PMQs: Starmer highlights lessons not learnt in Johnson’s Covid response

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Taking part in Prime Minister’s Questions virtually while in self-isolation this afternoon, Keir Starmer kept up the opposition focus on schools. “Everybody agrees that opening schools should be a national priority, but that requires a plan.” He demanded that school staff be added to the first phase of the vaccination programme and told Boris Johnson to use the February half-term to vaccinate all teachers and school workers.

Starmer also highlighted the gaps in the pandemic response rendered by ineffective measures at the border. “Our schools are closed and our borders are open,” the Labour leader told the Commons this afternoon. He reiterated Labour’s call for the introduction of immediate hotel quarantining for all. “Everybody coming into the country, from anywhere in the world, should be tested and subject to quarantine in a hotel. Why can’t that be put into place today?”

The 100,000 death toll loomed large throughout the session. Last night, Johnson told the public through a televised briefing that the government has done everything it can to protect lives, but the Labour leader asked the PM today to outline exactly why the death toll is so high. “The question on everyone’s lips this morning is why,” Starmer told Johnson. “The Prime Minister must have thought about that question a lot. So could he tell us why he thinks that the UK has ended up with a death toll of 100,000, the highest number in Europe?”

Johnson, predictably, obfuscated. “There will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened, reflect on them and prepare,” he told MPs. “I don’t think that moment is now.” He has repeatedly used this line to distract from any criticism of the government response. But surely, as the UK has now surpassed 100,000 deaths, the argument is wearing thin? People should rightly expect the government, armed with scientific advisers and all the data, to be able to update and learn from its response as it goes. Indeed, throughout the crisis the government has changed its advice as we have learnt more about the virus – on the use of face masks, for example. Starmer said: “My biggest concern is that the Prime Minister hasn’t learned the lessons of last year and I fear that as a result we’ll see more tragedy and more grim milestones.”

The key message from Starmer today: the PM has repeatedly been too slow to act. “The Prime Minister was slow into the first lockdown last March,” he said. “He was slow in getting protective equipment to the frontline. Slow to protect our care homes. Slow on testing and tracing. Slow into the second lockdown in the autumn. Slow to change the Christmas mixing rules. Slow, again, into this third lockdown.” And, throughout, too slow to learn from his mistakes.

Chief among those mistakes, and missing from the Labour leader’s analysis today, is the consistently inadequate support to ensure people can isolate. Statutory sick pay, at £93 per week, is among the lowest in Europe and there remain numerous and well documented gaps in the Covid support schemes. As Jonathan Ashworth said this morning: “Ministers effectively expect people to go hungry in return for not spreading the infection.” Johnson’s repeated refusal to learn from what the government has got wrong means that he will continue to make the same errors. The pandemic is far from over; Downing Street must learn from its mistakes, and fast.

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