Starmer: “At every stage, the PM has overpromised and under-delivered”

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer accused the Prime Minister of having “overpromised and under-delivered” at “every stage” of the coronavirus crisis, after Boris Johnson delivered an update to the Commons on the government’s Covid-19 response.

Johnson was confirming to MPs that England will enter lockdown on Thursday, subject to a vote the day before, as revealed by the press and subsequently the government on Saturday. He also revealed further economic support.

Self-employed workers who are eligible for Covid grants will see support increased from 40% to 80% of average monthly trading profits for November only, which means the three-month grant is capped at £5,160 in total.

The Labour leader used his response in parliament this afternoon to emphasise “the human cost of the government’s inaction”, as he did in his address to the CBI this morning. Starmer had called for a ‘circuit break’ on October 13th.

“Three weeks ago, I called for a circuit break in England, in line with SAGE’s recommendation to bring infections down. The government completely rejected that, only to now announce the precise same thing,” Starmer said.

Labour MPs will be whipped to vote in favour of the tough national restrictions this week, and Starmer has backed the Prime Minister’s decision to keep nurseries, schools, colleges and university open – despite unions disagreeing.

But the opposition party is asking the government to use the four-week lockdown to improve the test and trace system, including the offer of regular access for some people to new, rapid turnaround saliva Covid-19 tests.

Labour intends to make the case for weekly, saliva-based testing of high-risk workers such as frontline NHS staff, plus those in education, transport, retail and hospitality, and of at-risk groups living in areas with the highest infection rates.

Urging Johnson not to “waste the time his late lockdown buys him”, Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth has called for the government to put “local public health experts in control” and “instigate retrospective contact tracing”.

Starmer also asked today for a government exit strategy from lockdown, highlighting that many areas of the country have been under tough restrictions for a long time, such as Leicester that is “on Day 127” of its strict Covid rules.

The Prime Minister did not offer clarity on a broader strategy for the coronavirus crisis, nor details of how areas will be able to leave the toughest restrictions once the four-month period is over. But on a circuit break, he said: “I make absolutely no apology”.

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s response in the Commons.

Mr Speaker, the central lesson from the first wave of this virus is that if you don’t act early and decisively, the cost will be far worse. More people will lose their jobs, more businesses will be forced to close and tragically, more people will lose their loved ones. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor failed to learn this lesson.

As a result, this lockdown will be longer than it needed to be – at least four weeks – it will be harder, we’ve just missed half-term, and the human cost will be higher. On 21st September, when the government’s own scientists – SAGE – recommended an “urgent” two-to-three week circuit breaker, there were 11 deaths from Covid-19 and just over 4,000 Covid infections.

For 40 days the Prime Minister ignored that advice. When he finally announced a longer and deeper national lockdown on Saturday, those figures had increased to 326 deaths a day and 22,000 Covid cases. That is the human cost of the government’s inaction.

The reality is that the two pillars of the Prime Minister’s strategy, the £12bn Track and Trace and regional restrictions have not only failed to stop the second wave, they’ve been swept away by it.

At every stage, the Prime Minister has been too slow and behind the curve. At every stage, he has pushed away challenge, ignored advice and put what he hoped would happen ahead of what is happening. At every stage, he has overpromised and under-delivered.

Rejecting the advice of his own scientists for 40 days was a catastrophic failure of leadership and of judgement. The Prime Minister now needs to explain to the British people why he failed to act and to listen for so long.

But tougher national restrictions are now needed. The virus is out of control and the cost of further inaction would be huge. So Labour will provide the votes necessary to make this happen but we will also demand that the government doesn’t waste these four weeks. And repeat past mistakes.

So can the PM answer some very simple and direct questions:

  • Will the government finally use this period to fix the broken track and trace system – and give control to local authorities, as we’ve been proposing for months?
  • We agree that schools must be kept open – so will PM finally put in place the additional testing, support and strategy needed to make sure this can happen?
  • Will the PM confirm that the new economic package – I think this will be the Chancellor’s fourth in five weeks – will be at least as generous as in March?
  • And will he go further to close the gaping holes in support for the self-employed and for the 1 million people who have already lost their job since March?
  • How does the Prime Minister plan to get a grip on messaging and rebuild public trust? After all, this announcement is only happening today because it was leaked to the national papers before parliament.
  • And finally, can he clarify what the process will be for exiting lockdown – will it be only when the national R-rate is below 1? Or will some regions exit lockdown before others?

This really matters because even before this this national lockdown millions of people have lived under restrictions for months. Leicester, for example, is on day 127.

After everything the British people have been through – and are being asked to sacrifice again – they need confidence that the government actually has a plan and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Mr Speaker, I know how difficult this next month will be. And the months to come. The lockdown will now be harder, longer and more damaging than it needed it to be.

But now, more than ever, we must stand together as a country, as families and as communities and show – once again – that at a moment of national crisis, the British people always rise to moment. And support those in need. Thank you.

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