have seen their infection rates rise, some by very large amounts. So those measures have not worked either.

“In May, the Prime Minister boasted of a ‘world-beating’ track and trace system. He told us it would be a real game-changer in the fight against the virus… But last week, the figures were the worst yet.”

Official data last week showed that the scheme reached only 68.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England in the week ending September 30th, compared to the 97.1% of contacts reached by local teams.

The Prime Minister used his statement to parliament this afternoon to outline the new lockdown approach, which will see areas categorised into three tiers of restrictions according to alert levels ‘medium’, ‘high’ and ‘very high’.

He told the Commons today that the medium level means baseline restrictions already in place across the country, including the 10pm curfew for hospitality businesses and the ‘rule of six’ restriction.

Johnson then explained that the high alert level “reflects the interventions in many local areas at the moment”, with the rule of six in place for gatherings outdoors, in private gardens and public spaces.

He added that the very high level, applied where the “NHS could soon be unbearable pressure without further restrictions”, will mean a ban on social gathering indoors and include the closure of bars and pubs.

The government has seen growing opposition to its local lockdown approach to suppressing the virus, particularly in the North of England, and over its confused and last-minute messaging in the pandemic.

Criticism over the lack of communication between central and local government has increased in recent days as the press was briefed on changes to the Covid response in a series of leaks.

Lisa Nandy accused Johnson on Sunday of having “gone missing all weekend while these decisions are being made” amid leaks to the papers about changes to the government’s Covid strategy.

Several MPs representing northern constituencies complained earlier today after they received last-minute invitations to join Zoom calls with the Health Secretary, with some receiving the email just minutes before the meeting.

Oldham MP and Labour frontbencher Jim McMahon tweeted that he had received the invitation 20 minutes before it started, saying: “This is really poor even by current standards, like most things it appears an afterthought.”

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Sheffield Healey MP Louise Haigh quote tweeted McMahon’s comments, adding “you did better than us, I got my invite five minutes after the meeting had started”.

Labour MP for Warrington North Charlotte Nichols slammed the government after officials invited her to a briefing for the wrong area. She highlighted that her constituency is not in Merseyside or the Liverpool City region.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy took to social media after reports emerged that Manchester is to be placed in tier two, but revealed she was not invited to the meeting although her constituency of Wigan does fall within the region.

She tweeted: “Apparently there was a government briefing for Greater Manchester MPs but I can’t provide details because I wasn’t invited. I suspect this is because they don’t know where Wigan is. What an absolute shambles.”

Downing Street warned this morning that the country is at a “critical juncture” in its fight against the coronavirus after reports emerged that areas in the North, such as Manchester and Liverpool, were poised for new restrictions.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham welcomed the move to place the region in tier two, meaning that the city will avoid the toughest restrictions under the government’s new three-tier Covid response, calling it the “right decision”.

But Burnham added: “Any restrictions will lead to loss of trade for businesses and challenges for councils. The Prime Minister must give all areas under restrictions full financial support. Anything less will see them levelled down.”

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Starmer in the Commons today.

Mr Speaker, we are now at a critical moment. A “tipping point” to quote the deputy chief medical officer. We’ve all seen the clear – and alarming – trend in infection rates. The virus is now spreading in all areas of the UK – though much faster in some than others. There are more patients in hospital with Covid today than when the country went into lockdown on March 23rd. Nobody should be under any illusion about where this is heading. Or of the need for decisive action.

The question today is whether the restrictions announced by the Prime Minister can bring the country back from the brink. Whether they can regain control of the virus and provide the support and confidence that local businesses and communities need. That’s how high the stakes now are. So we will consider the package. We will look at the small print of the Prime Minister’s statement, we will discuss them with local mayors, councillors and leaders in the areas most affected. And we’ll scrutinise the economic package that sits alongside it. But I have to say to the Prime Minister, I am now deeply sceptical that the government has actually got a plan to get control of this virus, to protect jobs or regain public trust.

We have tried to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, but it increasingly feels like the Prime Minister is several steps behind the curve and running to catch up with a virus that he has lost control of long ago. It was less than three weeks ago – 22 September – the Prime Minister came to this House to announce new restrictions. He said then that the measures he was introducing would “curb the number of daily infections”. And were “carefully judged to achieved the maximum reduction in the R number”. That has not happened. Those measures have not worked. We would not be here today if they had.

And there’s a pattern here: On 1 July the Prime Minister told us of his new ‘whack a mole’ strategy to control local outbreaks. 20 areas have now been in restrictions for over two months. 19 have seen their infection rates rise – some by very large amounts. So those measures have also not worked. In May the Prime Minister boasted of the ‘world beating’ track and trace system. He told us it would be ‘a real game changer’ in the fight against the virus. We have debated this many times since. But last week the figures were the worst yet. In June he promised that 100% of test results would be turned around within 24 hours. The latest figure for in-person testing is just 24%.

This serial failure, combined with the repeated leaks and briefings to newspapers has fatally eroded public confidence just when we need it most. So can the Prime Minister tell us: What reassurance can he give that these measures will be sufficient to get the virus under control? Will he finally accept that trace and isolate should be handed over to local authorities – as we have said for months? Will he accept that the support packages announced by the Chancellor simply won’t work for many thousands of people. Particularly for those on the minimum wage? And will he confirm that mayors, council leaders and local leaders will be fully involved in any future decisions?

Finally, I want to say this to the Prime Minister: I know there are those on his side who will oppose further restrictions. There will be those who look at the data and tell him to disregard it. Or say that the cost of acting now is too high. I want to be clear: The worst thing the Prime Minister can do is not act quickly and decisively enough. Or to keep coming back to this House every couple of weeks with a new plan that doesn’t work and isn’t up to the scale of the task. We need to break that cycle, finally get on top of the virus, rebuild public confidence. I hope the measures announced today will do so. But the House, and the country, will be deeply sceptical whether they can.”

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