PMQs: 130,000 deaths? An incompetent government? Nothing to see here

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Boris Johnson predictably faced questions over evidence given to select committees by his former adviser Dominic Cummings this morning. Keir Starmer challenged the Prime Minister over whether several of the allegations made were true, including that Johnson had been told by Cummings, senior officials and the Cabinet Secretary to sack Health Secretary Matt Hancock for lying, and that the PM argued “Covid is only killing 80-year-olds” when delaying lockdown last autumn. The response from Johnson? People do not care, they want the government to focus on unlocking the country and Starmer is just “fixated on the rear-view mirror”.

Lying strewn behind the proverbial car of government is at least 130,000 dead people. Many might think this is a good enough reason to spend some time considering what went wrong over the past year. As the Labour leader highlighted this afternoon, more than 83,000 people over the age of 80 have lost their lives to the virus. The decision to delay the lockdown last year, 40 days from when it was advised by SAGE, Starmer told the PM, “will be seen as one of the single biggest failings of the last year”. And, as he noted, the PM was careful not to refute that he had said the callous words, or words to that effect.

Perhaps one of the most brazen claims made by Johnson during the session today was that nobody could “credibly” claim that the government had been complacent. Again, something many could reasonably take issue with. Remember, for example, when the PM boasted that he shook hands “with everybody” while visiting a hospital where there were confirmed Covid cases in May last year? And Starmer again quoted Cummings, where the former Johnson ally alleged the PM had dismissed the virus as just “another scare story, like the swine flu” and that the Johnson had wanted to be injected with Covid on live TV to show it was not harmful.

“There’s a pattern of behaviour here. There was clearly a lack of planning, poor decision making and a lack of transparency,” Starmer told MPs. “A Prime Minister who was absent from the key decisions including five early COBRA meetings and, to quote his former adviser, 1000% too obsessed with the media.” In light of these allegations, and continuing mistakes from the government such as the confusion sparked over recent, muddled changes to Covid guidance, Starmer argued the public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic should be brought forward to this summer – rather than being held next year as Johnson has announced. The PM refused, arguing against devoting resources to an inquiry now.

Johnson rejected the charges levelled at him today by Starmer, instead accusing the Labour leader of flip-flopping over curfews, lockdowns and border controls. He argued that the government has “got on with the job” of protecting people from the pandemic “no thanks to the loyal opposition opposite”. The evidence session from Cummings, still ongoing at the time of writing, provided the Labour leader with plenty of ammunition. But will people care? Johnson claimed they would not, telling parliament that Starmer “continues to play pointless political games whilst we get on with delivering on the people’s priorities”, adding: “They vacillate, Mr Speaker, we vaccinate. They deliberate, we deliver.”

This is the problem for Labour: whether the Conservatives will be punished for their failure. Support among the public for a Covid inquiry is high, twice that of those in opposition. Clearly, people think the government has questions to answer. According to polling in the week before the elections earlier this month, 42% of people described Johnson himself as corrupt. Yet Labour still suffered badly in the elections in England, for the most part. Holding the government to account is an important part of the opposition’s job, and the PM needs to answer for his actions over the last year and the hundreds of thousands of lost lives. But if Labour wants to get into power and change anything, it must offer more than a criticism of the Conservatives. Banging the Tory/Johnson-failure drum will only get the party so far.

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