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PM too slow to act throughout Covid pandemic, says Starmer

Simon Murphy Political correspondent
·4-min read

Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of being slow to implement a series of measures during the pandemic, as he piled pressure on the prime minister to explain why the UK’s official Covid-19 death toll had passed 100,000.

Appearing at prime minister’s questions via video link from home, where he has been isolating, the Labour leader argued that Johnson had been slow on a number of issues throughout the crisis, including imposing lockdowns, providing PPE to frontline workers, protecting care homes, and getting test-and-trace efforts working.

Starmer also pressed Johnson about plans to get children back in classrooms, calling on him to bring forward the vaccination of teachers and school staff so they can receive jabs once people in the first four priority categories have had theirs by mid-February.

He said: “Yesterday we passed the tragic milestone of 100,000 Covid deaths in the United Kingdom. That’s not just a statistic. Behind every death is a grieving family, a mum, a dad, a sister, a brother, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour.

“The question on everyone’s lips this morning is: why? The prime minister must have thought about that question a lot. So could he tell us why he thinks that the United Kingdom has ended up with a death toll of 100,000, the highest number in Europe?”

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Johnson – who insisted his government “did everything we could” and was “deeply sorry for every life lost” when the figure was recorded on Tuesday – said he mourned “every death in this pandemic”. He said: “I and the government take full responsibility for all the actions I have taken, we’ve taken, during this pandemic to fight this disease. And, yes … there will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of… what has happened, reflect on them and prepare.”

He added: “I don’t think that moment is now, when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant, when 37,000 people are struggling with Covid in our hospitals, and I think what the country wants is for us to come together as a parliament and … as politicians and to work to keep the virus under control… as we are, and to continue to roll out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe.”

Starmer continued to press Johnson for an answer on why the UK had a Covid death toll higher than almost anywhere else in the world. He said: “The problem with the prime minister avoiding the question of ‘why?’ is that vital lessons won’t be learned.

Related: Here are five ways the government could have avoided 100,000 Covid deaths | Devi Sridhar

“The reality is this: the prime minister was slow into the first lockdown last March, he was slow in getting protective equipment to the frontline, slow to protect our care homes, slow on testing and tracing, slow into the second lockdown in the autumn, slow to change the Christmas mixing rules, slow again into this third lockdown, delaying 13 days from 22 of December before implementing it. And I fear that he still hasn’t learned that lesson.”

Turning his attention towards efforts to get children back in schools, Starmer said: “Everybody agrees that reopening our schools should be a national priority but that requires a plan and the prime minister hasn’t got a plan. So, as a first step, does he agree with me that once the first four categories of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated by mid-February he should bring forward the vaccination of key workers and use the window of the February half-term to vaccinate all teachers and all school staff?”

The top four categories in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s priority list include all those 70 and over, the clinically extremely vulnerable, residents in care homes for older people and their carers, as well as frontline health and social care workers. Categories five to nine cover those aged 50 and over, as well as people aged 16-64 with underlying health conditions putting them at risk of serious disease.

Responding to Starmer – who described the February half-term as a “fantastic opportunity” to vaccinate school teachers and staff – Johnson said all teachers in priority groups one to nine would be vaccinated “as a matter of priority”. But Starmer said he was “none the wiser” as to whether the prime minister agreed with him on the point.