PMQs: First come, first served? Starmer drills down on detail of vaccine roll out

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer schooled Boris Johnson on the proper way to abstain this afternoon. After the Prime Minister chastised the Labour leader for abstaining in the vote on the new tier system, Starmer highlighted Johnson ducking the division on Heathrow expansion – which he had previously vowed to do all he could to stop – with a timely trip in 2018. “When I abstain,” he said. “I come to the House and explain. When the Prime Minister abstains, he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.” Starmer also used PMQs today to press the PM on what support the government will provide to those affected by the collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams, to which Johnson had no answer. Nevertheless, the PM managed to land a blow at the end on Labour’s abstention on Tuesday evening: “Captain Hindsight is rising rapidly up the ranks and has become General Indecision.”

But the real focus of the day was the vaccine, of course. The hopeful news that the UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine for use next week. The Labour leader stressed the issues on everyone’s mind: who gets it first? How will it be rolled out, and even with the vaccine, how do we combat fake, anti-vaxer disinformation to ensure adequate uptake? He highlighted that the number of people in the two top priority groups in the first phase of the rollout (care home residents and their carers, those over 80 and frontline health and social care workers) exceed the 400,000 vaccines available. He referred to concerns raised by the Welsh Labour government that the extremely low temperature needed for the vaccine mean it cannot currently be administered to care homes.

The PM had no detailed answers for the leader of the opposition this afternoon. He said the government is working on the “logistical challenges”; mentioned the long- (and still) awaited online harms bill to combat disinformation; and stressed that people should not “get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we’ll be able to roll out this vaccine”. That shouldn’t be too hard for everyone, given the multitude of monumental cock ups over personal protective equipment, the app, the NHS test and trace system, employment and business support, restrictions and more since March. Though detailed answers were not given, the Labour leader laid the groundwork for the questions that will surely dominate over the coming months. The news today is good, possibly the best in nine months, but we are by no means through this crisis. The UK is now armed with a vaccine. But, based on its record so far, how much can we trust this government on its roll out?

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