PMQs: “When it comes to confusion, the Prime Minister is a super spreader”

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer came to Prime Minister’s Questions well-armed today. The session followed the debacle of Boris Johnson’s lightning U-turn on his self-isolation over the weekend, and he made a virtual appearance this afternoon. It also came after the latest instalment in the Dominic Cummings psychodrama with an interview last night and further shocking WhatsApp exchanges revealed, in which Johnson said the median age of those dying with Covid was above average life expectancy and argued: “So, get Covid and live longer.” The Labour leader called for an apology. None was provided, though Johnson did seem to confirm the claims from Cummings relating to the over-80s, saying “what has changed since we were thinking in those ways is of course that we have rolled out vaccines faster than any other country”.

But the lion’s share of the debate this afternoon centred on the muddled messaging over isolation and the ‘pingdemic’. Starmer asked Johnson directly: “If someone is pinged by the NHS app, as millions will be over coming weeks, yes or no – should they isolate?” The PM said they should, telling MPs the government would be switching to a system of “contact testing rather than contact isolation” but until then isolation remains a “vital tool”. Starmer accused the government of being “all over the place on this”. He referred to ministers describing the app as an “advisory tool only” and saying it was “just to allow you to make informed decisions”. Starmer asked: “The British people are trying to follow the rules. How can they when his ministers keep making them up as they go along?”

The Labour leader also highlighted confusion over which workers and businesses might be exempt from isolating, highlighting that the position has changed several times since Johnson’s “completely unclear” announcement on Monday. “First, yesterday, there was going to be a list and then there wasn’t. And then the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said this, and I quote, ‘we are not seeking to draw lines specifically around who is or who is not exempt’,” he said. “How on earth are businesses supposed to plan when the Prime Minister keeps chopping and changing like this?”

Focusing on confused statements from the PM and ministers, Starmer hammered home his main point today: that the country is heading for a “summer of chaos” defined by a return to ‘go-to-work-don’t-go-to-work’ style messaging. His contribution echoed that of his speech on ‘freedom day’ earlier this week, which saw the Labour leader shore up his party’s opposition to the government’s plans. He continues to step up opposition to the government handling of the pandemic, something many from within his own party have long been calling for. “The Prime Minister keeps asking me if I will support his chaos,” Starmer told MPs. “No!”

Starmer focused intently today on the uncertainty once again coming from Johnson: “When it comes to confusion, the Prime Minister is a super spreader.” But his comments also linked the mismanagement of the crisis to Johnson’s wider unfitness to govern: “Nobody believes a word the Prime Minister says anymore”. As well as highlighting the U-turn on his isolation and exemptions for some workers, Starmer reminded parliament that Johnson has abandoned a number of other promises: to bring forward a plan for social care, not raise taxes, and to not cut the armed forces and the aid budget. “He also promised that Monday would be freedom day. He said 18 times from that despatch box that it would be irreversible.”

At the last PMQs before recess, the Labour leader prepared the ground for a summer of flip-flopping as Johnson attempts to square the circle of delivering on his promised ‘freedom day’ while increasing numbers are told to isolate. Starmer also ramped up the criticism that Johnson himself makes so easy for the opposition: that, whether on a Covid plan, his own conduct or manifesto pledges made at the last election, people simply cannot trust the Prime Minister.

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