Bill Heaney reports the FMQs clash between PM Bois Johnston and Labour leader Keir Starmer QC.

By Bill Heaney

Prime Minister Boris Johnston took yet another duffing up from the new Labour leader Keith Starmer at Question Time in the House of Commons today.

But the Tories got their retaliation in first when the PM agreed with Welsh MP Sarah Atherton that the UK-wide approach taken over the Covid alert level had been so successful that “we need to continue with it to beat the pandemic?”

That was the first blow in for Unionism, but until SNP leader Ian Blackford spoke later, it was the last in this coming together of the two leaders.

The PM was immediately on the back foot when Mr Starmer asked: “Yesterday, the Government announced the next stage of easing lockdown restrictions. If that plan is to work—and we want it to work—we need an effective track, trace and isolate system.
“The Prime Minister promised that a world-beating system would be in place by 1 June. The latest figures from yesterday’s press conference hosted by the Prime Minister show that 33,000 people are estimated to have covid-19 in England.
“The latest track, trace and isolate figures show that just over 10,000 people with covid-19 were reached and asked to provide contact details. I recognise the hard work that has gone into this, but if two thirds of those with covid-19 are not being reached and asked to provide contact details, there is a big problem, isn’t there?”
“On the contrary. I think that Mr Starmer has been stunned by the success of the test and trace operation. Contrary to his prognostications of gloom, it has got up and running much faster than the doubters expected.
“They are getting it done—Dido Harding and her team have recruited 25,000 people and so far they have identified and contacted 87,000 people who have voluntarily agreed to self-isolate to stop the disease spreading. I do not think Mr Starmer would have predicted that a few weeks ago.”
Things became feisty when  Mr Starmer accused the PM of not answering the question.
He said: “I was not asking about those who have gone into the system—the 10,000—or those who have been contacted; I was asking about the two thirds of the 33,000 with covid-19 who were not reached. That is a big gap.
“The Prime Minister risks making the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic—brushing aside challenge, dashing forward, not estimating the risks properly.
“If two thirds of those with covid-19 are not being contacted, that is a big problem. If we do not get track, trace and isolate properly running, we cannot open the economy or prevent infection from spreading, so let me ask the question in a different way.
“What is the Government’s strategy for closing the gap between the number of people with covid-19 and those going into the system—not what happens to those who go into the system?”
The PM looked flummoxed. He said: “I hesitate to accuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman of obscurantism. He is misleading on the key point. The number of people with covid in this country is, of course, an estimate.”

But this cost him a rap on the knuckles from the Speaker, who told him: ”

Order. Prime Minister, one of us is going to have to give way and it will have to be you. Obviously, no hon. Member misleads or ever would, whichever side they are from.”

He added, however: “Mr Starmer is inadvertently giving a false impression of what test and trace is doing. The 33,000 cases in the country is, of course, an estimate. NHS test and trace is contacting the vast majority of those who test positive and their contacts and getting them to self-isolate. It is a formidable achievement.

“Yesterday, Mr Starmer was kind enough to say that he supported our policy and our programme—I seem to remember him saying that loud and clear yesterday. Today—as I say, I understand the constraints of the profession in which he used to work; I know how it works—he seems to be yo-yoing back into a position of opposition. Which is it: is he supporting what we are doing or is he against it?”

Mr Starmer is a distinguished QC and member of the legal profession.

He hit back: “The figures I have, which the Prime Minister says are inadvertently misleading, are the slide at his press conference yesterday and the slide at the Government’s press conference last week—the latest figures.

“They are the two figures. I do support the next stage of the operation, but the Prime Minister is wrong to reject challenge. Sixty-five thousand people have lost their lives because of covid-19. The Prime Minister should welcome challenge that could save lives, rather than complaining about it.

Another risk to this plan is if local councils do not have the powers and resources to implement local lockdowns. There is a report today that eight out of 10 councils face bankruptcy or cutting services, with many of those in the north-east and midlands, where, as the Prime Minister knows, there are the worst affected areas for covid-19.

“The real concern among council leaders is that they do not have the powers or guidance to implement lockdowns quickly if needed. The Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council said it would be ‘interesting’ for central ‘government to confirm what is meant by the local lockdown”—including— “clear guidance as to those powers and what is expected of us’.  Can the Prime Minister tell us when local authorities will get the guidance that they need?”

Mr Johnston replied: “We have to remain extremely vigilant, and local councils will be supported in doing their vital work in implementing local lockdowns.”

Mr Starmer then turned to the controversial app which has taken its time in arriving to assist in the coronavirus war.

He said: “This really matters because unless someone with covid-19 can name and identify everybody they have been in contact with, the app is the only way of tracing unknown contacts.  The Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) made precisely that point yesterday.

“He gave the example, ‘How on earth do you trace everyone in close contact at a seafront or in a park without an app?’ Up until last week, the Government maintained that the app was ‘critical—another of their slides—but at the weekend the Health Secretary downplayed the app, saying it was only ever additional support. So which is it: critical or not?”

The PM must have felt he was on trial in court for a very serious offence.

Boriis speaking to packed parliamentBoris Johnston at the dispatch box in the House of Commons pre lockdown.

He told the Labour leader: “I wonder whether the PM can name a single country in the world that has a functional contract tracing app—there isn’t one. What we have—and what, I am afraid, has left the Opposition slightly foundering—is a very successful NHS test and trace operation, which yesterday they supported.

“Yesterday, they said it was good enough for this country to go forward with step 3 of our plan, but today they are yo-yoing back again and saying that it is not good enough. They need to make up their mind. They need to get behind NHS test and trace, support it and take the country forward together.”

To the PM’s great embarrassment, Mr Starmer immediately named a country when the app was working: “Germany. It had its app working on 15 June and it has had 12 million downloads—I checked that overnight.

“Twelve million—it is way beyond. The Health Secretary said that we would have the app by mid-May—presumably that was on advice. The Prime Minister said that we would have it by 1 June, but now Government Ministers say that it will not be ready until the winter. We have spent £12 million on this. Other countries are ahead of us. When are we going to have a working app?”

The PM said Mr Starmer was “completely wrong, because no country in the world has a working contact tracing app. I have always been clear—we have always been clear—that the app would be the icing on the cake.

“If we can get it to work, it will be a fine thing, but there is not one anywhere in the world so far. What we do have is a fantastic NHS test and trace operation that is already up and running, that is going to get better and better, and that will be indispensable to our future success. I think that he should support it and, by the way, that he should make it much clearer that he supports our programme going forward.

Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentions Labour councils and support for Labour councils, perhaps he might clear up the position of yesterday and say once and for all that Labour councils should now be encouraging children in their areas to go back to school. We heard some warm words from him yesterday. Can he now confirm that he wants all children who can go back to school to go back to school this month?”

Mr Starmer replied: “Yes. The only U-turn here was the Education Secretary on 9 June, who ripped up the Government’s plans to get children back into school before the summer break.

There is a theme to these exchanges. Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about two claims about child poverty. He said that absolute child poverty and relative child poverty ‘have both declined under this Government’.

“On Monday, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ruled that the Prime Minister’s answer was “mostly false”.

The Prime Minister also said that there are 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010. On Monday, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ruled that that was simply “false”. He has been found out. He either dodges the question or he gives dodgy answers.”

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