Keir Starmer, predictably but rightly, took the opportunity of Prime Minister’s Questions today to remind the House of Commons of what Boris Johnson had said at the last session four weeks ago. Then Prime Minister told us then that we were seeing a significant reduction in the virus, there was no need for endless lockdowns and no need to change the rules for Christmas, the Labour leader recalled. Since then, 17,000 people have died with Covid, 60,000 have been admitted to hospital and there have been over a million new cases. “How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong?”
Boris Johnson’s responses were less than convincing. He argued that the government advice changed soon after that PMQs session, then he swiftly moved on to thanking everyone involved in the Covid-19 effort and pointing out that the UK’s vaccination programme is delivering more doses than any other country in Europe. But the truth, as Starmer highlighted, is that the government’s scientific advisory group said on December 18th that a tougher lockdown would be needed, yet Johnson delayed for 17 days before implementing the advice.
The Prime Minister had rebuttals prepared. It’s a “bit much” to be attacked in this way “when Labour were themselves calling then to keep schools open”, he told Starmer. Unfortunately for the opposition leader, it is true that Labour got it wrong on schools. While defenders of the position argued that not everyone can switch to working on Zoom or take time off, and that it would be irresponsible to demand closures without a plan in place to keep children learning, the bottom line is that closures were inevitable. And if Labour had a policy of not calling for further restrictions unless the government already had a good plan to provide support alongside them, it would hardly ever call for tougher rules.
Johnson also cleverly used PMQs this week to announce new policies, which successfully distracted from his own past failures. The vaccination programme will be “going to 24/7 as soon as we can”, he revealed, despite his spokesperson saying only earlier this week that there was “no clamour” for 24/7 vaccinations. The Prime Minister made the newsworthy point, too, of not ruling out the possibility of tougher restrictions. Labour had prepared a decent story, on government guidance for free school meals having striking similarities to the much-criticised parcels given out, but both of Johnson’s revelations will have stolen the limelight.