Cautious Starmer highlights risks being taken by Johnson on Covid and Brexit

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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“We are heading for a summer of chaos and confusion,” Keir Starmer has warned. He used Prime Minister’s Questions to highlight that Covid case rates are high despite the successful vaccine rollout because the government allowed in the Delta variant – or the “Johnson variant” (a decent line that had already been used by Nick Thomas-Symonds, but that reached a wider audience yesterday). The Labour leader advocated opening up “in a controlled way” instead of the sudden wholesale lifting of restrictions set to take place on the 19th. But at the same time, Starmer cast doubt over ‘freedom day’, pointing out that millions could be pinged to isolate over the summer and people would increasingly delete the test and trace app to avoid such disruption.

“It won’t feel like ‘freedom day’ to those who have to isolate,” the opposition leader said. This prompted another lawyer jibe from Boris Johnson, who offered a lesson in politics: “This is unlike the law, where you can attack from lots of different positions at once. To oppose, you must have a credible and clear alternative.” Starmer’s criticisms may appear contradictory: does he want people’s lives to be disrupted by Covid restrictions or not? Labour is taking the position that it disagrees with the unlocking plan – and it won’t work anyway. That this might be a confusing position at first probably doesn’t matter. Starmer does have an alternative proposal, which is uncontroversial and supported by the public: keep masks compulsory, improve ventilation, offer support for isolation.

More importantly is the underlying point that Johnson is preparing to take a big risk later this month. Worried about his backbenchers and without more pro-restriction voices Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings around him, the Prime Minister justifies the July 19th plan with the explanation that the vaccine programme has “severed the link between infection and serious disease and deaths”. But it has not been severed, only weakened. And will cases rise so much that the balance is tipped too far for this to matter? And not everyone has yet been vaccinated. And for the immunosuppressed, of which I am one, there has been no advice so far. As Labour’s immunocompromised shadow minister Vicky Foxcroft has repeatedly raised, we have not been given access to antibody testing, nor has the government released the results of research into the efficacy of the vaccine for those in this situation.

Showing yet more indifference to those more vulnerable in health or financial terms, the government has confirmed that it will be cutting Universal Credit by £20 a week from the end of September. Although MPs across the chamber including Conservatives had called on ministers to keep the Covid ‘uplift’, Rishi Sunak has repeated the line: “It was always intended to be temporary.” Following the match last night, Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds has said the cut will affect six million people here receiving Universal Credit, which is more than the entire population of Denmark.

Keir Starmer watched the football in a Belfast pub yesterday as he is on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland. Marking the start of his trip, he has written for The Times to warn that Boris Johnson’s “dishonesty now risks the stability of the peace process”. Labour is willing to talk about Brexit and keen to build on its recent work on Northern Ireland, such as Louise Haigh’s Good Friday Agreement education programme. As with Covid, cautious Starmer will be looking to emphasise that the Prime Minister’s risky and irresponsible approach to these matters – very different to the Labour leader’s own style – can have serious consequences. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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