Keir Starmer has challenged the UK Conservative government today to match the August 7th ‘pingdemic’-ending date announced by the Labour administration in Wales. In England, the current plan is to change self-isolation rules, allowing fully-vaccinated people not to isolate if a contact tests positive for Covid, on August 16th. Boris Johnson recently described this date as “nailed on” in a bid to reassure his party that it would not be pushed back. But the UK Labour leader is now calling for it to be brought forward.
Welsh Labour will end the requirement for double-jabbed adults and under-18s to self-isolate after coming into contact with a positive case on August 7th, which is when Wales is expected to move to Covid alert level zero. (Scotland has also set an earlier date than England, August 9th, for lifting all remaining restrictions.) Self-isolation for those who have tested positive themselves remains a “powerful measure in helping to break the chains of transmission”, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said, but the fully vaccinated are “far less likely” to get Covid when identified as close contacts.
Making his demand, Starmer said: “This has been a summer of chaos for British businesses and British families. The Tory government has never been able to explain the logic of their self-isolation rules and has just repeated the same mistakes over and over again. While the British public have been trying to do the right thing, we saw this government’s instincts when Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak tried to avoid the isolation millions have had to endure.
“The government’s slapdash approach to this global pandemic is crippling our economy and creating real problems for businesses and families alike. Welsh Labour has shown what can be done and it’s time for the Tories to do the same.” The Labour leader first highlighted the ‘pingdemic’ problem at Prime Minister’s Questions on July 7th, when he warned that the combination of rising cases and increased socialising would mean for many “it won’t feel like ‘freedom day'”.
There are two interesting aspects to Starmer’s intervention today. The first is that it is somewhat counter-intuitive: Labour has been pushing for a more cautious approach to unlocking, yet here the party is asking for a quicker relaxing of the rules. This prompted a lawyer jibe from Johnson at PMQs earlier this month, when he said Starmer cannot “attack from lots of different positions at once” in politics unlike the law.
The second is that Starmer is making an effort to align the UK Labour position with the stance being taken by Welsh Labour. One of the key beliefs of the new leadership is that the national party can benefit from working alongside and taking its lead from Labour where it is in power, i.e. local government and Wales. This has proved difficult at times during the pandemic, however. Drakeford disagreed with Starmer’s call to vaccinate teachers first, for example.
Most recently, Labour has been objecting to the 3% pay rise for NHS staff being offered by the Tories, but spokespeople are often confronted with the fact that Welsh Labour is make the same offer to workers. Starmer replied, somewhat unconvincingly, that it was different because in Wales morale hadn’t first been undermined with the offer of a mere 1% rise. Andy McDonald, also faced with this question on LBC, was allowed to simply say wages in the NHS should be higher generally and move on.
The apparent contradictions in Starmer’s Covid positions aren’t too worrisome: the Labour leader is betting that his ‘pingdemic’ message will mainly reach those most affected and concerned by the enforced isolation of people who could be Covid-free, i.e. business owners and managers. Meanwhile, the NHS pay example shows clashes with Welsh Labour can undermine UK Labour messaging, providing a good ‘gotcha’ for reporters. This is a sign that the kind of alignment seen on self-isolation today should be applied more consistently, or where that isn’t possible there should at least be better arguments prepared.