The country faces a “summer of chaos and confusion” amid spiralling Covid infection rates because Boris Johnson has buckled to pressure from his MPs and is reopening the economy in a reckless way, Keir Starmer has told MPs.
The Labour leader used prime minister’s questions to lambast Johnson over plans to abandon virtually all restrictions in England from 19 July, saying the PM was trying to “wish away” the knock-on impact of hospital admissions, long Covid cases and millions forced to self-isolate.
“It’s clear what this is all about,” Starmer said. “He’s lost a health secretary, he’s lost a byelection, and he’s getting flak from his own MPs. So he’s doing what he always does: crashing over to the other side of the aisle, chasing headlines, and coming up with a plan that hasn’t been thought through.
“We all want restrictions lifted, we want our economy open, and we want to get back to normal. But we’ve been here too many times before. Isn’t it the case that once again, instead of a careful, controlled approach, we’re heading for a summer of chaos and confusion?”
Johnson replied by defending what he called “a balanced and reasonable approach”, and repeatedly challenged Starmer to set out what plan he would support – twice prompting the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, to step in and remind Johnson that he was supposed to be answering questions, not asking them.
Noting the prediction by Sajid Javid, the health secretary, that rising Covid infections could reach 100,000 a day by later in the summer, Starmer asked Johnson to set “the number of hospitalisations, deaths and the number of people with long Covid … in that eventuality”.
Declining to do so, Johnson argued that the vaccination programme had “severed the link between infection and serious disease and deaths”, a change from the normal government line, which is to say the link has been greatly weakened.
Arguing for mitigation measures including compulsory masks on public transport, better ventilation and improved financial support for people self-isolating, Starmer accused Johnson of ignoring the coming crisis: “The prime minister can’t just wish away the practical problems that 100,000 infections a day are going to cause.”
Part of this, Starmer said, would include the potential for millions of people to be asked to self-isolate as infection levels rise, saying there was anecdotal evidence of many people deleting the test-and-trace app to avoid this happening.
Johnson had ignored the issue mass self-isolation was causing in schools, Starmer said. “Now he’s ignoring the next big problem that is heading down the track and is going to affect millions of people who will have to self-isolate. It won’t feel like freedom day to those who have to isolate.”
He added: “It must be obvious, with case rates that high, his plan risks undermining the track-and-trace system that he spent billions and billions of pounds on.”
Johnson responded by saying the government planned to remove the need to self-isolate for close contacts of Covid cases who were under 18 or who had had both vaccinations from 16 August.
Starmer also challenged Johnson over the planned removal of any compulsion for people to use masks, even in confined public spaces, from 19 July: “We know that will protect people, reduce the spread of the virus, and it won’t harm the economy. It’s common sense. Why can’t the prime minister see that?”
Johnson replied that while it was “common sense for people in confined spaces to wear face masks out of respect and courtesy to others”, the government was moving from a system of “legal diktat” for Covid measures to one based on personal responsibility.