Sir Keir Starmer today took the gloves off in his battle against Boris Johnson as he battered the Prime Minister over the Government’s test and trace programme, decision to reopen schools and transparency.
Sir Keir tried to use PMQs this lunchtime to score body blows on the PM over key parts of the Government’s coronavirus response.
But a furious Mr Johnson hit back and accused the Labour leader of delivering ‘endless attacks on public trust and confidence’.
Labour had adopted a largely constructive approach to the crisis to date, with the shadow cabinet seemingly reluctant to blast the Government in public.
But today marked a dramatic shift in approach as Sir Keir told Mr Johnson: ‘The Prime Minister is confusing scrutiny for attacks.’
The clashes at PMQs came as the Government faced growing pressure over the roll out of the NHS Test and Trace programme.
Reports suggest that the system is failing to trace the contacts of approximately 60 per cent of people who have tested positive for the disease.
Sir Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson repeatedly clashed at PMQs this lunchtime over the Government’s coronavirus response
Sir Keir accused the Prime Minister of breaking promises over the roll out of the NHS test and trace programme
Boris Johnson reveals plan for proxy voting for shielding MPs as he comes under attack over farcical MILE-LONG ‘socially distanced conga’ of MPs
MPs who cannot make it to Westminster because they are shielding because of age or ill-health will be allowed to vote by proxy, Boris Johnson said today.
The Prime Minister made the announcement as his Government faced widespread ridicule over a mile-long ‘socially distanced conga’ of politicians that snaked around Parliament yesterday.
MPs threw out temporary electronic voting measures brought in during the pandemic despite accusations it would disenfranchise those forced to shield at home because of their age, or specific health issues.
It resulted in hundreds of MPs having to queue for more than an hour in some cases, in a socially distanced snake that wound its way through halls, corridors and open spaces in the Westminster estate, before casting votes in the Commons chamber.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer used a feisty Prime Minister’s Questions today to label the scenes ‘shameful’ and pushed the Prime Minister to end the ‘completely unnecessary and unacceptable’ process and instead allow remote voting to resume.
He told the Commons: ‘If any other employer behaved like this, it’d be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equalities Act.’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘I do think (Sir Keir) needs to consider what is really going on throughout the country where ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods of time to do their shopping or whatever it happens to be.
‘I do not think it’s unreasonable that we should ask parliamentarians to come back to this place and do their job for the people of this country.
‘I know it’s difficult and I apologise to colleagues for the inconvenience and I apologise to all those who have particular difficulties because they’re shielded or elderly, the change we’re making today will mean they should be able to vote by proxy.’
Overnight, Sir Keir had attacked Mr Johnson for ‘winging it’ over easing the coronavirus lockdown.
The Labour leader said the premier will personally be to blame if coronavirus deaths spike again.
He also jibed that the way Mr Johnson had loosened the rules suggested there was ‘an exit but not a strategy’.
He stepped up his criticism of the PM at PMQs as he took Mr Johnson to task over apparent test and trace failings.
‘Two weeks ago today at the despatch box the Prime Minister promised that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1,’ he said.
‘But it isn’t. A critical element, the ability of local authorities to respond to local spikes is missing.
‘As one council leader put it to us, we are weeks away from having this up and running, we simply weren’t given enough warning.
‘The Prime Minister mutters it is not true. Dido Harding, the Prime Minister’s own chair of the track and trace system has said that this element will not be ready until the end of June.
‘The Prime Minister must have been briefed on this problem before he made that promise two weeks ago. So why did he make that promise?’
A furious Mr Johnson hit back and said: ‘I am afraid he is casting aspersions on the efforts of tens of thousands of people who have set up a test, track and trace system in this country from a standing start.
‘We now have 40,000 people engaged in this. Every person, thousands of people are being tested as he knows every day.
‘Every person who tests positive in this country, the track and trace system, is contacted, then thousands of their contacts are themselves contacted… and I can tell the House at the moment as a result of our test, track and trace system which was up and running on June 1 as I said, contrary to what he said, as a result of their efforts thousands of people are now following our guidance, following the law and self-isolating to stop the spread of the disease.’
Sir Keir then accused Mr Johnson of failing to use statistics in an appropriate manner after UK statistics watchdog David Norgrove yesterday delivered a devastating rebuke to Health Secretary Matt Hancock for his ‘misleading’ figures on testing.
‘The problem when the Prime Minister used statistics is that the statistics authority have had concerns on more than one occasion,’ he said before adding that Mr Johnson’s approach was ‘damaging’ to ‘public trust and confidence’ in the Government.
Mr Johnson replied: ‘I really do not see the purpose of his endless attacks on public trust and confidence when what we are trying to do, and I think what the public want to hear from politicians across all parties, is our clear messages about how to defeat this virus.
‘Test and trace is a vital tool in our armoury and contrary to what he says, we did by the end of May get up to 100,000 tests a day and we got up to 200,000 by the beginning of this month.’
Sir Keir sniped back: ‘The Prime Minister is confusing scrutiny for attacks. I have supported the Government openly and I have taken criticism for it.
‘But boy he makes it difficult to support this Government over the last two weeks.’
Sir Keir and Mr Johnson also clashed over the decision to reopen primary schools.
Responding to Mr Johnson’s call for ‘more co-operation’ from Labour, Sir Keir said he wrote to the Prime Minister two weeks ago to offer help to build a consensus for getting children back into schools but received no response.
Sir Keir said: ‘This is a critical week in our response to Covid-19. Whereas lockdown and stay at home were relatively easy messages, easing restrictions involves very difficult judgement calls.
‘So this is the week, of all weeks, where public trust and confidence in the Government needed to be at its highest.’
He noted that the director of the Reuters Institute said they had never seen such a drop in trust in 10 years, adding: ‘How worried is the Prime Minister about this loss of trust?’
Sir Keir said he had written to the PM on May 18 to offer Labour’s help in arriving at a consensus on reopening primary schools
Boris Johnson says ‘black lives matter’ as he condemns ‘inexcusable’ death of George Floyd
Boris Johnson insisted ‘black lives matter’ today as he condemned the ‘inexcusable’ death of George Floyd – but refused to criticise Donald Trump’s response.
Mr Johnson added his voice to condemnation as he was asked at PMQs about the wave of furious protests across the US, which have spread around the world.
Footage has emerged of a police officer kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck while he pleaded that he could not breathe.
Mr Johnson told MPs people had a ‘right’ to demonstrate, but dodged questions over the President’s crackdown and warning that ‘looting means shooting’.
Pressed by Labour’s Keir Starmer over whether he would pass on to Mr Trump the ‘UK’s abhorrence about his response to the events’, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think what happened in the United States was appalling, it was inexcusable.
‘We all saw it on our screens and I perfectly understand people’s right to protest what took place. Though obviously I also believe that protest should take place in a lawful and reasonable way.’
Mr Johnson denied the claim he had not responded, saying he ‘took the trouble’ to ring Sir Keir.
Labour subsequently said the phone call referred to by Mr Johnson was not a one-on-one call but a briefing with other opposition leaders.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir accused the PM of a lack of transparency over how lockdown easing decisions have been made and how that has been linked to the Government’s coronavirus alert system.
A visibly frustrated Mr Johnson slapped the despatch box as he replied: ‘He knows perfectly well that the alert level does allow it and he didn’t raise that issue with me when we had a conversation on the telephone and he knows the reason we’ve been able to make the progress we have – the five tests have been fulfilled.
‘So yes the alert level remains at four but as Sage will confirm we’ve managed to protect the NHS, got the rate of deaths down, rate of infection down, the PPE crisis, difficulties in care homes, the question of the R, they have been addressed.
‘The question for him is whether he actually supports the progress we’re making, because at the weekend he was backing it and now he is doing a U-turn, now he seems to be against the steps this country is taking.’
Mr Johnson also faced a grilling from MPs after the Government yesterday published an official report which showed Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (Bame) Britons were dying at a higher rate from coronavirus than their white counterparts.
Labour MP Andy Slaughter asked the PM what action will be taken to address the situation and to demonstrate that ‘black lives matter’.
Mr Johnson said: ‘He is wrong when he says that this Government was somehow forced to publish a review – this Government commissioned the review because we take it incredibly seriously, it is our review.
‘Yes, I do think it intolerable that Covid falls in such a discriminatory way on different groups and different communities in our country and that is why we are going to ensure that our minister for equalities takes up that report and sees what practical steps we need to step to protect those minorities.’
The Government launched the NHS Test and Trace system last week but it has been dogged by claims of early problems.
A leaked report suggested virus sufferers had provided details of 4,634 people they might have infected, of whom just 1,749 had been texted or emailed.
The Government has insisted the figures are out of date and do not paint an accurate picture.
Polls have suggested confidence in Mr Johnson has been slumping in the wake of the spat over Mr Cummings (pictured in Downing Street yesterday)
Ministers are also under pressure over the testing regime with the Government not revealing how many people are actually being tested, instead focusing on the number of tests carried out.
Health Minister Edward Argar today suggested it was not ‘important’ for the Government to know how many people have been tested.
He told Sky News: ‘What we have always said is we were talking about the number of tests carried out.
‘There is a very good reason for that which is because some people will have to have multiple tests and Matt has been very clear throughout this that the target number he is using is the number of tests carried out.’
Asked directly how many individuals were tested yesterday, Mr Argar said: ‘We carried out 135,645 tests. That is what we are focusing on. That is the important statistic.’