Starmer criticises “reckless free-for-all” and calls on PM to reconsider Covid plans

Elliot Chappell

Keir Starmer has declared that Labour does not support ‘freedom day’ and urged ministers to “think again on their reckless plan, before it is too late”, warning that the country is heading for an “NHS summer crisis”.

Addressing the public this afternoon, after nearly all Covid restrictions were removed today, Starmer criticised the Prime Minister’s leadership, saying “his character causes chaos” and “his leadership causes mayhem”.

The Labour leader argued that the lifting of almost all restrictions at once today, described as ‘freedom day’ by ministers, is reckless, adding: “Doing so when the ‘Johnson variant’ is already out of control risks a summer of chaos.”

Starmer said: “Freedom day is just the latest in a long list of slogans not backed up by policy. This will not be freedom day for the 100,000 per day catching Covid, and the millions more being asked to isolate.

“It is far from freedom day for the 3.7 million clinically vulnerable who have once again been ignored. The government has once again lost control of this virus and lost public trust in their messaging.”

He highlighted mistakes made by Johnson throughout the health crisis, including being slow to lock down in the first wave of cases, ignoring expert advice to lock down sooner last autumn and allowing the Delta variant into the country this year.

“We all needed the government to succeed in the pandemic and that’s why supporting the government during the pandemic was the right thing to do for the country,” he said. “But the truth is the Tories have got virtually every big decision wrong. Either in substance, in timing or both.”

The Labour leader’s comments follow the news that Rishi Sunak and the Prime Minister were contacted by NHS test and trace due to having close contact with Sajid Javid, who tested positive for the virus last week.

A Downing Street statement initially said that the pair had been selected for a scheme allowing them to continue working on “only essential government business” for the usual isolation period, provided that they take daily Covid tests.

Ministers defended the decision not to isolate on the Sunday politics shows, confirming that Johnson and Sunak were taking part in the pilot. But within three hours of its previous statement, Downing Street U-turned on the decision.

“It’s possible to forgive an unprecedented situation if ministers hearts are in the right place and they’re trying their best,” Starmer said this afternoon. “But we’ve seen chaos, confusions and cronyism at the heart of government.

“We had another example of it this weekend when the Prime Minister and the Chancellor claimed that they had miraculously been selected for a trial so they could avoid isolation – isolation that hundreds of thousands of the rest of us have dutifully taken.

“With family events cancelled, businesses having to close and workers going without pay, Johnson’s and Sunak’s attempts to dodge isolation were crass and insensitive. At a time when we need to maintain confidence in self-isolation, parents workers and businesses will be wondering what on earth is going on in Downing Street.”

Starmer has written to the Prime Minister as there are “too many unanswered questions”. He has called for information on when Johnson was contacted, where he was and how many other ministers have benefited from the scheme.

Johnson released a video on Sunday evening telling viewers that he and the Chancellor would be self-isolating until Monday 26th. He claimed they “did look briefly at the idea of us taking part in the pilot scheme” before deciding against it.

Starmer argued that this statement “rides coach and horses through the claim that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak had been magically selected for the trial”, and told viewers that the pair only opted to self-isolate because they were “busted”.

He also criticised the decision of the Prime Minister to undertake his self-isolation at his country residence, Chequers, rather than remaining at his Downing Street home, saying: “You’d have thought that given the amount of money spent on refurbishing Downing Street, he’d have been happy staying there.”

Starmer added: “There are hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to miss family events, close businesses and go without pay because they have done the right thing. Yet ministers have played the system.”

The row over the ministers isolating came shortly before the removal of Covid rules today. Although the day has been described as a step towards a “return to normal” by Johnson, more than a million people have been instructed to self-isolate.

Ahead of the reopening, Labour called on ministers to continue to require people to wear masks in certain environments, help businesses and other venues to ensure increased ventilation and for people to work from home if possible.

Starmer reiterated his support for these measures remaining in place this afternoon, and added that all three are mitigations that the scientific advisory group on emergencies (SAGE) had said should continue past ‘freedom day’.

“We would also accelerate the vaccine programme for young people, we would fix the payments for those that need to self-isolate,” he added. “We would retain free tests, which were at risk just a few weeks ago and we would up the capacity of the NHS and personal protective equipment.”

Jonathan Ashworth warned on Sunday that the removal of restrictions today could “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”, highlighting the increased risk of transmission and creation of Covid variants that might be more vaccine resistant.

Sadiq Khan told Sky News this morning that he was disappointed the government had not made face coverings compulsory on public transport across the country. People are still required to wear masks on all TfL services.

The London mayor also called on the government to “look into the possibility of bringing forward the date – it’s currently the 16th August – after which you don’t need to self-isolate if you’ve had both jabs and you do a test”.

“Many of us have now had two jabs and we may be pinged but we’ve not got the virus and that’s why it’s really important for the government to look into whether it’s a proportionate response, now we’ve had both jabs,” he told viewers.

Below is the full text of Starmer’s speech this afternoon.

During this pandemic government decisions have been a matter of life and death. Good decisions have had the power to save thousands of lives. Bad decisions have led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. So we have all needed the government to succeed during the pandemic. That’s why supporting the government during the pandemic was the right thing to do for our country. But the truth is the Tories have got virtually every big decision wrong either in substance or timing or both. People have died. Tragically, more will do so.

It is possible to forgive an unprecedented situation, if ministers’ hearts were in the right place and they were trying their best. But we have seen chaos, confusion and cronyism at the heart of this government. We had yet another example this weekend. When the Prime Minister and Chancellor claimed they had miraculously been selected for a trial so that they could avoid isolation. Isolation that hundreds of thousands of the rest of us have dutifully taken. The Tories’ instincts were revealed yet again: one rule for them, and another for everyone else.

With family events cancelled, businesses having to close and workers having to go without pay, Johnson and Sunak’s attempts to dodge isolation were crass and insensitive. At a time when we need to maintain confidence in self isolation, parents, workers and businesses will be wondering what on earth is going on in Downing Street. That’s why I’ve written to the Prime Minister, because there are still far too many unanswered questions. The Prime Minister claims he “did look briefly at the idea” of taking part in the pilot scheme. This rides a coach and horses through the claim that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak had been magically selected for this trial. And it is completely inconsistent with a Downing Street press release saying they were “participating” in the pilot.

Let’s be clear, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak only went into isolation because they were busted. But we have seen their instincts on show yet again: it’s one rule for them, and another for the rest of us. The government needs to publish all the details of how ministers deemed themselves eligible for this scheme at a time when the public have not had the same access to it. And there are more questions arising from the Prime Minister isolating at Chequers. Did Boris Johnson travel to his country retreat after Sajid Javid first had symptoms? You would have thought given the amount of money spent refurbishing Downing Street he would have been happy staying there as the Chancellor has. But we know the Prime Minister likes to look for a loophole.

We need to know when the Prime Minister was contacted and where he was. We know Michael Gove tried this ploy back in May after the Champions League final. Will the government now release a full list of Conservative ministers who have benefitted from the trial and avoided self-isolation? Many businesses and individuals have struggled to do the right thing and follow the rules. They would have benefited from this policy. Tube workers on the London Underground, which is now facing staff shortages due to self-isolation leading to delays and cancellations? They could have benefited from this policy. But contrary to the government’s claims, Transport for London has not yet been confirmed as a participant in the scheme.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to miss family events, close businesses and go without pay because they have done the right thing. And yet ministers have played the system. Children sent home from school after a positive case in their bubble, NHS staff working overtime to cover staff absences and businesses struggling to run a normal level of service due to their employees self-isolating. These people deserve an immediate answer from ministers about the Cabinet’s participation in this scheme.

This cannot go on. The public need clear leadership at this time, not this hypocritical way of trying to do things that just undermines confidence in the rules and puts lives at risk. We can’t afford to get this wrong. The price we’ll all pay is far far too high. So I call on the Prime Minister to join me in urging everyone, including his ministers and mates, to continue to follow the rules on self-isolation. The government urgently needs to change course, drop plans to lift all restrictions and rebuild public faith in the isolation system they have undermined at the same time.

The chaotic, incompetent way Boris Johnson conducts himself is dangerous. It makes for bad government and has deadly consequences for the British public. Wave one – more people died and more economic damage was done because the Prime Minister was too slow to act, stuck at Chequers when he should have taken charge. Wave two – more people died and more economic damage was done because of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s decision to ignore the science and delay a lockdown in the autumn. This deadly error was made worse by a failed Christmas gamble that caused heartache for so many. Wave three – more people died and more economic damage was done. Just as the NHS and the British public had given us light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine programme, the Prime Minister threw the country into chaos once again by delaying border controls and allowing the Johnson variant into the country. And now a reckless free for all. His character causes chaos. His leadership causes mayhem.

Labour does not support the government’s plan. Lifting all restrictions at once is reckless – and doing so when the Johnson variant is already out of control risks a summer of chaos. We’re heading for an NHS summer crisis. We will always support jobs and livelihoods but Johnson’s recklessness risks plunging us back into restrictions again. Freedom day is just the latest in a long list of slogans not backed up by policy. This will not be freedom day for the 100,00 per day catching Covid, and the millions more being asked to isolate. It is far from freedom day for the 3.7 million clinically vulnerable who have once again been ignored. The government has once again lost control of this virus and lost public trust in their messaging. They need to think again on their reckless plan, before it is too late.

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