Keir Starmer laid out the stark human cost of the delay in introducing a lockdown in Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon. On the day government scientists advised the Tory administration to implement a ‘circuit break’ lockdown, he told parliament, 11 people died of Covid. 42 days later, the daily death toll was 397. A “35-fold increase”, the Labour leader highlighted. Does the PM understand the human cost? And what about the economic cost? Businesses will now be forced to close for longer than if Boris Johnson had acted earlier. Branding it a “huge failure in leadership”, the Labour leader explained that neither he nor the public buys the argument that the facts “suddenly changed this weekend”.
The Labour leader was on safe territory. Although his demand for a two-week circuit break at the time may have seemed bold, it was not electorally risky. Polling last month showed that voters backed the call by a margin of almost two to one. Moving onto the newly announced measures today, he asked if the lockdown will end “come what may”, even if infections are rising, on December 2nd? Johnson told MPs the restrictions will “expire automatically” after four weeks, adding that “it will be up to the House of Commons to decide thereafter what to do”. Highlighting next the problems with NHS test and trace, Starmer slammed Johnson over the latest figures: 113,000 contacts not reached in a one-week period, only 20% of those who should be isolating are doing so and the majority of people still cannot get a test within 24 hours. “What’s he going to do”, Starmer asked, “in the next four weeks to fix this?”
The groundwork for the clash in parliament today had been laid weeks ago. A gap between the government and its own experts emerged over a lockdown and by clearly following the advice of the scientists the Labour leader had only to wait for the inevitable U-turn. This afternoon saw the Labour leader laying the next traps Johnson could walk into. He attempted to tie Johnson down with a commitment to end the lockdown within four weeks, with the risk for the PM of either having to U-turn or potentially clash again with his own experts. And on NHS test and trace, Starmer has handed the PM a new deadline of December 2nd to fix the system. The consequence for getting that wrong? Facing the public anger of being back in the same position, four weeks further down the line, in the fight against Covid.